Tough Questions: "Can God do evil?"

Tough questions are questions that atheists can ask in the course of a conversation or debate with a theist that quickly lead to some interesting conclusions. The following question can be very effective:

Can God do evil?

To a theist, there are only two possible answers to this questions, and each one leads to interesting conclusions.

The theist answer: No, He cannot do evil.

For a theist to say that God cannot do evil is actually quite a strong claim. First of all, it says that God is limited in His options and is helpless to choose to do anything but "the good". Essentially, if God never has to make a moral choice, He ceases to be a moral agent. Theists are very seldom comfortable with the idea of their omnipotent God being powerless in any meaningful way.  A dropped rock falls to the ground without choice; how much praise is due the rock for falling correctly? Theists are even less comfortable with there being no basis for praising God's moral character -- if He could not have done otherwise.

One way that a theist may try to dig out of this conundrum is to argue that whatever God does is the definition of Good. So He is unlimited in whatever He does, He's just limited in what the things He does are called.

If the theist wants to go this route, then he has to admit that for God there is no difference between a moral and immoral action. This means that God created an absolutely arbitrary set of rules for people to follow. If this situation described reality, a theist would obey God because He is a capricious tyrant setting down arbitrary rules -- not because God is praiseworthy or the rules uncover some basic moral truth.

The theist answer: Yes, He can do evil.

When the response hits upon this one, the answer you get is usually, "All right, whatever, God can do evil, He just never does. He perfectly chooses to never sin."

As soon as the theist mentions that God has the capability to do evil, he's in a lot of trouble. The question now becomes one of epistemology: how does this theist gain the knowledge that God never does anything wrong?

Does God tell the theist that He's never done wrong? If God had done wrong in the past, what's to stop Him from lying now?

If the person you are arguing with is a Christian, you can ask pointedly about God's alleged past actions.

A favorite verse to bring up is:

1 Samuel 15:2-3 (NRSV)

Thus says the Lord of hosts, “I will punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.”

Not only can God do evil, He admits to doing evil in this verse itself! When I bring up this verse, both theists and atheists mistake the point that I hope to bring out with it.

My claim: It is immoral to command people to kill women, children and infants.

I will allow a lot to pass if I think that I have an ultimate point that cannot be worked around. For example, does God have the right to take away human life? It's arguable, but I'll grant that He does for the sake of argument. Were the Amelekites despicable people who should be wiped out? Doubtful, but I'll grant that they were for the sake of argument. Why? Because I will just nail the point to the ground: If anything is immoral, commanding a person to kick down doors and kill children and infants with a sword is immoral.

If the theist has conceded that God can do evil, and that God has ordered His followers to kill children and infants, this seems to screamingly beg for the question, "Hasn't God actually done evil?" Eventually, the theist may answer that he would worship God no matter how much evil God appears to have done.

Consider the possibility that the theist started out worshiping Satan instead of God by accident. By the theist's own admission, there is absolutely nothing that Satan could do that was evil enough for him to admit his mistake. Quite a sobering thought.

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