This question haunted me for a very long time during my slow philosophical education into the Faith. I could clearly see why God had to be all-knowing and all-powerful if he were infinite, but why good? It wasn’t until I read into St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles that I finally understood the essential nature of divine goodness, something, it turns out, that some 1,500 years earlier, Socrates had already realized! Socrates assured his followers that he feared nothing from death, because, he said, the affairs of a just man are not a matter of indifference to the gods. It follows that the gods love justice, a principle that becomes crucial to the conclusion of Plato’s Republic, where Socrates showcases the surpassing value of justice not only in this life but also in the next. Socrates knew that the gods ultimately had to be just, because justice lies at the bottom of all things. Because he also understood that the Greek pantheon mixed good and evil in its gods, Socrates often talked about “the God,” the God he could not name but knew had to be perfectly just. After the Athenians began to regret killing Socrates, they constructed an altar to this unnamed or unknown God, an altar that some 400 years later, St. Paul pointed to as honoring the true God whose Son, Jesus Christ, had become incarnate into the world. St. Paul realized that Socrates had it right, that to truly understand the nature of the divine, we must identify God with goodness. But why? That is the question we wish to explore in this Question from the Unsettled Mind!
Let’s begin with St. Thomas’ four distinct claims that we can make about God’s relationship to goodness:
1. God is good.
2. God is the highest good (i.e., God is goodness itself).
3. God is the good of every good (i.e., applied to us, this means that God is our good, our end, or our purpose.)
4. God is his own good.
You have probably never heard of the last three of these four truths, though they are critically important for our understanding of God’s goodness. Let’s begin with the notion that God is good. How do we know that this is true? Mightn’t it be possible that the universe is really caused by a bad God, by a cosmic jinni of sorts? Looking around at all of the trouble in this life, you might wonder if that is so farfetched! By applying a little bit of philosophical reasoning to our understanding of God’s nature, however, we can see that this is in fact impossible. The three “omni” attributes, omnipotence (infinite power), omniscience (infinite knowledge), and omnibenevolence (infinite goodness) are mutually entailing. This means that if any one of them applies, then they all do.
So, how are omnipotence and omniscience mutually entailing? If God is all powerful, then (to put it in practical terms) he could make himself know everything. Therefore, omnipotence entails omniscience. Similarly, if God is omniscient, then (again, in practical terms) he knows how to do anything—in which case he is omnipotent. This mutual relationship isn’t difficult to see. What’s harder to understand is why omniscience and omnipotence entail omnibenevolence. Why, in other words, couldn’t God be bad?
To get at this, we need to think further about goodness. What is it? What makes a father who cares for his son, stays up with him at night when he is throwing up, teaches him how to repair his bicycle tires, goes fishing with him on Saturday mornings, educates him in all areas of human understanding, games with him in computer, table top, and athletic games, teaches him how to drive, supports him through college, advises him wisely in matters of love, and offers him loving support in being the best person that he can be . . . a good father? And by contrast, what makes a father who despises his son, poisons him to make him sick and then laughs at him when he throws up, smashes his bicycle with a sledge hammer, mocks him when he fails to catch anything when he went fishing by himself, ridicules him for any intellectual or creative endeavor, decidedly defeats him in all games that they play (and quits playing when his son starts to get good), refuses to let him drive, laughs at him when he says he’d like to go to college and recommends instead he apply to work as a “sanitation engineer,” takes him to a strip joint to learn about love, and finally, demands that he enter a life of crime to support the family . . . a bad father? Hmm . . . well, mull that one over. What do you think? Isn’t it that what makes a father good or bad depends entirely on whether he seeks what is good for his son? We are good when we act according to what is good for things. To do that, we need to know what the things are. Thus, to act good toward a rabbit is different than to act good toward a human being. To act good toward your son, you need to consider who your son is.
I want you to carefully consider the relationship between goodness and being (i.e., what a thing is.) You’ll recall that Aristotle says that we act well (i.e., good) when we act toward completing the natures of things. Thus, to act well, is to act according to what is, according to its nature. The good father fulfills his son’s human nature, while the bad one undermines it. Goodness is the substance of things, evil its detraction or deprivation. The philosophers call this the “privation theory of evil.” Evil isn’t substantive or robust. It doesn’t have being or nature. Rather, it is the lack of being or nature in something that ought to be different. Evil isn’t a positive thing, but the lack of a positive thing. Evil is like darkness, the absence of light. Evil is like cold, the absence of heat. The real, the robust thing is the good. Evil is more like a leech that simply eats away at the full nature of a thing.
Now, with this understanding of evil in mind let’s go back to the question we were asking about God. Is it possible that an omnipotent being could be evil? Well, if a being is omnipotent, then he possesses maximal reality, all positive qualities, doesn’t he? And to possess maximal reality means that he is lacking in nothing, including goodness. Since evil is a lack—a privation—it follows that since God lacks nothing, he cannot be evil. So, it is impossible for an infinite being to be evil. Thus, divine omnipotence entails divine goodness.
Now, you might object that maybe the privation theory of evil is false. Maybe evil and goodness are more like yin and yang, two sides of the same ultimate thing. That’s a very popular idea in the East, and you’ll now find that it has permeated the West as well. So, let’s consider that. First, you can probably see that this theory doesn’t get rid of the privation theory at all, but only fails to call it “evil.” For if good and evil are like the choice between cookies or cake, both substantive options, then we can still suggest a third option, namely the negation of both, no dessert at all! Thus, privation is back. Second, it’s really not clear what could be meant by saying that cookies are good and cake is bad. Both are created things, so how can they be bad in themselves? What can that even mean?
Americans were popularly introduced to this idea of good and evil as substances (a theory historically called Manichaeism and as a school of religion, Gnosticism) through the original Star Wars trilogy (Episodes IV-VI). In these films it is suggested that good (light) and evil (darkness) are really two sides of the same Force. What the Force is, isn’t ever very clear. Certain human attributes tend toward the light side of the force, attributes such as calm, self-control, order, and harmony. Certain human attributes tend toward the dark side of the force, attributes such as fear, anger, and excitement. So, as Luke Skywalker learns the ways of Jedi, he is instructed in how to develop one set of human faculties and restrain the other set. He is told that his anger will lead to the seduction of the dark side of the Force, which is what happened to his father. As a result, by the time of the third film, Return of the Jedi, we see a very curious Luke Skywalker. He is neither the boy we met in Star Wars, but nor is he the flamboyant and energetic man that Han Solo is. Instead, he is rather odd, calm, and not too passionate. When he faces off against Han’s enemies, he fights them rather dispassionately too, always on guard against the emotions that “lead to the dark side.” Finally, he faces Vader and the Emperor, and there he is told that he will succumb to the power of the dark side of the Force. The Emperor tries to create a dilemma for Luke: either Luke will be killed by Vader and thus eliminated, or he will defeat Vader by giving in to his passions and thus fall into the dark side of the Force. Either way, the Emperor wins. And so, Luke fights Vader, and starts to lose the battle, but he also refuses to give into the Emperor. Then Vader reads into Luke’s mind and realizes that Luke’s sister is Leia. Vader threatens her, “If you will not submit to the power of the dark side, then she might!” And of course, Luke completely loses it, furiously engaging Vader with a series of light saber strokes that finally brings Vader to his knees. At this point, according to the Manichean theory of the films, Luke ought to fall into the dark side, for he became afraid for his sister and got angry, and fear and anger lead to the dark side of the Force . . . yet, strangely, this does not occur. In fact, you probably never noticed this contradiction in the films, did you? Why? Simple: we all know that when someone threatens your sister, you FIGHT. It’s not wrong, but right. Anger was made for something, after all. The film’s writers know that we all feel this way, and so they could get away with slipping in this anti-Manichean idea in order to save Luke. But they cheat, don’t they? Anger was supposed to be bad, so how can it now suddenly be good, especially when it provided the power for Luke to defeat Vader?
Well, the answer, of course, is that none of us actually believe in the Manichean theory. We think instead that all substantive human emotions have a proper object, that none of them are inherently bad like the Star Wars theory suggests. In fact, the Star Wars Jedi is being reduced in his human nature—made less human—by cutting off parts of his nature (those of you who have read the Stoics will see an immediate parallel). The true human hero is really Han Solo who is becoming a fully human person, a responsible adult male.
Now, what does all this Star Wars talk have to do with the question? Well, theoretically we saw that Manichaeism (the idea that goodness and evil are both substances) was untenable, because we can just recreate the privational question by negating both substances. But I wanted you to see that practically Manichaeism is also just as untenable; we don’t buy it. Good things are real things. Evil is the absence of the true good, some perversion or corruption of the whole. It often deceives us into thinking that it is positive (that is its seduction), but in the end it will always prove empty and destructive.
Let’s take an example: the prostitute. Why is a prostitute attractive to men? Well, she offers them a positive good—sex—together with an artificial short-term intimacy, in a way that is completely within their control (they are buying her charms). How on the privation theory of evil can this be an evil? Each positive thing that she offers has been robbed of its fullness. It is as though imitators have stepped forward claiming to be the real things. Sex without genuine intimacy doesn’t actually satisfy human beings very well, because human sexuality isn’t merely physical, but deeply emotional, even stronger, metaphysical and sacramental. This is why you aren’t awkward about seeing someone you shook hands with yesterday, but you are very awkward when you again see someone with whom you had a one-night stand. Again, the prostitute claims to offer intimacy—she coos and talks dirty and seems so caring—yes, but none of this is real, is it? In fact, she doesn’t care about you at all. Ask yourself which is better, a woman who really cares about you and loves you sexually, or a woman who pretends to care about you? Is deception better than reality? The reason why prostitution is bad is precisely that it pretends to be the real thing, when in fact it is a privation of the real thing. Why is it attractive to some men? Because it appears to offer them all the sexual rewards without any of the human relationship work, thus catering to a laziness that negates the virtue of love. It accordingly doesn’t offer any real good in the end. Goodness is the real, the substance, and evil is the privation, the leech, the absence of goodness.
What follows are some pretty astonishing facts for most Americans to consider, but which Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle thought were completely obvious. What, you ask? Happiness is not relative to the individual. Rather, happiness is the good of the human person, and since human persons are distinct kinds of beings (we’re neither rabbits nor angels), it follows that what makes us full persons is definitive and the key to our happiness. What is good for us is real. That’s why you can tell that of the two fathers I presented earlier, one of them is a good father, and one of them is a bad father. The father who tends toward his son’s true good, the completeness of his human nature, is the good father.
Let’s return to the divine nature with all this in mind, and you’ll see some truly stunning things. We now understand why God is good. As infinitely real, infinitely substantive, he cannot lack anything at all, and so he must be good. But he is also the good, i.e., goodness itself. God is goodness inherently, because he is the standard by which all other goodness is measured. Why? Because he is that person who is absolute perfection. His goodness is uncreated, while ours is created. We are good only to the degree that we participate in his being and creation, i.e., according to what is real—our created natures. He is good by his eternal participation with himself. This is why God is also his own good. He is not fulfilled by taking in things from without, since he is already maximally fulfilled. We are not our own good, because our completion depends upon us becoming something that we are not currently. And what is that thing? Well, that brings us to the remaining Thomistic principle, that God is the good of every good, in other words, the supreme good, and therefore, our supreme good. All created things are aimed at something else for their perfection, but the most perfect thing of all is God. Therefore, God is our supreme end, the one thing alone that brings about complete perfection of our being.
To think of it another way, God is good for us. If he is the good, it follows that he must be good for us. The moral law is likewise good for us. If we’ve never understood it as anything but a list of regulations and rules that gets in the way of our fun, it might be time to rethink why honesty, and love, and friendship, and industry, and contentment, and honor, and fidelity are so much better for us than deceit, and hatred, and enmity, and laziness, and theft, and jealousy, and rebellion, and adultery! The virtues are so much better than the vices, because only through them can we achieve true happiness as persons, as people needing to love and be loved. And God is the ultimate lover, for he is the ultimate good. Thus, loving him must be the greatest thing you could possibly do. Perhaps you can see why when asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus replied to love God with all of yourself.