The Apologetic Question of Our Time: Is God Good?

The greatest apologetic tool we have is love for our neighbor. How do we balance this power with rationally defending our faith?  One thing we can do is understand why the skeptic in front of us is objecting to Christianity. It can soften our hearts and help us to tailor our arguments to their more fundamental question.

I found an atheist, Matthew Herbert, explaining “Why I am Not a Christian” to be instructive in this regard. I do want to follow the flow of his argument to show the several objections he throws out before he gets to the real reason he is not a Christian.

Despite what he says, he doesn’t have a problem with making exclusive truth claims:

How likely is it that you, among these billions of divergent believers, were born to the one culture that identified the right god?

But then:

Almost all human cultures have evolved an idea of divinity, and at the end of the day, I think they are all either false or nonsensical.

The Christian agrees with “almost all human cultures” that divinity exists but believes that God has revealed himself in an exclusive way. Herbert’s claim is orders of magnitude more exclusive: “almost all” cultures are wrong that divinity exists. So Matthew does not really have a problem with exclusive truth claims. That’s not the core of his skepticism.

Herbert then recounts his journey down the rabbit hole of philosophical arguments for Christianity and concludes:

All those fancy arguments down the drain! Plantinga (like me, and all the other philosophers of religion I knew of) was still right back where so much Christian belief founders–on the need to take everything in the Bible on blind faith.

But “blind faith”, or “X is true because X is true” is, at the bottom, the claim of every philosophical system. If Herbert is being intellectually honest, which he seems quite capable of, his rejection of God as an explanation for the universe leaves him in a tautology as well. Specifically, “The universe exists because it exists” or “morality is real because there is good and evil”. The strength of Christianity is what the ground of our belief is in, not that there isn’t a ground to it. So “blind faith” isn’t really his objection.

The rest of his arguments are either repeats of the above or the non-sequitur “I cannot fathom what X would be like so I’m skeptical it’s real”. I do not mean to be dismissive of the arguments but for the sake of space, I want to get to his core reason.

This is what what broke my belief–my inability to identifiy with the morally odious God of the Bible. Christians are presented with mixed messages about the goodness of God. On one hand he is supposed to shine forth with benevolence so pure and radiant that it overwhelms us and inspires us to be as good as we can, given our fallen status.

On the other hand, though, God’s goodness is said to surpass all understanding; it reflects a deep cosmic mystery that we won’t be able to apprehend until we pass through Heaven’s gate. This is the side of divine goodness that is invoked to console the victims of horrific, meaningless fates such as childhood cancer or ruinous natural disasters.

God is not good. Herbert has an inner, unmistakeable, undeniable sense of morality that is indistinguishable from his identity as a human being. God spurns that moral compass and so Matthew doesn’t believe he exists.

I have too many objections to this concept of divine benevolence to discuss all of them in one place. The most obvious one is that believers in the Christian God cannot have it both ways: divine goodness is either intelligible or it is not. (There are philosophical ways to squeak out of this problem, but I do not find them convincing.)

I agree. There are certain brands of Christians that teach that God’s goodness is unintelligible. That I would disagree with this view of God is irrelevant to the fact that Herbert was taught this view of God and sees it as true Christianity. I would not believe in this god either.

Herbert then puts the tension of this God in stark relief with a horrible-to-contemplate analogy:

You instruct the child to love and obey you, and you may it clear that your love and affection depend on his taking this instruction seriously. It works. When his faces turns up toward yours, it shines with hope that you will love and care for him.

Now you induce sickness in the child. A mild toxin with chronic effects would do the job. It is crucial that you actually imagine yourself doing this; you must not just regard it as an abstraction.

You are, at this point, a moral monster…. Now you command the child to be well, and you tell him repeatedly that if he really loved you, he would do so. You keep administering the poison, though….  A morally serious person with even a scrap of human dignity cannot imagine such sadism. The thought experiment must end here.

I would point out that what Herbert is describing is a particularly deterministic God that creates this horrific analogy of the human experience. If God is deterministic, that is He meticulously controls every little thing that happens including illness and natural disaster, then Herbert’s analogy is spot on. This reminds me of why Megan Phelps-Roper left Christianity.

At this point, I think a Christian apologist’s job would to offer an alternative view of God. Namely, a God that does not control every event that happens while expecting human beings to do things he determines they cannot do. A productive approach would be to show how God can be good, not to quibble with Herbert’s reasoning. Find common ground. I would be disgusted with this god. I, too, would find him to a moral monster. A different view of God is possible, rational, and removes all the deterministic baggage.

It would also be helpful to ask the skeptic with a similar objection where his inner sense of morality came from? What is the most rational explanation for why he has an inner sense of right and wrong? Reasonable Faith is a good place to start for this one.

Herbert continues:

So the question naturally arises, if we American Christians have found ways to change or ignore anything we don’t like about our religion’s foundational text–the big stuff and the little, the good and the bad–why do we insist on continuing to call ouselves [sic] Christians?

I would be tempted to call this puzzle a burden, but I don’t think many Christians experience it as such; it does not weigh them down. Most simply don’t care, would simply never be bothered to work out the implications of their faith.

So it is not just that God isn’t good but also Christians are not good. This is, of course, true. One could point out that original schools, hospitals, and orphanages were founded by Christians and that religious Americans are much more charitable than non-religious Americans. But, mostly, this is where we cannot make up for the failings of other Christians to love their neighbor. Our mission in our neighborhoods, churches, schools, and jobs should be to make undeniable the goodness of Christians so that even skeptics could not make these accusations stick. While there are many churches, perhaps most of them, that are filled with good Christians who are doing good in the world, Herbert does not know one of these Christians personally and that’s no one’s fault but ours.

Herbert’s article serves to reinforce what I think has been the main shift of skepticism away from questions like “Does God exist?” and “Can the Bible be trusted?” towards “Is God good and does He produce good followers?”. The former questions are still asked and endlessly debated but the more powerful question that turns hearts is for many, as it was for Matthew, the goodness of God.

2 thoughts on “The Apologetic Question of Our Time: Is God Good?

  1. Thanks for mentioning my post. I wouldn’t brush off too lightly the problem of not being able to imagine certain Christian “goods” as good. If Christianity is anything, it is the Gospel, i think–the good news. And the Gospel proffers lots of things that the seeker is supposed to be able to intuit as good without sophisticated interpretation. I believe that’s the whole appeal of being cured of blindness, brought back from the dead, etc. But If the best thing about Christianity–eternal life in heaven–is actually unimaginable as good, I see that as a real problem. Fifty to 100 years of a life in which one’s moral choices men everything, then an eternity in which they don’t matter at all? Horrible.


    1. Thanks for the comment, Matthew. Is “eternal life in heaven” the best thing about Christianity? Maybe.

      As for, “Fifty to 100 years of a life in which one’s moral choices men everything, then an eternity in which they don’t matter at all? Horrible.”

      I’m not quite sure what this means. Where do you get the idea that our moral choices #1, meaning everything on Earth and #2, do not matter in heaven?


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