Question: "Is God a moral monster?"
Answer: When a person rejects the God of the Bible, he often chooses to label Him as immoral. Non-believers have been known to accuse God of being hypocritical, selfish, arrogant, judgmental, hateful, and even homicidal—a moral monster. Part of the problem with responding to these kinds of claims is that they require extensive answers. It takes only seconds to ask certain questions but quite some time to give a reasonable answer. This single question, “Is God a moral monster?” is, in fact, the subject of a book by Christian theologian Paul Copan: Is God a Moral Monster: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. And that work is focused on only part of the Bible.
It’s important to realize how deep this topic can be, since a single article could never really do the subject justice. It’s simpler to look at common accusations against God and see how they fail. More specific details are available for those interested in doing further research.
Is God Evil?
The first problem with any “moral monster” accusation against God is that it requires a standard of morality separate from God. In other words, in order to say, “God is morally wrong,” one has to define morality in a way that justifies that claim. But what meaningful standard can exist, other than God, for moral principles?
Apart from God, it’s not possible to have truly objective morality. Opinion is not enough—for the claim “God is a moral monster” to be meaningful, it has to be based on some unchanging standard. Ideas such as “suffering” or “human flourishing” are not objective. There is no rational reason for opinions or subjective ideas to be the source of moral reasoning.
So, the first problem with claiming that God is immoral is that meaningful moral claims require God to exist in the first place. Labelling anything “good” or “evil” requires assumptions that lead inevitably to God. This fact is related to the next common objection about divine morality.
Problem of Good
Non-believers often accuse God of being evil. Just as often, however, they indirectly attack God’s morality by questioning the existence of evil. A truly good God, they claim, would not allow evil. More on this later; for now, consider that this approach creates a much larger problem for the non-believer than for the believer. In short, Christians can appeal to concepts such as free will when explaining why a good God might allow for evil. However, the non-believer finds a much more difficult issue when faced with the inverse of the question: why is there such a thing as “good” if there is no God? Why would human beings believe in concepts like “ought,” if everything that exists is the product of blind, purposeless physics? If things either “are” or “are not,” and there is no actual “ought,” then speaking of good and evil is gibberish.
This follows into a stickier problem: why “ought” a person be good, if there is no God or if God is truly a “moral monster”? Remember, if the ultimate measure of morality is some human opinion, then there can always be different ways to interpret that opinion. “Human flourishing” sounds like a great basis for morality until someone conveniently defines certain people as less than human.
This leads to a major instance of hypocrisy. In claiming that God is morally wrong, people are claiming more than a knowledge of a better moral system; they are claiming to be the standard of morality. That claim not only makes their criticism of God’s morals less impactful, but it makes it meaningless.
You’re Not the Boss of Me!
Another common accusation is that God is arrogant, selfish, or egomaniacal. God demands worship, He punishes those who disagree, and He even condemns those who insult Him. According to the common line of complaint, a truly “good” God would let people do as they please, without necessarily obeying His rules, and He certainly would not care how they think or speak of Him.
The quickest response to this particular objection is based on the concept of parenting. Good parents don’t let their children insult or disobey them. This is not because the parents are egomaniacs; it’s because they love their children. Even if the kids don’t grasp why, the parents’ rules are for the kids’ good. There are going to be circumstances when a child cannot understand all of the details; he simply needs to know that “Mom and Dad said no.” There’s nothing unreasonable about God’s expectation of obedience, given that He is a loving Father who wants the best for His children and who knows far more than they do. God cannot be fairly labeled a “moral monster” simply because He has established rules that some particular person does not like, does not understand, or refuses to obey.
The accusations of divine arrogance and selfishness also have to be put into perspective. The reason people have a problem with human arrogance and egotism is simple: we know the egotist isn’t perfect. A person’s arrogance grates on our nerves because of our basic knowledge that the egomaniac isn’t actually perfect—he doesn’t have that much to be arrogant about. God, however, is perfect. If He speaks, acts, and rules as though He is perfect, it’s simply because He is. There’s no arrogance or selfishness involved, as there would be in a lesser being. God’s claims of glory match reality.
Further, according to the Bible, God has demonstrated great patience, love, and sacrifice on behalf of humanity (Romans 5:8). The core concept of the gospel is that God was willing to become a human being, suffer and struggle, then be killed by His own creations. He did all of this in order to provide the means to allow mankind to live forever with Him. That’s hardly selfish, arrogant, or egotistic.
Life, Death, and War
Many who accuse God of being a moral monster mention the wars described in the Old Testament. Or they point to the use of capital punishment for certain acts under the Mosaic Law.
The simplest response to these arguments has the advantage of logical strength, although it means little to the average unbeliever. Simply put, if God exists and created life, then He has the authority to decide what happens to that life. He can set the rules, and He can determine the punishments for breaking those rules. If the entire universe is His creation, then “morality,” including life and death, is by definition under His control.
Another response to the charge that events in the Old Testament are morally reprehensible is to place all of those events in their historical and scriptural context. When God commanded war against the Canaanites, for instance, it was not some random act of genocide. This was a culture that had been warned about their pervasive evil for centuries, and the time for God to punish that evil had finally come (see Genesis 15:16).
When God commanded the death penalty in Israel for certain offenses, it was not in the context of a stable, free, modern environment. It was during a time of great danger, instability, and uncertainty. This same principle applies even in modern societies: we punish crimes in proportion to their damage to the culture. In that day and time, what today would be considered “minor crimes,” if crimes at all, were profoundly damaging to the survival of the culture.
Again, the context of God’s commands is important. If God’s plan was to bring the Messiah, the one and only hope of mankind, through Israel, then it’s reasonable that He would take serious measures to protect the survival of that nation.
Free Will vs. Suffering and Evil
Easily the most common attack on God’s morality is the reality of evil. According to this accusation, God is a “moral monster” since He “created” evil—or because He neglects to do anything about evil. Both claims are contrary to reason and evidence, as well as the biblical understanding of God’s nature.
In the simplest terms, evil is anything that contradicts the will of God. There is a tremendous difference, then, between something that God does not will (but that He allows) and that which He directly and purposefully causes to occur. If it’s logically possible for a fallible human being to allow certain things—which he could theoretically prevent—in order to obtain some greater goal, then God can obviously do the same. This is where the concept of free will enters the equation.
The overwhelming majority of human suffering is the result of human activity. More to the point, it’s the result of human sin—either our own or someone else’s. But without the ability to choose selfishness, cowardice, and revenge, there would be no such thing as generosity, bravery, or forgiveness. Love, expressed by a being given no choice but to love, is hollow. Worship from such a being is meaningless.
It’s also untrue to suggest that God has done nothing about evil. Scripturally, there are many reasons to think that God has limited the level of evil we are capable of experiencing on earth (see Job 1:12; 2:6; and 2 Thessalonians 2:7). No matter what boundary God sets for evil, there will always be a “worst possible thing.” The error is in assuming that God hasn’t set the bar for suffering lower than He could have.
Likewise, according to the Bible, God has gone to great lengths to enact a plan to end all evil and suffering. The fact that God’s plan has not been completed—yet—is not logically a sign that God has done nothing. The end result has not yet occurred, but everything is in motion toward that end.
Though the subject of human free will is complex, even a brief examination shows that there are reasons—at least in theory—why God would allow us freedom and choice in this life. That’s especially true when one considers that, according to Christianity, this life is not all there is. What we struggle with and suffer under in this life is not all we are or all we are meant for.
While this is hardly an in-depth look at the claim that God is a “moral monster,” it should be enough to demonstrate that the claim is much harder to prove than some might think. There are severe factual, philosophical, and logical flaws in making such an accusation against God.