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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

Christopher Hitchens, Atheism, and Evil

Douglas Wilson, writing at The Gospel Coalition, discusses Christopher Hitchen’s recent Slate article on 9/11:

[pk_box width=”600″ align=”none” text_align=””]All this is Hitchens doing what Hitchens does best, and he does it for most of his article. And then, fulfilling the promise of the title (“Simply Evil”), he veers into incoherence at the very end when he only had about two column inches to go. It was like watching a bicycling Tour de Something rider, 50 yards ahead of the nearest competitor, anticipate the finish line by raising both hands above his head, at which point he triumphantly bites it.

“The regimes of Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fully deserve to be called ‘evil.’”

Evil? Since the 2009 publication of God is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens has spent a great deal of energy trying to persuade all of us that the idea of God is a false and pernicious one. But now he ups and calls these bad guys . . . evil. Given the premises, what might the definition of that be? Who determines what is evil and why? By what standard? But there may be a wiggle-room word in there. Hitchens only said they deserve to be called evil. But that generates the same questions. By whom? And whoever that person is, how did he wind up in charge of our moral lexicon?

We have to grow up, Hitchens has said. We have to reject outmoded concepts. We have to get rid of the idea that there is a God in heaven, telling us the difference between right and wrong. But if these things be true, then there are other things that follow. For some reason, Hitchens is willing to affirm the premises but will not own any of the obvious conclusions. You cannot throw away your suitcase at the beginning of your journey, and then, as you are nearing the end of the trip, pull out all the things that you packed in it. There may be shrewd ways of avoiding baggage handling fees, but that’s not one of them.

If there is no God, then Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Il, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have no God. But if they have no God, then it follows that Hitchens is not their god either. And if Hitchens is not their god, why should they care what he calls them? There is no god, and Hitchens is not his prophet.

Evil? Unless such men are treated as evil men, there is no justice. And if there is no actual justice (not paper justice, not name-calling justice, but actual justice), then there really is no such thing as evil. If there is no such thing as final justice, then how can we manage to define the concept of injustice? Hitchens wants to call them evil after they are largely out of ear shot. Let us all agree to call Stalin evil. On Hitchens’s account of things, does Stalin care?

Hitchens may counter that he fully intends to fight them. He fully intends to treat them as evil, and his article was a call to arms. All right then. Is evil then determined by who wins that fight? Does this fight have a referee? Is there a rulebook? Who wrote it?”[/pk_box]

And his conclusion:

[pk_box width=”600″ align=”none” text_align=””]I for one am glad that Hitchens wants to repudiate the big lies. I am glad that he stands against vicious totalitarian ideas. Thus far I can applaud him. But in order to stand against anything, however obviously bad it is, you must have something to stand on.[/pk_box]

Read the whole thing here.

Tauranga Event: Faith & Reason in a Broken World

This weekend, Christian Philosopher Trent Dougherty will be in Tauranga to speak at two events on the problem of evil and suffering.

Here are the details:

SATURDAY 9th July – 7pm: Faith & Reason in the face of Evil and Suffering
Bethlehem Community Church, 183 Moffat Rd, Bethlehem, Tauranga
What reasons can the Christian Faith give when faced with the horrendous evil we see in the world around us?  In this lecture Trent will give guidelines for the integration of faith and reason and how they apply to the problem of evil and suffering.

SUNDAY 10th July – 7pm: Exposing Atheistic Naturalism’s Answer to Evil
Bethlehem Community Church, 183 Moffat Rd, Bethlehem, Tauranga
Atheists claim that naturalism (the view that only matter, energy and time exist – with no God intervening from the outside) gives a better explanation of suffering in the world.  But in this lecture Trent will show that at every turn, naturalism’s attempt to answer the problem of evil and suffering backfires.

Both events are free, but donations are welcome.

Trent Dougherty is the Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Baylor University in the US.  He has a PhD in Philosophy of Religion, Epistemology and Probability Theory from the University of Rochester and an MA in Philosophy from the University of Missouri-Columbia.  He has published articles and book reviews in many journals including Religious Studies Review, Notre Dame Philosophical Review, Philosophia Christi and many others.

 

John Lennox on God, Christchurch, and the Problem of Pain

Howick Baptist has made available the video and audio from Professor John Lennox’s  sermon at their Sunday service. Read more

Ten Reasons for Pro-Life Optimism

Trevin Wax offers ten reasons why those of us who believe unborn children deserve human rights can be encouraged:

10. Recent Polls
9. Abortion’s Treatment on Television and in Movies
8. The Revulsion to Sex-Selection Abortion
7. The Exposing of Planned Parenthood’s Corruption
6. Planned Parenthood’s Recent Talking Points
5. Abortion as a “Tragic Choice”
4. Young People
3. Ultrasound Technology and Pregnancy Support Centers
2. The Third Wave
1. God Hears

Read the whole post and his explanation of each point here.

The Resurrection Effect

“The message of the Resurrection is that this present world matters; that the problems and pains of this present world matter; that the living God has made a decisive bridgehead into this present world with his healing and all-conquering love; and that, in the name of this strong love, all the evils, all the injustices, and all the pains of the present world must now be addressed with the news that healing, justice, and love have won the day. That’s why we pray: “Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.” Make no bones about it: Easter Day was the first great answer to that prayer.

If Easter faith is simply about believing that God has a nice comfortable afterlife for some or all of us, then Christianity becomes a mere pie-in-the-sky religion instead of a kingdom-on-earth-as-it-is-in-heaven religion. If Easter faith is simply about believing that Jesus is risen in some “spiritual” sense, leaving his body in the tomb, then Christianity turns into a let-the-world-stew-in-its-own-juice religion, instead of a kingdom-on-earth-as-it-is-in-heaven religion. If Easter faith is only about me, and perhaps you, finding a new dimension to our own personal spiritual lives in the here and now, then Christianity becomes simply a warmth-in-the-heart religion instead of a kingdom-on-earth-as-it-is-in-heaven religion. It becomes focused on me and my survival, my sense of God, my spirituality, rather than outwards on God and on God’s world that still needs the kingdom message so badly.

But if Jesus Christ is truly risen from the dead, Christianity becomes what the New Testament insists that it is: good news for the whole world, news that warms our hearts precisely because it isn’t just about warming hearts. The living God has in principle dealt with evil once and for all, and is now at work, by his own Spirit, to do for us and the whole world what he did for Jesus on that first Easter Day.”

NT Wright, Grave Matters, Christianity Today 4/06/1998.

Evil and the Evidence for God

“No argument from evil I am aware of makes it likely or even reasonable to believe there is no God. Evil cannot carry that evidential load. But suppose I’m wrong. Suppose evil is evidence to think God does not exist. Does it follow that it’s reasonable to believe there is no God?

Let’s approach this question by way of analogy. Suppose you learn in your European Culture class today that 95 percent of the French population can’t swim. That statistic is some evidence to think that Pierre, your friend from Paris, can’t swim. Does it follow that you should believe Pierre can’t swim? Of course not. What if you and Pierre spent last Saturday afternoon together swimming and chatting about the fine-tuning argument and Albert Camus’ The Plague? Surely, in that case, it isn’t reasonable for you to believe Pierre can’t swim. Your experience with him is much better evidence to think he can swim even though the statistical evidence by itself makes it very likely that he cannot.

The same goes with evil and God. Even if evil is some evidence that there is no God, you might have much better evidence to think that God exists; in that case, it wouldn’t be reasonable for you to believe there is no God.

This line of thought naturally leads to some weighty questions not the least of which are these: Is the evidence for God significantly better than the evidence that evil provides against God? What sources of evidence are there? How should we balance the evidence for and against theism?”

Daniel Howard-Snyder, “God, Evil, and Suffering” in Reason for the Hope Within edited by Michael J. Murray (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company) page 114.