A young man recently asked me some questions about the nature of God and morality. Essentially his question was how do we know God is good? This is the way he phrased it:
“I was wondering about the definition of morality, if there is one. You know the old question: would a Presbyterian believe that morality is good because it is from God? Or does God somehow choose what is inherently good…I guess my real question is–what is the significance in, say, the Psalms, when the goodness of God is emphasized? If his ‘goodness’ is really the same as his ‘God-ness’? Going along with this, the non-christian might say, ‘Well, of course you are a Christian, because your values just happen to match the Christian God’s values/rules.’ Perhaps there’s some problem in my thinking here relating to the inability to find an unbiased standpoint from which to judge between God and us, as C.S. Lewis often points out” [quoted by permission].
How would you answer such a question? Have you asked such a question yourself? This young inquisitor is on the trail of something quite profound, and it was my privilege to help him sharpen his thinking and point him toward a satisfying answer.
What he was on to is the fact that God is the highest being and therefore the highest standard in all creation. No standard judges God, so at the end of the day when he says he is good, we believe him because he is God. But that doesn’t make our God capricious or arbitrary in terms of his chosen morality. He doesn’t choose a “good” morality that is contrary to his nature. He could not do so if he is inherently good; he would not do so if he is inherently evil. Moreover, God has created humanity with an understanding of what is basically just and good. This innate sense of understanding what is good or evil has been planted in us by our Creator, and God puts himself to the test again and again to demonstrate to us that this standard of morality that we innately understand matches his character. So when the Psalms emphasize the goodness of God, it is inviting all people (not just Christians) to compare what we know to be good with God’s character and actions in history as he deals with people.
When the unbeliever objects that the Christian’s morality just happens to match the Christian God’s values/rules, the task of apologetics (especially of the presuppositional variety) comes into play. For example, we can point out that the classical pagan philosophers of Greece and Rome (and before them the great thinkers of the civilizations of the ancient Near East) were able to identify (and mostly agree upon) virtues and vices that match closely with the Bible’s teaching. This is one example of how the moral law of God is indeed written on the hearts of all men. Although we suppress it, corrupt it, deny it, and rail against it, we betray our true beliefs about God’s morality and goodness by the standards which we actually live by (and especially the standards we hold others accountable to).
I don’t think there is an objective standpoint from which to judge between God and us because by definition that standard would have to be higher than God—which would demote God to a less-than-divine position. God, by definition, has to be the objective standard. I know this sounds in the end like circular reasoning, but that is what Reformed theologians and apologists identify as reasoning in a “tight” circle (which is logical because all reasoning is circular in this way, for all reasoning (which is a tool) has to appeal to the rules of logic (the standard of reasoning) to arrive at a logical conclusion). It is not a “loose” or “big” circular argument (which is an illogical argument that appeals to itself as a standard which is not the highest foundational standard).
So the sum of the matter is that God is good because he says so, but he proves he is a good God by his impeccable record of justice, mercy, and love. This record is on display best in the person and work of his Son Jesus Christ.
I concluded by encouraging him (and therefore my readers) to keep thinking about stuff like this. It will sharpen your thinking and faith as a Christian when you are challenged by the world to give an answer for what you believe about God (1 Peter 3:15).