Central to the Gospel is the notion of “goodness.” God is good; we’re not good. God’s goodness prompts Him to rescue us from our non-goodness, our sin. Seems clear enough.
To some people, though, it is not clear at all. Something so central to Christianity is hopelessly vague to them: What is “good”?
“Well, that’s simple,” one may be tempted to say. “‘Good’ is whatever God says it is.” That answer, though, only magnifies the problem. It may explain what we mean when we say certain actions are good, but it makes it impossible to ever say God is good. And if God isn’t good, then a Gospel based on God’s goodness loses its legs.
Many philosophers have attempted to expose this as an internal flaw in the Christian’s notion of God and goodness. Is a thing right simply because God declares it so, or does God say it is good because He recognizes a moral code superior even to Him? There is the dilemma, and neither option seems right.
The general strategy used to defeat a dilemma is to show that it’s a false one. There are not two options, but three. And that’s the solution to this dilemma: a third option.
The Christian rejects the first option, that morality is an arbitrary function of God’s power. And he rejects the second option, that God is responsible to a higher law. There is no Law over God.
The third option is that an objective standard exists (this avoids the first horn of the dilemma). However, the standard is not external to God, but internal (avoiding the second horn). Morality is grounded in the immutable character of God, who is perfectly good. His commands are not whims, but rooted in His holy nature.
Could God simply decree that torturing babies was moral? “No,” the Christian answers, “God could never do that.” It’s not a matter of command. It’s a matter of character.
So the Christian answer avoids the dilemma entirely. Morality is not anterior to God—logically prior to Him—but rooted in His nature. As Scott Rae, professor at Biola University, puts it, “Morality is not grounded ultimately in God’s commands, but in His character, which then expresses itself in His commands.” In other words, whatever a good God commands will always be good.
The Christian’s job is not done, though, because the dilemma suggests a second problem I’ll address in our next podcast: What is “good”?
Yesterday I showed you the way out of the dilemma about goodness and God. But that raises another question: What is “good”? It doesn’t help to say that God is good unless we know what the term refers to.
According to Christian teaching, God is not good in the same way that a bachelor is an unmarried male. When we say God is good, we are giving additional information, namely that God has a certain quality. God is not the very same thing as goodness (identical to it). And goodness isn’t just whatever God is. It’s an essential characteristic of God, so there is no tautology.
A proper understanding of Christian teaching on God removes one problem, yet we still face another: What is “good”? How can we know goodness if we don’t define it first?
The way Abraham responded when he first learned of God’s intention to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah gives us a clue to the answer:
Far be it from Thee to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike. Far be it from Thee! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly? (Genesis 18:25)
Here’s the question. How did Abraham know justice required that God not treat the wicked and the righteous alike? As of yet, no commandments had been handed down.
Abraham knew goodness not by prior definition or by some decree of God, but through moral intuition. He didn’t need God to define justice (divine command). He knew it directly. His moral knowledge was built in.
Even the atheist understands what moral terms mean. He doesn’t need God in order to recognize morality. He needs God to make sense of what he recognizes.
This is precisely why the moral argument for God’s existence is such a good one. The awareness of morality leads to God much as the awareness of falling apples leads to gravity. Our moral intuitions recognize the effect, but what is the adequate cause? God is the only explanation for moral terms that make them coherent and our moral intuitions make sense.