Is God good? What does it mean to claim that He is good? Can a case for a good God be made in a world so permeated by evil and suffering as ours seems to be? For many people who doubt God’s existence, the issue is not really His existence as such, but really His goodness. There is after all no successful argument against God’s existence, for that would be proving a negative. But many people think they have a compelling argument against His goodness from the suffering He permits in His world—and if He is not good, why bother with faith in Him anyway? So one step toward restoring our ability to have faith in Him must be to examine more carefully the idea of His goodness. Is it even a coherent claim for Christian theists to make?
Let’s begin by assuming for the sake of argument that God exists and created the world as Genesis teaches. When God created the universe He obviously gave it being and form; He also gave it value by calling it “good” (Gen. 1:4, etc.). Goodness then flows from God as much as being or design does. It is therefore also one of His essential attributes. As C. S. Lewis summarizes it, “God’s will is determined by His wisdom which always perceives, and his goodness which always embraces, the intrinsically good” (Problem of Pain 88).
But what does this mean? Is it simply circular to say that the good comes from God because God is good? It is hard to talk about goodness and God without Plato’s “Euthyphro Dilemma” coming up: Is something good because God says it is, or does God say something is good because it is good?
Lewis understood that the dilemma is of course a false dilemma. The correct answer to it is “neither.” God’s attribution of goodness to His creation is not an arbitrary decision, nor is it based on some standard external to Himself. Rather, his own character is the standard for goodness, and we see that this standard is not arbitrary but necessary once we ponder His identity as the Creator alongside Augustine’s analysis of the nature of evil as a privation or perversion of the good. For creation is inherently a constructive, not a destructive, act. Creation is constructive, not destructive; giving, not taking; orderly and purposeful, not chaotic. How else could it produce a world that could hold together? And what else do we mean by “good’? Evil, on the other hand, is always a perversion of some prior good; otherwise it could not exist at all. So Lewis asks, “Is it rational to believe in a bad God?” No, he concludes: such a God “couldn’t invent or create or govern anything” (A Grief Observed 27).
Lewis was certainly right about this. We often ask why a good God would create such an imperfect and often painful world. The answer is that He didn’t. He permitted the Fall of His world. But if He had been destructive rather than creative, harmful rather than beneficent, chaotic rather than intelligent and purposeful, there would and could have been no world to fall in the first place. Creation is of necessity an act of superabounding goodness. A world that continues to exist and to be redeemable simply cannot have Satan as its source.
Lewis confirms the biblical teaching that God is good—or, perhaps more accurately, perceives its necessary truth—by performing two different thought experiments. The first was trying to imagine an evil god and finding that the idea just won’t work, as we saw above. The second involves the difficulty of knowing God as evil. If God were evil, how would we ever know it? Lewis reasons,
“If a Brute and Blackguard made the world, then he also made our minds. If he made our minds, he also made that very standard in them whereby we judge him to be a Brute and Blackguard. And how can we trust a standard which comes from such a brutal and blackguardly source?” (“De Futilitate” 66)
An evil god by definition then is not a knowable god; but we do know something about God. At least, we have some idea of God. And so once again we see that to affirm His goodness is not to spin a logical circle but to bow to the necessity of who He is and must be. Logically, then, God’s goodness is just as necessary a concept as His existence. And this is consistent with the way Scripture presents Him: as Creator, Judge, Shepherd, and ultimately as the One whom Jesus called Father. What could be better than that?
Donald T. Williams, PhD, is R. A. Forrest Scholar at Toccoa Falls College and President of the International Society of Christian Apologetics. For more of his apologetic work see his book Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012) or his other Lantern Hollow books. Order them ($15.00 + shipping) at http://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/.