I have written an essay that can be found variously on this site called “God Is a Consequentialist” in which I set out that God is a moral consequentialist. Some of which I will now set out or paraphrase before looking at the defence William Lane Craig and others use to get around this. This first piece will set out some of the ways that God is a consequentialist.
Firstly, let us look at the global flood involving Noah. In this passage (Genesis 6-9), God is revolted by all the sin committed by humanity and sends down a flood to kill all of humanity bar eight and all animals bar two of each kind (Genesis 6:7):
So YHWH said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the ground, man and beast and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.”
The classical interpretation of the characteristics of God is that he is at the same time omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent. His all-loving characteristic is one with which we find most interest in this context. He destroys all the world’s population bar eight and all the world’s animals bar two of each kind. Is this a benevolent act? Surely not. Surely such destruction of people apparently endowed with moral dignity and of animals with no moral value per se must not have intrinsic moral goodness. So how can such an act be seen as being morally good, if not in the intrinsic value of the act?
The context is everything here. There are two ways of looking at this. The first is retribution. Humans could have been so sinful as to deserve almost entire eradication. Aside from this being an incredibly unlikely scenario (let us assume that this might be the case), this retributive punishment is incoherent with the death of a myriad of morally unaccountable, yet sentient, animals. Furthermore, retribution actually offers little in the way of constructive usefulness past a sort of deterrence which could be achieved in other ways without so much death, I wager. It could be argued that retribution has some moral value itself, but only insofar as it pertains to gaining pleasure for the agent. It would be easier to argue that catching the thief and putting him through successful rehabilitation would be a morally greater course of action than a retributive one.
The second way of looking at this is that God was trying to achieve a greater good in this seeming ‘evil’. Perhaps God needed to do this potentially harsh act in order to achieve a particular (all-loving) end. If this is the case, then God (whose acts can only be seen as morally perfect) is using this event and the lives of all those who perished to achieve an end. This is clearly a form of consequentialism. The moral value of the event was not in the event itself, but derived from the consequences, even though we might not know what these were. As is often cited as an answer for difficult moral dilemmas involving God, who knows the mind of God? God moves in mysterious ways!
A more recent event, the tsunami of 2004, has some poignant parallels with the global flood event. The world was shaken by the sheer force and fallout of such a massive natural phenomenon. Some 280,000 people died, as well as entire ecosystems and potentially billions of organisms perishing. God, with his classic characteristics, would have known this was going to happen and would have had the power to stop it. Being all-loving, all we can possibly conclude from his permissive will is that the tsunami must have served some greater good in order for it to be permitted by an omnibenevolent Creator deity.
It is difficult to second guess such reasons for allowing destruction of this magnitude. It could be a combination of reasons, seen by theologians as theodicies, or theories which seek to answer the Problem of Evil, such that it might seek to be character-building or soul-building (the Irenaean Theodicy) for the survivors (or even those who perished). The generally accepted maxim by Christian philosophers is that we cannot know the mind of God and he has his reasons (that perhaps we do not have the capabilities to understand) but that there must be a reason or a greater good to come from such suffering. In a debate with Jeffrey Jay Lowder, Phil Fernandes (a philosopher of religion and theologian) stated:
“A theist … would have to argue that this is the greatest possible way to achieve the greatest possible world… God often uses evil and human suffering to draw people to himself. Now God’s ways and thoughts are far above our understanding and even the Scriptures state that. At best atheistic arguments show that limited minds can’t fully understand why God allows so much evil…”
This sort of rationalisation is commonplace, and William Craig has also reached similar conclusions when talking of the Problem of Evil in debates and also in his writing:
Again, such an assumption is not necessarily true [that an omnibenevolent God would prefer a world without evil]. The fact is that in many cases we allow pain and suffering to occur in a person’s life in order to bring about some greater good or because we have some sufficient reason for allowing it. Every parent knows this fact. There comes a point at which a parent can no longer protect his child from every mishap; and there are other times when discipline must be inflicted on the child in order to teach him to become a mature, responsible, adult. Similarly, God may permit suffering in our lives in order to build us or to test us, or to build and test others, or to achieve some other overriding end. Thus, even though God is omnibenevolent, He might well have morally sufficient reasons for permitting pain and suffering in the world.
This is a clear exposition of the notion that the moral value of God’s decisions is being evaluated by an analysis of the consequences. Craig here seems to implicitly accept moral consequentialism as the system to justify God’s actions whilst simultaneously claiming God is not moral. William Lane Craig’s approach is to establish our morality in a reflection of God’s commands (such as “Love thy neighbour”), but to deny God the same moral obligation.
It is this response that I will concentrate on in the next post, now that I have set the scene.
NOTES: The Problem of Evil:
1. God exists.
2. God is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good.
3. A perfectly good being would want to prevent all evils.
4. An omniscient being knows every way in which evils can come into existence.
5. An omnipotent being, who knows every way in which an evil can come into existence, has the power to prevent that evil from coming into existence.
6. A being who knows every way in which an evil can come into existence, who is able to prevent that evil from coming into existence, and who wants to do so, would prevent the existence of that evil.
7. If there exists an omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good being, then no evil exists.
8. Evil exists (logical contradiction).
(The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “The Evidential Problem of Evil”, Nick Trakakis) This is oversimplifying matters, necessarily, as I could also introduce ideas of moral and/or reasons internalism and externalism here. For further reading, I would advise seeing Williams (1981) p. 101-13.  Craig (2008) p. 172
Craig, William Lane (2008; 3rd Ed), A Reasonable Faith, Crossway Books: Wheaton, IL
Williams, Bernard (1981) “Internal and External Reasons”, in Williams’s Moral Luck, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press