Last week in Sunday School, we studied Psalm 135. In this psalm we are told that God is good and great, greater than all other gods. We also discover that God does whatever pleases him, both in the heavens and on the earth. This information presents quite a conundrum. In what sense can God be considered good if he does whatever he finds pleasing?
Some say that only good things please God. If this be so, then where does the standard of good and bad come from? To say that God only chooses to do good implies that there is a standard apart from God that he chooses to adhere to. But where would that standard come from?
To get around the problem of an external standard of good and evil, some say that God’s actions define what is good. In other words, God can do anything that pleases him and, by definition, it is good. Thus, God can choose to create people, protect them, give them nice things, etc. and all these things are good. But on the other hand, God can kill people, order people to kill other people, allow heinous things to happen, etc. and God is still good. Why? Because God can do whatever is pleasing in his own eyes and it is all good! Don’t you wish this applied to you?
Many years ago as my wife and I were leaving my in-laws house, my father-in-law said, “Be good!” I answered, “I will … according to my own standards.” We had a good laugh, but that is what we are asked to believe about God. Anything he does is good, by fiat. Even if we believe the action is horrendous, terrifying, gory, sick, or insane, it is good. Even if the same action would be considered the worse kind of evil had a man done it, it should still be considered good if God does it. This just doesn’t sit well with me. Yet, if it is not true, then we are back to accepting that there is a standard of good and evil that exists independent of God. Where would this standard come from? A higher God? Then by what standard does that God live?
It seems to me, whether we like it or not, the standard of good and evil comes about by a consensus of people. This involves much discussion with differing sides presenting their reasons for claiming a particular action to be either good or evil. Hopefully the most rational thinking will win the minds of the majority.
To illustrate how consensus shifts, look at the issue of slavery. In the ancient world slavery was accepted as normal, even moral behavior. Even the writers of the Bible viewed it as such. God sometimes commanded, or condoned, the enslavement of certain people (e.g. Gen 9:26, Lev 25:44-45, Num 31:15-18). Yet, as humans progressed, more and more people began to view slavery as evil. A few people, religious and non-religious alike, began making rational arguments against the practice and slowly things began to change. As public mores shifted, believers began to view slavery as evil and began to seek out verses in their holy writ that agreed with this sentiment. Now slavery is anathema to most people in the US as well as many other nations around the world. Yet there remain some countries that still practice slavery legally.
Since morality in the real world comes about through the consensus of the people, it is very important for rational people to be fully engaged in the debate lest we fall back into the brutal morality of the past.