The Goodness Of God: Is It Relative Or Absolute?
Posted by Job on January 4, 2009
I am going to reuse one of my favorite cliches from philosophy: “if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear or see it, has it really fallen?”
Now I do not know much about philosophy but I will attempt to answer it from a philosophical angle. The modernist would reply “yes, because the tree’s falling is fact, a historical event that took place in the natural realm of space and time, a propositional, rational truth. The fact that it was not observed does not negate the fact that it was a real, observable, measurable event that left evidence behind of its occurrence.”
The postmodernist for his part would reply “no, because truth is relative, and is solely determined by the person who interprets and determines truth based on his experiences and biases. So, if there was no one there to hear or see the tree fall, then there was no one there to determine that this event happened or interpret its meaning. Even if you were to claim that the tree did fall, I have the right to declare that it did not, and my opinion would be every bit as valid as yours.”
The premodernist for his part would state “whether the tree fell or not or if there ever was a tree in the first place is up to my religious leader and my political leader to decide – especially if my religious leader and my political leader are the same person -and anyone who disagrees with them will be burned as a heretic so either way the truth really doesn’t matter does it!”
So for some issues, modernism, postmodernism, and premodernism are inadequate. Modernism can only deal with truths that can be observed or measured according to some rational system so that mind makes right. Postmodernism makes truth a moving target so that it can be the instrument of whoever is best able to use – or misuse – it so that feelings make right. And premodernism allows truth to be defined by human institutions and authority so that might makes right. So when it comes to the Bible, all of them come short.
Faith, that which is unseen, hoped for, and will ultimately be realized only in the world to come, cannot be observed or measured. No one has ever seen God at any time. Yet faith is based on direct and core truths that cannot be cast off with feelings, interpretations, or cultural constructs. God does definitely exist. However, true faith cannot be dictated or imposed by human might or effort. God alone provides humans with the ability to truly believe in and obey Him.
So it is with the attributes of God, including His goodness. Is God’s goodness relative or absolute? The reason why I ask is related to my earlier post on the direction of modern Christian and popular music, and also of much contemporary Christian preaching. Many Christian songs and sermons declare the goodness of God based not only on what God has done, but specifically based on the good things that God has done for them. Now I do acknowledge and commend some among these people that exist in this environment and yet manage to deal with the many bad, cruel, horrible things that are the facts of life: sickness, death, family breakups, persecution etc. But even there, the response is usually “God is still good because He allowed these bad things to happen to me in order to teach me a lesson … to make me stronger.”
So what, then, is the message? The conclusion? The point? That God is good because He is good to us? That would mean that God’s goodness is not absolute but rather relational. It means that God’s goodness is defined according to how He behaves towards His creation, or even a subset thereof. So, God is allowed to be good towards sinful man because sinful man has been redeemed by Jesus Christ. God is allowed to punish those not redeemed by Jesus Christ because a truly good God cannot allow evil to go unpunished. Why the latter? Because a good God HAS to punish the bad people for the things that they have done to other people, especially the good people! (And who are the good people? Why me and people like me, including those that I know and care about!)
This line of thinking creates a problem. If God’s goodness is only relational with respect to His creation, then what about before creation? What about before Genesis 1:1 and John 1:1? As prior to creation God had no creation to be good in relationship to, then was God good before He created? Well, to get around that problem, many claim that God performed creation because of His goodness! That it was because of His goodness God created something to express His goodness with, or to create some expression or outlet for His goodness!
That is fine until you deal with the fact that creation was ultimately tainted by sin, which necessitates destroying practically all of it. So if God’s goodness is a function of how He behaves toward creation, how could He have given creation the possibility of being corrupted by sin? Would it not have been a better working of God’s goodness not to have allowed sin to corrupt creation, or never to have created at all?
This actually gets to be a real problem when it comes to the eternal fates of human spirits. If God’s goodness is based on how He treats His creation, then how can a good God allow human spirits to burn in the lake of fire for eternity? It is precisely that question that leads people to embrace universalism (everyone will be saved), pluralism (all good people will be saved regardless of their accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior), and annihilationism (those who are not saved will be consumed by Gehenna flames and cease to exist rather than burn eternally). And it does not stop there. Why should a truly good God require holy living, actual faith, and submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ from Christians? A profession of faith, and certainly recitation of a prayer, participation in baptism, and regular church attendance and giving should be enough.
It leads to “God is good because of how He treats mankind.” And that leads to “God is good because of how He treats ME.” As humans are by nature self – centered (and our postmodern culture makes us even more so!) this is inevitable. And that leads to a distorted view of God from which comes distorted doctrines, practice, and Christian living. If God is good because of how He treats me, then that allows me to judge God by determining what is good and what isn’t. If God does not treat me how I believe that I deserve to be treated, then God is not good. So, I will go follow a doctrine, a movement, a religion whose “god” treats me, accommodates me, in the manner that I feel is appropriate and that I deserve. If I love myself, I will choose a “god” who indulges me, if I hate myself, I will choose a “god” that punishes me. Also, if God is good because of how He treats me, why should I fear such a God? Why should I approach Him with trembling? (I know that Hebrews says to go boldly before the throne of grace in prayer, but the point is not the boldness but the grace. It is only God’s grace that makes such a bold approach possible.)
So Christians have to accept, teach, preach, and live the fact that God’s attributes – His goodness, greatness, love, righteousness, holiness, power, omnipotence etc. – are not relational, or defined in any sense by God’s position with man or man’s position with God. Instead, they are absolute. As God pre – exists, His attributes pre – exists. They define God, and God defines them. They are facts and are the same with or without creation. They are what creation has the responsibility of responding to. And they are what God’s ultimate creation, the church, has the responsibility of interpreting God’s Word, the Bible, in light of.
So God is not good because of what He does for you. God is good regardless of what happens to you in this life or the next. God bestows goodness on His creation because of grace. But without that factor, or even without creation, God would still be good. So we should praise, worship, and glorify God because He is good, and not because His goodness means any particular positive outcome for His creation or any portion of it.
Christians need to urgently recognize this fact, and to change their songs and sermons accordingly.