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Does God command a behavior                 
                   because the behavior is good,
or, does the behavior become good            
               because God commands it?

F. Earle Fox

I ran into the following at http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/PageServer?pagename=q_and_a.  Can you see the problem with the answer given in the last middle paragraph?   (My emphasis in first paragraph and labels at start of paragraphs.) 


After reading your CT article about the existence of God, I sent it to an atheist friend. here is his reply. Please help.  I still haven't found a good response to this dilemma:

[The problem.]  Non-theists will typically counter the moral argument with a dilemma: Is something good because God wills it, or does God will something because it is good? The first alternative makes good and evil arbitrary, whereas the second makes the good independent of God.

 [The proposed answer.]  Fortunately, the dilemma is a false one. Theists have traditionally taken a third alternative: God wills something because he is good. That is to say, what Plato called "the Good" is the moral nature of God himself. God is by nature loving, kind, impartial, and so on. He is the paradigm of goodness. Therefore, the good is not independent of God.

[Atheist's response to answer.]  It's not a false dilemma because God did not choose his nature. His nature is whatever his nature happens to be. It could have been an evil nature. I'm sure apologists assert that, no, it HAS to be a good nature. But, that's simply an assertion with no evidence for it. Craig defines God as perfect and then says God must be perfect because that's the definition of God. That's circular logic.


Here is my solution.  (It would help - though not necessary - if the reader first digested The Law & the Grace of God.    Right or Wrong in Islam would also be helpful.)

There is a necessary distinction between "the good" and the "obligatory".   The good, as I use the word, means that which is helpful, life-promoting, for a person or group.  It is the Biblical (Greek) "agape" love.  We know that certain things produce life in children (stability, nurturing, food, love, good parenting, etc.), and that other things, the "bad", hinder or destroy life (chaos, strife, famine, wars, etc.).  When Jesus makes love of God and our fellowman the two Great Commandments (Matthew 22), He is commanding all persons to do that kind of good for everyone, and forbidding us to fail to do good or to do evil. 

But, apart from the commandment of God, there is no obligation for anyone to love anyone at all, obligation is not inherent to the nature of the good.  The good is a practical matter for one's success, but not itself an obligation.  It distinguishes for us that which promotes the life of a given being.  But, not being obligatory, it is just a matter of luck if we are in fact loved.   The pagan world never made love the highest obligation in life, because it was considered unwise and self-defeating.  In an inherently eat-or-be-eaten world, love is impractical, and therefore not a good. 

Example: When Julius Caesar came to power, he declined to assassinate his enemies, as was traditional in Roman (and many other pagan societies).  He was applauded for his kindness.  But it was those unassassinated enemies who then assassinated him.  It did not pay in the pagan world to be too kind.  One was kind to one's friends, not one's enemies.  And, in the pagan world, there is nothing at all telling the people that love is morally the highest virtue.  That is true because in the pagan world there is no Creator God who can give us our reason for existence.  Our reason for existence is the only basis for objective moral distinction.    

It is thus the commandment of Jesus which makes love now a universal obligation rather than just a good idea.  Commandment alone produces obligation.  Prior to the commandment from God, there was no obligation to love.  It was only, at best, someone's "good idea".  The commandment from God thus provides the "obligation", the "ought".   The good is now obligatory.  Only in a world with a gracious and loving Creator God is love a realistic commandment.  There is no such possibility in either the pagan or secular worlds.   

The answer presented at the top to the original problem is misleading, and comes out of a Greek view of morality, not a Hebrew or Christian view.  God does not will something because He is "good", as though His goodness were built into Himself rather than a choice He made.  Rather He wills the good because He chooses to be loving, i.e., He chooses with the whole of His being to befriend His creatures, to do us good. 

As described above, God could not choose other than the good, and so His goodness would not be a free gift, but a necessity.  That is a Hellenic view of the divine, not Biblical.  In the Bible, God is the most free of all beings.  There is no standard of obligation which stands above Him, and to which He is accountable, and no compulsion from within Himself which makes Him less than free to choose.  He could choose to hate us. 

That is precisely the meaning of grace -- that He chooses to love, not hate.  The world 'grace' comes from the Latin 'gratia' which means 'free', not compelled.  We live by the free grace of God.   He could pack us all off to hell if He chose, but chooses to submit to the pain necessary to save us from our own self-destruction. 

So, regarding the first explanation above, good and evil are not "arbitrary" because they are defined by the objective realities of our created human nature and of life, that which promotes and that which destroys life.   And, in the second explanation, the good is not "independent of God" because God has created our human nature which requires "the good" to be complete and healthy.  God personally supports that good for us, and commands each of us to do it for each other.   It is all part of His "intelligent design".  

The "nature" of God, the "given" of God, is to be free, creative, and purposive.  The atheist above is right, God does not "choose" His nature.  He is what He is.  But there is a difference between "who God is" and "what God does".   He does choose to behave in a good manner, to love His neighbors.  He chooses to be faithful to us at any cost to Himself.  And commands us to be like Himself. 

The two Great Commandments thus define the intended free-will covenant relationship between God and creatures, the Kingdom.  God is wholly in charge, sovereign.  And He is wholly loving.  The logic is not circular, and the atheist's alleged problem does not arise.  

The solution to the dilemma requires the distinction between the good and the obligatory.  The need for the good is built into human nature by the creative and purposive act of God (we have a certain nature which can be damaged, and so require nurturing and protection of that nature), and the obligation for the good is provided by His command.  

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Date Posted -  07/14/2008   -   Date Last Edited - 09/15/2012