What is “good”?

It’s Thursday. Time for some theology.

You hear it all the time, especially after some kind of tragedy has struck. “How could a good God do…?” or “I could never believe in a God who would let this happen!” or “This kind of thing is proof to me that there is no God.” Philosophers have used this to try and disprove the existence of God. Their argument goes something like this:

“God, by definition, is supremely good, all knowing, and supremely powerful. However, there is evil in the world. So, either God doesn’t know about the evil, in which case he is not all knowing, and thus not God; or he is incapable of preventing it, and thus not all powerful, and thus not God; or he is unwilling to prevent it, in which case he is not good, and thus not God. Therefore, the existence of evil proves that God cannot exist.”

The problem with all of this lies in the definition of “good” and “evil”.

There are two basic ways we can try to define good:

(1) It is a standard external to humanity that comes from a source greater than humanity, or

(2) it is a philosophical concept arising within humanity based on what is most beneficial for a person, group, or society.

The problem with the philosophical “proof” above – and the protests that we hear at times of tragedy – is that it begins by assuming #2, but seeks to make a conclusion on the basis of #1. But if there is a God, then #2 is wrong and #1 is correct. However, they start by assuming there is no God – that’s the “given” in their proof – then try to turn that around to prove that there is no God. It’s a circular argument: “We will begin by assuming there is no God. On the basis of that notion, we can say most definitely that there is no God.” But what if you’re wrong?

Not only that, but #2 is somewhat subjective – what is good for one person, group, or society might not be good for another. You might say that it is evil for a man to steal another man’s wife, but from the perspective of #2, it is good for two people and only bad for one – net positive result! So why is there a part in each of us that rages that something about that is not right? Could it be the glimmer of #1 lurking in all our hearts?

The real problem people have with assuming #1 is that it requires that we abandon our preconceived, selfish notions of what is “good” and what is not, and instead define it according to the one who sets the standard. We don’t necessarily have a problem with that when we’re talking about someone else’s issues – we’re happy to point out how bad someone else is. It’s when we have to admit that we might be bad in some way that we start looking for ways to redefine the standard.

But you know, I think we get this whole idea of good being tied to a greater power better than we realize.

A few weeks ago an article appeared on the Cyberbrethren blog about American Religious Naivete. The article points out that we, as a culture, have brought certain “gods” of other cultures into our own pop culture (in comics and movies and so on), and have instilled in them values that we would consider good. However, in the actual mythologies, those gods would be anything by good, according to our standards. The thing that jumps out to me is how we’ve tried to change the nature of these “gods” to fit our idea of what is “good”, and what we come up with is a standard of behavior and philosophy that is more like the God of the Bible. It’s almost as though we realize that his standard of what is good is the way it ought to be!

Now why would we do that?

When we define good according to God’s definition of good, we end up with this: He is good, therefore, “good” is anything that reflects his nature, and “evil” is that which he forbids because it goes against his nature. God is the source of life, so caring for and protecting life is good. God is faithful, so being faithful and encouraging faithfulness to those we love is good. God is a God of order, so working according to his created order when it comes to roles of men and women and marriage and child rearing are good. God is the source of all material blessings, so good stewardship and contentment and respecting other people’s material blessings as theirs is good. Since he is himself good, honoring him, respecting his name, worshiping him and being attentive to his word is good. Since he is the supreme authority, respecting those he has placed in authority is good.

Here’s the part about this that’s really, really hard for us: When we let God be the standard of what is good, sometimes he does things in our lives that we don’t think are good. When that happens, we want to do the same thing with God that we’ve done with Thor – take away the parts we don’t like and turn him into someone like us, who values all the same things we do and acts the way we all root for him to act. Or we just reject him as a fable and pretend our lives are ours to control.

We can’t do that. If God is the standard of what is good, we have to look at him as good all the time. “For we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28). That’s hard when someone close to us dies. Or when we suffer a financial setback. Or when we’re verbally abused for calling sin what it is. But he is good. He is doing good. We don’t always see it. Sometimes the good is hard to tell.

Like when a man who had done no wrong was tortured, ridiculed, and hung on a cross to die. Evil, yes? No. Good. Incredibly good. The greatest good. If you had stood there that day, you probably wouldn’t have seen it. But all your evil – and yes, you have a lot of it… that’s a discussion for another time, perhaps – was overcome by good on that day.

So, next time you need to judge whether something is good or evil, will you apply your own notion of good and evil to God, or let his notion of good and evil stand?

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