How Could Someone Who Does Not Believe in God Judge Him?

Nonbelievers give many reasons for believing that God does not exist. Some say they cannot reconcile modern scientific thinking with belief in God. Some say that there is not enough historical evidence.

Then there is an entire category of questions about God with a different common theme: judging God’s character and actions. In this category, questions like the following are asked:

These are certainly legitimate questions, which Christian thinkers over the centuries have treated with care. But, notice the common denominator. The real alternatives assumed in these questions are not whether God exists, but whether he is justified in what he does, assuming he exists.

Here’s the thing…

Discussing God’s existence and judging God’s character are two very different endeavors. Yet, people act as though how God exists determines if God exists. It is as if they are saying only when God’s character and actions are acceptable to us will his existence be plausible to us.

I sincerely hope this post does not sound like a sidestep around the issues brought up by questions like these. I have addressed questions of this type on this blog (see here, here, and here), and plan to address more. In personal conversations, I have seen how meaningful these questions can be.

My only intention here is to point out that even though these are legitimate questions about God, I see no reason why the conclusion we draw from them should ever be that God does not exist.

I can see at least three problems with assuming it should.

It assumes a someone.

The first problem is found in the form of the questions. Moving from a character judgment of God to asserting that he does not exist, the thinking usually goes something like this:

  • Step 1: Point out a characteristic or action of God that you strongly dislike.
  • Step 2: Explain why said characteristic or action is unacceptable.
  • Step 3: Conclude that God does not exist.

Each time the thought process boils down to, “I don’t like that God [fill in the blank], therefore he must not exist.” But, how does pointing out something unpleasant about God lead us to conclude that he does not exist?

Unfortunately, how much we detest the character of someone or disapprove of their actions, has no bearing on whether they exist. We may wish it did. (Boy, do we wish it did!) But, alas, it does not.

When people talk about the problems they have with the God of the Bible, they would do well to ask how much their frustration speaks specifically to God’s existence—as opposed to merely expressing their dissatisfaction with him.

So, you don’t think a loving God should send people to Hell? You don’t believe a righteous God would offer forgiveness to the worst people? You don’t believe God, if he were really God, could allow evil?

Fine. But does that mean God does not exist?

It is one thing for nonbelievers to claim that the Christian idea of God is incoherent, and therefore conclude that God must not exist. It is quite another thing to claim that God is morally reprehensible, as this type of argument does. These questions do not challenge the rationality of God, and therefore his existence. They challenge the morality of God, assuming his existence.

Questions that judge the character of God must assume the existence of God. They say nothing of whether God exists, only that he does not exist the way we want him to exist.

It assumes a standard.

There is a further problem in judging the character and actions of God in attempting to justify unbelief, namely that it assumes a standard by which one could judge God.

In 2008, theologian Douglas Wilson debated the late atheist author Christopher Hitchens on the question, “Is Christianity Good for the World?”[1] At one point, the dispute turned to the topic of Hell and eternal punishment, at which point Hitchens stated:

It’s only with gentle Jesus, meek and mild, who says, “If you don’t listen to my meek and mild message you can be—depart into everlasting fire. You’ve always got that option if you don’t like my meek and mild stuff.”… One of Christianity’s specifically horrible contributions to human mythology and delusion is the idea, the terrifying idea that you could be tortured forever.

In his trademark contrarian manner, Hitchens almost mockingly pointed to divine punishment in Hell as morally repugnant and resigned Christianity to the ash heap of mythology.

However, he made that judgment through atheist eyes.

In atheism, that we perceive anything as good or evil is merely an evolutionary accident. Any definition of right and wrong is merely a social convention that varies from culture to culture. In other words, as evil as divine punishment was in Hitchens’ eyes, his worldview provided no standard by which he could make such a call.

Wilson challenged him immediately, “Horrible by what standard?”

The back and forth continued:

Wilson: How do you give an accounting of what is good and what is bad? When you say—if the universe is, on your accounting, time and chance acting on matter, if all the universe is matter in motion, what do you mean “horrible”? What do you mean by “horrible idea”? Who cares?

Hitchens: Why do we care? Very good point. (Or, a very good question.) I ask myself a lot why that is. I think it is because I am one of the higher primates.

In an atheistic worldview, any sense of morality we have is accidental and therefore arbitrary. Atheists, using arguments like Hitchens’, attempt to pass moral judgment on God in an effort to justify their belief in his non-existence. However, atheism has no standard for that judgment.

It assumes a superiority.

Judging the character and actions of someone requires a moral high ground. Nonbelievers typically assume that a superior worldview would be one without a God that allows evil to exist, sends people to Hell for rejecting him, and so on. The problem is when God is absent from a worldview, so is any basis for morality. So long, moral high ground.

As philosopher Gerald Harrison states succinctly, “Morality requires a god, whether you’re religious or not.”[2]

He explains that by its very nature morality is expressed by way of commands. Commands by definition are issued by “an agent, a mind with beliefs and desires.” Therefore, moral commands must come from a moral agent.

Harrison continues by explaining that we could not be that moral agent, or else we could make morality whatever we wish. He explains further that our communities could not be the moral agent, because cultural consensus can change. He establishes that there could not be multiple moral agents, at least not without allowing for logical contradictions.

The bottom line: “[M]oral commands must have a single unifying source [in an external agent] across all space and time.”

Harrison concludes:

For any argument that sought to show that a god does not exist would have to appeal to some commands of reason(*), and thus would have to presuppose the existence of the very thing it is denying. … All such arguments undermine themselves.

(*He states earlier that commands of morality are a subset of commands of reason.)

This is an intriguing conclusion, especially for someone who claims “no religious convictions.”

In the end, when a nonbeliever judges the character or actions of God as morally repugnant in order to justify their belief that God does not exist, they have to borrow from a theistic worldview in order to do so.

It seems that the moral high ground that they claim is borrowed territory.

At risk of sounding repetitive…

Those who have questions about the character and nature of God are justified to wonder. God tells us about himself,

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,…For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)

These questions are meaningful, staggering, and important. They are worth our time and attention. However, they should not lead us to doubt God’s existence. In fact, we have to begin with God’s existence for them to even make sense.

[1] The transcript of the debate can be found here: http://hitchensdebates.blogspot.com/2010/07/hitchens-vs-wilson-kings-college.html

[2] Gerald K. Harrison, “Morality Requires a God Whether You’re Religious or Not”(http://theconversation.com/morality-requires-a-god-whether-youre-religious-or-not-42411)


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4 thoughts on “How Could Someone Who Does Not Believe in God Judge Him?

  1. Your three steps are:

    Step 1: Point out a characteristic or action of God that you strongly dislike.
    Step 2: Explain why said characteristic or action is unacceptable.
    Step 3: Conclude that God does not exist.

    but it is more like:

    Step 1: Notice that God is claimed to be X (e.g. all good, all knowing, wants a relationship, etc…)
    Step 2: Point out a characteristic or action of God that is antithetical to X (e.g. seemingly evil dictates, avoidable actions, seems hidden from reality)
    Step 3: Conclude that God (as claimed) does not exist.

    This is a perfectly rational structure of an argument. It’s not that I am judging God, I am pointing out that the various claims about God are contradictory or at least in conflict enough to make the claims unlikely. How can God be all good, yet order the murder of women and children? How can God be all-knowing, and yet be surprised by the actions of humans? How can God want a relationship, and yet have the minimal evidence of existence be thin on the ground?

  2. Thanks for the comment. Your explanation is very helpful and very well put.
    However, that was only the first–and admittedly too oversimplified–part of my explanation.
    The rest of my argument is that when someone uses logical and moral judgments to conclude that God does not exist, they assume a transcendent logical and moral standard by which to judge–which requires God to exist.
    As Professor Harrison (himself a nonbeliever) states, such arguments undermine themselves.

  3. > when someone uses logical and moral judgments to conclude that God does not exist, they assume a transcendent logical and moral standard by which to judge–which requires God to exist.

    I am not very convinced by the “laws of logic require God” argument. Primarily, because it seems asserted and not demonstrated. Also, it falls prey to a Euthyphro-type dilemma – are God’s choices logical because of logic or is logic determined by God’s choices. In the former, God is bound by logic and thus logical arguments do not depend on God. In the latter, logic is arbitrary – at the whim of God’s choices, and so even using God doesn’t justify logical arguments. One can try the define God as logic, but that is defining your entire argument. Wherever the source, I think that logic (and math) are probably universal – or at least a property of our universe – and I don’t have much problem treating it as axiomatic.

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