Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Is God's goodness objective or subjective?

I have been wrestling with a thought that I want to throw out there. When I say wrestle, I mean I have not come to any conclusion yet… it is just an idea I want to state, but I don’t want to defend it.

I am wondering about the story of Abraham being told to sacrifice his son Isaac. I am questioning whether the goodness of God is objective or subjective. Is good such because God has declared it so, or is goodness a standard outside of God to which he aligns himself?

I have heard from the lips of many believers in Christ this year various forms of this phrase - “If God declares it… then it is right”.

The immediate danger I see in such a paradigm, is that one could begin to justify a myriad of questionable and evil acts under the phrase “God told me to do it” or “It is His will”.

Beyond that, I wonder what it says about the nature of good. If God tells you to do something that would normally be defined as evil, does that make it good? Do normally abhorrent acts become acceptable if God does them?

I think many believers (me included) would be uncomfortable stating that there is an objective standard of goodness, because that would imply that goodness is something that God must, or chooses to, submit to. Implying such a thing would seem to lessen God ... make him penultimate.

However, if I were to take the subjective notion of goodness (dependent on God calling it good) to its logical end, I would have to ask the question, “If God told you to rape someone, would it being his command sanctify the act?” If your answer is no, because God would never tell anyone to do such a thing – then you are stating that there is a standard outside of God by which he judges right and wrong. The act is inherently evil and God could not deny his goodness.

If you are determined that it is God who sets the standard of goodness, then one would have to be willing that good and evil are ambivalent terms and are set by God based on the fact that he has all the power.

This makes me wonder if Abraham gave the best response to God regarding the sacrifice of his son Isaac. Here is the quick version: God tells his servant Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac. Abraham proceeds to do this without question. At the final moment, the Lord stays Abraham’s hand and says, “Do not lay a hand on the boy. Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son."

I tend to feel that most word choices in scripture are not accidental. So my eyes really gravitate to “Now I know that you fear God”. I know God considered Abraham’s actions righteous, but could he have been hoping for a better response than fear?

I read a book to my class every year that involves the biggest and toughest kid in school gaining some insight. He realizes at the end of the book that all of his peers praised him and did what he said because they feared him. Based on this new knowledge, he realized that he didn’t have any real friends.

Most people would not do an immoral thing if instructed to. Stick a gun to their head and they might reconsider. Put their loved one in danger, and they might do almost anything.

Fear can be a powerful motivator. At an outward glance, it might resemble obedience.

I can’t look in to Abraham’s heart, but it makes me wonder if God was satisfied with the events of that day. Abraham seemed ready to do an immoral thing – a very immoral thing – because he feared God.

Scripture says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. But it is only the beginning. Perhaps only a first step.

I wonder if God was disappointed that the relationship he had with Abraham had not moved on to something a little deeper.

Just thinking out loud……


Anonymous said...

I'm glad to see that others have asked this question. Although Abraham supposedly didn't live in a time when the ten commandments were decreed, this begs the question: if God asked you to break one of His commandments, could you do it? Do you follow the orders of your superiors, blindly and without question? Would the result have been any different if Abraham had asked God first?

It seems that the essential lesson here is that taking such a parable literally as a "fearing God is required" lesson misses these important questions, regardless of whether they are fruitless.

Brook said...

Hell is the gun held to our heads, seemingly making a farce of our free will. Eternal torment...if that's not objective good, I don't know what is! (*ahem*)

Tchamba "God is truth" said...

Goodness is not something outside of God. His essence is good; He will not command something that is inconsistent with His character of love and goodness.
On the case of Abraham, God was disclosing the plan of salvation, this unrepeated act of God was pointing forth to the up coming Messiah, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the World (John 1:29) Abraham was close enough to God to recognize and distinguish His voice among several voices. Goodness is certainly not external to God, for in essence He is good.
This act of Abraham was unique and was written for our admonition that we may understand clearly the unfolding of the plan of salvation. So God will not command someone to rape because it is inconsistent with His moral attributes. raping is not pointing forth to any up coming Messiah as in the case of Abraham and his son Isaac.

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