Is God Moral, Immoral, or Amoral?

Marc Chagall, 'Abraham Slaying Isaac'

This is a question I have been thinking through quite a bit recently. And with books such as my friend Eric Seibert’s Disturbing Divine Behavior, Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster?, Eryl Davies’ The Immoral Bible, David Lamb’s God Behaving Badly, Thom Stark’s The Human Faces of God flooding the market and receiving a wide readership, the question appears to be as timely as ever.

This morning I read an essay by John Barton entitled “The Dark Side of God in the Old Tesament” in another recent book, Ethical and Unethical in the Old Testament: God and Humans in Dialogue. Barton had the following to say on the issue:

” . . . there is a strong awareness in the Old Testament . . . that God may be neither moral nor immoral but amoral. To the question posed y the present volume–‘ethical or unethical?’–the answer may sometimes be ‘neither; simply inscrutable.'” (132).

And later on the same page he writes:

“God is not susceptible to human judgment on his actions, and they cannot be classified as moral or immoral: they are simply God’s actions” (132).

In the same volume, Katharine Dell reflects upon the book of Job (“Does God Behave Unethically in the Book of Job?”) in similar fashion. She cites Miles’ biography of God, where he writes the following concerning God’s response to Job in chapters 38-40:

“The Lord presents himself, with withering sarcasm and towering bravado, as an amoral, irresistible force” (178, pg. 315 in Miles)

Dell seems to call this line of thinking into question, concluding that God does indeed act unethically in Job, but from the perspective of humans. She presents a related question near the end of her contribution:

“Perhaps the ultimate question is whether one can accept that God can behave unethically towards human beings and at the same time be exonerated” (185).

The issue does not appear to be easy to solve. Most would assume, I suspect, that God is moral because that is who God is. Such a view, however, I find difficult to reconcile with the biblical text (or at least the idea that God is moral all the time). Such a view, it seems to me, is far more indebted to the ideas of systematic theology than to a careful reading of the biblical text. But when God acts immorally, there are a litany of attendant questions that follow: immoral by whose standards? who are we as humans to judge God in such a way? what does it mean for the life of faith–indeed, life in general–if God has such proclivities? Or, is God amoral, above the fray, beyond such questions? The issues are complex and multifaceted, and press beyond the confines of this blog post, but here is my initial sense of a few salient points. Any attempt to answer this question . . .

  • must avoid being overly apologetic for God
  • must not take as its starting point the idea that God must, should, or can be exonnerated in various problematic instances
  • must take as much of the biblical text into account, not emphasizing more ‘positive’ aspects to the detriment of more problematic ones
  • must understand the highly contextual nature of the question, both for us contemporarily, but also for ancient Israel and what they may be seeking to communicate in and through them
  • must reckon with the intimate and deeply personal way the biblical text describes the God/human relationship (I am here thinking specifically of the work of Terry Fretheim in his The Suffering of God and God and World in the Old Testament.
  • must NOT appeal to Jesus as the answer to the problem of disturbing divine behavior, or use him as the barometer for adjudicating what is and is not authentic of God. Jesus is just as much of a complex, dynamic, and unsettling character, when read properly, as is God.

What do you think? What issues are pertinent? What questions need to be raised? And how would you answer the question?

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8 thoughts on “Is God Moral, Immoral, or Amoral?

  1. Joseph says:

    John, I was intrigued by the arguments in these articles when I read them, and I believe your points are well developed. I am interested myself in the notion of divine command ethics. Perhaps you are familiar with John Barton’s argument in Understanding Old Testament Ethics that “Obedience to God’s Declared Will” is one of three bases for ethics in the Old Testament. I disagree particularly in light of the creational framework developed by Fretheim, that God’s freedom is in certain ways mitigated by his own decision to create a cosmos and enter into its life. While there are stories where it is sufficient to say “God said it, therefore I must do it” (e.g. Genesis 2-3), I don’t think this is how the Old Testament persuades ethical behavior for its implied audiences, by and large. To what degree is God constrained by the ethical world he creates, assuming that God could have created a world where ethics was fundamentally different? Or, to put it another way, can God give the Ten Commandments to Moses and then ask Moses to go murder Aaron? Creation has implications even for God, though God may ultimately transcend the ethos of the cosmos.

  2. Michael Peterson says:

    Gosh, I’d love to reply at length on this subject. But let me just throw this out. I think the first step in addressing this question is to rid oneself of the anthropomorphic God. If God is truly transcendent and otherworldly (and I believe He is), then we can not know Him as we know, say, our uncle Josh.

    Transcendent, outside our space-time, otherworldly — these are important concepts that, for the most part it seems, we probably take for granted and accord them little reflection. But, a proper understanding of transcendence is critical to this particular question. To understand how this applies to ethics and morality, consider this analogy:

    Suppose we lived in a 2D world, within, say, the meniscus of pool of water. And further suppose that humans were circles. Humans, then, would see each other as curved lines. Now, suppose our creator God existed in a 3D world containing our 2D world. And further, suppose God was shaped like a beach-ball. What would we see if He chose to enter our 2D world? Technically, we would see the region of 2D space where God’s 3D shape intersected the plane of our world. Visually, we would simply see another human, probably just like uncle Josh.

    With this in mind, how do we measure (or in any way, judge) God’s behavior?

    First, we have the problem of identifying who to judge. Since we’re restricted to the tools of a 2D space, we cannot detect His 3D aspect. Indeed, unless He (the 2D representation) were to reveal His identity we can never know. But, even if He did, who would believe Him? Our own God, Elohim, tried this in the past and met with limited success.

    Second, we have the problem of what standard to apply and how to apply it. For example, it’s likely that the values by which God wishes us to order our lives, are not applicable to Him existing, as He does, in a qualitatively different reality — an alien frame of reference. In other words, the standards by which He wants us to live just do not (cannot) apply.

    Blessings,

    Michael

    • John Anderson says:

      Thanks, James.

      Michael,

      Thanks for your reply. Here are a few comments in response as I read along.
      -I quibbe with your first step. Is God transcendent? Sure. But I don’t think that means God is not also immanent. Terry Fretheim’s work on this front has been especially formative in my thinking. Gen 1 and 2, set right alongside one another as an intro to the entire Bible, also witness to both. I don’t want to suggest this means that we have unlimited access to who God is and isn’t, but the chasm isn’t so wide as to be unbreechable on all fronts.
      -My other initial concern is that what you have proposed as a starting point is actually to impose a grid over the question based upon an assumption. Biblically, one can make, as noted just above, an argument for both transcendence and immanence. Now, i don’t want to suggest that I have no predispositions in approaching the biblical text, but it is the primary source material, and thus both sides must be wrestled with in order to give the fullest possible response.
      -Why must God’s values be different than ours? A very simple example, but if I tell my son we don’t hit, then I punish him for hitting by hitting, isn’t that a tad bit confusing? Am I not then failing to practice what I preach? We can appeal to the age old “God is God, I’m not,” and that’s fine to appeal to, so long as one realizes that that doesn’t eliminate the problem at all. If anything, it only amplifies it for me.
      -If the question becomes, as you seem to be suggesting, who are we to question God, I’d again suggest the biblical text gives us a great deal of rationale and encouragement to do just that. In the book of Job, in the end (chapter 42), it is Job alone who God says has spoken correctly; the one who leveled questions and accusations at God is right, and those who have sought to apologize for God, the friends, provoke God’s anger. That’s pretty formative in my thought. Similarly, you have a number of lament psalms that aim to call God t account. So in the biblical text, this is a part of the picture that must be appreciated, and which your approach doesn’t seem to leave room for at all.

      Shalom!

  3. Michael Peterson says:

    First, I am very grateful that you would even take the time to respond. I am not a Bible scholar and have never had a course in theology, religion, comparative religion, etc. I am truly an amateur. Your tolerance is much appreciated.

    So, here goes:

    >I quibble with your first step. Is God transcendent? Sure.
    >But I don’t think that means God is not also immanent.

    I agree completely and anticipated your objection with the 3D-2D analogy. This analogy, I contend, properly accounts for the existence of a transcendent being who is, at the same time, immanent.

    >Why must God’s values be different than ours?

    They needn’t be, but probably are. In any case, God is so vastly and qualitatively different from us that our starting point ought to be that His values have little or no relation to the ones He would have us adopt. God is not human so why would one posit that His values, the values around which He orders His divine existence are even remotely like ours?

    To understand my point, look at this question of values teleologically. If the purpose of values is to order one’s existence, does it not make sense that the values God would have us adopt were custom-built for this world? Why would you assume, as the topic question does, that the concepts of, say, truth and justice and love necessarily exist in God’s world? Indeed, I would argue that precisely because we are of, but not above, nature is the reason He creates in us an appreciation of these values and the ability to discern them. Ours are values designed for our flourishing, not God’s.

    >A very simple example, … if I tell my son we don’t hit, then I
    >punish him for hitting by hitting, isn’t that a tad bit confusing?

    Yes it is confusing. But it’s confusing because your example conflates ethics with values. You’re teaching your son [not] to behave in a certain way and so your example illustrates ethics, not values. Suppose your son “hit” a bully in defense of a handicapped friend? On the other hand, God forbid, suppose your son was the bully? In either case, different values are in view. The same action (“hitting”) can express two different values. Focus on the values and the confusion goes away.

    Getting wrapped up in ethics when the subject at issue is values is madness. For example, the love of truth is a value God wishes for us to adopt, but so is the love of life. In the Bible, these values are prioritized. But most Churches teach otherwise. Truth is sancrosant and must never be compromised. Huh? The Bible teaches that God values life over truth and so rewards the mid-wives for lying to pharaoh. This seeming contradiction is immediately reconciled when we realize that God is teaching us about setting priorities where our values, the values He wishes for us to adopt, are concerned.

    >If the question becomes, as you seem to be suggesting, who are
    >we to question God, I’d again suggest the biblical text gives us a
    >great deal of rationale and encouragement to do just that.

    It’s not at all what I’m suggesting, but I agree with your understanding of the biblical text. I’m of the view that we question God because we humans tend to think ethically, not morally. Said another way, moral values are fine and good but largely abstract unless tethered to behavior. We question God because we seek to understand the ethical tradeoffs in the presence of competing moral values? When God tells Abraham He’s going to wipe out Sodom, Abraham is confused because God’s behavior (His ethics) seem in conflict with God’s value of innocent life.

    The bottom line is that the case for God’s immorality is based on the assumption that God’s behavior (His ethics) fails to express human moral values. But of course they do. God is not, after all, human. On a more vulgar plane, would my dog condemn me for not copulating with every woman I meet? Probably, but then I’m not a dog.

    Blessings,

    Michael

    • John Anderson says:

      Hi again, Michael. I’m glad to reply; these conversations are where learning takes place, on both sides.

      Taking your points in order, a few brief words of response:
      -Your analogy may account for that, but I don’t think an analogy is even necessary. The biblical text gives us examples from which to work, like Gen 1 and 2.

      -“Probably” isn’t persuasive to me. Underlying this line of thinking is typically the idea God is God and I’m not (to reiterate). That view is fine and good, and biblical, but again, this does not eliminate any potential problems. A better starting point for us Lutheran folk, in good Protestant fashion, would be to look to the text. There are many places where divine values come to the fore. For example, the biblical text states unequivocally that God does not lie (see for example Num 23:19 or 1 Sam 15:29), yet God is portrayed at various places in the biblical text as deceiving. Another example: Exod 34:6-7 provides a nice summary of the divine characer: slow to anger, but abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, yet not forgiving and still punishing, etc. etc. So what about those places, then, like with Uzzah steadying the ark, where YHWH doesn’t appear to exhibit such exemplary patience. The dissonance is affirmed in the biblical text itself.

      You ask why I would assume that issues of truth andjutice and love must necessarily exist in God’s world. First, NT Wright has helped clarify my thinking on this matter; he argues Heaven is best understood as overlapping and interlocking with earth. Heaven isn’t somewhere out there, entirely separate from earth (that’s deism), nor is heaven and God to be equated with earth and everything material (that’s pantheism). So the first problem I have is the assumption that God exists in a world separate from ours. Again, I would encourage you to check out Terry Fretheim’s work; his ‘The Suffering of God’ is excellent on this point, as is his ‘God and World in the Old Testament.’ At bottom, he argues, rightly, that God as so deeply entered into relationship with creation and the world that God is intimately affected by what we do. God mourns. God laments. God suffers. God may be good, and we may not be, but God still has entered into relationship so deeply with creation and humanity that a) there is some ‘overlap’ between these two worlds; b) concepts like truth, justice, and love are inseparable from this relationship and the plane on which God has opted to engage humanity.

      -The ethics and values point makes sense, but I think it boils down to a discussion of diction and clouds the issue. And even if one accepts they are different, they still inform one another. I wouldn’t, however, be so hyperbolic as to call it “madness.”

      -Your last paragraph: you raise an important point I often raise in dealing with problematic biblical texts–from whose perspective are they problematic or not problematic? But at the same time, even if God is God and we are not, does that make it acceptable, for example, for God to command the murder of innocent children (see 1 Sam 15). I can’t think of any situation where that becomes moral, ethical, or valuable.

  4. Michael Peterson says:

    It’s been a great and illuminating conversation, John. Thank you. I have ordered Fretheim’s book (The Suffering of God) per your recommendation. I might just add, parenthetically that from the reviews I read, the content of the book seems consistent with my own perception (rightly or wrongly). Thanks for the recommendation. I very much look forward to reading it.

    Perhaps, after reading Fretheim’s I’ll have a changed perspective, but coming into this conversation I had come to believe (and still do) that the immanent God (1) suffers, (2) is not omniscient (i.e., His knowledge is limited to that which is possible to know), and (3) can be moved by appeals to His values (justice, love, mercy, etc.,). But, precisely because the immanent God is subject to these concepts, He is also subject to the opinions of the human. My opinion, then, about the original question was, and still is, that the immanent God (but not the transcendent God) ought to be judged by the standards He established and by the standards He would have His creation live by.

    And, yeah, I see a distinction between the transcendent God and the immanent God, but that’s not germain to this topic.

    Blessings,

    Michael

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