Author: Shaun Pedicini
Before we attempt to deal with the inherently abstract nature of morality and sin, let us first put forth four characteristics that are considered to be axiomatic aspects of the Judeo-Christian God.
- God is omnipotent.
- God is omniscient.
- God is omnipresent.
- God is love.
Next we need to briefly summarize the problem of suffering, or as C.S. Lewis refers to it, the “Problem of Pain”, and assert the following: from a moral perspective, the suffering of the innocent is immoral. Furthermore, one might argue that it is the moral imperative of those who have the power to prevent said suffering to do so, lest they themselves be culpable. For the purpose of framing this in more concrete terms, if a person witnessed the torturing of a litter of puppies and yet chose to do nothing, they would share the responsibility of the guilty party. Without going into the theological concept of “innocence” particularly as it relates to original sin – we can at least from a secular perspective make the case that children, principally infants, could be most classified as innocent as well as not yet being cognitively able to understand the reason for their suffering.
Since God is omnipotent, he is infinitely capable of preventing the suffering which occurs daily in the world. If God is love, we would also expect God to prevent the suffering of his creations – particularly since the suffering is also a byproduct of his creation, and God might be considered in some way indirectly responsible for that suffering in the first place.
Therefore, the question must be asked: “Why does God continue to permit the suffering of innocents in the world?”
In the past, one such offered counterargument is that preventing suffering would somehow simultaneously preclude the concept of free will, and that in order to allow for free will, God has to also allow for the possibility that mankind can commit acts of evil as well as good.
To which I would argue, if God is truly omnipotent, then why should He be necessarily bound by the limitations of reality, a reality which he is responsible for creating? To imply that God is somehow incapable of eliminating suffering while still preserving free will is to imply that God is subject to logic and therefore limited by the laws of nature. This would seem to conflict with the classical definition of God, that of an all-powerful omnipotent being.
Errata: “We could even consider the concept of preventing the conception of people who have the intent to commit evil within the world.”
Moreover, there are several cases in the bible of God seemingly interfering with this ostensibly inviolable concept of free will. Exodus 9:12 “But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the Lord had said to Moses”.
Therefore we can come to two inescapable possibilities:
- God is not all powerful (which we consider to be an intrinsic quality of godhood) or
- The human concept of morality does not apply to God and ultimately humans can never hope to understand God – ergo God’s morality is not man’s morality. As an aside, this would seem to significantly weaken C.S. Lewis’ argument of the “existence of God by universal morality” presented in Mere Christianity. Additionally this leads us to attempt to re-examine the concept of morality versus the concept of sin.
Let us then suppose that morality is actually a human invention (or a byproduct of social evolution), and that it could be argued that the bible’s references to morality is not morality in the conventionally understood sense. Rather, it refers to events more in terms of whether or not those events are sinful – and that sin and morality are very different constructs. As God is exemplified as a perfect being, he would by definition cease to be God should he effect an action which is imperfect. This means that perfection is actually defined in terms of God and not the other way around.
Errata: Are we getting precariously close to the dilemma of causality( “which came first, the chicken or the egg”)? If one of the defining qualities of God includes perfection, then any action God performs is summarily perfect, but does this mean that God is physically incapable of acting in an imperfect manner? Is God somehow limited to actions of perfection, or does perfection instead emanate from God and must be constantly redefined and expanded by encompassing all historical actions issuing from God at the most current point in time? Must we reverse engineer the actions of God in order to formulate some codex of morality?
Therefore, is God the scale through which any given action’s potential for sin must be measured?
In a sense, God’s actions are just and perfect because they are his actions. It can be compared to a moving target, and when we factor in the context in which the action occurs, we may observe actions that seem diametrically opposed from a moral perspective at different times and in different contexts. Morality is not some absolute construct that God is acting within the confines of, rather all actions originating from God are by definition moral. Morality bound by God versus God bound by morality.
One might contend that God does try to establish a conventionally understood morality in terms of the Ten Commandments, or that we perhaps inherently possess some simulacrum of God’s morality à la the shadows on the walls of the cave in Plato’s Republic; however, we cannot genuinely discuss God in terms of conventional morality as the morality of humans depends on the social context of the times.
For example, in contemporary society you would have to be clinically insane to argue that infanticide is justifiable or acceptable in virtually any circumstances; yet in the bible we observe repeated instances of what modern society would condemn as “ethnic genocide”, God commanded the Israelites to wipe out the Canaanites, or the Amalekites, or the Hittites, or the stalactites, down to the last man, woman and child.
Morality is a philosophical framework of humans that depends on the social context and cultural mores at the time. Ergo, morality exists outside of God, or rather we could posit that God’s perfection supersedes secular morality. Morality, even what we would classify as universal morality, has essentially evolved in lock-step with the evolution of humanity.
Accordingly, morality really is more of a secular principle – one which we should strictly confine to mankind. Therefore it is more appropriate to discuss God in terms of sin and sinlessness.
God can effectively do as he wills, and we cannot look to his actions as a model for how humans should act, nor should we attempt to emulate his behavior based on his historical behavior, or even based on what evidence we have of his actions such as actions indirectly channeled via his will through the prophets of the ancient world.
Since God is moving through those people, these actions are still considered to be perfect on the grounds that God is the hidden being behind those actions and an action committed by God should be considered a perfect act by virtue of the fact that it originated from God. An equivalent action executed by a human would:
- not be considered a perfect act (because perfection is something that belongs to God alone), and
- may or may not be moral, and may or may not be sinful. In point of fact, we should really be defining sin as the purposeful act of contravening God.
Practically speaking, we can’t even begin to discuss morality in terms of God as previously stated. Since we are unable to depend on secular morality for the purposes of determining whether or not an action is sinful, the only way to commit an act of non-sinfulness is if God is the indirect agent behind the action – on the grounds that if God is the prime mover behind the actions, those resulting actions are not sinful irrespective of where they fall within the domain of secular morality. This is crucially important.
However, this also means that we cannot ultimately know whether an action is considered good and non-sinful unless so commanded by God. This unfortunately leads us to all kinds of treacherous interpretative doors – as one ultimately need’s a direct line to God, and who is to say who has that direct line?
In light of this, the best we can do is to adhere to the knowable secular morality – in spite of the fact that secular morality is not God’s morality and that morality, as previously put forth, is not a concept that even applies to God. Ultimately, God is neither moral nor immoral, rather God is merely perfect and all actions arising from his will are therefore consequently perfect, whereas morality is a worldly judgement of worldly action judged within a worldly context.
Incidentally, the argument of man v God’s morality renders the core concept of the WWJD bracelets conventionally meaningless since it is impossible to empirically know or understand what we might consider the ecclesiastical homologue of Newton’s Third Law.
If God’s morality is ultimately unknowable, is it possible to approach the problem heuristically?