This is the last part of the series about the evil nature of God. In the last article we examined the various theodicies used to defend God against the problem of evil. In this article we will examine the chief, and to this author’s knowledge, only argument used to defend God’s goodness once the free will arguments have been dismissed.
About a year ago I had a conversation with a Christian friend. He is knowledgeable in theology and we were discussing the idea that God could be evil. The abridged version is that I proposed a number of instances from the Bible in which God’s behaviour is absolutely terrible and if that behaviour were to be undertaken by a human being they would be condemned by God, in addition to being charged with serious crimes. I found his response to this quite shocking. He effectively said that “if God does it then it is not wrong!” Effectively, when God does something or commands something it becomes right. God’s sins are not sins! After picking my tongue up off the floor we continued our discussion. The idea that he had proposed is called Divine Command Theory.
Divine Command Theory
This is actually an ancient concept, one which was discussed by Socrates and Euthyphro. It embraces the idea that morality is not absolute but malleable. Something is not good because it is necessarily and absolutely good. Things are only good because God commands them or says that they are good. The difficulty for the religious person of course is that most religious people, especially the ones who want to espouse moral superiority, insist that morality is absolute. So the religious person who argues for Divine Command Theory is practising cognitive dissonance. They must simultaneously believe that morality is absolute but also malleable; depending upon what God wants to do at the time.
The Euthyphro Dilemma
Divine Command Theory is related to what is known as the Euthyphro Dilemma. This ancient philosophical question is based in a famous discussion about God and ethics which took place between Socrates and Euthyphro. In this exchange Socrates asks a famous question:
“Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”
To restate this argument in contemporary terms:
- Is what is moral commanded by God because it is moral? Or
- Is it moral because it is commanded by God?
I hope that you can see that the second argument is asinine. If anything commanded by God was moral then God could command rape, murder and genocide and they would not only be not sinful, but in fact moral, because God had commanded them. Ironically, God does command all of these things in scripture. This means that there are no absolute moral values, according to Christianity. Instead, morality is only what God commands at any given time. If you consult scripture you can see that this is quite arbitrary. The Ten Commandments are supposed to provide an absolute set of moral rules according to orthodox Christianity. However, God both ignores the breaking of these rules in scripture on numerous occasions, and in fact commands people to perform sins from this list on numerous other occasions.
But here’s an interesting kicker. Presuming that God is immutable, meaning that he never changes, then God’s commandments in the Old Testament to murder are still valid today. It is quite legitimate to argue from scripture that murder is justified and in fact good because God commanded it. Divine Command Theory (DCT) opens up a whole can of worms. Because it is such a subjective interpretation of morality it opens the door for a wide array of interpretations across scripture.
Morality: Absolute or Not?
Divine command theory actually removes the idea of absolute morality. Because if something is right because God commands it then murder is both wrong and right depending on whether God had commanded it or not. As has been discussed in the previous parts of this series God has both condemned killing in a general sense but commanded killing on numerous occasions. One can only presume by this reasoning that murder is neither wrong nor right. It is only the specific and “relative” circumstances under which God commands it that determine whether it is right or wrong. Furthermore, in this reasoning there is an obligation that comes with God’s moral commands. This obligation swings both ways. In the above instance a person is both obligated to not kill under certain circumstances and obligated to kill under other circumstances. So by this reasoning the foundations of morality become arbitrary. It is perhaps unsurprising that Divine Command Theorists do not like this fact. Some of them attempt to avoid this problem of arbitrariness by attempting a trick of sophistry. They would say that for any particular action that God commands, he commands it because it is morally right. But this approach offers a new problem: “If God commands a particular action because it is morally right, then ethics no longer depends on God in the way that Divine Command Theorists maintain. God is no longer the author of ethics, but rather a mere recognizer of right and wrong.” The implication of this is that God discovers morality rather than inventing it. God is no longer the foundation of ethics but rather a subject of an external moral law. This would take away his sovereignty.
It is one thing for people to reach the natural end of their lives due to the fact that humankind has been cursed (although a curse bringing death also raises some interesting ethical questions about God!), but it is entirely another thing to consciously kill human beings. An argument which is put forward is that God can kill whomever he wants because he has dominion over the earth and everything in it. But that doesn’t seem right; human beings have life, and there is a responsibility upon those who give life, towards the life which is given. For example: a human parent cannot legally and justly kill a child simply because they created it. The child has rights of its own. And in the same way because God has elected to give conscious life to human beings he also has a responsibility towards them. Human beings have inherent universal rights because they have conscious life, regardless of who gave it to them. To say that God doesn’t have to follow the same rules that he lays down for human beings is hypocrisy. Everyone knows that we must lead by example, if a child sees a parent doing something then they are likely to do it themselves. What kind of an example is God setting? It seems that it is okay, and in fact good (because God is good, supposedly) for God to kill people, yet it is the epitome of evil for a person to kill another person. There is something wrong with this picture!
The real problem stems from giving God too much wiggle room. In fact theists don’t just give God wiggle room they provide oceans of space for God to move around in without question. If we were to hold God to the same standard that we would expect of any other human being his flaws become immediately apparent. Much of the behaviour that we observe God practising on a daily basis would be considered horrendous if it was done by any human being. For example: a person who had the ability to cure a child of cancer and simply withheld it would be considered a villain. Scripture also tells us that God gives people sickness and disease (Exodus 4:11). Consciously giving someone a sickness or disease is a horribly evil thing to do.
One of the arguments used in defence of DCT is that God’s system of morality provides motivation for people to act morally because they will be rewarded if they do and punished if they don’t. But one has to ask: is a person who is doing something because they are afraid of punishment, or because they want a reward, really acting morally? Perhaps we should rather seek to live moral lives because we have integrity and genuinely seek the best for others as well as ourselves.
Those who argue for Divine Command Theory generally do so on the supposition that without God there can be no morality thus God defines morality. But this presumes that morality is objective. It can easily be demonstrated that this is not the case. Morality is quite conceivable as a construct of biological social development. It can be identified in all mammals. Morality would seem to be associated with the development of the mammalian brain, and in particular found in those creatures that have developed to interact socially. It is not unexpected that human beings, as the highest form of intelligence on the earth, would have the most sophisticated form of morality. But this in no way suggests that the morality is objective to some external force. Morality seems to be based upon a collective agreement of what best benefits the individual and the social group. There is quite a bit to this argument and rather than repeating myself I will simply point you to this article:
To be truly moral we must be prepared to do what is right because it is right, not because we want to get into heaven. To be truly moral is also to recognise wickedness when it is taking place, and to call it out regardless of who is committing it. If we were to only call out the evil of those who cannot harm us then we are not being truly moral. To be truly moral we must be prepared to stand up to despots and call them on their behaviour. The ultimate tyrant is God, do you have the courage to call him out? If you are truly moral then not even the threat of hell will prevent you from doing what is right.
The issue of absolute and relative morality is a massive problem to the theist, and in particular to the Divine Command Theorist. To the secular person the issue of whether or not morality is absolute or relative is relatively unimportant, it does not affect the ethics of the secularist in any significant way. But no matter which way you look at it DCT provides yet another unanswerable conundrum to Christianity, and any morally based theistic religion.
Reason and Biblical Morality
If you have ever read the Bible or any other holy book I want you to think carefully about the process. Almost universally Christians who read the Bible accept at face value the command “thou shalt not kill.” But at the same time there seems to be a universal rejection of the biblical command to stone a woman to death at her father’s door if she is discovered not to be a virgin. The Bible makes all sorts of moral claims, some of them good and a lot of them ridiculous. Why is it that most people seem to be able to differentiate between which biblical commands to follow and which ones to reject? This is because we read the Bible through the filter of our own morality and are able to determine which statements are acceptable and which ones are not. The implication of this of course is that we do not get our morality from the Bible or God, we bring our morality to the Bible and in effect evaluate and judge the Bible’s legitimacy based upon our own morality. The claim that the Bible is the source of Christian morality is rubbish. Christians bring their already in-tact morality to the Bible and then conveniently filter out the parts of it that don’t fit into their morality. Excuses are made for the presence of these contentious verses and they are typically dismissed without too much thought. But I want to challenge you to give those prickly moral statements a great deal of thought. If you think that the Bible is truly the Word of God, and that God is eternal and does not change then you must follow each and every single one of those commandments. So from now on no rounded haircuts or unsatisfactorily trimmed beards, I don’t want to see wives interfering in their husband’s fights, no getting remarried, no bastards in the church please, no approaching God if you are blemished or deformed, no wearing clothes of wool and linen mixed together, and please under all circumstances stop women from talking in church.
The Pluralism Objection
Closely associated with the above argument is the pluralism objection which goes something like this: given the large number and variety of religions in the world how does the Divine Command Theorist know which commands to follow? Different religions frequently give opposing religious commands, and even within the framework of one religious writing it is easy to find contradictory commands. Therefore the Divine Command Theorist must decide for themselves, using reason, which God or religious concept to follow, and then which understanding of the divine commands to follow within their adopted tradition. This behaviour is no different from that of any secular person in determining their own moral code. They may draw their foundational moral conceptions from any source but must ultimately determine themselves which to follow and which to reject. In many respects a church or organised religious set is simply a group of people that has determined to follow the same moral code as one another. They have determined to interpret their particular writings in a specific way and agreed to follow them collectively. But the problems only start here, what if you are following the wrong religion? It is only those who follow the correct religion, and also the correct interpretation of that religion, who are moral. This is because morality seems to shift and undulate with God’s, apparently, ever-changing moods – killing is bad in most circumstances, but it is good when you are trying to eliminate tribes who are occupying your land. An obvious implication of this is that God changes his mind and therefore is not immutable. At first God identifies all of his creation as “good.” But then in Genesis chapter 6 at the time of Noah’s flood, God repents of having made mankind, doing a complete 180° turnaround.
Divine Command Theory is the last line of defence for the theologian who has run out of answers – when all of the theodicies have been clearly shattered this is the position that the apologist will withdraw to. The idea has been around for a long time which clearly indicates that philosophers have been undermining the authenticity and legitimacy of the theodicies for millennia. In fact arguments against DCT go all the way back to the ancient Greeks. Plato, Aristotle and Socrates all renounced Divine Command Theory.
This has been a long journey, but through this series of articles we have been able to explore the problem of evil and the question of God’s goodness in some depth. I think that it is clear to see that the evidence from both scripture and the natural world strongly demonstrates that God cannot possibly be good. Furthermore, we have examined the various theodicies used in defence of God’s goodness and observed that they are all heavily flawed. Lastly, we have observed the Waterloo of the defence of God’s goodness in Divine Command Theory. It should be obvious to you now that there are no sound arguments for the defence of the problem of evil. Make no mistake, the problem of evil is the biggest barrier to belief in God. The only way that a person can believe that the God of the Bible is good is by faith. And this has to be an earthshattering, head spinning, utter refusal to look facts in the face type of faith. If you want to believe that God is good no one will stop you. However, understand that you do so in spite of all of the evidence. There are no sound arguments supporting the statement that “God is good.” But when we pose the question “is God evil?” the evidence comes flooding in. There is simply overwhelming evidence that if a God exists at all, he is necessarily evil.
 In Exodus 20:16 God says “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.” But in 1Ki 22:22 we find God lying: “And the LORD said unto him, Wherewith? And he said, I will go forth, and I will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets. And he said, Thou shalt persuade him, and prevail also: go forth, and do so.” In Exodus 20:13 God says “Thou shalt not kill.” But in Exo 32:27 God commands men to kill: “And he said unto them, Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, Put every man his sword by his side, and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour.”
 At least in certain circumstances.
 Remember that it is the religious person arguing that morality is objective, not necessarily the secular person.
 Deuteronomy 22:21.
 Leviticus 19:27.
 Deuteronomy 25:11-12.
 Mark 10:11-12.
 Deuteronomy 23:2.
 Leviticus 21:18-21.
 Deuteronomy 22:11.
 1 Corinthians 14:34-35.
 A good example of this has to do with the biblical injunctions around women teaching in the church.
 More or less.