More on moral argument, “we can’t understand God”

Earlier this week, I authored a piece elaborating on my response to a variation of a moral argument for God’s existence Reverend Brewster presented in our August 31 “Does the Christian god exist?” debate (watch video footage or listen to an audio-only recording for more context). Since the debate and my piece, Reverend Brewster has engaged in discussion on my Facebook page responding to challenges positing that the Christian god may not be all-loving because of atrocities in the Bible such as God sending she-bears to kill 42 young boys.

Reverend Brewster, in response to Bible passages suggesting the character of God is not all-loving, states that we can’t comprehend morality in its “fullest sense because we are unable to see the end of things.” He also suggests that what we might believe to be immoral now may actually not be immoral in the long-run under God’s plan.

Brewster — rather than relinquishing belief in an all-loving god when presented with evidence to the contrary — implies that God, for all we know, may have some undetectable and incomprehensible reasons for sending she-bears to kill young boys. The ‘mind of God’ is just too big to understand for us humans, Brewster implies.

This position renders theistic belief irrational because any given challenge to God’s existence may be easily ‘excused away.’ Nothing, under this ‘we cannot understand the mind of God’ position, can render belief in God false. Lacking a situation in which God may not exist, the theist is utterly close-minded and unwilling to reconsider their belief; no evidence can serve as reason to disbelieve.

One wonders, under this position, why theists would not be agnostic about the moral character of God because, if, for all we know, there may be undetectable reasons for God committing atrocities — even though he is said to be all-powerful and all-knowing which would allow him to achieve certain ends without sending she-bears to kill children — and atrocities may actually not be so bad after all, we should also be forced to admit that good actions God may command, for all we know, may not be good and are instead part of an evil or not-so-good master plan. The razor must cut both ways.

Worse yet, the ‘we cannot know the mind of God position’ ought to force us to a position of moral skepticism although all of our moral intuitions dictate otherwise. An Indian Ocean tsunami which kills thousands of people may, for all we know, under Brewster’s view, be part of God’s plan to achieve some unknown goal – thus the tsunami is actually a good thing and helping survivors by donating to the Red Cross is interfering with God’s plan. Perhaps those who were harmed should not be pitied and helped, but rather are blessed and should be left to suffer?

If we are going to fail to acknowledge actions are immoral because we may lack understanding although our moral intuitions point to acts being immoral, why stop at God’s plan? Why not say that, for all we know, Hitler may have had really good reasons for ordering extermination of Jews and that we can’t say this is a bad thing because we’re unable to see “the end of things” and can’t comprehend morality in “its fullest sense?” Why would the theist — willing to admit that God may have undetectable reasons for committing atrocities — not also extend this to humans? After all, we may lack information that other humans are privy to just as we — under the theistic view — lack information God is privy to.

Rather than excusing away evidence against the Christian god with an unlimited supply of ‘we just cannot know the mind of God,’ we should relinquish belief in God when contrary evidence is presented.

Justin Vacula

Justin Vacula hosts the Stoic Philosophy Podcast; serves as co-organizer and spokesperson for the Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) Freethought Society; and has hosted monthly Stoic Philosophy discussion groups for the Humanist Association of Greater Philadelphia.

He has appeared on and hosted various radio shows and podcasts; participated in formal debates and discussions; was a guest speaker for college-level courses; was featured in local, national, and international news; and has been invited to speak at various national, local, and statewide events.

Vacula received bachelor’s degrees in Philosophy and Psychology, a minor in Professional Writing, and the distinguished W.A. Kilburn Memorial Award for Philosophy from King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He is currently living in the Scranton, PA area attending Marywood University’s graduate-level Mental Health Counseling program and has worked with the Arc of Luzerne County’s Transition to Community Employment program as a teacher’s assistant and job coach alongside adult learners with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

He also plays poker; volunteers as a member of the website and media team for the Greyhawk Reborn Dungeons & Dragons campaign while playing at events in the Eastern United States; and enjoys metal music.

  • Zane Ball

    Great piece!

  • Chill Chick

    “we should also be forced to admit that good actions God may command, for all we know, may not be good and are instead part of an evil or not-so-good master plan. The razor must cut both ways.”

    Stephen Law makes the same point in his “Evil god” challenge.

    • PONCHO

      Yeah, so did Descartes, and it has been answered time and again (see my response above). Atheists just choose to ignore the critiques and keep restating it.

  • mikmik

    If you don’t know the mind of God, then you don’t know anything about Him. Everything becomes suspect, anything could just be a trick.

    • PONCHO

      That’s true of anybody. You don’t know my mind, so everything I say could just be a trick. So the real question is, how can you know anything truly? By empiricism alone, you can’t. Only the Christian worldview provides the necessary basis for intelligibility, indeed for knowing anything.


    Thanks for this fun piece. As usual, the inconsistency of the atheist position is on display. My favorite part: “If we are going to fail to acknowledge actions are immoral because we may lack understanding although our moral intuitions point to acts being immoral why stop at God’s plan?” “Moral intuitions”? What are those, exactly? Does everyone determine those for him/herself? Sounds kind of arbitrary and subjective. If these “moral intuitions” are individually determined, then you have no right to impose them on others or use them as a “rule” to judge the acts of God or man. If, however, they are universal and absolute, then, well, you’re in a pickle there too, since your worldview doesn’t allow for that. You speak as though they are absolute and self-evident to any rational person. But there can’t be abstract moral laws that are universally binding and allow for no exceptions in the atheist’s universe, which (allegedly) operates on purely naturalistic and materialistic principles. Please explain how you can speak of the immorality of any action, if morality is relative, individual, or determined merely by a consensus. Just because a majority, even a vast majority, believes something is wrong, that doesn’t give them any authority to impose it on others. You’re comfortable with suggesting that the she-bear slaughtering of boys is wrong because a majority might agree with you, but what if the majority happens to think atheism is wrong? Or homosexuality? I could multiply examples where you no longer be comfortable allowing the majority to determine what is ethically acceptable. Atheists like to say that “good” is determined by what gives the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people. Aside from the impossibility of measuring collective happiness (given the unpredictability of the consequences of consequences, etc.), and the arbitrariness of choosing that (or any) rule as a universal moral code, what atheists really mean is, the greatest happiness for the greatest number, as long as it is also what I like. I know of no atheist who would be cool with a Christian moral code if that is what gave the greatest happiness to the greatest number. That’s cute how your illustration shows the bears eating toddlers, but that’s not what the Bible says. It was a group of boys, persecuting and mocking the prophet, so more likely teenagers. I know some teenagers who could use a good mauling for disrespecting the elderly, but not even the point. The point is, you have no basis for condemning murder by bear except your own opinion. Consider this statement of yours: “We should also be forced to admit that good actions God may command, for all we know, may not be good and are instead part of an evil or not-so-good master plan”. Nope, sorry. There is no such thing as inherent, objective good or evil in your worldview. You can’t have it both ways. Atheists say there is no objective, ultimate morality, and then they appeal to it left and right as thought there is. If there is, you have to account for how this makes any kind of sense in your universe. And if there isn’t, you have to stop pretending to judge God by a standard that is supposedly above both you and him and to which both are subject. Otherwise, you are merely judging God based on your opinion or preferences, to which I would reply, “so what?”. Your personal code of ethics has no authoritative power. This is arbitrary. Every Christian youi debate seems to have flaws in their reasoning. This one is trying to prove God loves everyone. The Bible doesn’t say that! In fact, it says he hates certain people. So there is no problem with the occasional mauling in terms of supposedly conflicting with his loving nature. I would agree that man cannot know any more of the mind of God than he reveals. This is true even of men. So it is possible that he has a good reason for doing something that is not apparent to us. The point is, GOD is the only standard of ultimate morality, so he cannot do an “evil” act; if he does something, by definition it is good. That doesn’t always mean man can do the same thing and it would still be considered good. He is not a mere man, and as such cannot be judged. To do so is to imply a universal moral standard higher than God, which as an atheist you know cannot exist. Stop talking like it does.

    • PONCHO

      I wanted to add (since nobody else is talking), if God is portrayed as doing something in the Bible, and you find it to be morally reprehensible, you have to be able to explain why it is “wrong”. Because you think so? That is mere opinion, and carries no weight of obligation for anyone but you. Because a lot of people think so? Collective opinion is nothing more than mere opinion on a larger scale, and it is arbitrary to posit that as a standard everyone should be subject to. What if, theoretically, EVERYONE thought so? It makes no difference. It is still not “wrong”. And if you use collective opinion to force the minority to conform to the majority’s preferences, that is just tyranny and bullying. You might suggest that it is better for society, that a certain choice preserves personal freedom and promotes peace, and is therefore to be preferred. Again, says who? And even if it does, WHO SAYS peace is preferable to war, freedom is preferable to slavery, etc. Without an objective standard, you cannot maintain that anything is “better” than anything else, only that you like “a” and not “b”. And if you use your influence, your power, your vote, to secure “a” and suppress “b”, you are not “doing the right thing”, you are simply acting selfishly to preserve the things you prefer. So you can’t talk about God doing evil acts, only of God doing things you don’t like. The problem is, you talk as though others ought to agree with you that such acts of God are bad. For the consistent atheist (haven’t met one yet), there is no “ought”.

      • PONCHO

        I’m not trying to be a jerk. I’m trying to show you that the atheist’s worldview is fraught with inconsistency and arbitrariness. If you will just admit, “Yes, PONCHO, I know that atheism is inconsistent and arbitrary; I know that I have no answer to the objections you have raised, and I don’t care. The truth is, I just WON’T acknowledge God even if I realize I can’t make any sense of morality, logic, causality, etc. without him. I am an atheist because I hate God and will never submit to him even if I am standing face-to-face with him.” I would respect that kind of admission. And then, on my word as PONCHO, I will disappear from your blog and simply pray for your eyes to be opened. Of course, you could always just ban or block me so your readers can’t see how much sense I am making. More likely, they will just keep saying the same things and refusing to answer the objections I have raised. After all, these objections are unanswerable, as you have seen. You constantly rely on concepts that are impossible within the parameters of your worldview. Hence, inconsistent. God exists because of the impossibility of the contrary. This is the transcendental proof for the existence of God. Are you seeing now how badly you misunderstood and underestimated presuppositionalism?

        • Jamie

          Basically though atheism isn’t a view it’s a lack of belief in a god and every atheist as every other person, has their own perceptions of morality, though in general we make rules and laws that govern us because we need one another and thrive with one another better than when apart. But how morals and laws and rules are interpreted and made is open for debate and criticism which is a good thing because that is how we make room to grow and learn as people can and do, to better ourselves. However, if we were to say ‘god is good always and what he says goes without question’ that slams all doors closed and leaves nothing open in way of criticism or growth. It then doesn’t matter if it has any inconsistencies because by your standards, because it is god’s doing and he can do no wrong and nobody can question it so the debate is closed according to you.

          And it is a sad world where you find murder is good as long as it’s god that does it or demands it. It’s terrifying that you think that way because that sort of mentality means if you believed god told you to kill someone, you would do so since it was the ‘good’ and ‘right’ and ‘moral’ thing to do regardless of what you feel and think and what society thinks. Seriously if all acts are good as long as a god is doing them, what is your basis for comparison? If you are a mere moral man who can’t know good or bad and right or wrong for yourself, then you surely can’t know if your god is good or bad, right or wrong, evil or wonderful. You just follow like a blind sheep then basically.

          • PONCHO

            Atheists love to say that atheism isn’t a belief (“view” in your post), it is a lack of belief in God. That is just a semantic game. I can say I don’t disbelieve in dragons, I simply lack a belief in them pending evidence of their existence. However, that doesn’t make it any less true that for all intents and purposes, I believe dragons don’t exist, pending further evidence. What is particularly noteworthy about atheism as a form of unbelief, is the vehemence with which atheists insist that they “lack” this belief. I would never expend any amount of energy, much less create blogs, engage in debates, or put time and money into lawsuits, to establish my “lack of belief” in dragons. Methinks the atheist doth protest too much. It reveals that atheism is about something more, an overt disdain for theism, and particularly for the Christian God. Atheists DO believe something, and that without evidence (a priori). They believe in naturalism, to the point that they presuppose it and will consider no evidence that would question its supremacy. Whatever else the evidence may show, for the atheist, God cannot be any part of the answer. If he seems to be, they decide we just have to wait for more evidence.

            You have failed to establish any grounds for a standard of ethics. What you seem to be positing is a kind of moral relativism, something that is always in flux, and we must carry on a debate to determine it for ourselves. You talk about “growth” and “bettering ourselves”, but of course those concepts imply the existence of moral absolutes, toward which you are heading, or with which one can be more, or less, in line. But for the atheist, there are no absolutes, so these ideas are meaningless, and you are left with arbitrary moral chaos. That was my point, that the atheist always lives with this tension, this inconsistency, between wanting to say we all decide morality for ourselves, and realizing the need for the absolute in order to function. At one point it sounds like you are positing a kind of pragmatism; that morals are determined by mutual need and a desire to thrive. But again, that is moral relativism, since it may not always or in all circumstances be the same thing that makes us thrive. Situationally relative morality doesn’t work, and invariably leads to abuse. In any case, you may say that, but that is not how you actually live, and many of your other statements betray a need for an objective standard. Relative morality offers no basis for condemning any action, since what was wrong yesterday, or over there, or for him, might not be wrong here, today, for me.

            I never said murder was good. It is wrong because God condemns it. Otherwise you cannot maintain that it is in any sense truly “wrong”, and your emotional appeal that “it is a sad world” becomes nothing more than an expression of your opinion. Once more, you are instinctively appealing to a universal idea of murder as wrong to condemn me, but this is inconsistent, since you don’t believe in moral absolutes. For me, murder is wrong, and it is a sad world. For you, it is just a (morally neutral) world, and murder is just animals killing animals, which couldn’t be more natural. Men have their reasons for murder, and it offers some an evolutionary advantage, so where’s the “wrong/sad”? You are “terrified” by the idea that I might kill someone because God commanded it, “regardless of what (I) feel or think or what society thinks”. So here, you are implying that one’s personal sense of morality should supersede that of God, and should not dare to question the consensus of society. But how do you know your personal sense of morality is right? Wait, you don’t believe in an objective standard. So your personal sense is always right, or at least “right to you”. To me, that is FAR scarier – the idea that your personal code of ethics might compel you to murder, and is not subject to being checked by a universal standard, only by society. So in an evil society like Nazi Germany, if you happen to like murder, and the society approves, you are your own god, and there is no higher court to judge your actions. Without a moral standard, you cannot condemn nor praise any action.

            BTW, if God kills a man, it is not the same thing as if a man kills a man. It is not “murder”. It is destroying something he himself created. So you are comparing apples and murder. It is true that it would be dangerous or wrong to blindly follow an evil or arbitrary god. But the fact is, an all good, all powerful God who sovereignly orders all things according to his own inherent goodness is the precondition to any meaningful system of morality. So The fact that you recognize murder as wrong implies his existence. The presence of what Justin called “moral intuitions” implies his existence. See, even as you deny his existence, you conduct your life in a way that wouldn’t make any sense unless he did exist. You are confusing yourself unnecessarily. You seem to be thinking that God could tell me to do something evil. Let’s say he tells me to murder someone. This he cannot do because it would contradict his own nature – he is the one who told me murder is wrong in the first place. I suppose you actually mean what if God tells me to do something I find morally offensive. But how do I know my moral sense is anything more than my own opinion or preference? You are suggesting that one should always be true to his own moral sense. But the serial child molester does that. It’s just that his moral sense is effed up. But wait, you can’t say that it is. His morality is just different from yours, not worse. I can say he is evil, you can’t. You can only say “I/society don’t like what he does”. But you have no right to force your views on the poor child molester. I’ll help you atheists out and suggest that you just stop talking about morality, right and wrong, good and evil, better or worse, etc., altogether. Just deny the existence of morality, and descend into moral chaos. Then, at least on that point, you will be consistent. You are trying to make me look like a murder-approving monster with an emotional appeal to how “sad” and “terrifying” my world is. But such moral judgments are invalid in the atheist’s universe, where there is no absolute and universal standard of morality. For the atheist, there is nothing sad or terrifying, and there are no monsters. The “good atheist” is an oxymoron. Every atheist is good in his own eyes, and that is a poor and arbitrary blueprint fora system of ethics. I am a sheep, but not blind. You walk in blindness, since you (allegedly) have no moral compass outside of yourself, and even that cannot be said to be right or wrong.

  • Eric

    In Christianity, all have sinned and sin is punishable by death. The moment Adam and Eve (Genesis 3) Sinned, they were to physically die immediately. Did they? No. God’s grace. AKA, it’s only by God’s grace that our sins haven’t stirred God’s wrath to strike us dead where we stand. God allows us to live. God is just in allowing the boys to die because of sin. ‘Why do innocent people in Africa die and go to hell after never having heard the gospel?’ Great question. Show me one innocent. Think of it as a court scene. If God is the judge, and you have three people on trial; one committed treason, one was a murder, another a rapist. All are punishable by death before God, but God does something; he decides to offer mercy to the murder and set him free. The other two are infuriated at God not giving them mercy. Then the murdered questions it as well; why wouldn’t you give them mercy? (just a top of the head unrefined example). God would say that all were punishable by death, but I chose to give you mercy because of my unconditional Love. People who go to hell display God’s just wrath. People who go to heaven show God’s love.