How do we know God is good rather than evil? After all, there is a mix of both good and evil in the world. Which one is God responsible for? As Christians, we look to the Bible to tell us about God’s moral nature, but what if we didn’t have Scripture? Could we discern that God is good from natural theology alone? Yes, and here’s how.
Most people would agree that the concept of God is best described as “the greatest conceivable being.” If we posited a being, Q, as God, and yet we could conceive of another being, X, who is greater than being Q, then being X—not being Q—must be the true God since nothing can be greater than God. If God qua God is the greatest conceivable being, then He must be omnibenevolent (OB) because it is greater to be good than it is to be evil, and it is greater to be all-good than it is to be partially good. So if there is a God, He must be OB.
This argument trades on the notion that it is greater to be good than it is to be evil. But what justification do we have for thinking this to be the case? Why not think that evil is greater than good, and thus God must be omnimalevolent? I would argue that we are justified in thinking that good is greater than evil because our moral intuitions plainly tell us so. There’s a reason we praise those who do good and punish those who do evil, rather than punishing those who do good and praising those who do evil. There is a reason we promote selflessness rather than selfishness; why we extol courage and condemn cowardice. The reason is that our moral intuitions tell us good is to be sought for its own sake and evil is to be shunned. Why would our moral intuitions incline us toward the good if evil is greater than good? Our intuition that good is superior to evil is so basic that even atheists recognize as much. In fact, they are so convinced of this truth that they employ it as part of an argument against the existence of God, reasoning that if God exists He would not permit the amount of evil we see in this world. Since a gross amount of evil does exist in the world, they think it proves that God (probably) does not exist.
Even when we participate in various evils, we do not do so because we think they are greater than the good. This is made obvious by the fact that when we do such evils, we do not want others to reciprocate. When it comes to the good, however, we do want others to reciprocate. For example, while we may steal from others, we don’t want them to steal from us. And yet no one would say that while they want to be kind to others, they hope no one is kind to them. Our moral intuitions make it obvious that good is superior to evil, and there is no good reason to be skeptical of this. Indeed, we can be just as certain that good is greater than evil as we are certain of logical laws such as the sum always being greater than its parts.
Another reason for thinking God is good is because the good needs an ontological foundation. It cannot just exist “out there.” It needs to be grounded in something. As the metaphysical ultimate, God is the best grounding for objective morality. This becomes particularly apparent when we look at the nature of moral values and moral duties. Moral imperatives require a conscious person to issue such commands, and moral obligations only make sense in the context of personal relationships. If moral imperatives require a person to give them, and if those moral imperatives transcend all human persons, then it makes sense to ground those imperatives in a personal, transcendent God. And if God grounds the good, then God is good.
But why think it is the good that needs to be grounded ontologically, as opposed to evil? I would argue that it is because we have good reason to think that goodness is a positive ontological reality, whereas evil is merely a privation of the good (and privations—since they do not have existence—do not need to be grounded in anything). Just as coldness does not exist, but is an absence of heat, and just as darkness does not exist, but is the absence of light, evil does not exist as a positive reality. It is the absence of or frustration of the good. All things have an innate potentiality to become a particular kind of thing, and/or to act in a particular kind of way. Evil is “present” when those innate potentialities are either absent, frustrated, or perverted.
One might counter that we could just as easily claim that evil is a positive ontological reality, and goodness is just a privation of evil. In such case, it would be evil that needs an ontological foundation rather than the good. And if God—the metaphysically ultimate being—serves as the best grounding for evil, then God is evil. So why should we think it is goodness rather than evil that exists, and it is evil rather than goodness that is the privation? The reason is simple: While all evils depend on the prior existence of some good, not all goods require the prior existence of some evil.
We can envision a world in which there is marriage (good) without divorce (evil), but there could not be a world in which there was divorce (evil) without marriage (good). We can conceive of a world in which there is life (good) without death (bad), but there cannot be a world in which there is death (evil) without (life). We can conceive of a world in which there is health (good) without sickness (evil), but we cannot conceive of a world in which there is sickness (evil) apart from at least the concept of health (good). We can conceive of a world in which there is private property (good) without theft (evil), but we cannot conceive of a world in which there is theft (evil) without private property (good). We can conceive of a world in which there is sex (good) without lust (evil), but not of a world in which there is lust (evil) without sex (good). We can conceive of a world in which there is truth and honesty (good) without lying and deceit (evil), but we cannot envision a world in which there is lying and deceit (evil) without the concept of truth and honesty (good). Or consider blindness. We consider blindness to be evil precisely because it frustrates the natural function of the eyes. It would not make sense to speak of blindness, however, apart from the prior concept of sight. Murder is evil because it causes an unjust privation of life. Evil is parasitic on the good, and thus goodness is not only greater than evil, but ontologically prior to evil.
Another reason to think goodness exists and evil is a privation of goodness is the fact that our moral intuitions inform us, and our conscience confirms in us, the truth that we have a moral duty to do good rather than evil. It is more reasonable to think that we would have an obligation to a positive reality rather than a privation of reality.
For these reasons and others, I think we have good reason to believe God is good.
If the ontological argument for God’s existence is successful, it establishes the necessary existence of a maximally perfect being, and hence a being who is OB.
I say “not all goods require the prior existence of some evil” rather than “no goods require the prior existence of evil” because there are some goods that do depend on the prior existence of evil. Consider mercy. Mercy presupposes the existence of some wrong doing. There would be no place for mercy in a world bereft of evil. Of course, this does not make evil more basic than mercy because mercy is only needed due to the absence of some good, and that absence of good depends on a prior good. While mercy may only exist because evil exists, it is dissimilar to evil in the fact that it is not a privation of some evil, whereas evils are always a privation of some good. So while all goods may not be ontologically independent of all evils, the fact remains that all goods are basic to evil in ways that evil is not basic to the good. To say evil is a privation is not to say that all goods are ontologically independent of evil, but rather that evil is always parasitic on the good, and thus evil cannot be a positive ontological reality.