Let me present the following trilemma to those theists who worship the omnibenevolent Abrahamic God:
Q: If God commanded you to kill your child, would you be morally justified if you were to obeyi?
Many will be inclined not to answer the question because, for them, a morally perfect God would never make such a demand, hence an answer is unnecessary. It is not inconceivable, however, that an omnibenevolent God would ask one to kill one’s childii. In fact, in Genesis 22:1-24, God asks Abraham to commit filicide (the so-called Binding of Isaac, which engendered this post). While admittedly there exist numerous interpretations of the sacrifice of Isaac which attempt to mitigate this prima facie morally problematic portion of Scripture, e.g., that Abraham knew Isaac’s death would not be permanent, the point remains: God asked Abraham if he would kill Isaac, and he compliediii.
(1) If one were to answer “no, because this would be murder and murder is morally unjustified,” or something to that effect, then one would be appealing to a moral standard independent of God, a standard via which one could critique the morality of God’s commandments and actions. Moreover, and even more damning, if one answers Q in the negative, then God cannot be omnibenevolent- at least, one cannot properly conceive of God as being omnibenevolent-, since God would have commanded one to perform an immoral act.
To avoid (1), a theist would have to answer Q in the affirmative, options (2) and (3).
(2) If one were to answer “yes, because that which God commands is by definition good,” then (a) morality is arbitrary and thus God is amoral and / or (b) one’s definition of “good” may succumb to Moore’s naturalistic fallacyiv.
(a) If what is good is that which God commands, then, presumably, He may command and perform any act which, ex hypothesi, must be good, in which case morality may be said to be arbitrary and capricious; entirely contingent upon what God may at any time decree. E.g., if God commands genocide (the Israelite invasion of Canaan, for instance), then that act of genocide is good. It follows from this, however, that God is not moral, but rather amoral, and therefore cannot be said to be “good” in any common signification of the term. [I think this explains the great counterintuitiveness of (2)]
(b) If we are to define “good” as “that which God commands,” then for every instance of the former we may substitute an instance of the latter. Thus, when we ask if some act, x, is “good,” what we are asking is whether x “is that which God commands,” which is merely a factual question. Intuitively, however, we may ask a further, seemingly meaningful, evaluative question: “x is that which God commands- that is, I know God commands x-, but is that which God commands good?” This question, though, while meaningful and thus deserving careful examination, cannot be meaningful for the affirming theist and hence does not warrant further analysis, for to ask “x is that which God commands- that is, I know God commands x-, but is that which God commands good?” is to ask “x is that which God commands- that is, I know God commands x-, but is x that which God commands?”, a redundant and frankly absurd question. In this context, what Moore’s naturalistic fallacy indicates, among other things, is that there seems to be something more to the goodness of an act than God’s commandments. (This appears even more correct upon consideration of (a) above.) In which case, there exist moral norms independent of God and his commandments, and the theist encounters again the problems associated with (1).
(3) In an attempt to avoid (a) and (b), one may amend one’s answer in the following way: “Yes, because God is a necessarily good being; that is to say, goodness is a necessary part of God’s essence; and therefore it must be good to follow any commandment of God.”
(3) certainly escapes the amorality that follows from (a) by establishing a definitive moral standard inherent to the nature of God, and, perhaps, avoids (b), the naturalistic fallacy, by forming a metaphysical foundation for the definability of “good” (although, I am not convinced of the latter). However appealing (3) may at first blush appear, though, it is not at all clear what, exactly, “good” means when applied to the nature of God given Qv. In fact, in this context, “good” borders on the unintelligible.
To say God is by necessity “good,” and for such a pronouncement to be meaningful, the theist must be able to delimit actions that God cannot perform because they are bad. Furthermore, such impermissible actions must be generalizable so as to avoid being makeshift and arbitrary. Therefore, for instance, something like the following should be formulated: God cannot, morally, torture children, or God cannot, morally, commit genocidevi. However, for many intuitively, morally impermissible categories of action- e.g., murder, torture, slavery, and genocide- it can be shown that God has actually committed such actsvii. The worry is that we who in our various human contexts have developed moral maxims, of the types above, that delimit “good” acts from “bad” acts, cannot make sense of the term “good” when it is applied to God’s nature because He seems to have on numerous occasions contravened our conceptions of morally justified behavior.
It is likely that some theists of the sort who answered Q in the affirmative will at this point want to point out that God must not be held to the same moral rules to which we ourselves are held. Put another way, “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let him who accuses God answer him!” (Job 40:1-2 NIV). There are two ways this could be meant: (1) by virtue of God’s nature, and our subordinated state, God will be as He will be and it is not our place to question Him or any portion of His nature, or (2) God’s ways are so unlike our own that they are, in a very real sense, incomprehensible, to include questions concerning His nature. If taken in the first sense, then it is patent nonsense, not to mention a wonderful instance of begging-the-question. If taken in the second sense, though not question begging, it would be incorrect nonetheless. If God’s essential goodness is beyond human comprehension, then to say God is omnibenevolent is certainly devoid of meaning, for the very signification of “an omnibenevolent God” presupposes that we first understand what it means for some act, and thus some actor, to be good.
No matter how one answers Q, the notion of an omnibenevolent God seems untenable.
iOr some other violent act, such as burning down a city and murdering every inhabitant, to include the elderly and children.
iiSome philosophers of religion and theologians distinguish “omnibenevolent” from “morally perfect,” but for our purposes I shall use the terms synonymously.
iii“By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, ‘It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.’ Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death,” Hebrews 11:17-19 NIV. Perhaps Abraham did believe Isaac’s death would not be permanent, but this need not detract from what the trilemma, because, though Abraham believed Isaac would be resurrected, Abraham was willing to perpetrate an act of extreme violence which would result in pain and death, no matter how temporary. (Imagine Isaac’s horror: his father, who was supposed to protect and nurture Isaac, was now prepared to cut his throat.) I take it I could rephrase my trilemma so as to produce another as equally as problematic for a believer in an omnibenevolent god.
ivSee § 13 of Principia Ethica (http://fair-use.org/g-e-moore/principia-ethica/s.13)
vAnd other apparently heinous acts depicted in the Old Testament.
viBoth of which God has apparently done at various times.
viiSee, for example, 1 Samuel 15:1-3: “Samuel said to Saul, ‘I am the one the Lord sent to anoint you king over his people people Israel; so listen now to the message from the Lord. This is what the Almighty says: I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys’” (NIV). To be sure, there are numerous examples of other horrible acts either ostensibly performed or approved by God, not the least of which is eternal torment in Hell for those who are unlucky enough to exist and not have a salvific faith in God.