by John Daniel Holloway, III
There is a theist maxim of uncertain origin that states, “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.” Claimed here is a connection between theism and morality, so that morality cannot exist without God. As those like C. S. Lewis claim, our sense of morality is evidence of the existence of a moral God. Without God determining what is moral, we can have no concrete moral compass, and so everything is permitted.
Philosopher and sociologist Slavoj Žižek criticizes this maxim and reverses its proposal, saying instead that it is precisely if there is a God that everything is permitted! He demonstrates this with reference to violent religious fundamentalists, for belief in God gives such groups something beyond themselves to appeal to in order to justify their actions. As the instruments of God’s will, they can ignore the moral impulses they already have, and can justify heinous acts by appealing to their divine sanction.
While much less extreme than religious fundamentalists, the same kind of mannerism can be observed in many theologians who appeal to God or the Bible as justification for their negative or nonsensical beliefs.
Daniel Heimbach and Tremper Longman, in their respective responses to the violent actions of God in the Bible, say that for God to command genocide or act as a bloodthirsty warrior is totally moral, because God defines morality. If God does it, it is moral. It may not fit human ideas of morality, but our opinion is not the one that matters.
While the theology here is admirable in its emphasis on the divine-human distinction, it is ultimately inadequate. It is true that we should not make God in our image, or constrict God to our frame of reference, but to make God out to be arbitrary and capricious is to make way for the very idolatry that is trying to be avoided.
If God is entirely unpredictable in essence, God becomes entirely malleable. If God is capable of anything, God can be used to justify anything. The danger of this theology cannot be overstated. Not only has it been used throughout history to justify atrocities, but it can be (and if history is any indication, will be) used to do so again.
If killing a child is morally wrong, it should not be considered morally right if God does it. To say so is to relativize morality and render it meaningless, becoming a concept completely adaptable to human perversions. Suddenly, whether or not killing children is moral becomes a matter of interpretation. Suddenly, everything is permitted.
Thomas Jay Oord offers a more promising perspective on the issue. He claims goodness is necessarily part of God’s nature, so that God cannot do anything evil but can only do what is good. There is a standard of morality that God cannot violate precisely because it is in God’s nature to be good, and God cannot be something God is not. Morality, he says, pours out of God’s unchanging nature of love.
Thus, to speak of morality is not to speak of something meaningless. God is not arbitrary. God acts in accordance with the divine will, and the divine will is always and forever good, never evil.
This does not, however, answer the question of whether or not we can know the divine standard of morality. Indeed, as finite humans—not to mention sinful humans!—how can we arrive at a settled understanding of what comprises goodness? I dare say it is an impossible task (or perhaps an impossible possibility).
Oord offers a promising theological perspective on the problem of God’s relationship to the good, and we would do well to follow his lead. For God there can be no suspension of the ethical, no disregard for what is just and right. With God we can always expect goodness. But how we can know what is ethical, just, right, good, and moral is a question that still must be addressed. We must take seriously human frailty and its implications for moral understanding.
To speak of morality is to speak of God, but how can we speak of morality?
John Daniel Holloway, III is a graduate student at Union Theological Seminary in New York, NY. He is Secretary-treasurer of the International Society for Heresy Studies, and he holds a B.A. in biblical and theological studies from Regent University. Additionally, he is a musician, a reader, a beer-drinker, and a lover of film.