Could Jesus perform moral atrocities?
In the essay “If it’s okay for God to do something, then is it okay for him to command it?” I provided a response to the following question from Vincent:
“Would you agree or disagree with the proposition that if it’s morally OK for God to do something, then it’s OK for Him to command someone else to do it?”
In the article I provided two basic points in response to Vincent. To begin with, I pointed out that his question fails to recognize the critical disanalogy that exists when we apply action verbs to human beings and to God. Vincent then offered the following response to that point:
“That’s a position that goes far beyond Aquinas, who rejected univocal predication but accepted analogical predication. If you reject even that, then you render all talk of God utterly meaningless. I hope you didn’t mean to say that.”
Unfortunately it looks like Vincent didn’t read what I wrote with much care. I wasn’t offering a general theory of theological language, as he seems to assume. Rather, I was illustrating the extent to which the ascription of action verbs to God is disanalogous to the application of those same verbs to human beings. Never did I claim that all linguistic predication of God is equivocal. Nor did I even claim that the linguistic predication of action verbs to God is equivocal. (Indeed, pace Aquinas I believe that some linguistic predications can univocally be made of God and non-divine things. But that is another matter.)
In my discussion of action verbs I was very clear in identifying the extent of disanalogy between saying, for example, “God drowned the infant” and “Jones drowned the infant.” If Vincent disagrees with that analysis he should explain where he disagrees. If he agrees, then he should reconsider his initial question which shows no awareness of this important disanalogy.
This brings me to the second point. I pointed out to Vincent that in light of the radical disanalogy between predicating action verbs of God and human beings, we ought to focus our hypotheticals on parallels with the God-man since “Jesus did x” and “Jones did x” tidily removes the radical disanalogies between God as divine actor and finite human actors.
With that in mind, I asked Vincent which of the following actions he thought Jesus could possibly do:
(1) drowning an infant
(2) torturing a child
(3) mutilating a young boy
(4) raping a mother
(5) slaughtering a village
This was Vincent’s three-part reply:
Let’s immediately dispose of 2, 3 and 4. None of these are commanded of the Israelites by God in the Old Testament, so they’re irrelevant to your dispute with William Lane Craig. Additionally, all of these acts necessarily involve an intention to hurt the victim, and hence can only be motivated by malice. Nor is there anything in the nature of these acts per se which would render them beneficial to society. So they are bad for the victims and (in and of themselves) good for no-one.
Vincent insists that Jesus could not possibly torture a child, mutilate a young boy, or rape a mother. I’m glad to hear that since I emphatically agree! However, his defense of this claim was most curious. His first point is that God is not described as commanding the Israelites to do any of these actions. To make this manifestly clear, the conversation goes like this:
Randal: Could God possibly do (2), (3) and (4)?
Vincent: No, because the Old Testament does not describe God as commanding the Israelites to do (2), (3) and (4).
Assuming that this is what Vincent is saying, he seems to be assuming a principle like this:
God can possibly only do what he is described as commanding the Israelites to do in the Old Tesatment.
But of course as principles go, this is crazy. God is not limited in his own actions to the set of commands he gave to the ancient Israelites. So Vincent’s first reason for denying that Jesus could do (2), (3) and (4) is completely spurious.
(I suspect Vincent isn’t really assuming this bizarre principle. But then I have no idea what he is assuming because I don’t know how else to reconstruct his first point. Perhaps he can offer more clarification.)
Vincent’s second reason for denying that (2), (3) and (4) could possibly be carried out by Jesus is that “all of these acts necessarily involve an intention to hurt the victim, and hence can only be motivated by malice.” Vincent seems to be reasoning like this:
(i) God cannot perform an action which is motivated by malice.
(ii) Any action which involves an intention to hurt another person is motivated by malice.
(iii) Therefore, God cannot perform an action which involves an intention to hurt another person.
Of course if this proves anything it proves too much since God frequently undertakes actions which involve an intention to hurt another person. And it is not just God. If (ii) were true then it would follow that any parent who gives their toddler a time out is necessarily acting out of malice because the whole point of a time out is to hurt the toddler by acting punitively to deprive them of the good of free movement. Clearly (ii) is false. But once we reject it, Vincent’s second reason collapses as well.
Vincent’s final claim is that (2), (3) and (4) could not be “beneficial to society”. This is a completely groundless claim in light of the fact that he apparently believes that on some occasions at least participation in genocide can benefit society. If this is the case, then what reason has Vincent to think that (2), (3) or (4) never could?
To sum up, Vincent’s three reasons for arguing that Jesus could not possibly commit (2), (3) or (4) are all fallacious.
In closing I’ll add one more action to our list. Ask yourself whether it is possible that Jesus could:
(6) Punish a mother by causing her to cannibalize her infant
Presumably the right answer is no since (6) is every bit as heinous and horrifying as (1)-(5), if not more so. And yet, Lamentations 4 describes God as performing (6). See my discussion in “Cannibalizing infants as punishment?”
I can make the list a lot longer of course. But let’s just stick with these actions. And so I repeat the question: is it possible that Jesus could do (1)-(6)? If not, then why not?