God is Great, God is Good: Medieval Conceptions of Divine Goodness and the Problem of Hell
By Kelly James Clark
Religious Studies, Vol.37:1 (2001)
Abstract: Medieval views of both divine goodness and the doctrine of hell are examined and shown to be incompatible with our best understandings of goodness. The only manner in which God could be good to those in hell – by permitting their continued existence – is not sufficient to outweigh ‘the dreadful pains of eternal fire’. One might claim that God is good to them in the retributive sense; but I argue that retributive punishment is inadequate justification of eternal torment. The medieval notions of goodness and hell seem to make God more a sadistic torturer than a caring parent. Eleonore Stump, accepting the medievals’ axiology, ameliorates the doctrine of hell. However, I argue that her Dantean version of hell fails because not to be in certain circumstances is rationally preferable to continued existence. In addition, life under those conditions would result in frustration, not fulfilment, of one’s second nature and would result in a progressive loss of being. Indeed, it seems more reasonable to reject the identity of being and goodness which both the medievals and Stump embrace or to accept being as a prima facie good that is defeasible in the face of eternal damnation.
Introduction: ‘God is great, God is good, now we thank him for our food.’ This simple prayer reflects twin commitments in Christian belief to God’s greatness and God’s goodness. Yet Christian theodicies have often averred to God’s greatness to the detriment of his goodness. Let us interpret God’s greatness in a manner other than power. Indeed, let us consider God’s greatness, as the medievals understood God’s goodness, in terms of being: goodness and being are interchangeable;1 God is the most real being; hence, God is the greatest being. God is great.
Let us interpret God’s goodness in a manner analogous to human goodness. I take God’s goodness as analogous primarily to the parent-child relationship; God is good, according to this analogy, as a father or mother is to his or her children. Caring for one’s children is a paradigm metaphor in Scripture for God’s care for his creatures. God is good.