With God, all is permitted


churchmoralsHow do you decide what is right or wrong when you’re an atheist?  Sam Harris addresses the issue in his book The Moral Landscape. He discusses why he thinks science is the best tool to evaluate and promote human welfare, and subsequently, the best tool to help us discover proper moral behavior. Christians like apologist William Lane Craig, however, disagree. He feels that Harris has merely outlined a way to determine what is good for humans without addressing moral obligations. Craig writes, “[s]een in this light, his claim that science can tell us a great deal about what contributes to human flourishing is hardly controversial. Of course, it can — just as it can tell us what is conducive to the flourishing of corn or mosquitoes or bacteria.” For Dr. Craig, the issue is not how to maximize human welfare, but why we should. “If God does not exist, why think we have any moral obligations to do anything? Who or what imposes these moral duties on us? Where do they come from?” You can read Craig’s full article here.

The answer to Dr. Craig’s question is simply, “us.” Our moral obligations come from us because we are the ones affected by these acts, and some acts create positive outcomes for us, while others do not. It seems that those in Craig’s camp, however, find humans too fickle to be a valid source of moral obligation. They feel an outside, “objective” authority is required. If you leave it to humans, they fear, all moral rules will be subjective, and can be defeated by mere differences of opinion.

Subjectivity works

Take human welfare. Although it is true that human welfare is a subjective goal, a subjective goal can nonetheless lead to objective rules, so long as that subjective goal is largely agreed upon by those involved. For example, take the rules of football: that the rules of football are the way they are, is purely subjective–they’re merely the way the inventors of the game wanted them to be. There is no objective reason, for example, that a first down must be 10 yards rather than 9. Yet within the subjective rules of football where a first down is 10 yards, we can objectively determine whether a team has made it to first down. Similarly, the goal of human well-being may be entirely subjective to humans (alligators care not a bit whether we are well), but that subjective framework enables us to create objective “oughts,” and these oughts comprise what we call morality. Just as God is not needed for us to determine who won the Superbowl, God is not needed to establish what we objectively ought to do. But what happens if we do add God to the mix?

God’s character and the Euthyphro dilemma

The Euthyphro dilemma asks 1) does God command something because it is good, or 2) is something good because God commands it? If we choose #1, the standard for good exists independently of God, making God contingent on that standard and morally superfluous, since we could discover this standard without God. If we choose #2, then good becomes arbitrary, since it would be whatever God decides that it is. In the short video below, Dr. Craig attempts to solve the dilemma on the One Minute Apologist:


Notice that Craig claims to have presented a 3rd option by referencing God’s nature. Yet this is merely option 1 in disguise, with “good” being replaced with “God’s nature.” Rather than being bound by an outside definition of good, God is now bound by his good nature. This is a difference without a distinction. It matters not that this standard has been relocated to God’s nature, for the result is the same: God is bound to act according to something over which he has no control, whether we call it his nature, or an independent standard of what is good (and if we argue that God can change his nature, then we are back to problem #2). Yet by defining God’s unchanging, unchangeable nature as good, we leave a gaping moral chasm that can swallow us whole: what is God’s nature? What does this nature dictate that he will do?

Nobody expects the Spanish inquisition

It is surprising to me that Christians can rest comfortably in their god’s alleged goodness, while not knowing what their god will do next. They say God is good, and then expect that God will be good to them. But why? If God’s goodness is based solely on his nature, and not on any outside measure of his actions, then any act that God performs must be called good, regardless of the effects of those actions on Christians or anyone else. If God decides that a Christian’s family member should die a horrible death, what can the Christian say except “Hallelujah?” Pretend for a minute that you are sitting in the Garden of Eden before the Fall, speculating with Adam about the good nature of God, and what acts a God with such a nature might do. And say someone gave you the following list, and asked you to check off each item you expect God might do one day:

  1. Flood the earth to kill all of its inhabitants
  2. Create a lake of fire to torment the disobedient
  3. Require a father to kill his son as a test of faith
  4. Command genocide
  5. Demand blood sacrifice for appeasement of sin

Which of these would you check? Let’s say we made a new list today, to predict what God might do in the next 7,000 years. What divine acts should we expect to see on that list?

Skin in the game

You could argue that humans are just as capable of the actions listed above, and you might be right. In our capacity for cruelty, we truly are made in God’s image. But who ultimately is in a position to decide whether actions that affect humans are good or bad? An omnipotent God whom nothing can harm, who has never known fear or uncertainty, or experienced mortality or irreparable loss–is this being in a position to understand, much less judge, what humans need? I submit that it is only those that are affected by moral acts–those that will actually gain or lose, or live or die–that have the experiential knowledge needed to judge the effects of actions on themselves and their own groups. That is why the list above is shocking when considered from a human perspective. It is only when we look at it through the eyes of God, that these acts become “moral.”

So who imposes moral duties on humans? The only ones qualified to do so: humans themselves. There will be disagreements and abuses as history has shown, and we are always in danger of self-destruction. But there is a limit to the danger we pose to ourselves: there is no limit with God. Those who reference Dostoevsky on this have it backwards: it is only with God, that all is permitted.

11 thoughts on “With God, all is permitted

  1. You are right for feeling the way you do. All that churchy stuff gets in the way of you establishing a relationship with God. Have you heard of Andy Stanley? Do yourself a big favor and just watch the first 20 minutes of his first message in his new series. Go to Buckhead Church (all one word) Dot Org and go to messages. Watch the new series. Have fun!

  2. It seems as if another way to pose the Euthyphro question is to ask whether we are created in God’s image or the other way around? If we are created in the image of God, as the statement above suggests, “In our capacity for cruelty, we truly are made in God’s image.” This suggests that God is cruel. Or, are we living in an ambiguous world, broken by the narrative played out in Genesis? It does seem to be a cruel joke, creatures created in your image and then tell them not to play with fire or they will get burned. In this case, the knowledge of good and evil? Could they handle it? Were they being rebellious if they were warned? Should everything be scrapped and God start over, or is this the grand narrative of the kind of ambiguity we live with in a moral universe, which by the way, implies life and personality, and not just a mechanistic universe that imposes its cold will on us when we least expect it? It seems to me that the very fact that there is even a debate about this that bothers people implies that the possibility exists that we are moral creatures and there is a moral God in whose nature also exists the standard of right and wrong. Or, you can opt for a mere mechanistic universe where we are judged merely by the laws of nature. Which alternative seems to fit reality as we see it in the world? Is this a broken world where real ambiguity exists for good and bad where people cry out for justice? I think the Genesis narrative can weigh in here. If we created God in our image, then we are claiming to be the center of morality and all standards of right and wrong begin with us. The only problem is, I did not create myself or the universe, so I might like to think that I am the center of morality, but it is a bit pretentious to believe that.

    1. Hi Gary, thanks for your post. I do not think whether we created ourselves has anything to do with what’s moral. That sentient beings had no hand in their creation does not give them less of a moral right to judge their treatment. Similarly, the fact that another being created them does not automatically mean that anything that other being does to them is moral. I start my definition of morality where the rubber hits the road: the effect of actions on those that are affected. I submit that those who are affected by the actions are the only ones that have the right to say whether those actions are moral.

    2. If God is ‘The Morality’ and is cruel and affectionate, then we just need to get over it and stop pretending otherwise. Even the Bible says that Jesus endured the cross FOR THE REWARD. Altruism must be in there, as God seems to enjoy extremes of everything in his activities.

  3. So, if a person murders a family, and the father survived and determined that the action was neither moral or immoral, just an act (barring all motives), then the act committed is subjectively neither moral or immoral, unless the father determined that it was one or the other? Should a court of law be summoned to determine whether there should be punitive measures if the father says no?

    1. Hi Gary. You are correct that there are humans who view moral acts very differently than others.

      However, the question of “what acts are immoral” is greatly compounded when you add God to the mix.

      With humans, we at least have shared experiences, common physical tolerances, and common emotional reactions to things. We all love our kids, and we all hate to be hungry or imprisoned. From this we can construct a norm, and can judge moral actions against this norm. Sure, the process is not perfect, nor is there perfect agreement on what the norm should be. But our shared human experience does allow us to get quite far in defining these norms, which is why laws, for example, work for the most part if they are enforced.

      With God, however, we have no such markers or norms. What can we say to a god who decides it’s okay to wipe everyone out with a flood, or to turn someone into a pillar of salt, or to wipe out 70,000 people because their king took a census? Because we know nothing of the motivations or needs of a god, we are left with no moral guideposts when God is in charge of morality. White can be black as easily as black can be white, for who among us can say which it should be, and for how long?

      As imperfect as human-based morality can be, it is far more firmly rooted and predictable than that based on the unknown, unpredictable nature of a god.

  4. I think I understand your position. And the reason that you can say that there are humans who view moral acts very differently is that, as you have stated, you only assign a moral interpretation to the receiver of the act, and you reject any independent referent for morality apart from the recipient. I believe you infer that norms are constructed and that we can judge moral actions against this norm or set of norms? You also question the acts assigned to God in the OT, such as the flood, destroying a city, etc., as somewhat superfluous, and not qualified to be judged by humans as acts of morality? I see the disconnect here. We cannot know that there are any moral absolutes, so you can never come to an absolute agreement on ethical issues, just periodic judgments based on constructed norms. Would it be true to say that just as the picture on a TV screen is not identical with the reality that it represents, to call something moral or immoral is not identical to the act? In other words, there is a disconnect between the act and the assigned value, the assigned value being relative only to the recipient of the act? Is this view similar to Kant’s phenomenological and noumena distinction? God is outside the phenomenological/sense world, and we cannot know anything in the noumena realm.

  5. Hi Gary. I’m saying that these acts of God, such as flooding the earth, are not moral by any human standard, and no amount of divine justification can change that. Was it moral in God’s eyes? Sure, if he divorces morality from the human experience. Since God is a law unto himself according to DCT proponents like Craig, without obligation to anyone else, anything he decides to do is necessarily moral as to him. That does not mean it is moral as to us.

    You mention the noumena. I think this is an interesting philosophical concept, but totally unhelpful to any discussion about morality. Morality must be grounded in phenomenon, that is, the observable affect on the sentient beings being affected. To ground it in noumena would be to ground it in something we know nothing about, which would be the same as grounding it in nothing. However, I’m glad you brought it up. God’s character seems to be a noumenon. To ground morality in something you know nothing about, and cannot predict, is one of the great dangers in religion that my post was meant to highlight.

  6. It is a common theme throughout the ages that atrocities committed are not supposed to be atrocities if the perpetrators say God told them to do it. However their god is still supposed to be good. Gods don’t seem to have any moral standards to guide them. If they do it, it is right just because they do it. Yet creatures supposedly made in a god’s image cannot do the same things their god does or it is immoral. How do they know it is immoral if a good god does or commands it and it’s ok? I am trying to say the whole idea of morality coming from God makes no sense. We can’t follow God’s example! And the commandments God supposedly gave do not apply if people can say God said to do it. An example is murder. Murder is forbidden yet how many murders have been committed with the perpetrators saying God said to do it? We still have to work morality out ourselves. It is kind of easier to do without a God in the background supposedly commanding clearly immoral acts.

  7. I never really understand the notion that morality is some subjective human construct. I think all human beings in all times in all cultures can determine right/good from wrong/bad and we do so precisely because morality is objective. Morality is not something created, rather discovered or realized. It is not based on some democratic process or on the laws of some higher being. It is based on acknowledgment and acceptance of the world we live in and man’s relationship with this world we live in. It is something all men can know via observation and reason.

    Just because some cultures or societies may agree or decide to do something contrary to what is moral (ie: abortion or the holocaust) does not mean those things aren’t objectively immoral. It simply means some culture or individuals got it wrong. This is evidenced in how those engaging in the immoral behavior have to change the wording to make it acceptable to themselves or others.

    For example the only way the extermination of Jews could even be possible was to dehumanize the Jewish people. Even Germans knew it would be wrong to kill the lives of innocent people. Even the pro abortion argument rests on the belief abortion isn’t killing a human life, rather a clump of cells, because everyone agrees it is wrong to kill an innocent life.

    I disagree that we have to work morality out for ourselves. It isn’t something we have to work out.

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