The Goodness of God

Over a year ago now, I did a couple of posts on the problem of evil. One of the things that stood out to me as I thought through the issue and learnt more about it is that it says very little about what good is. Anytime we talk about evil we are invariably saying something is not good. Evil is therefore in some sense always a distortion of something good. Therefore, we can’t talk about evil without first defining what is good. However, the acknowledgement of the good is precisely what is largely missing from the debate. Now for those who use the problem of evil as an argument against the existence of God, I suppose it does not help your case to recognize there is good in this world because you have to account for why it exists and what or who is responsible for it. As interesting as that line of thought is apologetically, the purpose of this piece is to help recapture a biblical vision of what is good, and not just deal with the philosophical problems with the problem of evil.

It is important as a Christian to claim a biblical vision of good. The Bible is equipped to answer that question. The canon of scripture offers us a worldview narrative and like all worldviews, they give particular answers to the fundamental questions including what is good and what is evil. Like the problem of evil, the nature of good has often been analysed in almost exclusively metaphysical terms. Of course philosophy is unavoidable but it is best used as a tool which assists in understanding things scripturally. We therefore need to pay attention to scripture’s theology and language of what is good.

Just as it is implicit in the way we talk and think about good, good in the Bible is explicitly presented as a primary reality.  That is to say, good comes before evil because evil is a distortion of the good. Now this might seem quite obvious, and rightly so, but when you look at many other worldviews and how they answer the question of origins, good does not come first. In polytheistic worldviews for example, creation often began with some form of primordial conflict between gods or other divine entities. Sometimes they start with just plain chaos. Genesis 1 stands in stark contrast with that with one God choosing to make a good world. Evil does emerge later on, we cannot tell exactly when, but God decidedly made a good world. However, what does ‘good’ actually mean in Genesis 1 and 2. Old Testament professor John Walton explains,

[1]Based on the semantic categories that are available (and recall that “perfect, pristine” is not among them) and the contextual indicators (specifically a use of a negation), I would conclude that “good” refers to a condition in which something is functioning optimally as it was designed to do in an ordered system—it is working the way God intended. A modern illustration can help clarify the nuances I am suggesting. When pilots are preparing for a flight’s departure, they have a checklist to go through to make sure everything is ready to function. All the mechanical operations are checked, and they determine that all the essential contents of the plane (food, luggage, passengers) are on board. We can imagine them going through the checklist ticking things off: “good, good, good.” In this way they conclude that the flight is ready to take off—it is all prepared to serve the needs of the passengers on the plane. I would propose that God is doing the same thing in Genesis 1—ascertaining that all systems are go and that everything is in place.

‘Good’ in the context of the creation narratives of Genesis means “optimally functioning” and not perfect, moral or otherwise. Since Genesis is the primary narrative of the biblical metanarrative, it influences how we make sense of biblical theology. Goodness is therefore fundamentally a creational and teleological term in biblical theology. It is creational because it says something about creation and its creator. It’s also teleological because it has to do with the purpose of things. (Teleology is the study of the telos, that is, the purpose of things.) In fact, anything that is said to be created is by definition made with purpose. Creation is teleological. So when it comes to good we are looking at the intent for which God made the world. Now we cannot make sense of everything God has made but on a teleological level, we can tell a lot about who he is and his relationship to his creatures, building up from there to other ideas about goodness.

The first and most obvious point is God deliberately created things which means he made it for certain reasons. There is a plan for all things. Even though as creatures we cannot discern all of it, it is certainly intelligible to the creator. This means what is good, how it is defined, is ultimately determined by the creator. He made everything so he knows what is truly right for his creatures which is fulfilling the purpose for which they were made. Now no one makes something just to destroy it, especially without accomplishing anything. We can therefore say the creator is in favour of his creation of at least it having a meaningful existence. Also with God being the creator of all things, there is nothing that he needs, so we can safely say that all he does is actually for the good of his creation. This is a distinct feature of creational monotheism. When you have many gods you have competing interests with no final authority. You can’t objectively talk about what is good in a world where there are different divine powers all with their own claims to what is right. There is simply no enduring standard or decisive purpose to all things. When you have one creator of all things, his will is supreme. He has decided to make a good creation and he has decided to be good to his creatures. This is a sovereign choice of our maker so nothing can change his mind about it or ultimately limit or thwart his purposes. God in other words is truly, irrevocably and irresistibly good. So creational goodness is wrapped up in creational monotheism. There is a good creation because there is one good god who made it.

Jewish monotheism is quite unique in the ancient world, and as the principal worldview feature of the Jewish people, it shapes their views of everything else. [2]According to N.T. Wright, creational monotheism is one of the three features of Jewish monotheism during the second Temple era. The others are providential monotheism and covenantal monotheism. Since good in scripture is inextricably linked with who God is, we can identify different aspects of good with different features of biblical monotheism, just as we connected creational goodness with creational monotheism. We therefore have providential goodness and covenantal goodness as well.

Now the ‘providence’ in providential monotheism is about God’s ‘continued involvement’ with the world in both ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ events. After making the world he did not leave it to simply run on its own devices as if he were an absentee landlord. With Jewish monotheism he is constantly present in the world yet completely distinct from it unlike the various gods who were themselves a part of the natural world arising from primordial conditions. Since all things came from him, all things continually depend on him for their very existence. He is the Creator and Sustainer of all things. Likewise, the continued goodness of creation is wholly dependent on his active presence in the world.

Now it is at the level of providential goodness that scripture deals with the so-called problem of evil. From now on I will not call it a ‘problem’ because in scripture and ordinary lives evil is not a philosophical conundrum to be solved but a challenge to be overcome. Now the existence of evil is not an argument against God’s existence in the Jewish mind set. (In fact, most forms of theism do not see the existence of evil as a challenge to the existence of a god.) Again providence is about God’s continued presence and activity in the world so the goodness of the creator or his creation is not what is in question in scripture but rather the presence of evil in the world. If there is a good God who is active in the world, how do we account for the evil that emerges in the world and more importantly how is he dealing with it. As Dr John Walton puts it, the issue is with God’s policies, that is how he runs the worlds. There are various responses to these real world situations in scripture whether you look at wisdom literature like Job or in the writings of the prophets like Habakkuk for example. Of course, it is impossible to give an answer for each individual occurrence of evil but there are key scriptural insights which we will explore later in another post that can help us wisely and faithful navigate this issue.

We see creational goodness in the scriptures in places like the Psalms where God is praised for the amazing world he has made. Providential goodness or simply providence is a natural offshoot of the belief in one god who made everything. Since he made the world for his own purposes he certainly does not hate it but he is rather fully invested in it having a meaningful and fruitful existence. So we see providence in God clothing the lilies and feeding the young ravens and sometimes in more dramatic but no less remarkable fashion in miraculous signs and wonders. These are all examples of providence in the scriptures. Now the final feature of biblical monotheism and its attendant type of goodness is covenantal monotheism.

Covenantal monotheism as the name suggests is about election, God choosing a people to have a special relationship with them. Covenantal monotheism however, is not detached from the other features of biblical monotheism. The Jews believed their god was not only a tribal god but the one true God creator of all things, who had specially called and revealed himself to Israel. Why did God have a special relationship with Israel? It was not just so that they could have special privileges to laud over others. As the late missiologist Lesslie Newbigin so astutely observed, in scripture election is for vocation. People are called to fulfil special work with God. I did not say ‘for God’ because there is nothing anyone can do for the provider of all things. What we have in scripture is a partnership. Humans were charged to bring order and flourishing to the world as participants in God’s wise rule over the world. That is what it meant to bear the imago Dei, to be representatives of God and partners with him. After the debacle of Genesis 3, Abraham’s family was called into a covenant relationship to continue the original human vocation of being divine image bearers. So covenantal monotheism is actually about humans participating in God’s good activity in the world.

Now Israel’s calling was for the human race, as God promised Abraham, ‘in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.’ So the covenant with Israel became a microcosm of God’s relationship with humanity. Unsurprisingly, the primal narrative of Genesis is reminiscent of the patriarchal narrative. So the covenant is not an abstraction but a real historical relationship, the story of how God has acted in and through human affairs focused on Israel. So the experience of God and his goodness in the scriptural narrative is actually within a covenantal context. Therefore, the common refrain scriptural refrain ‘YHWH is good and his steadfast love endures forever’ is not really a moral or ontological statement about God. In classic philosophical theology ‘God is good’ is an ontic statement, that is to say, goodness is who he is and not simply an aspect of his being. The problem with that, as with all ontotheology, is that it has nothing to do with the real world. Within scripture it actually means how God has been good to his people Israel by being faithful to the promises he made to the patriarchs, entering a covenant relationship with them and their descendants forever. Even more specifically, covenantal goodness was established when he came and rescued them from servitude in Egypt and carried them to the land he promised their fathers to be his people and he their god. God’s goodness was seen in a concrete historical event. The covenant name of God, YHWH, was itself a memorial to this deliverance because of his steadfast, unfailing love for his people (Exodus 3:14-15, 33:19.) Because of the Lord’s wondrous acts in Egypt, Israel could always count on him and throughout history, even in the midst of great adversity, he continued to show his faithfulness. It was because of his goodness to them, Israel was also meant to be faithful to him, obeying his commandments. That was the covenant relationship. So Israelite ethics was not rooted in abstract moral theory but rather how God had revealed himself through history. They were to be perfect just as their father in heaven was perfect. He was good to them in real, concrete ways, therefore they were to respond to and exhibit his goodness in the world in like manner.

Apart from issues with the problem of evil, this article is about reclaiming good from being an ontotheological abstraction. So good is defined in terms of Jewish theism, that is, the one God made a good world where he continually providentially acts for its good and Israel is called to participate in this goodness through their covenant with the one God. So just as biblical monotheism has three distinguishing features, good in the biblical worldview is also creational, providential and covenantal in nature. Good therefore has a functional, purposeful and relational quality, rooted in real world events and activities. In summary God made the world, he is always present and active in it and he has a special relationship with his human creatures which is how they experience and participate in his goodness.

[1] John H. Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate, p. 55, InterVarsity Press, 2015.

[2] N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (e-book version), pp. 179-182, SPCK, 1992.


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