A Primer on Divine Goodness (Part One: Theological Reflection)

God is goodIt is a common theistic claim that God is good. But what is the justification for such a claim, and further how is it to be understood? In this post, I’ll consider what Scripture has to say about divine goodness. In my next post, we’ll put the resultant conception of divine goodness under philosophical scrutiny.

In Scripture, we learn that God is righteous (see e.g., Romans 1:17), merciful, gracious, patient (see all three cited together in e.g., Exodus 34:6), loving (see e.g., 1 John 4:8), jealous (see e.g., Exodus 34:14) and more. I shall treat all of God’s moral attributes as aspects of, or expressions of, God’s goodness. So, God’s love is His goodness towards those He has made, God’s mercy is His goodness toward those in distress, God’s patience is His goodness towards those who sin, and so on. To put it another way, God is loving because He is good, God is merciful because He is good and God is patient because He is good.

The Bible makes three bold and simple claims about God’s goodness, which can be summarized as follows:

• God Himself is good.
• All God does is good.
• God is the source of all good things in the world.

The claim that God is good reverberates throughout the pages of the Bible. We see this especially in the Psalms. Here are a few of my favorites: “Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in his ways” (Psalm 25:8); “Tastes and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in him” (Psalm 34:8); “For the Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations” (Psalm 100:5). Further, in the New Testament we hear Jesus say, “No one is good-except God alone” (Luke 18:19). Moreover, as our own experience teaches us, action springs from one’s character. A loving father acts for the well being of his children. An honest person does not lie. A compassionate person seeks to eliminate the suffering of others. So also with God. Since God is good, it follows that all God does is good as well. We see evidence of this fact early on, in the creation narrative of Genesis 1:31 “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” The Psalmist notes this connection between God’s character and action when stating, “You are good, and what you do is good” (Psalm 119:68). Finally, as the creator of all things distinct from himself, God alone is the source of all the good in the world. “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17).

To these three claims listed above, I’d like to add another that seems truly astounding in light of the pain and suffering we regularly witness in the world:

• God is good to all that he has made.

It will take some time to make sense of this last claim. For now, let me simply note that in Psalm 145:9, King David claims that, “The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made.” And interestingly, while in Lystra, Paul gives an apologetic for God based on his goodness to all: “[God] has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy” (Acts 14:17). So often today, the atheist argues that God does not exist because a good God would not allow all the evil and suffering in the world (or as much evil and suffering in the world). What is interesting about Paul’s speech in Lystra is that he is arguing just the opposite: “If God doesn’t exist, then how is it that you experience joy? How is it that you have anything good at all?” And it is precisely because God is the source of all good things that Paul can appeal to the goodness experienced by all as an argument for God’s existence and character.

In my next post, I’ll attempt to provide a philosophically adequate notion of divine goodness that (1) is intelligible and (2) accounts for the data of Scripture noted in this post.

One Response to A Primer on Divine Goodness (Part One: Theological Reflection)

  1. Pingback: Primer on Divine Goodness (Part 2: Philosophical Reflection) | Paul Gould

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