In philosophy, there’s an age-old question about the nature of good. Namely, what is good, and by what standard do we use to judge what good is? Now, I’m not planning on going into the arguments for what people have said about this question, and how they have gotten there. I more so just want to make an assumption (one that can be substantiated more, but I won’t take the time to do it here), and show what must logically follow from it and what we need to be willing to hold to if we accept this assumption. I want to assume for the sake of argument that the Christian God exists, and that He is where we get our standard of good from. When it comes to coming up with a framework for an objective basis for good, God is usually what people choose as the standard for good.
As we dig deeper into this, it may lead to some areas that are uncomfortable, but I think if we want to suppose that God is the basis for which we judge good, we have to be honest and acknowledge where that could lead us. The first cloud I want to wipe from our eyes is the distinction between God and good, and which one depends on the other. I think it’s clear to see that in relation to God (let’s say the Christian God because that is the most common), good must be dependent on God. This is to say that something is good because God says it’s good. It’s good because it coincides with God’s nature. This is important because if “good” was just something out there in reality that even God had to follow, then that would mean there is objective good outside of God. This would result in saying that we don’t need God to find out what is objectively good (which is what theologians will vigorously deny), and also that God is subject to that standard. In some ways, God would stop being the embodiment of good, but just another being that is subservient to its will.
So, for those who want to proclaim there is a good God, especially for the Christian, it is critical they hold that this good God is the standard by which good is judged, and that there isn’t anything good outside of Him. This is what people are claiming when they say God is good. We aren’t saying that God does good things and has a natural inclination to do good, but that He is good. He is the definition of good. God’s nature and heart are the measuring stick by which we judge all other things.
What does any of this mean though? Why is it important that we understand that God is the basis for what is good? Why could this belief possibly lead to some challenging conclusions? Well, let’s start to do some work and see where it leads us. First off, from here on out I’m going to talk about the Christian conception of God since that is what I believe and know best, and is normally what most people are familiar with as well. God is seen as a creator God. He is the agent and force behind the creation of the universe and everything in it. We like to attribute the fine-tuning of the universe to the tedious and meticulous work of his hands. We also like to claim that our sense of morality, and our standard of morality has been held captive by his nature which transcends reality. If God is the creator, then He also gets to set the rules and regulations. With nature, and with morality. This is exactly what He’s done. He has decided the laws of nature, and proclaimed that we are to be holy as He is holy. This is to say that morality is to be compared to His nature and His standards. He is in charge, so He decides what is moral, and He has shown that anything that aligns with His nature is good, and anything that goes against it is bad or evil.
This seems to be pretty well accepted and acknowledged, but I think there are some implications that people aren’t aware of and might be uneasy with. If God is the standard of good, and anything that aligns with His nature is good, and that which rebels against it is evil, then what if His nature was different? What if His nature was to be selfish, to be arrogant, to be disrespectful and inconsiderate? Would we have to consider those things good? I think it’s clear that we must say yes. In a world where God had those traits apart of His nature, those things would be considered good. How could this be so? It seems wrong to think that arrogance or selfishness or being inconsiderate could ever be considered good. This is where we run into the reality of the situation we are in if something the Christian God exists. If God is a creator as proclaimed, then He gets to set the rules and decide how things should go. Whenever anyone creates anything, they have to lay out the rules for how it will operate best and run as designed. It doesn’t matter what we think or feel about good or evil, because there is no such thing outside of God if He exists. If He exists and created the world, He determines what’s good and evil and shows us how to live in a way that follows that and it’s up to us to listen to Him.
I now need to explain why this is so. I need to show why it follows that if there is a creator God, why His nature would be the reason for why something is good, besides just His say so. I will need to make another assumption here. I will assume that this creator God, like that of the Christians, has created the world and humans with a purpose. He has a purpose, a plan, a direction, an end goal for everything and is working to see that come to fruition. The grand purpose and destination that He has for humans is for us to be with Him. It is for us to spend eternity in His presence experiencing who He is forever and ever. If we were to spend eternity with Him, and He is this holy and perfect God, then for heaven to be as good as possible, we would want everyone there to be as holy and perfect as possible. We would want as many people as possible to be as similar to God as possible. If this is the case, then there must be some way for us to get to Him and be with Him and be like Him. This is how things become good. Something is good as long as it aligns with His nature, because that will make us most like Him, which is our ultimate goal.
This is what the Christian picture of God will paint for you. It will show you a God who desperately longs to be with His creation. In order for Him and His creation to experience the fullness that God has in store for them, then they need to be as similar to God as possible. We need to be holy like He is holy. So, He sets up a design and means for us to achieve that. He reveals Himself to us and tells us that those things which are good, are those that align with His nature and who He has revealed Himself to be. Those things which are evil, are those things that rebel and reject His nature and do not align with it. And all this is because He has created us with the purpose of becoming like Him, so when we do things that He would do, it’s good because it makes us more like Him. When we do things He wouldn’t do, it is bad because it makes us less like Him. Good and evil are to be seen less in the actual acts we do, but more so in whether those acts makes us more or less like God. If it adheres to His nature and as a result makes us more like God, then it is good. If it is incompatible with His nature and foreign to His desires and as a result makes us less like God, then it is evil. What makes you more like God is good, what makes you less like God is evil.
I want to quickly bring it back to the hypothetical of God having a different nature. If God had a different nature, then He most likely would have a different purpose for creating humans. Whether He had a different purpose or not is not worth much debate. The important thing to realize is that whatever God’s ultimate purpose for humans is, that which brings us towards that would be good, and that which brings us away from that would be evil. So, if we have this arrogant and selfish God that has human’s ultimate purpose to spend eternity with Him, and an eternity where we are most like Him, then it would follow that being selfish and arrogant would be what is considered good. We are almost left to say that acts aren’t intrinsically good in it of themselves. The goodness of the act is dependent upon how much it makes you more like God, which would bring you closer to God. This has an extremely consequentialism feel towards it which, I myself am not very comfortable with, but feel the logic just leads us here. I will say that there is a moment where the consequences end and we get to think of an act as being good intrinsically. So, I understand there is some more nuance here that needs to be worked out, but I just wanted to give us an understanding of where the logic could lead us if we want to declare that God and his nature is the gold standard of good.
I want to just close with one last thought on human nature. When it comes to humans, are we naturally good, or naturally evil? This is a question that I’ve spend considerable time thinking about and would like to offer my thoughts to those who may be thinking about this as well. I think it’s important to make some distinctions first which will help us in coming to a decision. A decision might I add that is sort of a two-part answer. When I think about this question in the terms of the bible, it seems overwhelmingly clear that the bible says we are naturally evil. There are numerous verses condemning the wickedness of the human heart and the moral deception in our minds. But I think the answer is more complex than that.
As far as I know, I don’t know many people, if any, who would desire to do evil. To be clearer, I don’t know people who desire to do that which they see as evil. For the most part, everyone wants to do what they think is good. Herein lies the tension. We as humans think we want to do good, because we want to do what we think is good. The issue is that sometimes what we think is good, challenges and mocks what the bible says about good and evil. So, in a way, a very real way might I add, we want to do evil. We desire to do things which the bible declares to be evil, yet we think is good. This is why the bible calls the heart wicked and deceitful, because your own desires and thoughts will conflict with those of the bible. In conclusion, human nature is really good and evil. On one level, we want to do good, at least what we determine to be good, which is good grounds to say we are naturally good. Unfortunately, on a deeper level, that which we think is good, is often deemed evil by God’s word, so we actually are desiring to do evil, making us naturally evil.