Jesus Christ Is Lord

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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.

10 Responses to “The Goodness Of God: Is It Relative Or Absolute?”

  1. theoldadam said

    Excellent post!

    We really should thank, praise, worship snd obey Him regardless of what might possibly be in it for ourselves…but we don’t.

    “We love because He first loved us.”

  2. Kyle said

    Job,

    Everything mentioned can rationally be answered from a Monergist point of view. Only the synergist can dance around such an issue. Now your probably saying, “Kyle, Why are you bringing this into the debate”? Well, because it is actually front and center and actually answers the questions posed.

    God’s goodness is not limited to the definitions(s) of good from a human point of view. Also, as we know God does not sin nor create evil. However, the real question is why did God make man and angels with the possibility of sin. That is also simple. You see God is 100% perfect in totality. However, mankind and angels prior to the fall were 100% perfect in there own limited way according to the designer God. For example, when God created man perfect are we to imply perfect in equality and relationship to God? No! of course not. Mankind was perfect in relationship to what God deemed perfect man to be. Now, than does that mean man and angels were “good” before the fall? Absolutely! However, here is the issue. The only way for God to have made his creation good in totality would mean he would have essentially had to replicate himself and make his creation equal in all manner to him. However, God doesn’t like competition. So in essence God had to make his creation good only in their own right and not Good relative to God. Hence, the possibility to fall and sin.

    So is God good? Of course!

    Kyle

  3. Kyle said

    Let me expound upon the above.

    Man was created a 100% Good and Perfect man. God is a 100% Good and perfect God. However, 100% Good and perfect man is NOT 100% Good and perfect in equality to God. Here is a generic comparison that is the best analogy I could give but is in no ways perfect. A new Kia Rio is rolled off the assembly line. It is 100% perfect and Good. A Mercedes Benz rolls off the assembly line it is 100% perfect and good. Now “both” are 100% perfect and good in their own right. However, is the Kia comparable to the Mercedes? Hardly!

    So now God has created 100% Good and Perfect man. However, as perfect and good as Adam is he is not when compared to God. However, God fulfilled his goodness by creating 100% good and perfect man while retaining his own 100% Good and perfect nature. Now here is the crux of the issue. Mankind in itself is 100% good and perfect but compared to God it is not. So can we blame God? No! God did in fact make a 1005 good and perfect “man”. Now immediately I can hear people say, “Kyle! That’s not fair”. Ok, lets for arguments sake agree. So are you saying God should have created individuals who were 100% Good and perfect just as God? If so then we would all be Gods and all be equal. I hope you find the dilemma in that. Do you really think God wants competition? So that question was now easily answered. But then all of a sudden I can hear the same people say, Kyle! that’s still not fair because that would mean because we were not as 100% good and perfect relative to God means we were bound to fall”. Yes! and when we did we became 100% imperfect and evil. Well, for you I have great news! God actually sent a person by the name of Jesus Christ who was BOTH 100% perfect and good man AND 100% perfect and good God. WOW! THIS was the only way from the get go as I have described the reasons above.

    Now let me expound further. How can the Arminian claim that we could choose God seeing it was God himself in the form of Jesus Christ as the 2nd member of the Godhead who had to redeem us. Once we sinned God and Only God could save us. The Father and the son have to be in agreement regarding salvation and therefore God had to elect a people to save seeing that after the fall we were no longer 100% good and perfect man.

    Kyle

  4. Kyle said

    “God did in fact make a 1005 good and perfect “man”.”

    1005 above I meant 100%. I forgot to hit the shift key in place of #5.

    Kyle

  5. Job said

    Theoldadam:

    Thank you for your kind and supportive comments. “We love because He first loved us.” How true!

    Kyle:

    Your answer deals with the existence of evil, and does so in a manner that is as credible as I have seen in systematic theology books.

    However, your answer is something that someone with an a priori commitment to God’s goodness would utilize, a sort of an apologetic. What I was dealing with is how certain strands of contemporary Christianity have abandoned the inherent commitment to God’s goodness as an absolute attribute defined by God’s existence in favor of a “God is good because He gives us stuff and makes us feel good!” false Christianity.

    “The Way of the Master” actually touches on this when they deal with false conversion methods. Lots of people, supposedly trying to get people to convert to Christianity, tell them “convert to Christianity because it will make you happier, it will make your life better, it will make you a better person and help you fulfill your potential and find your purpose.” So the impetus to convert is based on a God that is good because He wants to give you things and treat you nice.

    But based on this method, what if the person refuses? Well, for a God who is good because He wants to give you things to punish you because you refuse His offer would result in a God that isn’t good after all, or is only good to those who accept the pitch of the evangelist. That is precisely one of the reasons why more leading Christian theologians like Packer are adopting annhiliationism, and pluralism is now becoming more or less acceptable as a “center – left” evangelical position (and that is also because Roman Catholics believe in pluralism, and mainstream evangelicalism is now compelled to accept Roman Catholicism thanks to the religious right and Billy Graham).

    So I wonder if the solution is to insist “God is good because He is God and there is none good but God.” The Bible does contain many examples of praise and worship to God and His goodness because of the good things that He has done. But those are because of His grace, love, and mercy, or because He has chosen to reveal His goodness to creation. Even had God never created at all, He would have still been good.

  6. Woohoo! That’ll preach! Very nice synopsis.

    But to answer the question, consider: The goodness of God is absolute. We deserve none of it, but it never fails. Ever.

    What dunderhead members of our Body of Christ do with it is relative.

    Peace,
    HiScrivener

  7. Jonathan De Leon said

    Hey brother Job, I am a Christian that enjoys writing music. I would like you to analyze the lyrics of a song I wrote…

    “Words are the overflow of your heart; what you feel is what you say;. Don’t run your life on negative emotions. Words can make or break your life; they determine who your gonna be; Don’t you realize such things…they determine your destiny.” Are those lyrics doctrinally balanced or do they sound like some “name it and claim it” stuff

  8. Jonathan De Leon said

    Also Job,

    The Bible states that the PRAYERS OF A RIGHTEOUS MAN AVAILETH MUCH. Please pray for me. I am facing some temptation to do the things I gave up. I don’t wish to be ensnared all over again. My body and even my heart may desire that but I must fight.
    Please pray for me.

  9. gcmwatch said

    Wow, Im sorry I missed this one when it came out.
    This is excellent. Eye-opener when you said “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.”

    I think that can be applied to a lot of segments of contemporary Christianity. It is self serving –best life now– driven. God really is just a means to get to what one desires: things.

    How sad and tragic that the goodness of God is so trvialized among his people. If Im correct the goodness of God is intended to lead people to repentance (Romans 2) not into greed.

  10. IWTT said

    Dr. Michael Youseff touched on this issue of premodernist, modernist, and post-modern issues in his recent sermon series on the Bible/Scriptures. If you get a chance go to his website leadingtheway.org and listen to the 4 part series. It is excellent and points out what is wrong with the sermons of today.

    I come from a church that is a very Purpose Driven Model (post-modern) and frankly I became very tired of the 1/4 truth it preached. It was, IMHO, a weak gospel, that didn’t tell the whole truth and it was a very “relative truth” church.

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