Saturday, April 21, 2007

Must God be Good? A Question for Atheists

So I'm really curious about this.

It appears that many people don't believe in God due to the problem of theodicy. My question, however, becomes- what has one to do with the other?

That is, why must God be good?

Say God appeared evil to human beings. Or say that he really was evil, a cruel, tyrannical, jealous ruler. These attributes don't negate the fact that he is still God, creator of the world and the universe! How can one definitively decide that if God doesn't appear to rule the world in a just way, that is, if he appears evil, he doesn't exist? I don't understand the correlation.

Suppose you lived within a faith structure that suggests that God is good. Suppose that you don't see the evidence for that. Well then, why not dismiss the part that seems to be untrue- the goodness factor- while keeping the God factor?

Incidentally, I realized tonight that nowhere in the Torah (if I am correct) is the word "good," as in the Hebrew word tov, ever used to describe God. God does good things; he creates the universe and his creations are pronounced "very good." He gives the Jews a "good land." He knows "good and evil." He makes "good promises." He does what is "good in his sight." But He himself is not termed good.

Please read the 2nd comment (Yair's) for places outside the Torah proper (that is, the 5 books of Moses) that reference God as good.

In fact, the only place I could find where God actually claims goodness for himself (rather than having it ascribed to him by mortals) is in the New Testament. The verse is repeated in each of the Gospels; here's one place.
    17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’

    18Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.

    -Mark 10:18

(Perhaps Christians, then, are justified in saying that if God is not good, there is no God.)

The Old Testament God is described as possessing 13 Attributes of Mercy (incidentally, for those of you reading the translation, hesed is generally translated as kindness, not goodness), but they describe just that- God's merciful side. To whom does He show mercy? Well, that is implied, but not clearly stated. The verse itself does not state that only penitents are the recipients of this mercy.

Thus it seems to me that the following reasoning, for example, is faulty:

    1. God made a law that forbids men to lie with one another in the way that they would lie with a woman.

    2. This law causes much suffering for people who are homosexual. Potentially, they suffer, are humiliated, hurt, ostracized and cannot have a sexually fulfilling life, or if they do, are sinners.

    3. A just or good God could not make such a law.

    4. Therefore, God does not exist.
The problem lies with clause three, "A just or good God could not make such a law." Aside from the question of whether what we see as good or humane is truly good (as in, perhaps a just and good God could make such a law; he is simply not just or good by our contemporary standards), one has to wonder, who determined that God was good? Suppose that we agree with you that a just or good God could not make such a law, but a cruel God could. That cruel God can still exist; he simply does not fit the rosy picture one would like to have of God.

Of course, in such a scenario, one could, while still believing in God, argue that it is morally impermissible to serve such a God, that is, that a cruel God does not deserve one's dedication or worship. And perhaps one would be justified in arguing this. But this still does not negate God's existence.

Thus, it seems to me that saying that God does not exist because of the problem of theodicy is untenable. To claim that God does not exist due to other reasons, whether they be admittedly emotional, historical, scientific, etc, might perhaps be logical. But how can one claim that "there's so much bad stuff going on in the world- there can't be a God?"

Now, since I very much doubt that it's possible for me to have demonstrated a flaw in an argument that so many people use as to why there is no God, I'm really curious as to what the answer is. How does it flow from the statement that "good things happen to bad people" that God can't exist? Or is it simply that claiming theodicy as the reason that God can't exist is an irrational emotional argument, rather than a rational one?


the apple said...

amazing post. You have such an inquiring mind and it's really a pleasure to read the musings of someone who actually looks things up.

That is really interesting, that Hashem is never described as "good" in Tanach. I guess it's something I never really questioned but take for granted.

There is a sort of immaturity in saying that "well, if G-d lets bad stuff happen, then He must not be good, so He must not exist." Someone who decides that must not have thought about the fact that simply BECAUSE G-d is almighty He can have different "feelings" that in a human would be contradictory.

I think we discussed this in the class that we take together in school, right?

Anonymous said...

"The closest place to His being termed good is Psalm 143."

There are actually some more sources at your disposal:

Jeremiah 33:11

Psalms 25:8

Psalms 34:9

Psalms 86:5

Psalms 100:5


Shmuel said...

That was a very good post. Very thought provoking, and clear in it's delivery. Thanks.
I'd like to add an observation that furthers your point about not saying naywhere that God claims "goodness" as a trait: In Igeres HaRamban, when the Ramban explains to his son that everything comes from Hashem, he writes " We find, all are equal befire God. For in His anger, He casts down the lofty, and in His will, He elevates the downtrodden. Therefore..."
It's very interesting that when referring to God's punishment for the haughty, the Ramban uses a trait that we can relate to ( i.e. anger, which some would venture to say is a "bad" trait, God forbid), whereas by His rewarding the humble, the Ramban simply states it as "..His will." In my opinion, judging by the context of the sentence, you'd think that God's elevating the downtrodden is a polar to his casting down the lofty. In that vein, then, if God lowers people in anger, the obvious opposite would be "GOODwill", not plain old will.
Why then, does it just say will?
Food for thought...

Jewish Atheist said...

As you point out, the problem of evil (if one accepts it) rules out only a good God. (More specifically, it rules out a God who is both good and all-powerful. If God is good but weak, evil might not be his fault.)

As you also point out, there are legitimate questions about whether one should serve/worship an evil God.

But let me get to the interesting discussion. If God exists, must he be good?

On the face of it, there's no reason to believe so. "God" could be some essentially omnipotent kid in another universe who created ours to satisfy his maliciousness, like a kid who burns ants under a microscope. However, this does not seem quite plausible.

I think the question from homosexuality still applies. If God created the universe and humans, he is incomprehensibly powerful and intelligent. It strikes me as absurd that such a being would create homosexuals and at the same time, forbid them from having meaningful, sexual relationships.

It's like that great quote:

Christian fundamentalism: the doctrine that there is an absolutely powerful, infinitely knowledgeable, universe spanning entity that is deeply and personally concerned about my sex life. ~Andrew Lias

Possible, perhaps. But absurd.

Anonymous said...

Interesting discussion

I think that He is good. It's just that when things happen, we don't understand the reason because we don't see the whole picture.

Anonymous said...

Chana and Jewish Atheist,

This is just in reference to your discussion on homosexuality. I'm not familiar with all of the scientific or theological literature on the topic, but one point that I am familiar with is that if homosexuality was, in fact, genetically determined (an assertion that I think your discussion is based on), then a pair of identical twins would both automatically have to be heterosexuals or homosexuals--they could not have different sexual orientations. In reality, however, this is not so. Identical twins, I've heard, are more likely to both be heterosexuals or homosexuals, but their sexual orientation is not genetically determined, but rather genetically influenced, just as personality, height, intelligence, eye color, etc. are genetically influenced. It follows, I think, that one could argue that since some people are genetically influenced to have volatile tempers, religious law concerning anger and interpersonal laws are unfair, since some people's genetically influenced personalities make adhering to such laws very difficult. But that sort of claim is ridiculous--people have challenges (genetically influenced or otherwise), and religious law may force them to confront those challenges. I think that religious law that forbids homosexuality may perhaps be understandable within this context.

dbs said...


I agree that the logic of 'therefor God does not exist' is flawed.

But how about the logic 'therefor, if He exists, He must not have said the things which we attribute to Him' (e.g. homosexuality).

Larry Lennhoff said...

The question is what you choose to define as God. For many people, an entity only qualifies by possessing the 3 big attributes 'omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenovolence'.

The Aristotelean first cause does not qualify as good. But I don't think, Aquinas aside, many people would call a non-sentient first cause God.

Back in my atheist days, a fairly common trope among my friends was that if God did exist as portrayed in the Bible (for loose definitions of Bible) then he was the bad guy. But they felt the evidence favored the idea that God simply didn't exist.

Orthoprax said...


The argument isn't targetting all possible conceptions of God but just the one most commonly understood by theists. It's an argument against _your_ God (perhaps not specifically you, but you get my drift), not some other concept that may exist in someone else's mind.

In any case, Tanach is not replete with references to God's goodness, but it does talk about His _justness_ quite a bit. And it is in this moral sense of being unjust that theodicy arguments target.

Deut. 32:4 - "He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he."

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that if existence is preferable to nonexistence, and God is by definition the Creator of all Existence, God is on balance good.

Not good in a 100% good sort of way (which is the way most theists erroneously think of God). But good in a 51% sort of way at least. When I'm in a good mood, that's enough for me to pray with occasional flashes of kavanah.

PS Not sure homosexuality is a good example of anything, since the Torah's language on homosexuality (about "lying with man as lying with a woman") accommodates natural urges to a much greater extent than the rabbinic fences built up over the centuries.

haKiruv said...

Your logic puzzle assumes certain premises that may or may not be true.

It reminds me of the logic puzzle by Bertrand Russell called the Barber Paradox, which supposedly proves that G-d can't exist. This paradox hints that G-d created himself, which is a paradox, and therefore G-d can't exist.

But from my perspective rather, G-d doesn't exist. He doesn't have mass or take up space. He just "is". He is creating. I brought this up in my math logic class, but no one knew what I was talking about.

Neither maybe is He good or bad. Rather, his actions are good, and our culture just defines an agent by their actions.