Monday, May 20, 2013

What makes God good?

Whether someone believes in a creator, as Christians do, or he is an atheist, evil is a glaring philosophical problem. It confronts the believer with doubts about the goodness of a god who could make a world filled with starving children. Likewise, suffering confronts the atheist with questions about how to define “evil” and how to confront it.

The earliest Christians were not oblivious to the problem of affirming the goodness of a creator and the constant reality of suffering and evil. They wrestled with the difficulty and purposed a number of responses. 
One response, proposed most famously by Marcion, argued that the god who created the world was to blame for evil but the heavenly father of Jesus released believers from captivity to the trappings of material things turning them instead to the spiritual. This proposal, if I can oversimplify, says, “There is a god responsible for creating evil, he’s the god of the Jews found in the Jewish Scriptures. But that’s not the god we worship in Jesus. In fact, Jesus came to set us free from captivity to that evil god and to worship his loving, kind heavenly father.” 

Tertullian, the father of Latin theology pictured above, argued that in his attempt to find a good, kind, loving god, Marcion invented a god that is really no good at all. In his response, Tertullian created a rubric for measuring the goodness of a god (Against Marcion 1.22–25). According to Tertullian, a good god must be eternal, rational, and perfect. Each attribute is aimed as an attack on Marcion’s theology.

Marcion’s solution to the problem of evil was to blame it on the creator thus absolving the heavenly father. But, Tertullian argued that a truly good god could not just arrive on the cosmic scene after creation. From a good God “we shall expect goodness to be perennial and ever-flowing, [. . .] being stored up in readiness with the treasuries of his natural attribute” (Against Marcion 1.22). If a god is truly good, then that goodness has to be on display from the very beginning of time. Otherwise he is only good on a whim, and that’s not really good. If Marcion's god is good, then, where was he when the evil creator did his creative work? Why didn’t he stop it? Why did he wait so long to provide a solution? For a god to be truly good, he has to be eternal.

Marcion’s redeemer releases humans from fleshy living in order to become truly spiritual and non-physical. This kind of salvation is inadequate, according to Tertullian because such a god fails to rescue humanity and settles for an escape from their created existence. Tertullian mocks:
“I should reckon no man more presumptuous than the one who in one God’s water is baptized for another god, who towards one God’s sky spreads out his hands to a different god, bows down upon one God’s soil to a god whose soil it is not, over one God’s bread give celebrates thanksgiving to another.” (Against Marcion, 1.23)
His point is that Marcion’s god is irrational because he fails to redeem humanity and instead offers an escape from the creator god. Such a salvation does not make sense. For Tertullian, a good god must be rational.

Lastly, a good god must be perfect. Similar to the previous critique, Tertullian is referring to a perfect salvation. A salvation of the soul is imperfect, because humans are not just souls. We have bodies, flesh and blood, and so for us to be rescued our bodies must also be saved by a good god. A god that can only save part of us is not a perfect and thus not a good god.

What do you think it means for a god to be “good”? 
This is a crucial question for thinking through the problem of evil. If a “good” god acts like us, is he really good? Or is he just what we want?

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