In the olden days, when you had a question and Grandma wasn’t around to ask, you asked Google. If you typed in “Is God good?” the first page of results would list Christian websites pointing to Bible verses that define and assert God’s goodness. So easy!
Today, artificial intelligence (AI) is all the rage. When I asked GPT-4 the same question, I got this conversational response: “There is much debate and discussion about this question.” In the end, “It is a matter of personal belief.” So God is good if you believe God is good, but not if you don’t (#weird).
For a decade after 9/11, a bunch of books were published by a group known as “the New Atheists.” Christopher Hitchens argued in his 2007 book God Is Not Great that a good God can’t be squared with all the world’s pain, suffering, and death.
In response, many Christian apologists doubled down on the rational arguments for God’s existence and goodness. But most of the YouTube debates I’ve watched between Christian apologists and atheist critics devolve into talking past each other. Curiously, the Christians often appear to think their point will be more persuasive if they shout (#facepalm).
I feel that there is a fundamental misunderstanding in these questions about how to know God’s existence or goodness. It’s in the verb “to know.” We live in a world made up of facts. The world is knit together in our minds by knowing these facts. We function in the world as if storing these facts and generating new facts with increasing computational intelligence are of utmost importance. This is how we understand “knowing” something.
So when we entertain the question of God’s goodness, we conceive of it within this rationalist worldview where God and God’s goodness are viewed as straightforward, knowable facts about the universe—as a simple “yes-or-no” question.
But it can’t be this simple because, as the Bible repeatedly insists, God is utterly different, categorically other, absolutely unimaginable—in short: unknowable. Here lies the problem, then: how can we know anything about the unknowable?
To “know” in the Bible is not about possessing brute facts, but about intimate stories. A particular community, often persecuted and marginalized, has carried its stories through history—stories of their encounters with this God who keeps bringing light out of darkness.
A fleeing murderer and traitor who returns to liberate an enslaved nation. A teenager forcefully relocated and enslaved for re-education who never forgets his home or identity. An addict who can’t quit but whose husband never gives up on her. A young adult who betrays his teacher to protect his own reputation but who is forgiven and reconciled to the one he had abandoned. There are millions of stories like these in this community.
By inhabiting stories like these we become a part of this community. This isn’t a community with secret access to facts about the universe. No, this is a community learning to trust life despite the facts of death. This is a community of people building their lives on God, the Unknowable One with whom the “impossible” can be surprisingly possible and shockingly good.
To know God and God’s goodness isn’t to have a bit of data stored in your meat computer. It is to realize that I was lost, and now I’ve been found. It is to wake up to new life even though I was dead just a moment ago. To know God and God’s goodness is to receive the infinite grace that is every breath of life.
About the Author
Michael Wagenman is the Christian Reformed campus minister at Western University in London, Ont., where he invites undergraduate students to put their faith into loving service and mentors graduate students. His most recent book is The Power of the Church: The Sacramental Ecclesiology of Abraham Kuyper (Wipf &Stock, 2020).