If it’s okay for God to do something, then is it okay for him to command it?

Posted on 03/14/13 16 Comments

Vincent asked me an interesting and provocative question. It is also helpful because it goes to the root of many important issues He wrote:

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?

If we are going to address this important question we shall first have to deal with a problematic assumption embedded within it. That is the assumption that we are talking about the same kind of action when we predicate an action verb of God and of a human being. This assumption must be challenged. In order to do so let’s begin with a specific action verb: to drown.

For example, we might have the question posed like this: “If it is okay for God to drown infants then is it okay for God to command somebody else to drown an infant?” The problem here is that the action in question is quite different when applied to God then when applied to human beings. To be sure, there is shared meaning in terms of outcome. According to Merriam Webster’s, to drown is “to suffocate by submersion, especially in water.” So for God or a human being to drown an infant would be to suffocate them by submersion in a liquid.

However, there are crucial differences in what it means for this outcome to be obtained. A human being might drown an infant by holding the child under a liquid until they suffocate. But what would it mean for God to do this? In the divine case, things are quite different, for here it would mean something like this: God timelessly wills that at time T-1 circumstances will obtain in which a particular liquid will envelop an infant due to natural laws that God sustains moment by moment, and that the result will be the infant’s drowning.

I presume Vincent is not asking if it would be okay for God to command a human agent to will timelessly that at time T-1 circumstances will obtain in which a particular liquid will envelop an infant due to natural laws that the human agent sustains moment by moment, and that the result will be the infant’s drowning.

So if we are going to ensure that this question makes sense, we should first make the actions as analogous as possible.

With that in mind, let’s focus our questions on the one case where God interacts in the world not as the transcendent divine cause of all things (which is radically disanalogous to human action) but rather as a human being, namely Jesus Christ. And so all our questions should be focused on Jesus acting in the world.

With that I would ask Vincent (and others) to consider which of the following prima facie moral atrocities they believe Jesus could possibly commit as the incarnate God-man acting in the world:

(1) drowning an infant

(2) torturing a child

(3) mutilating a young boy

(4) raping a mother

(5) slaughtering a village

Once Vincent (and others) provide an answer to which of (1)-(5) they believe Jesus might commit, we will have an appropriate analogoue to pursue the question of which of these prima facie moral atrocities God might command others to commit.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/david.gray.5836 David Gray

    This is indeed an interesting question related to the violence in the OT topic. As John Piper has said, there is a sense in which God “kills” people every day by sustaining the natural laws that cause people to die. If I slip and fall off a cliff, God sustains the laws of physics that cause trauma to my body and my death. He could suspend the laws, but he may not. That was initially my rebuttal to the “baby killing” problem – God kills people every day by sustaining these natural laws, so what’s the difference if he has a human do it. But I agree that there is a difference! Of course I could not picture Jesus doing any of the things you listed. Randall, I’m curious what your take would be on the Great Flood and other passages where some deadly natural phenomenon is ascribed to God? Do you think God’s only involvement in killing those people was the sustainment of the natural laws? Or did he providentially/supernaturally bring about a natural phenomenon that otherwise would have existed?

    • http://www.facebook.com/david.gray.5836 David Gray

      correction to last line: would NOT have existed

    • Walter

      The Bible is rife with examples of God directly killing by supernatural means. One quick example from the OT would be the firstborn of Egypt when Pharaoh balked at letting Yahweh’s people go, and one example from the NT would be that of Ananias and Sapphira.

      These two should be sufficient to show that the triune God of Christianity does not kill exclusively via secondary, natural causes.

      • http://www.facebook.com/david.gray.5836 David Gray

        I agree and I am curious as to how Randal would respond to these cases as well. My one friend who has a similar position argued that perhaps Ananias and Sapphira died according to some natural means (e.g. fast killing disease) and the story was exaggerated to make it look like God killed them on the spot. That solution might work for Ananias and Sapphira but it is difficult to imagine some natural phenomena that would have killed precisely only the firstborn of Egypt and not anyone else.

  • Vincent

    Hi Randal,

    Challenge accepted. 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.

    Now, what about killing? I presume you’re not a pacifist. I’m sure you can imagine extreme circumstances in which it would be morally permissible for someone to fire an AK-47 in self-defense. (I’ve never fired a gun, by the way; nor have I ever owned one.) Now ask yourself if you can imagine Jesus firing an AK-47. Not a fair question, is it? “Why not?” you ask. First, Jesus came to offer his life for our sake, to redeem us all. Second, Jesus was omnipotent. We’re not.

    You claim that God’s actions are “radically disanalogous to our own.” 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.

    Let’s examine the drowning case. To my mind, it matters not two straws whether the action is timelessly willed or not, or whether it involves physically holding the child or not. To drown someone simply means to bring about their death by causing their lungs to be filled with water. The meaning as defined here applies equally well to God or to a human being.

    The idea of even God killing a conscious infant in this fashion is nauseating. We picture the infant as fighting for its life, in its last moments, and are naturally moved to pity. Yet Scripture tells us that God sent a Flood, and Jesus and the early Christians believed the same thing (Matthew 24:37-39; see also 2 Peter 2:5). The only way I can square that with my conception of a loving God is to assume that the infants who died in the Flood were somehow killed painlessly by God, before the rising waters entered their lungs. Would you call that drowning? I wouldn’t. So that rules out 1.

    What about slaughtering a village? I’m surprised you mentioned this one. Have you forgotten Matthew 11:21-24, where Jesus declares: “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.” Here, Jesus endorses God’s slaughtering the village of Sodom, and promises to inflict an even more horrific punishment on Capernaum at the final judgment on the Last Day, when He shall return to judge the living and the dead. While He was among us, however, His mission was to save.

    However, an all-loving God, Who was willing to spare Sodom if He found ten just men living in it, could not have inflicted pain on the infants living in that city, when He destroyed it. We must therefore presume that they were killed painlessly: perhaps God simply shut down their nervous systems in their final moments. Why, then, were they killed? Because had they lived, they would have grown up in a totally depraved society, in which they too would have become depraved monsters. Killing the infants spared them from that terrible fate. Here is the difference between raping and killing: the latter could, under extreme circumstances, be to the victim’s benefit, whereas the former could not. The former requires the perpetrator to have an inherently depraved and unnatural desire; the latter does not. Thus God could never order someone to rape; but it is conceivable that He could order someone to kill.

    If the Israelites were ordered by God to kill whole villages, we must therefore assume that the killings took place in a way that befits an all-merciful God. Even though the Bible is silent on the matter, we may surmise that the killings of the innocents by the Israelites were conducted in a way that spared them from suffering fear, dread or pain. God could surely have arranged for this to happen.

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      I’ll respond to this comment in yet another subsequent post since it will be too unwieldy in length if limited to a combox. On the upside, at least I’m not wasting paper…

  • markpm

    Kind of off topic, but does this mean that you believe that God exists timelessly (as opposed to being temporal)?

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      No. I’m a sempiternalist. But since most folk are atemporalists, I stated the contrast in those terms.

      • markpm

        By sempiternalist do you mean God was timeless before creation and temporal with creation or do you mean something else by it?

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          I mean backwardly and forwardly everlasting. God has always existed and always will exist. I don’t subscribe to Craig’s view that God *was* atemporal sans creation.

          • markpm

            So by saying that God was everlasting (which seems to be a temporal term) are you saying God is actually temporal, and has been since eternity and will be for eternity more?

            • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

              Yes, God is actually temporal. God exists now. Our experience of time is constrained by relativity. But God exists in an absolute Newtonian now. That provides at least some transcendence from time in the warp and woof of history.

              • markpm

                Cool. Thanks for the clarification. Do you know of any good resources which defend your view of sempiternalism? I am currently going through “God, Time, and Eternity” by WLC as well as his course on the same topic. I think I feel dumber every year. I miss the days when I was smart and knew everything at 18!

                • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                  The book “God and Time” edited by Beilby and Ganssle would be a great place to begin. It has essays by Craig and Helm as well as Padgett and Wolterstorff. My view would be consistent with either P or W’s essays.

                  • markpm

                    That’s the very next book on my list. I already own it. Yay for synchronicity! :)

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