Is God good? And if God is good, why are moral laws and commands in the Bible, sometimes not so good? And of course, why do bad things happen, if God is good?
But, before we can ask those questions, we should've asked this more basic question: Why would you think that God is good?
What does it mean to say that God is "good"?
We will begin to explore this question in this episode. Then, we can start asking what the Bible is trying to teach us about morality and goodness.
[ Update: the previous version of this episode has been split into 2 episodes. The new version of this episode expands on the first half, and explores the Genesis account of the city of Sodom and its destruction. The next episode (S3E7) will expand on the second half. ]
1:56 Morality, evolution, and gods
9:55 God, as Being, Truth, Goodness
18:24 Judgment of God, revisited
23:00 The account of Sodom’s destruction
29:19 The meaning of Sodom’s destruction
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[ pendulum ]
Religion and morality, since time immemorial, have been paired together. Societies and cultures across the world have drawn their moral rules and practices from their religious teachings, believing that their gods judge their lives and actions. And in that particular respect, Christianity is no different.
However, this has raised some questions regarding morality and the Bible in our day. There are practices in the Bible that seem immoral to us, such as slavery, which God seems to condone, or at least, look the other way. Then, there are practices, such as circumcision, which seems morally unimportant to us, yet are commanded by God.
So here’s a question: if God is good, why didn’t God teach better moral values to the people in the Bible? This, of course, is related to the more fundamental question about the goodness of God, like “If God is good, why is the world that we live in not so good?” And there are a number of different responses, with varying degree of thoughtfulness, some of which the past two seasons of this series alluded to in several episodes.
But, we rarely seem to ask the most obvious questions that we should’ve asked first.
What do you mean by “good”? And why would you think that God is good?
[ music / ]
Welcome to…"What do you mean, God speaks?" where we explore important ideas, insights, and stories in Christianity, for the skeptics who want to understand religion, to the Christians who have questions about their own beliefs, and everyone in between.
I am Paul Seungoh Chung, and this is our sixth episode of the third season, “Why would you think that God is good? What does it mean to say that God is good?”
[ / music ]
What is morality? What is good and what is evil? What is right and what is wrong? These are perennial questions that we have yet to fully answer. However, we can at least answer why those questions arise; it has to do with a particular feature of our relation to reality. To be specific, it has to do with the fact that there are many possible ways that our lives can unfold, from many possible actions that we can take.
So, say, you are running through a quiet park, because there’s a shortcut to where you will have your job interview. But, then you see an elderly man, collapsed on the ground. Should you help this person? But, if you do, you won’t make the interview in time, and you really want this job. Maybe there’s someone else who can help? But, you don’t see anyone else near-by. So, what do you do?
You are now faced with a choice of how you can make things unfold from here. You can ignore that person and go to your interview, hoping someone else will come along. You can help him, possibly giving up on that job you wanted. You can even pick his wallet, pocket his cash, and then go to your interview. Your choice implies you have ascribed relative value to the different actions you can take. Asking what is the “good” thing to do in this situation is, in an important way, asking what action holds the greatest value. Is helping this stranger in trouble more valuable than getting your dream job? Is adding to your personal wealth more valuable than the well-being of some stranger? And why? Why is this or that action more valuable than some other action?
That “why” is the question that has troubled ethicist and moral philosophers for the past several centuries. One very influential answer was put forth about 40 years ago by a philosopher named, Alasdair MacIntyre. Examining ancient and medieval works, he came to the conclusion that how we ascribed values to actions—which is to say, how we reasoned about morality and ethics—was based on a larger vision of our place and life in this world. So, this how it works: let’s say, you are a student, and your goal as a student is to get all ‘A’s in your courses (because really, is there any other grade?). Then, if that is how you envision your life and set up your goals, the actions that you ought to take—actions that are more “valuable” to you in that context—are the ones that will reach your goal to get that ‘A.’ So, reviewing your notes the night before your exam is far more valuable than partying with your friends, because it enables you to become that ‘A’ student. Skipping your exam has negative value, as it will utterly derail your goals. In a similar way, moral actions are actions that will bring forth the kind of world that we are aiming for—the world we envision. But, what kind of world is that? Simply put, it is the world in which humanity flourishes.
But, what does it mean for us to flourish, really? If all of us live a life of perpetual luxury, while say, our planet dies, are we flourishing? Or, if we make 99 people live an ideal life, by making 1 person live in perpetual torment, are we flourishing? Or, if every single one of us is given a life of ease and comfort, but because of that, we lose the drive to learn, grow, and explore, are we flourishing? What does it mean for humanity to flourish? We are still working on that question even now. But, we do know a few things about what it means for us to not flourish. For example, we cannot flourish if we are all dead. And we probably aren’t flourishing, if we are making each other suffer pointlessly—which isn’t to say that our world doesn’t have its share of hardship and pain, but it’s another thing entirely if we make each other suffer for no other reason than, say, spite and malice.
All this is very much in tune with the evolutionary account of our morality. According to that view, humanity evolved morality because it was adaptive for our survival. How can this be, you may ask. Isn’t evolution about the survival of the fittest, where the strong survives and the weak perishes? Yet, our morality calls us to protect the weak among us, and we hold great respect for those who put their lives on the line for the sake of others. Well, according to evolutionary accounts, our morality, based on altruism, social cooperation, mutual trust, make us strong as a species. I mean, consider what would happen if you were suddenly dropped off alone, into an uninhabited wilderness, and the only things you were allowed to take with you were things you made from scratch by yourself (which for most of us, would mean nothing at all). Y’see, other people—people who build things, make things, discover things, teach us things, our family, friends, society, civilization— is what has enabled human beings to survive and flourish. You can even say, if you are feeling more sentimental, our “love” for each other is what makes all of humanity strong together—which, if you remember the 2nd season of this series, is a key aspect of the Genesis creation account of humanity.
So, what happens if we lie, cheat, steal, or even kill other people to get ahead? Well, those actions may benefit some of us in the short term, but it will undermine what holds us together and make us stronger, leaving every one of us vulnerable, and unable to flourish. You can even expand on this to include environmental ethics. We’ve always known that everything is interconnected; but, now we know that things in our world are even more closely interdependent than we imagined. Exploiting our environment for profit may benefit some of us in the short term, but all of us will suffer in the long term. So, humanity has evolved actions or practices that enable us to flourish together in the long term, or at least, avoid mutual destruction, and that has led to our moral values.
This, I think, is what underlies the ancient belief across the world that the gods judge humanity for their moral actions. Humanity encountered their gods in the voices that called them to particular kind of actions, and these actions in turn unfolded their world in particular ways—this dynamic is partly why people viewed their gods as the powers and forces that shape their world. However, different kinds of actions shaped their world in different ways; some led their society to flourish and prosper, while others pulled it apart and destroyed it. So, the gods that ancient societies tended to worship were those that stood for things that made the society flourish—gods that were identified with order, rather than chaos, moral virtues, rather than vices. And when a society followed the call of those gods—when it was just and truthful, and its people cooperated with each other —it was usually rewarded with order, stability, and even prosperity. On the other hand, when a society was unjust, and its people were violent, treacherous, and deceitful, it was punished with destruction, or at least slow degradation. And in that sense, gods seemed to uphold moral order and judge human beings for their moral acts.
[ Single pendulum ] But, what about the Christian belief in God?
There is an idea, which emerges in many different ancient cultures, that there is a moral order—principles and laws—that even the gods had to follow. This order, in turn, was understood to be a part of a larger, cosmic order, exemplified by the orderly movements of the heavens—the sun, moon, and the stars—and the cycles of seasons and of Life itself. So, just as there is order in the cosmos, there is order in how the gods rule the world, and how humans are to live and organize their society.
And it’s a very, very old idea. In ancient Egypt, for example, this order was called Ma’at (muʀʕat), which held together their concepts of truth, balance, morality, law, and justice. The ancient Egyptians believed that when the gods brought forth order out of chaos in the creation of the cosmos, or when human beings lived morally and their kings ruled so that their society flourished, they were all doing so according to the principle of Ma’at. There’s a similar idea in ancient India, and its oldest religious text, the Rigveda, written between 3000 to 4000 years ago. It teaches that the entire cosmos is ordered by the principle, it calls Rta, which represents again the concepts of truth, law, and sacrifice. It is this Rta that regulates and coordinates everything in the cosmos; the gods have their powers by upholding this order, while human beings manifest Rta through their moral living and proper religious rituals. In ancient China, from around 3000 years ago or so, there was the idea that the entire cosmos unfolds according to Tien-Ming, which means, the “Will of Heaven.” This “Will” manifest itself in the order and the cycle of changes in Nature, and it was this “Will” that upholds human rulers who are benevolent, and lead their people to flourish. But, this same “Will” also repudiates rulers whose moral failures make their people suffer, and this is what justifies people to depose their ruler.
Now, these aren’t just some old ideas that have disappeared in our modern day. I mean, consider the core thesis of these teachings. There is order and structure to the universe —principles and laws that shape what happens, how they happen, and what exists; and all of us live in this order. And this order has structured this world in such a way that if we want to flourish as a people, we need to seek truth rather than indulge in falsehood, and act in ways that will establish trust, good will, and order among us; otherwise, our society will unravel into distrust, violence, and chaos, where none of us will flourish. Our modern, scientific understanding of the universe and our evolutionary account of human society and morality—if anything—simply presents a very complex and developed version of this very same thesis.
What of God though? Well, these old ideas, such as Ma’at, Rta, Tien-Ming, and so on, developed into more complex and unified versions, through philosophical discourses in the later eras, regarding what rational principle structures and governs the cosmos and defines moral living. One such development, in Greek philosophy, led to the idea of the Logos, which I’ve described as the founding principle of modern science—and the Jews and the Christians identified this Logos as the Speech of God: what God speaks.
So, in Christianity, this cosmic order, which even the gods must uphold; the principle that structures and governs the universe, and sets the frame for the moral order, is God speaking. But, if all of that is God speaking, it means that what God speaks structures our world in such a way that our moral values, such as love, justice, and truthfulness, enables us to flourish. What God speaks forth—our reality—is a moral one.
So, we can frame the overarching idea of God in Christianity in this way: Remember its traditional theological formulation of God? God is Being itself, and thus, Truth itself, and Goodness itself. Here’s my version of what this rather abstract formulation means:
So, as this series stated in its very first episode: God is not some super-powerful entity out there somewhere; rather, God is Reality—not just some parts, or some aspects, but all of reality, holding together every real thing, and every possibility. To be precise, for Christianity, all of reality is God speaking, because reality is like a kind of speech; there is a set of principles—and what seems to be a unified set—that underlie and define all things, and we can speak about these principles. ( Again, this is the idea of the Logos ) This, in an important sense, is what it means to say that God is “Being” itself.
But, whenever we try to understand or speak about what is real, we are dealing with the question of truth. In the classical definition, truth is the relation between our thoughts or beliefs about something to what that something really is—so, if I think that a squirrel wrecked my garden last night, my thoughts are true if and only if a squirrel really did wreck my garden last night. So, truth is about the relation between our mind and reality. Now, for Christianity, all of reality is God speaking, so, whenever we learn what is true, we are hearing God speak. And in that sense, God is Truth.
Now, some people, especially in recent times, have questioned whether we can ever really know the Truth. Can we truly know what anything really is? In fact, can we ever trust anyone who claims that their view of things is the whole truth? After all, there are other views and perspectives, and our own views often need corrections. And these are fair questions, and we will begin to address them in the next episode.
Let’s turn instead though to “goodness.” At the beginning of this episode, I mentioned how the question of morality arose because we are faced with different possibilities of how our lives can unfold, especially depending on what we do. So, to simply say that reality is God speaking, leaves out something crucial; namely, what God speaks holds an infinite possibility—there is an infinite ways that reality can unfold—and some are better than others. Better for what? Well, our world can be one where we flourish or one where we perish. But, among the infinite possibilities that God speaks are the paths that will lead us to flourish. What we’ve found—or if the evolutionary account of morality is true, how we’ve evolved—is that we flourish when we are moral; when we are loving, just, truthful, we flourish together. But, if some of us become uncaring, or even come to hate others, so that they come to cheat, steal, or murder others to get ahead, it will set off a domino-effect as other people will respond likewise; and if this is left unchecked, we will all perish together. ( And we explored in the second season how the Genesis account of Cain and his descendants that led to the Great Flood describes this process ).
And this just how the world is, how reality is structured—which, remember, is the same thing as saying, this is what God speaks. And this is the first sense of what it means to say that God is “Goodness” itself.
What do I mean, by “first sense?” We’ll need to return to that later, because we want to first consider how this overarching idea of God sets the ground for the Christian belief that God judges humanity for their actions—especially in the book of Genesis.
[ pendulum ]
Now, we’ve already explored what is happening when God pronounces judgment on people, specifically in the 7th episode of our 2nd season, titled, “Why does God smite people?” You may also remember episode, “Why the idea of sin and judgment still grips us,” way back in the 1st season, the 8th episode. So, you can connect those episodes to what we’ve considered about the idea of “goodness” here.
For the sake of review though, I’ll repeat here one point that I made before. Those of us today have this tendency to think of God’s judgment in the following way. We tend to think that when God punishes human beings, this involves some supernatural disaster or misfortune, whereas things that naturally happen due to our actions are not God’s doing. So, say, if our world goes through a catastrophic climate change due what our failure to limit carbon emissions, and we are beset with subsequent floods, droughts, heatwaves, or new diseases, this is due to what we’ve done and how the natural world is structured, and not what God is doing. But, all of reality is God speaking, including the order and structure of the world, which we’d consider as Nature.
The world God speaks forth is a world where we can flourish, but it is also a world we can fail to flourish—and fail in catastrophic ways. And that failure in turn shapes the world we live. Environmental catastrophe we caused yesterday is the world we live today; injustices we’ve committed, or were complacent about today, is the world we’ll live tomorrow. And the primary way in which God brings judgment on humanity is this: the kind of world we make for ourselves becomes ours to live; whether it is a world where we flourish, or one where we perish. And how reality unfolds due to what we do is God speaking. This is one of the messages of Genesis, which follows the trajectory of how humanity, after their fall from God, fills their world with distrust, self-deception, violence, and corruption, until it eventually unravels into the Flood.
But, is that what happens in the Genesis Flood narrative? Some people may very well ask that since that story does not seem to be about how humanity unravels their own world; rather, God seems to step in with some supernatural act of bringing about the Flood that covers the whole world. Well, again, I can only refer you back to the 2nd season of this series, especially the latter half, which explores why the Flood is a very powerful and apt description of what inevitably happens to a society that is founded on violence, corruption, and lies. But, this should remind us of a very important point we raised back then. For the ancients, physical things represented larger ideas. For the Hebrews, waters was not merely water, and it wasn’t H2O, land was not simply mass of dirt, and seeds or trees weren’t just plants; water was also primordial chaos, land was the realm of form and shapes, Tree was the manifestation of grandness of Life. The Flood that covers all the land—the human world—was a return of chaos, and unraveling of the shape of the world.
This means, for the ancients, what we now call natural disasters presented a sort of symbolic language, for lack of better words, that describe reality unfolds in response to our actions—namely, how certain kind of actions bring forth a certain kind of world. And this was almost a kind of “law of nature” like understanding of what happens; these disasters come upon a world filled with evil, as a matter of course. Or to put it in our terms today, whatever these disasters represent is what will inevitably come upon such a world, and that is how just reality unfolds—what God speaks. (23:00)
And that sets the stage for one, particular, and famous story of a pair of cities that God destroyed in the lifetime of Abraham: Sodom and Gomorrah. ( Before we get into the story though, yes, it does feature mentions of sexual violence. So, if you need to, you can skip ahead, say, 5 minutes or so. ) For this episode, we are going to cover only one side of the story, and you will see why in the next episode. We will start this story from the perspective of one of the residents of these cities—Lot, the nephew of Abraham.
Now, Lot had been living in the city for some years, and was nominally accepted by the people there as “one of them.” One evening, he was sitting by the city gates, and sees two strangers walking into the city. Oh no, this isn’t good, he thinks nervously—or so the Genesis account suggests, because he hurriedly gets up to meet them, and insists that they come to his house to stay the night, and leave “early in the morning,” which is a rather specific kind of invitation. The two strangers politely decline, saying they can just stay at the city square. “No!” Lot shouts—Genesis says he urged them “strongly”— and this convinces the strangers to stay at his house.
Soon, we find out why Lot was so insistent. During the night, a large crowd gathers at his house—every man, young and old—and they say to Lot, “Bring out the men who came to you tonight, so we may know them.” According to some interpretations, they were planning to interrogate them, but the most likely meaning here is that they were planning to rape them. Now, this is the reason why homosexual acts were historically called, “Sodomy,” in English, and the wickedness of these cities were understood to be homosexuality, through a larger part of Christian and Jewish history. But, in closer inspection, that’s not quite what the Bible seems to imply.
Now, the question about the Christian moral position regarding LGBT lifestyle is still very much a live issue, debated among Christians themselves—though I do think it has been blown way out of proportion, as something like a defining issue for Christians, when it really, really, really should not be. But, the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah at least, does not seem to be primarily about homosexuality, at least as we define it today; after all, the men of Sodom weren’t trying to take these strangers out for a night at a bar, to romance, or seduce them. They were planning to rape them. What they were doing seems more reminiscent of those very dark times in human history when people have used sexual violence as means to dominate and terrorize others, regardless of gender.
And that they were planning to do this to guests who came to this city, is what would have made this so unimaginably horrific to ancient readers. This is what explains the otherwise horrific response by Lot, who pleads with the crowd to spare the strangers, and offers his unmarried daughters to the crowd instead. Of course, this is a rather horrific example of gender inequality in those days—and we’ll explore the question of why there sometimes is such a shocking chasm between the moral position assumed in the Bible and our moral views today, in the next episode. But, there is far more to this than gender inequality though. Make no mistake; for the Hebrew readers, violating Lot’s daughters would have been considered a heinous act that would justify all-out wars. But, Lot’s plea reveals that what the Sodomites were demanding was something even worse, as hard as it is to imagine for us today. And no, it’s not homosexuality. It’s right there in the words Lot tells the crowd, “Please spare these men, because they are my guests.”
In the civilizations around the ancient Mediterranean, hospitality that a society displayed toward strangers and guests was a crucial measure of that society’s moral level. The ancient Greeks, for example, even had a term for it, xenia. You don’t harm guests, even those from your enemies, and more so if they are strangers who bear you no ill will. You were to treat them with respect, and provide them food and lodging, and they in turn were to treat you with respect, and tell you news of what is happening in the world beyond your home. This meant that guests from afar were potentially those that speak truth you did not know—and remember our previous episode on how those who speak truth to us, manifest the person of God that speaks every truth. Yet, your guests were also defenseless in your land, and dependent on your hospitality for their well-being. And all this meant that how you treat your guests was the litmus test for how you treat those who are dependent on your good will, and those who speak truth to you.
This may very well be why the ancient Greeks, for example, thought that their gods may come to them as strangers—and in the case of Lot’s story, angels, the representatives of God. And it was a good thing they were angels, because when Lot pleads with the crowd, they become angry that Lot is reminding them of their moral obligation—yes, even while he offers his daughters—and decide to do things to him and his family, that are worse than what they were going to do to their guests. But, then the angels pull Lot back into the house, and blind the crowd.
Then, the angels tell Lot that the outcry against the people at Sodom has become so great before God that they were sent to destroy the city. They take Lot, his wife, and his daughters out of the city, and ask if there are any others Lot could convince to escape the city with him. But, there is no one else; Lot went to the young men who had pledged to marry his daughters, but they laughed him off. And as the angels led him and his family away, sulfur and fires rained from heaven and destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Yes, I’ve left some details out; I can’t go over everything.
[ single pendulum ] It is hard to assess the historical basis of this story. First is what we considered earlier this season, which is that the life-story of Abraham and his family is a later adaptation, which recounts what it is to personally encounter God, but in ways that made the story relatable and real to the Hebrews living more than a thousand years after the time the story is set. But, this meant the story painted over most of the details that historians need to draw upon to learn what historically happened. Second is that there are several candidates to the historical basis for Sodom, but none stands out. There have been many, many towns and cities in the Jordan River plains where Sodom is said to have stood. There is a major fault line near the plains, and an earthquake could have unleashed a rain of burning tar upon near-by towns. There’s even a recent scientific article that hypothesized a meteor exploded above the sky near the Dead Sea region some 3600 years ago or so, raining down fireballs below. But, none of these clearly connects to the biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and their destruction.
But, the account of their destruction still poses a very interesting idea. Let’s say there really was a city, Sodom, and it was destroyed by fire from the sky. Why would people living in those days think that God destroyed it because it was so evil? I am not asking why people would think it was God who destroyed it, since fires from the sky is a good reason. Why would they think that the city was destroyed because it was evil? I mean they could think it was just some caprice of the gods, or perhaps, a collateral casualty of some cosmic battle between the gods and monsters of chaos. All of that is consistent with the ancient religious views of that region. And even in the Bible, not all natural disaster is God’s judgment on people for their wickedness. In the book of Genesis, for example, God sends a dream to the ruler of Egypt, which warns him that a great famine would fall upon the land, and that God has firmly spoken that this will happen. But, in that story, God does not say this famine is due to what people did; in fact, it is strongly implied that it has nothing to do with people’s sins. The Bible seems to say that sometimes, things just happen, for reasons unrelated to human beings.
So, why would people think Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because of what they did? The answer, I think, is in the phrase used to describe these cities. “The outcry against them is great before the LORD.” Whose outcry? The outcry of their victims: those who were defenseless—the poor, the vulnerable, the strangers. This is different from the account of the Flood; there, everyone is violent and deceitful toward everyone else—and that unravels their whole world. Sodomites, on the other hand, are tolerant of each other, but are profoundly malicious and contemptuous toward those who cannot defend themselves—strangers and foreigners, and likely, the poor and the marginalized. Elsewhere in the Bible, in the book of Ezekiel, God declares that “Sodom was proud, prosperous, powerful, but did not aid the poor and the helpless. Instead, they haughtily did abominable things.” And such societies do not unravel; they are struck down. That’s because our world is structured in such a way that victims of your tyranny, violence, and callous contempt for those who were at your mercy, won’t simply disappear; their pain and anger—their outcry—will build up, until it breaks a certain threshold, and then your society will be struck down. Perhaps it will be those you oppressed, rising against you in bloody rebellions; perhaps, it will be one of the many, many enemies you made. And like fires from the sky, their vengeance will fall upon you.
And perhaps, that is what happened to Sodom. Or, perhaps, literal rain of fire struck down the city. For the ancients, both would have been the same kind of thing; both would have been the judgment of God, fitting for what they’ve done. Because that is how reality unfolds in response to what we do, which again is the same thing as saying, that is what God speaks.
And so, the world that God speaks forth is a world we can flourish, or perish. But, according to Genesis, our world is not meant to be a world where we perish. A key theme in the Genesis creation account in the Bible is that our world is not just a world in which we can flourish, but a world we are supposed to flourish, because God blesses humanity to flourish—to fill the earth and gain mastery over it. So, God wants us to flourish, by loving each other, acting justly, speaking truthfully.
And if what God speaks forth is a world where love, justice, truthfulness, mercy, and goodness make our lives flourish, and we are supposed to flourish, perhaps that is the best way to understand the personality, so to speak, of God. And in Christianity, it is in this sense that we say that God is “good,” at least initially.
But, again, what do I mean, “initially?”
[ Music Genesis / ]
Well, as I’ve said repeatedly. This is a journey, and the full meaning of the Christian belief that God is “good,” even within the specific context of the Bible, is drawn from the entire journey from Abraham and his descendants, to the person of Jesus Christ, over a span of around two thousand years. And it is only through that long journey, that the generations of people who walk with God come to know whether goodness really does define reality in which we live and move, and engage with, and how that goodness unfolds in their own lives in concrete ways.
But, this in turn raises a difficult question, the one we raised at the start of this episode. Doesn’t the story of this long journey includes parts that are, well, decidedly immoral, including slavery, violence, and war, perpetuated by the very people who are supposed to be walking with God? And worse, aren’t there times when God not only looks the other way, but even seems to condone them? The same God that speaks forth a world, and unfolds a reality where love, justice, and peace lead to our flourishing, and hate, injustice, and violence, lead to our destruction?
[ Ending Music / ]
So, please join me next time, as we continue exploring what it means to say that God is good, and what the Bible is really teaching us, even when its moral positions can seem so much worse than our own today.
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