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God and Goodness

Is something good because God says so or is it good because it is objectively good?

This is a classic question worthy of exploration and the answer is quite simple. As usual, the problem is that the question is loaded and some people muddle issues, deliberately or otherwise.

Short Reply

The short answer is both. The two options do not exclude each other.

Long Reply

It is not an either/or question even though some read it as such. However, it is important to break it down since understanding the question is necessary to arrive at an answer. So, let’s read it as if it is an either/or question as a starting point.

Option 1: If something is good because God says so, then it reads as if whatever God says is good is merely arbitrary. It is then assumed that there is no objective standard of goodness.

Option 2: If God says something is good because it is objectively good, then it is assumed that God is subject to a higher standard of goodness and therefore is no longer “God”.

Both options are obviously wrong.

It is not uncommon for those who are religious to adopt Option 1 and try to justify it with “God is sovereign” or “God works in mysterious ways”. These sayings are generally true but they do not address the question.

God can say whatever He wants for He is sovereign. However, what He says is, at the same time and without any contradiction, objectively good since God by His very nature is infinitely good.

To put it differently, He can say and do whatever He wants but it is not arbitrary since it is His nature to say and do what is good. And what He says and does is objectively good not because He is subject to a higher standard of goodness but because He is that standard.

He is the source of goodness since that is His nature for He is Goodness Itself.

If one can grasp this concept, then some of the seemingly strange statements about God found in Scripture may become less strange.

● God’s statement about Himself in Exodus 3:14 “I AM WHO AM” is in the present tense, revealing His eternal nature. The “I” is personal (subjective) and the “AM” is being (objective). He has personhood but He is also the ultimate objective reality. He simply is.

● On a few occasions (such as Isaiah 45), God “swears by myself”, indicating that He is a personal God and that there is no higher standard for He is the highest standard.

● As recorded in John 14:6, Jesus stated, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” There is nothing wrong with stating that Jesus as God is the author of truth and that He teaches the truth. But one cannot be the source of or communicate a thing that one does not possess. Ultimately, if He is truly God, then He must be the truth. (The same reasoning can be applied to “the way” and “the life”.)

● The above can also be applied to “God is love” or “God is charity” as written in 1 John 4:8. No doubt He loves us and helps us do likewise but He must ultimately be Love Itself.

Christ Pantokrator, 13th-century icon, Mt Athos
Christ Pantokrator, 13th-century icon, Mt Athos

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