Was God Good Before Creation?

Was God Good Before Creation? October 18, 2016

Yesterday I discussed one attempted solution to the problem of evil that students wrestled with, taking J. L. Mackie’s classic article, “Evil and Omnipotence,” as their starting point, together with the Book of Job and an excerpt from The Brothers Karamazov.

Today I would like to focus in on another, the argument that good cannot exist without evil, since it is only by way of contrast that we perceive things to be good or evil, better or worse than one another. On this view, evil and good are not absolute existing things or characteristics, but terms of comparison.

Here too, there is something to this. If we always had the taste of freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies in our mouths, presumably actual freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies would simply seem tasteless. It is the absence of those delicious flavors during most of our experience that makes each bite from a really good cookie so delectable.

But here’s the question that struck me as I thought about this topic yet again. If God alone exists eternally, then prior to creation, presumably there was no good or evil.

Is this a logical corollary of this view of good and evil, and if so, should it be acceptable to theologians?

Alternatively, is God not infinite, so that the not-God has also always existed? That viewpoint may be reflected in the Biblical creation account, with God taking that eternal chaos and imposing order upon it.

Stephen Law recently offered the “Evil God Challenge” which explores the alternative scenario that an evil God created the world, and free will explains why sometimes good happens in an evil universe.

The truth is that the universe doesn’t look like one optimized either for evil or for good, depending on how one understands those things. But if evil is the torment experienced by sentient beings, then the relative dearth of them in the observable cosmos suggests that evil is not the aim.

Presumably the take-away is that it makes no sense to think that humans having a pleasant life is the central aim of the entire cosmos. But that represents a challenge to our anthropocentrism, not to the existence of God per se. If it is possible to question the competence of a Creator who made our universe supposedly aiming for perfection, it is even easier, I think, to question the competence of a Creator who was trying to maximize unhappiness and made our universe. But I suspect one’s view on this depends on one’s own life experience.

Be that as it may, the main thing I should end with is that there is another solution – one older than the Bible – namely, that God is not all that exists, and never has been.

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  • Phil Ledgerwood

    Well, to even speculate on this, we have to assume that there was some passage of time when God was just sitting around by Himself, which is kind of an arbitrary construct. We don’t know anything about God apart from creation, and the application of Greek philosophical categories seems to make the issue worse.

    Like, I can imagine someone already piping up about the members of the Trinity being good to one another adrift in a cosmic void in eternity past, and everything about that is just strange theological mathematics.

    I think the more pointed form of your question is: is it possible to be good or evil apart from interactions with anyone or anything else? I would say yes and no. No in the sense that I don’t see how you define good and evil apart from recipients. It would be like saying God was just before creation. How can you have justice when there is no-one to be just to?

    But, yes, in the sense that the recipient can be yourself. Subject can also be object when it comes to good and evil.

  • bobyount

    Can the discussion of evil, good, and God be also viewed in reference that darkness is the absence of light, and evil is the absence of good? Note that darkness is not created but rather only exists in the absence of light. Therefore evil is not (was not) created but only exists in as the absence of good. (I know this has been credited to Einstein, but that credit is totally false) It is though a question that might be considered in this discussion. Is it not?

    • That sounds to me like Augustine rather than Einstein! 🙂

      But yes, that is one way of understanding evil. The view I was referring to is related but perhaps distinct, the view that good is only appreciated as good if there is a contrast with something that is not good or at least less good.

      • bobyount

        That sounds like the eastern view of ying/yang

        • Well, Yin and Yang are opposites which are themselves not good or evil in themselves, what is evil is if they get out of balance – so if you have someone that is completely passive or completely aggressive, it is worse than someone who has a balance between the two. For me, the natural points to reference are the Star Trek: The Original Series episode “The Enemy Within,” and of course the Jedi and Sith, which seem to go to extremes when in fact the prophecy was actually about bringing balance to the Force.

          But I don’t think that’s what this view of good and evil that I was referring to is saying. It isn’t saying that good is a balance between opposites, but that we only recognize something as good because we have something that is not good to which we compare it.

          • bobyount

            I’m not sure my comments are furthering a meaningful discussion among your students. I have discussed the concept that prior to the material universe coming into existence there was neither good nor evil. I am working on getting my head around part of this discussion that I haven’t seen as part of my studies. (Good and evil exist only as a point of comparison and that neither exist as an absolute.) However, it looks as if this discussion is continued along its parallel line to the infinite that each individual must come to a determination of does God exist and if so how do they define what it would mean to be God?

          • jh

            Or L.E. Modesitt’s Order/Chaos dichotomy

            Basically the premise was – the more order mages you have, the stronger the chaos mages become and vice versa. It was an intriguing viewpoint. For example, an order mage would heal by strengthening the body. A chaos mage would heal by killing the microbe. A gray mage used elements of chaos and order. (black = order, white = chaos)

    • mlj11

      I am of the opinion that this understanding of evil is fundamentally incorrect.

      The absence of good is merely apathy, not evil.

      Here’s a practical example: imagine a beggar is asking for alms.
      A good result might be that he receives the charity he asks for. If goodwill is completely absent, he is ignored: this is apathy. For an evil result to happen – say, one in which our beggar is instead beaten up and robbed – requires necessarily evil acts committed against him.

      Good-evil therefore does not exist on the same type of spectrum that light-darkness occupies.

      • This argument may work in this instance, proposing that there is a spectrum running from good to evil that passes through a neutral ground of apathy and indifference, in which good may be absent but evil intention is not either. But it could also be argued that the absence of good is evil whether it takes the form of passive apathy or active malevolence.

        In either case, a world that has beggars has a problem of evil even before tackling the behavior of passersby.

        • mlj11

          That’s quite a stretch, redefining evil as passive apathy.

          In either case, a world that has beggars has a problem of evil even before tackling the behavior of passersby.

          I don’t think so. Someone might choose to beg simply because they were too lazy to work.

          Anyway, my point was that ‘what darkness is to light’ is entirely different from ‘what evil is to good’.

          • There is no stretch nor redefinition in viewing lack of compassion towards others as evil.

            And I am inclined to regard in much the same way the view that the difficult lifestyle of homelessness and begging is likely to be chosen, due to laziness, rather than a result of misfortune.

  • David Evans

    As regards the chocolate chip cookies, we could appreciate them by contrast with some other pleasant taste – strawberries, for example. Or clear spring water. I don’t think we need to contrast them with anything actively unpleasant.

    How that relates to God’s experience I have no idea.

  • davidt

    “Creator who made our universe supposedly aiming for perfection”

    Understanding reality as object thingness is that Asperger’s? I find it fascinating because contemporary cosmology has the identical cosmology. Is that way of understanding due to academic self selection neurologically? I mean really one only has to think about it for about one second to realize talking about reality itself in thingness ways is rather bizarre. we end up with a transhumanistic view of intellectual (god) or mathematical computational reality(laws of physics/mathematical principles) creating reality. Appreciate your love of Jesus and the text thats all good, but this part is just Asperger’s intellectually and emotionally. It literally makes zero sense. No wonder religion is so screwy its scientific.

  • Gakusei Don

    My humble thoughts!

    // good cannot exist without evil, since it is only by way of contrast that we perceive things to be good or evil

    I think good can exist without evil (the definition of God includes omnibenevolence), but you can’t have a *choice* for good without having a choice for evil.

    // If God alone exists eternally, then prior to creation, presumably there was no good or evil

    If God is defined as all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good, then AFAICS good exists as part of the nature of God, even before creation.

    // Stephen Law recently offered the “Evil God Challenge” which explores the alternative scenario that an evil God created the world, and free will explains why sometimes good happens in an evil universe

    Stephen Law’s thought experiment is one of the silliest things I’ve seen. It actually seems to support the theist Free-Will Defence. If the Free-Will Defence is applicable to an Evil God, surely it means it is applicable also to a Good God. His throwaway ending — “we’re pretty sure there is no evil god, so why can’t we be sure there is no good God either?” — has no logical connection to his thought experiment. What are the reasons why we’re pretty sure there is no evil god? Are they the same as the reasons used to justify God? At the least, Law’s thought experiment supports the theists’ use of the Free-Will Defence.

    • Law also finds mythicism plausible, and so this wouldn’t be the only time that he has failed to be logical…

  • Robert Landbeck

    As I often find in theological discussions, things often look more clear when turned ‘upside down! So asking the question:’was God good before creation’ should be was man good before being ‘created’? But that requires a change in our understanding of the creation story. Try this.

    One day as God was observing the ‘evolution’ of His latest project, He looked down on humanity and thought, evolution isn’t going to finish my project to my satisfaction, so He ‘raised’ up Adam and His wife outside the natural evolutionary paradigm and provided them with not only understanding, a spiritual and moral foundation, outside any potential of human nature, but also the regular confirmation of His reality and presence. The intention was that the character of this union should be shared and spread to others. This original covenant was held place by a single moral insight, a command or Law of human spiritual union, what we call marriage. But left with free will, and self deceived, first woman then Adam, by a single act of disobedience, ‘Fell’ out side the grace, favor and knowledge of God and was returned to their prior evolutionary state, a state without a true spiritual or moral compass and in perfect ignorance of their previous state of reality, called grace.

    The whole of religious history thus becomes, whatever tradition may wish to think, about the many failed attempts, made by God to ‘return’ or ‘raise’ humanity back to favor. The last ‘failed’ attempt being what is generally referred to as the Incarnation. But after so many failures on the part of mankind to accept the discipline of truth, God decided to sit back and wait. or “since those who first heard the good news failed to enter through unbelief, God fixes another day”.

    But God needed a means to expose just how great was the corruption of perception that evolution had bequeathed to humanity. So while waiting, He left a ‘Trap’ for that purpose or ‘I will trap the wise in their own cunning’. Enter theology. The human intellectual attempt to comprehend the mind of God without that mind being directly revealed by God. Surprise surprise, the ‘trap’ was those scriptural bits left lying around, evidence of His previous attempts to persuade humanity to change, but nothing more.

    Now as mankind moves closer and closer to that proverbial place between a rock and a hard place, as our species is forced to confront the limitations of reason itself by the growing threat of either self annihilation or environmental destruction, expect God to act for the last time. And to reveal Himself to any man with the honesty and will to confront the unholy truth of man himself!

    or environmental destruction, when there is no where else to turn, God will be waiting for any man with the honesty and will to confront the unholy truth of human nature itself .

    • jh

      Why bring any supernatural entity into it? A simpler explanation – humanity and our cultures haven’t evolved to the point that we respect each other. Too much religion, too much tradition, too many systems based on obscene immoral inferior codes such as “might = right” that elevates men above women. We will cause our own destruction because we don’t see the long view. (I take that back. Some of us do. Some of us invoke a supernatural deity and ignore evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. They pretend to be skeptical but the truth is that they aren’t skeptics but dogma driven ideologues absent any evidence.)

      Many people have claimed that a god, gods are going to destroy the world. What makes yours so special? How about this… pray for me to get 10 billion dollars without ANY human intervention. Trust me – I’ll be the loudest convert if that happens. (why not amputees or stopping rapes? Because clearly the Judeo-Christian god, if it exists, doesn’t have a problem with amputees or rapes.)

      • Robert Landbeck

        “Why bring any supernatural entity into it?” For the very real reason that; “We will cause our own destruction because” rooted within an evolutionary, materialist paradigm, human nature is without the potential to realize any greater good or related goals as our moral/ethical potential is fixed and limited. And if, as a species, we are to progress, to find a way to transcend our limitations, to take the long view, there is no other game but the discovery of God. And while I assume all existing religious tradition to be no more than a theological counterfeit, anyone dreaming of 10 billion dollars, shares the same related illusions than any religious does!

  • Matthew Funke

    It seems to me that we can talk about God’s goodness prior to creation in the same sense that we can talk about God’s power prior to creation. If there was nothing for Him to exert His power upon, does that mean that He had no power? If so, how was creation accomplished?

    • I’ve not come across a comparable argument that power only exists where its opposite, powerlessness, is also present. Would you care to elaborate and make such a case?

      • Matthew Funke

        I don’t seek to claim that power only exists if powerlessness is present. I only mean to point out that the idea that good can only exist if something else exists to be good to seems parallel to the idea that God could not meaningfully be said to have power before there was any way to demonstrate it.

        I know that’s not exactly the point you were making. If you want to dismiss this as irrelevant, go right ahead… I was hoping the sidetrack would shed a little light on the subject.

        But the way you phrase this seems interesting to me. Can one make any claim that God has special power or greater power without powerlessness? That is, if only God exists, and God is omnipotent, it would be right to say that He has power, but you wouldn’t really be able to qualify it. In the same way, could one say that God was good before He created other things without infinite goodness, but that before that point, His goodness could not be qualified as something special or greater?

        • The point was not about having something or someone else to be good to, but about the contrast, that good and evil in fact cannot exist without each other because they make a contrast between better and worse, neither of which is possible in an eternally uniform state of affairs.

          • Matthew Funke

            Right, yes. I follow that. But could one also say that without powerlessness, one could not make a contrast between different kinds or levels of power? Does this make saying something has power meaningless (or substantially less meaningful)?

            In other words, if only one thing exists (God), how many descriptors lose their capability or precision simply because nothing else exists? Could it be that God could still be described as good if He could be good to Himself, but that this is a kind of diminished goodness without something else against which levels and kinds of goodness can be contrasted?

          • One could make this argument, perhaps, and relate it to theodicy, along the lines that power is only meaningful if there is more than one power. Omnipotence means nothing else exists, or at least nothing of significance. And arguably, just as certain kinds of good only emerge in response to evil, so too real power is the kind that can face challenges overcome them, whereas power that has no rivals isn’t really power at all.

          • Matthew Funke

            Here’s a thought. What if this is because terms like “good” and “powerful” exist in human language, where we are accustomed to comparing things to other things? Perhaps if we had a language better equipped to discuss self-existent things, we’d be using terms that are related to (but not completely synonymous with) “good” and “powerful” to describe God’s state before everything was created.

            I have to admit that I find this unsatisfying, because the temptation if you accept it is to throw up your hands, admit that you can’t really understand God, and end the conversation. It’s an interesting question you’ve asked, and I’d rather explore it than shut it down. But I think this limitation of language has to be faced if we’re to look at the problem of describing God prior to creation honestly.

          • I’d say that anyone discussing theology has to acknowledge the problem of language, and that no religious language about a God that is said to be ultimate, infinite, and/or transcendent can be anything other than symbolic in character.