Do God’s Ends Justify God’s Means?

Do God’s Ends Justify God’s Means? December 2, 2018

As my Sunday school class moved into John 11 a while back, the fact that Jesus seems to delay healing Lazarus so as to highlight his own abilities and glory to a greater extent seemed disturbing. We say that “the ends don’t justify the means” but most theists would exempt God from that principle. That raises the interesting question of whether the end never justify the means, or if we just think that our human perspective is so limited, and our foresight so imperfect, that it prevents us from legitimately appealing to ends so as to justify means, but that doesn’t make it a general principle that would apply to an omniscient and omnipotent entity. What are your thoughts on that?

I was reminded of that discussion when I came across this meme on social media:

The connection, in case it isn’t obvious, is that most ancient and some modern people tend to attribute everything that happens in the world to God. People die because it was the time God had ordained for them to go – like Lazarus. The illness that led to it was likewise ultimately due to God, not lifestyle or viruses or anything else, even if those may be direct causes. Maintaining that viewpoint causes unnecessary theological problems. Moving away from it, of course, raises others, but ones that are arguably far less severe and less problematic than the alternative.

Also of interest is the Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic “God Mode,” suggesting that when God wreaks havoc in our world, it is simply what any human being would do if given omnipotence in a game they were playing.

Tangentially related to that is the special issue of Teaching Theology and Religion focused on gaming in teaching religion. And tangentially related to that is the fact that that print and online journal will be replaced by a new fully online journal, The Wabash Center Journal on Teaching. Check out their call for papers for the inaugural issue, as well as a couple of others to follow soon after that!

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  • myklc

    This relates to part of my reasoning that the future cannot be perfectly known because it doesn’t yet exist. If God perfectly foreknows the future, then we’re stuck in a completely deterministic universe with the illusion of free will, and God (IMO) becomes culpable for the poor eternal choices of billions of humans (else why let them be born in the first place?)

    • Ocelot Aardvark

      My own personal belief on that subject is: that since God knows the “End from the Beginning” every event must have already happened before, and is happening continuously, forever …

      Everything that ever happend in the ‘past’, or is happening now, and/or will ever happen … constantly happens every single moment of Infinity … like it’s all on one gigantic, Universal, Möbius Strip.

      We are given Free Choice, but only in those events which we directly influence or take part in. If at any time someone chooses a different path, they can change the equation of that particular event, thus changing it. So we do have the power to at least change our own choices … whether to choose the Light or Dark.

      Just my 2¢

  • John MacDonald

    I’ve always found an interesting example of ends justifying means in the bible is justified lying.

    For example, the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible points out:

    1. God rewarded the Egyptian midwives for lying to the Pharaoh. (Exodus 1:18-20)
    2. Rahab was “justified” when she lied about Joshua’s spies. (Joshua 2:4-6); (James 2:25)
    3. David lied to Ahimelech when he said he was on the king’s business. (He was King Saul’s enemy at the time.) We know that God approved of this lie, since 1 Kings 15:5 says that God approved of everything David did, with the single exception of the matter of Uriah. (1 Samuel 21:2)
    4. Elisha told King Benhadad that he would recover, even though God told Elisha that the king would die. ( 2 Kings 8:8-10)
    5. In the Deuterocanonical book of Tobit, the angel Raphael lied to Tobias, saying “I am Azarias.” (Tobit 5:16-18)
    6. Jesus lied when he told his family that he wasn’t going to the feast, but then went “in secret.” (John 7:8-10)
    7. Even God lies by putting lying spirits in the mouths of his prophets. (1 Kings 22:21-22)

    Another example of justified deception in the Hebrew tradition is the apocryphal book of Judith. Bart Ehrman comments that:

    “The second half of the book is about how Judith, an inhabitant of the village, intervenes in the affair. A widow who is both very beautiful and very pious, she is dismayed that the leaders of Bethulia refuse to trust God for their deliverance and so she takes matters into her own hands. Leaving the village, dressed in her most attractive clothes, she is taken into the Assyrian camp and welcomed by Holofernes, who eventually tries unsuccessfully to seduce her after a night of too much wine. As he lies sprawled out in a drunken torpor, Judith takes advantage of the situation; drawing his sword, she decapitates him, returns to her camp with the head, and the next day the Assyrians are thrown into confusion by the sudden death of their headless leader. A rout is on and Israel is saved.”

    Considering issues like this, Dr. James McGrath said that : “I found myself wondering whether Jesus might have been viewed by the Gospel author as, like God, above such ethical matters just as God could be depicted as sending a lying spirit to deceive a king (1 Kings 22:21-22). I also wonder whether Jesus might be an example of the appropriateness of deception in order to preserve oneself in a context of persecution.” see

    • It might be that it’s a case-by-case matter? One size does not fit all?

      • John MacDonald

        I’m not really sure how to approach it. There are certainly a lot of historical analogies for justified lying in faith traditions (Confucius, Shamanism, Plato, etc.). I try to outline the issue here: . I think the issue is that people know they aren’t supposed to be lying, but that in the grand scheme of things lying is justified by the ends. What do you think?

        • / the old song the Fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, Faith, meekness, temperance against such there is no law. No law of human Construction … the fruit of the spirit is a higher law then? MHO submitting oneself to guidance in the service of God while walking in the spirit, when one lies for x reason there might be a higher law that exonerates one’s actions. I think Corrie Ten Boom would say if there are Jews hiding in your attic you BETTER lie to the Gestapo!! That doesn’t mean there won’t be consequences that will feel like punishment … she paid the price of incarceration at ravensbrook, lost her sister and father and her health … .

          • John MacDonald

            It’s a slippery slope: If it’s okay to lie about X, then why not …

          • The 12step program I follow in recovery emphasises staying in constant contact w a loving God of MY understanding… The decision to act in any & all situations is made by the two of you working in harmony/serenity. The objective is to be available/willing to do the next right thing/& the next /the next. It’s progress in the discipline over time/the long haul/not perfection. One experiments. One is becoming faithful, able to hear, perform skillfully, one’s unique purpose . It’s thrilling to be on this path. I wake up every day w/ a sense I may find well being w/ God, myself, others. Prayer/ contemplation/meditation are keys that unlock this cloud of unknowing…MHO

          • John MacDonald

            I’m not a fan of the 12 steps of AA, since I am secular. Alcoholics Anonymous is based on the 12 Steps, arbitrarily invented by its co-founder, Bill W., and based on the Christian beliefs he adopted as part of his sobriety.

            Step 1 says: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.

            – That someone’s life had become unmanageable is not evidence one is powerless over the cause

            Step 2 says: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

            – People are clearly free to believe whatever they like, but there is no evidence this is the case.

            Step 3 says: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

            -Again, this is fine if you are religious and you find such superstitions helpful, but how does this apply to secular people?

            Nota Bene:

            Step 5 says: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
            Step 6 says: Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

            Step 7 says: Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
            Step 11 says: Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

            – To my cousin, who is religious, the steps provide a great deal of foundation and comfort. For a secular person, AA and the 12 steps/traditions come off as a cult-like indoctrination preying on people at their most vulnerable.

            Post Script:

            Atheism transgresses the Cosmological Argument, just as Theism transgresses The God of the Gaps fallacy. Agnosticism is my method (“meta-hodos”) lol

          • John MacDonald

            AA is reprehensible. It takes people in their lowest state and tells them God is the only way out. Out of desperation, of course people are going to join the cult. But think of the message to secular people: the one organization universally recognized to help people afflicted with the disease of alcohol can’t help them. Monstrous!

          • Bye now.

          • John MacDonald

            The point is that we are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield. – George Orwell

          • Iain Lovejoy

            How do you “transgress” an argument (or a fallacy, for that matter)?

          • John MacDonald

            The same way thoughtlessly choosing one of the Kantian antinomies/opposites transgresses the limits of Reason.

          • Iain Lovejoy

            I’m not awfully familiar with Kant, and had to look your reference up (so well done on finding something nice and obscure) but having done so I am guessing you are using “transgress” (rather obscurely – I think I am detecting a pattern here) to mean “completely misunderstand and ignore”.

          • Neil Brown

            It is not “ok”, but neither is it fatal. Lying is never best, but it is not always worst. Right and wrong are not absolutes but are directions. We often need to choose the lesser of two evils, and we then do one of them, which is evil. Fortunately we have a loving God and know that love covers a multitude of sins.

          • John MacDonald

            What do you make of God lying by putting lying spirits in the mouths of His prophets (1 Kings 22:21-22)?

          • Neil Brown

            It seems similar in style to God “hardening the heart” of Pharaoh when Moses was asking him to let his people go. It is also similar to His treatment of Job.
            It is certainly the case the God does many things that conflict with the moral standards that we set up for ourselves, and even with the standards that God gave us to follow. but he is not us, and we are not him – Job eventually figured that out.
            Ahab probably wanted to believe what he heard, and probably didn’t test the spirits to see if they were from God – so he likely isn’t blameless for his ultimate fall.
            Note that that is no evidence that this deceiving spirit brought a deceptive witness against a neighbour (which is all the 10 commandments forbids). He just arranged for the prophets to tell tall stories, and Ahab was fool enough to believe them.

          • John MacDonald

            Neil said:

            It is certainly the case the God does many things that conflict with the moral standards that we set up for ourselves, and even with the standards that God gave us to follow. but he is not us, and we are not him – Job eventually figured that out.

            Goodness, perhaps what is needed is a better God, lol

            Two thousand years have come and gone–and not a single new god! – Nietzsche

          • Neil Brown

            Those who create god in their own image might think that.
            I’m quite disappointed that gravity won’t let me fly, but I don’t suggest that we need new gravity.

          • John MacDonald

            I don’t think your attempt at an analogy there worked out as well as you might think it did. Remember, you said “It is certainly the case the God does many things that conflict with the moral standards that we set up for ourselves, and even with the standards that God gave us to follow.” Is that not an atrocious God? Put traditionally, is it Pious because God wills it, or does God will it because it is Pious? Remember, James’ thread is about whether God’s ends justify God’s means …

          • Neil Brown

            No, that is not an atrocious God, because God is not atrocious. You continually appear to be trying to judge God by your own standards. I fail to see how that is rational.
            I looked up “Pious” in the dictionary, and it appears to apply to attitudes or actions of a person whose goal is to please God. Therefore something is pious if it is thought to please God (whether or not it does).
            I don’t see that God’s means, or ends, need justifying, any more than gravity’s force needs justifying – they merely are.
            The concept of “justified” doesn’t mean anything without reference to the rule against which it is measured. My actions may or may not be justified w.r..t the law of the land, or w.r.t. community standards, or w.r.t. God’s commands, but it is meaningless to say “they are justified” without any reference to rule.
            Fortunately I, with Paul, need not worry about that third context as I am convince that I have been justified by Christ – I can by-pass the rules and get in on the basis of love.

          • John MacDonald

            Neil said

            I don’t see that God’s means, or ends, need justifying, any more than gravity’s force needs justifying – they merely are.

            So, in your view, God is free to do whatever He wants and is beyond judgment or culpability?

          • Neil Brown

            How can there be any other opinion on the matter. He is God!
            He, naturally, makes his own choices and this limits what he actually does to what he chooses to do. He has made a number of promises and claims to keep those promises (and some people think that available evidence fits the claim) and so in that sense he isn’t “free” because he has (freely) chosen to follow a particular path.
            You or I might choose to judge God against some standard that we think is appropriate, but I don’t see how that can be relevant beyond our own private imaginings.
            We don’t judge gravity for hurling people to the ground, or tsunamis for covering them with water, though we might judge people for getting too far from the ground in the first place, or for living too near the sea.
            It makes no more sense to judge God for what he does (and we are told it is unhelpful to judge others for how they respond to him).
            It *does* make sense to analyse what God says and does, and compare that we what we observe around us, and choose how much we will let His behavior guide our choices.
            But there is no sense in which he can be culpable because there is no higher standard to measure him against. The very most you might be able to argue is that he is inconsistent.

          • John MacDonald

            If we can’t judge God to be benevolent/just/etc., how can we determine whether He is praiseworthy?

          • Neil Brown

            Interesting question – thanks.
            Whether something or someone is praiseworthy is a personal subjective assessment. It is not about absolute qualities, but about personal response. (we like to pretend our personal response is based on absolute qualities, but that is rarely accurate).
            If you perceive that your relationship with something benefits you, then you are likely to praise that thing – the more the benefit, the more the praise.
            This is psychologically healthy as it leads us to focus more on that which benefits us.
            When we praise, we tend to focus not on the whole thing, but on those aspects which we particularly value. So we might think we are praising God, but we are actually praising his majesty, or power, or grace, or love, wisdom or whatever. We turn a blind eye to those things that we cannot (yet) see any value in. Note that this praise is primarily beneficial to us, not to God. It only benefits God to the extend that we – his beloved children – are benefited.

          • John MacDonald

            Neil said:

            Whether something or someone is praiseworthy is a personal subjective assessment.

            So, you are saying that the claim “The Grace of God is Praiseworthy” is equivalent to the claim “I prefer the taste of pepperoni pizza over vegetarian pizza” ?

            Judgments about the virtue/vice of God are aesthetic?

          • Neil Brown

            I’m not sure – it depends a bit on how you understand aesthetics.
            I believe the basis of the claim would normally have a pragmatic element – a perception that the Grace of God brings benefits to my life.
            Maybe tasting pepperoni also brings more net enjoyment to my life than vegetarian too – so maybe it too is pragmatic.
            The dictionary tells me that aesthetics is about beauty, and I don’t see a bright-line difference between beauty and practicality, so I cannot justify a bright-line difference between the two claims you describe. I do think there is a difference of degree in the quantity of value, and hence the quantity/quality of praise they might excite.

            I don’t agree with your final statement. virtue/vice are not words that apply to God or his actions. It is appropriate for you to use value judgements for how you feel about his actions, or how they affect you, but it is meaningless for you try to make an objective judgment. You might choose aesthetics to describe how you feel about God – you would not be alone in that.

          • John MacDonald

            What about in Dungeons and Dragons where there are evil gods?

          • Neil Brown

            Fiction certainly can be entertaining, but it is a poor guide to understanding the real world.
            If there were really an evil God, or even just an evil dictator (which there have been and are), then we wouldn’t sit around discussing whether they were evil or not. We would try to understand their behaviour so that we could adapt ours so as to maximize our comfort – or whatever it is we value.
            The same approach is most rational to our God. Don’t argue about whether he is good or justified or whatever, focus on what you should do, given what he does.

          • John MacDonald

            Which takes us back to: God lies (1 Kings 22:21-22), and Jesus lies (John 7:8-10). So, maybe YHWH is the Evil God of Lies and Deception, patron to rogues everywhere! Out of His own sick amusement, he demands honesty from His flock, but then turns around and does whatever He wants to. lol. Sounds Evil to me.

          • Neil Brown

            Your thinking appears to be black-and-white. The fact that a person tells one lie does not mean they are an habitual liar. Nor must a liar necessarily being doing things for their own sick amusement.
            I get that God, as revealed in the bible, does not fit your idea of what a God should be. I assure you that quantum mechanics doesn’t fit my idea of how the physical world should work. But that doesn’t lead me to despising the whole world and refusing to try to understand it.

          • John MacDonald

            I’m not saying your interpretation of “what” and “how” God is – is wrong. You could be right. Theism is based on the guess that there is a God (s). Atheism is based on the guess that there isn’t a God (s). I am a theoretical agnostic, but pragmatic atheist. I don’t know if God (s) exist, but I live my life “as though” there is no God (s)

          • John MacDonald

            Asmodeus – Evil God of Tyranny and Domination. Lord of Devils.
            Bane – Evil God of War and Conquest. Revered by Goblins.
            Gruumsh – Chaotic Evil God of Slaughter and Destruction. Patron of Orcs.

          • swbarnes2

            So you find it absolutely impossible, or at least excruciatingly difficult to say “The pitcher on the other team did a really great job”? You really can’t say “No, I can evaluate when someone does a good job, even if I’m a little disappointed that it wasn’t beneficial to me”

            Do your eyes pop out of your head when opposing sports teams say “Good game” to each other? You must find that behavior totally bewildering, and yet, it’s very common.

          • Neil Brown

            I don’t pay any attention to sports, so it is poor analogy for me (sorry) however:
            We use the same word – “praise” – for several very different sorts of activities.
            I was using it in the sense closely related to worship – from a lesser person to a greater (however the person involved chooses to measure greatness).
            This is very different to, for example, when a parent praises their child for some particular behaviour. When the greater person praises the lesser, the praise might be superficially similar, but the inter-personal dynamic is quite different.
            The examples you give lie somewhere between – maybe it can be described as equals praising each other. This is probably a third distinct dynamic.
            I was only reflecting on the first situation – my words should not be taken to apply in any way to the other situations.

          • swbarnes2

            Wow. You really won’t deny that you find it horribly difficult to praise people when what they do doesn’t benefit you. So much for Christian generosity of spirit.

          • Neil Brown

            You seem to have misunderstood what I said, but maybe I’m just misunderstanding you. Given how easy this misunderstanding seems to be, I won’t try to explain myself again as I doubt I will be able to succeed. I’m sorry that I’m not able to communicate better.

  • That’s a joke – I’m the Pharaoh – I can’t really miracle heal anyone any more than “Elijah” can.

  • Brien

    Yet, none of these claimants ever bring their evidence to prove their gods – first!!! Just the absurd claims….

  • Neil Brown

    > most ancient and some modern people tend to attribute everything that happens in the world to God.
    True, but as I read the bible, the focus of that attribution is blame rather than cause. We modern scientific thinkers tend to identify the two with each other, but they are separate.
    For the ancients, they would often have no idea of the cause, but felt the need to assign blame – God accepted that role for them. On the Cross, His Son accepted that role ever further – not just for the things where do don’t know the cause, but also for the things where we do (think we) know the cause, and that cause is us.
    I don’t think God (always) causes suffering, but I feel free to blame him for it. With Job, I acknowledge that there is great good I can also blame him for, and it seems most fair to accept the bad with the good.