The Sheeple’s Judge: on the Moral Monster
February 24, 2013 3 Comments
To call others “sheeple” is to dismiss their beliefs with a broad brush. Taking this rhetoric at face value is genetic fallacy. That some people may not think through the belief thoroughly does not make the belief untrue.
Reading the lively comments following Caroline’s fairly recent two-part post, “Judging Our Judge,” I was encouraged. The participants, as long as they remained open to discussion, had not succumbed to the sheeple fallacy.
A few weeks out, I’d like to see if I can add some value to the conversation. I propose to work with this statement: “In the Bible, God is a moral monster.” By “moral monster” I mean “evil.” The other day I heard JP Moreland supply a definition of evil: when something is not as it ought to be. Feel free to lodge a qualification, but focusing on the statement for this post will allow, as Dennis Prager says, clarity over agreement. After all, agreement is impossible if we mean different things.
Concluding that God is evil from reading the Bible is a literary exercise. On postmodernism, there is no “naked eye” to read the text; we all come to it with our own interpretive lens. Fortunately, we can evaluate an interpretation by what informs it. Knowledge of cultural context, a plausible understanding of the characters, and a moral ontology are some things that necessarily inform a reading of God as Moral Monster.
The need for historical and cultural context is self-evident. Relatively late in church history, some Christians mistakenly began to read the Bible in light of “plain truth.” Moral Monster replicates this error. For the most part, people have read the Bible critically, employing contextual aids and contemplating for years on the consistency and coherence of its content. Scholars, theologians, and lay people have built a tremendous body of interpretive resources. To supply an off the cuff reading that doesn’t even try to engage with those resources is hasty. At least, the reading must fare well against authoritative scholarship. Not the popular works of physicists or geneticists, but peer-reviewed scholars of literature or divinity.
What is the moral standard?
The reading is also informed by its moral ontology. This is the set of values and obligations that constitute a moral system or standard. A moral system lays out not just whether any given act, object, or circumstance is good or bad. It also can stipulate who owes what to whom, and if its conditions are absolute or situational.
The obligatory nature of a moral system requires it to be objective. Subjective or relativistic systems are practically meaningless if they are not independent of personal belief. Morality, if it exists, must be necessary, not contingent. A supernatural being who is all powerful, all knowing, and all good remains by far the most credible explanation for objective morality.
Consequently, to say “In the Bible, God is a moral monster” is really an in-house debate between theists. A Muslim or a follower of Baha’i might raise the moral monster critique meaningfully. But a naturalist or materialist who invokes the reality of evil needs to explain why what he calls morality is not merely subjective or illusory.
Justice and the Supererogatory
In appealing to what ought to be, Moral Monster is a claim to justice. If God is good, he must be just. Critics focus on the fact that evil is committed in the temporal world, the part of creation in space-time. But justice is done when all debts are paid on the flip side of creation, in eternity. That which not ought to be is erased. The NIV translation of Revelation says of the righteous, “He will wipe every tear from their eye.”
Still, the question remains, why does God allow any evil at all? At this point the critic needs supply a reason why goodness needs anything more than justice.
But Christian theology already supplies one. Prior to creation, God was perfectly good. He decided to do something extra that was meaningful. He created moral agents who have no rights except to not arbitrarily suffer injustice. They, who freely rejected him and became subject to justice, have a second chance to enjoy him in his full goodness for eternity. This is the supererogatory act: doing not just what’s required of him, but going beyond it. Some call it grace or mercy. The critic is free to offer an alternative account of good and evil that is a more compelling fit for reality.
Conclusion: the stakes of evil
Cashing out one’s own views on evil will move one closer to theism and away from atheism. One who is a theist, or who supplies an objective moral standard, can critique the God of the Bible. However, well informed readings of the Bible find God to be not merely just, but merciful as well. This is the best fit for our real experiences of good and evil.