God’s Relationship to Goodness
When interacting with non-believers Christians repeatedly run into the same questions regarding their faith. As a result, we are drawn back to the Scriptures to search for its answers to these “common objections.” One such problem is God’s relation to goodness, or ethics. At first, this may seem like an odd question. You see, Christians believe that all moral actions are determined by what God says about them. “Fine,” says the unbeliever, “but how does God know what is right or wrong?” Is the standard of goodness something outside and above God, telling Him what’s right and wrong? But, if it is then why do we need God? Or, is morality something “beneath” God, something He creates and could easily change at the flip of a divine switch? Consider this, one day God could command the murder of innocents, and obedience to such a command would be praiseworthy!
Well, how do we reply? Are God’s commands made up “on the fly?” Or, is there something “out there” bigger than God, dictating what He (and we) ought to do? What is God’s relationship to goodness?
When faced with this problem, I would point out to my readers that we are faced with a false dilemma. The two answers provided to us are not the only options. Instead, we have open to us a third option. The reason that God is good is because it is His nature to be good (Luke 18:19, 1 John 1:5). God’s being is the anchor and ground of true ethics. Goodness is not something that is above God that He seeks to adhere to (as if it where some type of impersonal platonic form), nor is it something merely created, subject to revision on a whim. No, rather goodness- all truly binding moral precepts- exists because God exists and because He is concerned with the moral-motions of His creation. In fact, it is impossible for goodness to exist in the abstract. For instance, we know what it is for goodness or justice (or rather “justness” ) to be present in the character of a person, but exactly what is the concept of justice and goodness in the abstract? I certainly can’t tell you. These qualities are not physical entities that can be located in space, nor experienced through any of the five senses.
But if goodness and “justness” can only be qualities found in a person, then absolute morality (goodness, etc) must be found in an Absolute Person. Hence, by the very nature of goodness and morality they cannot be either above or below the nature and character of God. The conviction we often feel when we know we should “do the right thing” is not a physical pressure, it’s the pressure of a moral “ought.” But obligations are typically developed in the context of relationships. Our obligation to follow moral standards such as, Do not murder without just cause, or, Torturing babies for fun is always wrong, reflect our “deep-down” knowledge of God. We know that God’s moral law ought to be followed. The fact that God is an absolute person, and not a mere metaphysical abstraction, is what grounds and makes sense of our feelings of moral obligation.
The biblical presentation of God’s relationship to morality (i.e. that it reflects His own internal coherence, righteousness, character, etc.) is much more sound and other philosophical answers to the initial question. Plato taught that the highest standard of morality (the form of “The Good” ) was impersonal and indeed “The Good” existed over and above the demiurge (the creator of the world in Plato’s philosophy). In light of what we’ve seen above, hopefully I’ve made it clear that impersonal principles cannot make sense of the obligation we normally feel regarding moral standards. Subjectivist approaches to ethics (ex: existentialists, some postmodernists) also remove the objectivity and universally binding nature of genuine ethics. If each person is the ultimate standard for their actions, then what justifies us in condemning the actions of the Nazis and Hitler during the Holocaust (a condemnation that nearly all of us would agree with)?
Of course, some of the issues addressed are more nuanced than presented here, but overall I think the biblical answer to this issue is quite persuasive.