God and Goodness
“Good” is a value term. Its uses are many and only some of those uses are limited to the moral arena. There are several senses in which words like good, right, wrong, and bad are used that are not morally oriented. For example, a room’s lighting can be bad for reading. Or, one might choose the wrong wrench for a particular job. Goods and bads do not always reflect moral value. Sometimes they simply reflect monetary, functional, sentimental, and other types of value that do not intrinsically demand moral consideration. These are non-moral uses of value terms. Non-moral values are evident in Scripture. Salt is good in a functional sense (Mark 9:50) and so is properly prepared ground because it is an excellent place for seeds to take hold and grow (Matthew 13:23). In both moral and non-moral senses, “goodness” has to do with excellence, correctness, or rightness.
Socrates, Plato, and other pagan philosophers in the ancient world believed that a highest moral good exists in an objective sense, i.e. outside the minds of human beings. It is this discussion of “the ultimate good” in both moral and non-moral uses of the term with which this article is concerned. It is about the nature of goodness and how it relates to God. God is perfect goodness, the source and standard of everything good, and the ultimate and original good. Thus, there is a sense in which goodness is objective and absolute, and God is that very goodness.
Non-Absolutist Ideas of Goodness
Nietzsche, Hobbes, Hume, Bentham, Sartre and similar thinkers have attempted to construct ethical theories without God. In any ethics textbook one will find a variety of non-absolutist and anti-absolutist ethical systems such as ethical subjectivism, cultural relativism, emotivism, et al. None of these systems can be truly absolute or objective, because they are based in personal desires like power, human needs such as survival, subjective feelings of approbation, sensations of pleasure and the absence of pain, etc. Of course, in the history of ethics and metaphysics many writers have explicitly rejected any objective sense of good and hence have, by necessity, set forth a subjective definition.
For example, beloved by many while triggering others to outrage, the nihilist Friedrich Nietzsche is well known for his attacks on ethical absolutism. He famously said in Thus Spake Zarathustra, “God is dead, for we have killed him.” He was declaring that the concept of God had become unnecessary in the Nietzschean paradigm because he had staked his claim for something more subjective and less objective asfurtherportrayedinanotherofhisbooktitles, BeyondGood and Evil. Although he lived long before anything with the moniker “Existentialism” had yet been born, one will often find Nietzsche’s name listed as a pioneer of that philosophy of self-absorption in which an individual person decides what is morally right and wrong for himself, refusing standards of goodness from other sources. Following in his steps, the atheistic Humanist Manifesto asserts that ethics are “autonomous” and “situational.”
The truth is that those values originate with God, not human beings. Unbelievers want to leave God out of the process and define good in their own way, usually involving some sort of pragmatic, utilitarian explanation. However, in this definition, good becomes nothing more than a variety of usefulness or social utility for achieving a particular result that could be reduced to power, knowledge, pleasure, or human flourishing.
In sharp contrast to this subjectivist way of thinking, Christians claim that the ultimate and absolute good is God Himself and that every human being is accountable to Him and will be judged by His absolute standard of good and evil (Ecclesiastes 12:14). Will Herberg says that secularists want to stake a claim on values that were actually derived not from secularism but from Judeo-Christian thought. Herberg calls this tableau a “cut flower culture.” As flowers wilt apart from their roots, even so, when religious values are cut off from their source and sustenance (viz. God), they cannot be successfully maintained.
Goodness and the Nature of God
It is worth noting that we actually get our English word “good” from the word “god.” Just as we cannot write the word “good” without the word “god,” so also the concept (and nature) of goodness derives from the nature of God’s being. When one uses the term good in reference to God, they normally refer to two things. First, good is a moral attribute of God otherwise known as omnibenevolence (i.e. all good). Second, God’s acts toward us not only exhibit His moral goodness, but they are also good in that they are beneficial to us.
Of course, God has characteristics that are not inherently moral (such as omniscience or omnipotence) and He also has characteristics that are moral. John Frame designates certain of God’s attributes as “the attributes of goodness.” Among these he lists, “goodness, perfection, love, grace, patience, faithfulness, mercy, justice, righteousness, jealousy, wrath, beauty, joy, and blessedness” (402). These properties of God seem to be closely conjoined with, and perhaps are outworkings of, His marvelous goodness. These are true excellences that are held to an infinite degree by God alone. All others who manifest these virtues, in any way, do so only to an incomplete degree (cf. Psalm 37:27; Luke 6:45; 3 John 11). God being the standard of what it means to be good, anything that can reasonably be termed good or loving or patient, etc., only has that quality in that it approximates to some degree God’s goodness.
As the perfect instantiation of complete Good, God is the point of reference for all that is good. Everything that God is, thinks, wills, and does is good. God loves all things that are good, encourages all things that are good, and blesses all things that are good. However, good is not simply something that characterizes God’s acts. Good is what God is. I have heard William Lane Craig say, “God is the paradigm of what goodness is” and furthermore, “God is the embodiment of the moral good.”
Thus, that which is in harmony with God’s nature is good and that which is in disharmony with God’s nature is evil (Psalm 100:5; 107:1). Similarly, magnets can attract or repel one another. That is their nature. That is what it means to be a magnet. Take away that quality, and you make it to be something other than a magnet. The apostle made clear the association between God and goodness when he stated, “Beloved, imitate not that which is evil, but that which is good. He that doeth good is of God: he that doeth evil hath not seen God” (2 John 3:11). [All Scripture references are taken from the American Standard Version unless otherwise noted.] Similarly, William Law attests, “It is much more possible for the sun to give out darkness than for God to do or be, or give out anything but blessing and goodness.” God is morally perfect and His every thought and action is perfect. Take away that quality and He is no longer the God of the Bible (cf. 1 John 1:5).
There is only one that is good in the absolute fullest sense. This gets at the concept of an objective, absolute sense of goodness that is only found, to a complete degree, in God. When we are good or even when weather, health, or other blessings are good to any degree, they are only good in relatively minute quantities in comparison to God’s goodness. When a farmer harvests a good crop, it is only a limited kind of goodness. When a woman does a good deed, it is only a limited degree of goodness. When a man is a good man, it is only a limited definition of goodness and must be considered in relation to God’s nature as the Greatest Good. For example, the rich young ruler asked, “What good thing shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16). His question was about moral goodness, i.e. goodness in light of God’s nature and will. The Lord’s response to his question of course centers on that very notion. “Why callest thou me good? None is good save one, even God” (Mark 10:18). Thus, any instance of good can only be good insofar as it participates in, relates to, or partakes of God’s standing as the original and highest goodness. Albert Knudson affirms that “God is the ultimate source and ground of moral distinctions and that in [H]im we have the perfect standard of right” (336).
God is preeminent goodness, goodness in its supreme and purest realization. God is the perfection of every perfection, the ideal criterion for all things considered to be good. As Aquinas says, “all desired perfections flow from Him as from the first cause” (Summa Theologia Q. 6, Art. 2). God is essentially good, i.e. good in His essence, His very nature. For us, goodness is acquired. But for God, goodness simply is from all eternity. Stephen Charnock has a fascinating section entitled “On the Goodness of God” in his Discourses Upon the Existence and Attributes of God. He beautifully articulates this concept when he states, “God is only originally good, good of [H]imself. All created goodness is a rivulet from this fountain, but Divine goodness hath no spring; God depends upon no other for [H]is goodness; [H]e hath it in, and of, [H]imself: man hath no goodness from himself, God hath no goodness from without [H]imself . . .” (210-11). His very nature comprises the standard of goodness, the first principle of all goodness. The psalmist says, “Good and upright is Jehovah: Therefore will [H]e instruct sinners in the way” (Psalm 25:8).
Boethius says something to this effect via his character, Lady Philosophy, when she says that “God is shown to be the Good itself ” (The Consolation of Philosophy). He makes a similar claim in De Hebdomadibus when he explains that anything that is good “flowed from that whose being itself is good” by which he means God.
Seeing that God is the original Good and the source of goodness, Boethius says, “All things but God are good by participation.” That is, things that are good are only so insofar as they borrow or participate to an extent in the infinite goodness of God Himself. Or, as Augustine puts it, “This and that are good; take away this and that, and see good itself if thou canst; and so thou shalt see God, good not by any other good, but the good of every good” (On the Trinity viii).
Categories of Goodness
One classic way of thinking about God’s relationship to moral goodness, and how that relates to humanity, is to think of goodness in three levels. The highest level of moral goodness is called Moral Law. Moral Law has a deep connection to God’s very nature. Some things are eternally good or evil depending on whether they are in harmony or at odds with God’s nature as the uppermost standard of goodness. For example, lying, murdering, and theft have always been wrong and always will be.
But we do not know everything about the nature of God. We only know what He chooses to reveal to us (1 Corinthians 2:9-13). Therefore, what He does reveal to us of His nature and will is considered to be the second level of morality, known as Positive Law. This is when an aspect of God’s nature or will has been affirmed or stated explicitly. For example, “Thou shalt not bear false witness” is an expression of something that is at odds with God’s nature because God is perfect truth, and falsehood is the polar opposite of truth. Thus, in such cases the affirmations of Positive Law are directly related to God’s nature. But sometimes a particular Positive Law is a statement of God’s will that is not directly related to God’s perfect nature. For example, keeping the Sabbath is not an eternal principle that is always good or mandatory, since it was not enforced in either the Patriarchal or Christian systems. Nevertheless, it was God’s will for the Israelites for a period of time, and it was included in the Mosaic Law for good reasons.
The “lowest” level of moral goodness is called Pure Positive Law. This is law or rules of behavior that come from human beings themselves such as speed limits or stop signs. Some of these laws have no direct connection to God’s nature other than the fact that Christians are required to obey the laws of their government (unless those laws conflict with God’s laws, Romans 13:1-7; Acts 4:19-20; 5:29).
We can therefore learn about God’s goodness through the Bible. There we learn about God’s nature and will from its explicit statements, examples, and implications. By those literary methods, He has “shown us what is good” (Micah 6:8). But we also experience God’s goodness through His gifts and blessings (Matthew 5:45; Acts 14:17). Indeed, every good and perfect gift is from God (James 1:27). The many ways that we benefit from God’s goodness are so numerous as to be incalculable. Edward Litton says it well, “The earth teems with instances of God’s goodness” (70).
Attacks on God’s Goodness
When one holds the view that good is not simply something that God occasionally does, but it is what God is, this raises questions regarding the nature of God’s goodness compared to some perceptions of His actions and/or His stated will. For example, how could a perfectly good God command the complete devastation of the Amalekites including their animals (1 Samuel 15:3)? How could He allow children to be abused by evil people? Some even charge that the very concept of a perfectly good God involves a logical contradiction.
There are two classic ways of questioning God’s goodness. First, there is the Problem of Evil. This argument claims that the existence of evil and/or suffering itself disproves the existence of the God of the Bible. The Problem of Evil is the subject of another article in this journal, so I will withhold further comment.
Second, there is the Euthyphro Dilemma. This one comes from the mouth of Socrates in Plato’s Euthyphro. Socrates asks Euthyphro to define goodness/piety. In the process of their discussion comes the dilemma by means of which they delve into the origin of good and what it is that makes it good. These days, I hear the dilemma stated like this: Either good is good because God says it is good, or God says that it is good because it is already good. The first option is that God makes something good merely by stating that it is good. If this is correct, then nothing is intrinsically good or evil. God arbitrarily designated certain things to be good or evil. That does not seem to be a good option.
The second option wants to say that good did not originate from God. The source of good is elsewhere. God is somehow amenable to and/or informed by an outside source that particular things are good and that is why He announces it as good. That one also does not seem to be a good option. The unbeliever knows that theists will not like either option. That is why they like to employ this old chestnut.
So, what do we say to the Euthyphro dilemma? Antony Flew attempted to use the dilemma against Thomas B. Warren in their debate on the existence of God. Warren accurately pointed out that this is actually a false dilemma. There is a third option. “Goodness flows from the very nature of God” (32). He is good, the eternal Good. So, good is neither merely good because God has given voice to it nor because He “flipped a coin” in order to distinguish right from wrong. Neither did He announce it as “good” because it had already been established as “good” by some other source. Good is good because God is good.
As Bill Johnson says, “God is good all the way through.” All other definitions of good (whether moral or non-moral uses of the term) are directly or indirectly derivative of God’s essence as pure, perfect, infinite goodness. If we believe this, then we know that even when we do not understand what God is doing, He is doing it for good. We know that even when we hurt and cannot make sense of ruthless acts in the world, God can bring good out of bad. When disease and death overtake us, we can be confident in the knowledge that He loves us and will make it all clear to us one day when we are eternally in His good and awesome presence. When we worship God, therefore, let us focus on giving Him the glory and praise that is due His glorious goodness. Let us see our own goodness for what it is, merely a shadow of the goodness of God. May we seek good, love good, be good by God’s grace. For in seeking and loving the Ultimate Good, we are seeking and loving God Himself (cf. Amos 5:14-15).
Kippy Myers has studied at Harding Graduate School of Religion, University of Dallas, and University of Tennessee at Knoxville (Ph.D., Philosophy). He is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Bible at Freed-Hardeman University where he also serves as Assistant Dean of the School of Arts and Humanities. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charnock, Stephen. Discourses Upon the Existence and Attributes of God. Vol. 2. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979.
Frame, John M. The Doctrine of God. Phillipsburg: P & R, 2002.
Johnson, Bill. “Bill Johnson on the Goodness of God.” Escapetoreality.org. 29 Aug. 2009. Web. 10 Nov. 2010.
Knudson, Albert C. The Doctrine of God. New York: Abingdon, 1930.
Litton, Edward A. Introduction to Dogmatic Theology. London: Elliot Stock, 1882.
Warren, Thomas B., and Antony G. Flew. The Warren-Flew Debate on the Existence of God. 1977. Ramer: National Christian, 2004.