Can God Do Evil?

As far as I know, this question is meaningless to Christians, for whom God is pre-defined as infinitely good and so forth. If the Scholastics debated whether God could do evil if he chose, this is a gap in my education, although I wouldn’t put it past them. At any rate a simple negative answer might appear to compromise the attribute of omnipotence.

Islam seems more interesting on this subject. The dominant Asharite theology held that God is necessarily just, so that whatever he does is just. For this school, therefore, the question whether God has the power to do evil is quite meaningless. Another way of putting this would be that whatever God does, we must call good. This is by no means the same thing as an independent standard of goodness to which God decides to conform.

That nettle was explicitly grasped by early Islam’s opposing school, the Mu’tazilis, rather misleadingly praised in our own day as the ‘liberals’. These did debate whether God had the power to do evil, or to be unjust as Muslims prefer to phrase it, as they considered justice as something that God chose to perform. To them, good and evil could be perceived by the rational individual, we recognise it spontaneously and revelation only adds the specifics. (This sounds to me like the Thomist natural law.)

In Mu’tazili theology, therefore, God is subject to the same rules as we are, justice is not part of his nature but an obligation upon him. Inasmuch as he does not do injustice, this is not because of any definitional truth, but because an omniscient being who is not in need of anything will simply have no motivation to do evil.

To me, the interest in the question is provoked by the doctrine frequently met among the devout Christians, that if you do not forgive those who have unrepentantly wronged you, you are bound for hell. Given that they say that God will not forgive the unrepentant, such a demand that we forgive the unrepentant strictly entails that we must occupy a higher ethical level than God. I would love to know what a medieval Mu’tazili would make of this. But there again, in Islam we are not commanded to forgive unilaterally anyway.

Posted on August 3, 2011 at 10:27 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: THE LONGEST CON, The Longest Con, Miscellaneous

2 Responses

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  1. Written by Urban
    on June 17, 2016 at 12:20

    Unilateral forgiveness may have more to do with psychology than ethics. Holding grudges and allowing oneself to be overwhelmed by resentment and bitterness only hurts the grudge holder, not the object of all the resentment. Not letting the bastards get under your skin, moving on and living well is the best revenge, so this line of thought maintains.

  2. Written by Hugo Grinebiter
    on June 23, 2016 at 08:50

    Yes, but I find the doctrine of obligatory forgiveness of the unrepentant to be deeply offensive when promulgated by the very people who have injured you and their allies.

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