If God Commands Something Evil, Does That Make it Right?

Many Christians believe that we have a moral obligation to obey what God commands. Since God commands us not to murder or commit adultery (Exodus 20:13-14), we are obligated not to do those things. Since God commands us to love our neighbours as we love ourselves (Matt 22:39), we have a duty to do just that. In fact, many Christian theologians and philosophers take this notion a step further, arguing that our moral duties are actually rooted in God’s commands. On this view, if God commands something, then we have a moral duty to follow that command. On the other hand, if God didn’t command anything, then we wouldn’t have any moral obligations or duties. This view, called ‘divine command theory’ (or DCT for short), is appealing to Christian scholars and laypeople alike since it grounds moral duties and obligations in God. In addition, it squares well with what we read in scripture.

A moment’s reflection, however, reveals an obvious objection to this view. If God commanded someone to torture a child, would torturing the child be the right thing to do? If our moral duties are determined by what God commands us to do, then it follows that if God commanded us to do something wicked like torture a child, it would be our moral duty to torture that child. We might spell out the objection like this:

(1) Our moral duties are determined by what God commands us to do.

(2) God can command us to torture children.

(3) Therefore, if God commanded us to torture children, we would have a moral duty to torture children.

Plainly the idea of having a moral obligation to torture children conflicts with our moral intuitions. It seems absurd, or at least strange, that a command from God could transform a wicked and evil action into a morally obligatory one. One might conclude, then, that since grounding moral duties in God’s commands leads to such absurdities, they are likely not the foundation for our moral duties and obligations. As sceptics argue, there must be some other way to ground moral duties.     

However, philosopher Matthew Flannagan thinks that this conclusion is unwarranted[i]. According to Flannagan, the defender of divine command theory has reason to deny premise (2). This is because when Christians refer to ‘God’, they are referring to a being who is holy, just, righteous, loving, etc. As such, what premise (2) really states is that a holy, just, righteous, and loving being can command us to torture children. However, assuming that torturing children is essentially unholy, unjust, unrighteous, and unloving, it is not at all clear that God can issue such a command. If commanding unjust actions makes the commander unjust, then it follows that if God (a perfectly just and righteous being) issues such a command then he is both just and unjust, both righteous and unrighteous—which is a contradiction. Therefore, Flannagan argues, premise (2) is false.

In fact, as Flannagan points out, in order for the objection to succeed, one must implicitly assume that no just, righteous, loving person would command wicked and evil acts. He states “the very reason… sceptics cite this objection is they think… ‘no informed, morally sensible person would ever endorse this [kind of behaviour]’”[ii]. In other words, the notion of having a moral duty to torture children conflicts with our moral intuitions and simply isn’t the type of thing a reasonable, just, loving person could command. But, given that God is a reasonable, just, and loving person, he could not issue such a command. Therefore, premise (2) is false.

With this in mind, it seems that divine command theory is a tenable view for Christians to hold.  In answer to the question, then: God cannot command wicked acts, as the question assumes, and therefore no dilemma arises.


 

Endnotes:

[i] [BiolaUniversity]. (2013, Sep 14). Matthew Flannagan: Can God Command Evil? The Problem of Apparently Immoral Commands. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gjf4AfuilWk&t=253s

[ii] ibid

3 replies
  1. Ben Ong
    Ben Ong says:

    However, Flannagan’a proposition remains problematic. His suggestion firmly placed the onus of discerning “what I say right” on the human faculty. Because we are the ones who determine what it means for God to be just, righteous, etc. we create a God to fit our needs. That is to say, we are a product of our environment, and therefore the concept of righteousness and justice is too in some degree determined by the conditioning of life context. For example, history has seen the use of “Christian Scripture” to justify Anglo-European Supremacy which has been justified by such people through their knowledge of God in the “Christian Scriptures.”

    Now one might say that reading of scripture should lead one further towards a transcendent idea of justice and righteousness which frees us from the bonds of context and allows for ideological mobility to escape “Anglo-European Supremacy,” for example. However, biblical scholars are particularly aware that not only can we not escape our contextual reading of scripture but that in fact there are numerous contuextual and linguistic issues that arise when we do any kind of reading. The verbal plenary view of scripture attests that Scripture is always correct on the proviso that we have all the correct contextual information. However, at least in the form of current biblical studies this is a goal far too lofty for us to reach. We will never have “enough” contextual information to be able to test the verbal plenary view because it no longer exists. The context has passed and we are bound by today.

    Flannagan would also be criticised by the Eastern Church who uses Apophatic statements to express theological truth. That is the use of negative statements to express truth in relation to God in order to avoid the error which the West might call “boxing God in.” For example their statement regarding God as loving might follow as, “God is loving, God is not loving, God is not not loving” as an attempt to maintain the transcendence of “Godness” from our limited linguistic and intellectual abilities.

    In summary, I think Flannagan’s view is equally as flawed as DCT. His view is unapologetically bound in an illusion of self-perceived objectivity built on an untenable view of scripture (which I could go into further but it is a bit lengthy for here), and has already been justifiably criticised by the Eastern Church’s theological philosophy.

  2. Kahimilo Junior
    Kahimilo Junior says:

    There is no way such command by our Lord in the New testament for Christians to follow. A command to kill. In the old testament God command His people to kill all their enemies. They (enemies) commit evil acts in God’s eye so He command His people to put them to death as a judgement. God also warn His people not to spare anyone of their enemies otherwise they will grow up and make the Israelites to follow their evil ways then God will then punish the Israelites with the punishment that was intended for their enemies. We read that warning for the Israelites from God in Numbers 33:55,56 Deut 20:16-18 Even those who committed evil within the Israel camp were punished by God. These was shown to His people about the Righteousness of God their King, so that His people will pursue doing good rather than evil.As evil leads to death but Righteousness leads to eternal life. In the New testament, that Righteousness of God which is Christ Jesus has appeared in the flesh 1John 2:1, therefore we must not practice evil but righteous ways. That’s why Jesus said in sermon on the mount Matthew 5:38-48, not to repay evil for evil, but overcome evil with good Romans 12:21. We are not young children of God as those in the wilderness where God Has to teach them and show them His Righteous ways, but we are mature sons and daughters in the way we live our lives as true children of God in true Righteousness by being in Christ the Righteous One.

  3. Martin
    Martin says:

    The book of James tells us that God does not tempt us to do evil, nor can God be tempted to do evil, therefore God does not command anyone to do evil. It is against His nature. God is incorruptible and God does not change. It is impossible for God to lie. Let every man be a liar and God be true.

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *