“There is but one good; that is God. Everything else is good when it looks to Him and bad when it turns from Him.” (C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce)
“That tastes good!”
“Oh, I feel so good!”
“That was a good movie.”
“She is a good person.”
What is the primary meaning of good? Am I saying the same thing whenever I use the word? Is good an essential concept, or merely a word I use to show I have a positive feeling about something?
Widely used definitions of the term good include: beneficial, pleasurable, successful, and happy. All of these are both subjective and selfish. Without an objective basis for good there is merely what is good for me and mine. However, in this subjective, selfish sense, what is good for me could be harmful to you. My good, (like “my truth”) could well be your idea of evil. Take a hot button issue like abortion. There are those who consider “a woman’s right to chose” to terminate her pregnancy good. However, preserving unborn human life is good to those who are against abortion. So, who is right? What is good?
Eighteenth Century philosopher David Hume said the concept of good and evil is nothing more than “positive and negative approbation,” meaning the terms are another (perhaps stronger) way of expressing subjective likes and dislikes. This is a disastrous view. If good is only in the eye of the beholder, then what is to keep a nation from upholding racism and genocide as good, as was the case with Nazi Germany? What is to stop a culture from embracing pedophilia or rape as good? Who can say that sadism or masochism is bad to someone who genuinely believes one or both to be good? These may seem to be extreme examples to you, but there are already groups who would support such ideas. And it may not be long until the culture shifts to support some or all of them, unless there is a consensus for recognizing an objective basis for good and evil.
What is the objective basis for good? What can we all look to as a standard and agree, “yes that is what good means”?
There are philosophers who have pointed to the idea of human flourishing as an objective basis for good, This means whatever promotes happiness and growth for the human population is the standard for determining good. The question is, how do we define happiness for an entire population? Some might ask about animals. What of their flourishing? Eating meat makes many people happy, and it is arguably healthy. However, that is certainly at odds with the interests of the animal being eaten! What if I am only concerned with my own happiness and/or that of my family and friends? On what basis would I concern myself with happiness and growth for billions of other people, all of whom are competing for resources. From this perspective one could well support extreme measures in population control in order to ensure that there is enough to go around. For many years the Chinese Communist Party only permitted the citizens of China to have one child per family. If a woman became pregnant with a second child, she was forced to have an abortion. They believe this is good because it promotes human flourishing by ensuring China doesn’t become overpopulated. Is that really what good is?
What is good for me and mine may deprive others of life. Is it right to be forced to sacrifice your life or happiness for the “good of humanity”? For some that is noble, but is it good? Human flourishing may be a good aim, but it cannot be the objective basis for good.
It is ironic to observe that some who refuse to believe in a good God base their concept of good on what Christians attribute to God: love, justice, righteousness, patience and the like. Recently, several high profile Christian leaders have left the faith, but seek to maintain their status as “influencers.” These celebrities are now influencing others to be atheists. Where they were once passionate in their proclamation of Christianity, they’re now equally zealous about disbelief. The moral advice of many of these erstwhile Christians, however, sounds quite familiar: be forgiving, love people, be compassionate. Sounds like, well, Jesus. Why promote Jesus’ teachings? All it got him (and most of his closest disciples) was an excruciating death. If there is no good God, one could hold (as Ayn Rand famously promoted in her philosophy of Objectivism) that selfishness is the supreme virtue. Many agree with this. Why should I care about anybody else? Why in the world should I listen to “influencers” who once persuaded their followers to believe what they now repudiate? Who is to say they’re right now. All they’ve proven is their own instability, while affirming an objective good, but without any basis beyond an emotional appeal.
The Form of the Good
The Greek philosopher Plato believed in a world of perfect forms above our own, and at the highest level of this theoretical world exists what he called “the form of the good.” Plato’s concept affirms the need for an impeccable, objective standard for good beyond subjective human feeling and evaluation. Some have observed that Plato’s world of flawless forms could be realized within the mind of the perfect God, Creator of everything.
Apart from a good God there is no objective good. Apart from objective good, there is no evil. As philosopher William Lane Craig frames it:
If God does not exist, then objective good does not exist.
Therefore, good exists.
Therefore, God exists.
Amazingly, this syllogism uses the existence of real evil as reason to believe there is objective good, and a real God. God defines what good is.
Does that mean whatever God says is good becomes so? What if he decides murder is good? Could he simply reverse the 10 Commandments because he feels like it? If you find that problematic, then is God accountable to a law outside himself? Going back to Plato once again, we find that he and his students wrestled with this problem and stated it in what is known as the Euthyphryo Dilemma
A) Is it good because God wills it?
B) Does God will it because it is good?
If “A” then God could call evil good and it would be so.
If “B” then God is subject to something higher, which would mean something rules over God, which would make him less than the supreme being. Are we stuck on the horns of this dilemma? Let’s go to the teaching of Jesus to resolve it.
Only God Is Good
“A certain ruler asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’
Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.'” (Luke 18:18-19, NRSV)
God is Good. Good is essential to His nature. “God works all things after the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11). God wills what is good because He is intrinsically good. Therefore, God’s nature is the objective standard for good.
God is great. God is good.
God established a moral law, which is revealed through the Law of Moses in the Old Testament, but good is perfectly realized in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17, CSB). Whoever believes in the Only Begotten Son of God walks in the light of perfect good. “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1st John 1:5). “I am the light of the world, whoever follows me will never walk in darkness” (John 8:12).
God promised to write his law on the minds of his people (Jeremiah 31:33), so they will always know what is good. He promised to give them a new heart, so they will always be willing to do what is good (Ezekiel 36:26-27). These promises are realized when a person believes in Jesus and receives the Holy Spirit. Jesus didn’t come to earth to show us the right way to live, then leave us on our own to do it. Rather, he came to make us new people with a new nature that seeks to do what is good and right.
God is good. Jesus is God. Jesus Christ is the perfect objective standard of good.