William of Ockham wrote in his Super 4 Libros Sententiarum that if God were to command us to commit acts of cruelty, we would be morally obligated to do so because our morality comes from God. Many people would be unwilling to do harm to another at the behest of someone else, even if that command came from God. Thomas Aquinas suggested that omnipotence precludes wanton acts of cruelty, but there are no logical contradictions with God willing acts of wanton acts of cruelty. So if the Divine Command Theory were held to be true, Christians would have to behave brutally if God commanded them to do so. Deplorable actions would be pardoned because that person only followed the will of God. This would mean that when God wills people, Christian or otherwise, to commit actions that were normally horrible, then these actions are no longer horrible. So any despot’s pogroms under the DCT might be sanctioned by a higher power and Christians cannot call any actions committed in the name of God reprehensible unless we are also willing to risk going against the will of God.
This often leads to a counter-argument by defenders of the Divine Command Theory, namely, that God wouldn’t condone any act of evil perpetrated in his own name because God is absolutely good. And yet this leads to another issue because one cannot define God as the definition of goodness, as that is circular reasoning. To expand on this, if being all-good is an essential property of God, then all we could prove is that a righteous supernatural being like God wills righteous actions. And this doesn’t advance our understanding of morality since by definition a righteous being does righteous things. If God is all-good then he could not will deplorable things to happen, but this would mean that there is a constraint on God’s power, making him less than omnipotent if he cannot will bad things to happen. Perhaps one would go on to say that goodness is not a defining attribute of God. Many would be uncomfortable accepting this premise, but accepting this idea wouldn’t invalidate the DCT like the previously held assumptions of God’s benevolence would. This would lead to the idea that a being as infinitely powerful as God does not need to be (and to be logically consistent cannot be) perfectly benevolent. As such, he could will awful things to happen. If this is indeed the case, then one is reminded of the quote by Lord Acton “absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely”. Would a supernatural being like God with infinite power but no obligation to do things that are right still be considered God? A being with infinite power who wields that power to do bad things cannot be God in any definition that mainstream Christians recognize.
If God cannot will certain things to happen because they are bad, then he is not omnipotent. This leads to the most damning indictment of all; if our thoughts or actions are neither right nor wrong independently of God’s will, then God cannot choose one thing over another because it is right. And this might suggest that God has no power to decide what things are right or not, which undermines the previous argument that God is the arbiter of all things if he doesn’t control what is right or not. The final blow to the DCT comes here because this would suggest that God’s moral and ethical laws are arbitrary. And why should we worship a being that arbitrarily decides our fate? If God has no moral reasons behind making these laws because nothing is inherently right or wrong without his will, then we would have no moral obligation to follow them. So to believe in God, one needs to realize that our morality does not come from him. If not from God, where does our sense of right and wrong come from? It may fill some people with dread to think that our morality does not come to us by God, but if God is supremely responsible for our sense of morality, that would mean what is right or wrong depends entirely upon what he wills.
Let’s consider for one moment that God is not the author of our morality, but nonetheless he is the enforcer of our morality. Our morality comes from somewhere other than his divine command, but he is still in charge of punishing the wicked who break the rules. In this case, defenders of this modified DCT argue that people behave morally because they fear God’s wrath, a referee in the game of life has to follow the rules like everyone else, but is left with the charge of policing his creation, making sure we all follow the rules. With no authority over what is right or wrong, but the power to punish those who break the law, we have no reason to heed God other than the fear of his divine punishment. This would suggest that only people who believe in God act morally because their fear in divine punishment keeps them good. But research shows that atheists are just as moral as theists, so the threat of divine punishment does not stop everyone from behaving immorally. Furthermore, the threat of violence does not and should not make us obligated to follow the rules. God is the despot, enforcing rules and punishing the crimes of a fallible human being with the unending torture of hellfire. Someone who is forced to follow the rules to avoid harm or reluctantly agrees to follow the rules because they will benefit from this in some way is not a good person. One cannot be good by being coerced into doing good things; one should do good things because they are inherently good. By punishing those who don’t behave morally, God doesn’t actually make people any more moral because in order to behave morally, one has to do good things for the sake of being good.
But wait! God works in mysterious ways. Maybe God wills bad things to happen because it is necessary for even better things to happen as a result of this. Then we can chalk up natural disasters, plagues, famines, pestilence, and strife as part of God’s divine plan. We can’t know whether bad things happen because they will lead to better things later on, or if bad things happen God can’t stop them or doesn’t want to. After all, suffering is unavoidable some times; but it can also lead to positive things like personal growth. But why should we hold this view of a God who doles out necessary evils for the greater good? Because there is no sense to a God who would condemn a guilty person to hell for all eternity, no matter what the crime. Condemning someone in that manner is the very definition of unnecessary suffering and unnecessary suffering is wrong; not all theologians believe in the existence of hell because of this. The thought that an all-loving God would condemn someone to an eternity of torment seems counter-intuitive to the argument that God is benevolent. It is entirely unnecessary for a conscious being to undergo unending torture for any worldly crime. The concept of hell is supremely impractical because unceasing pain would never rid the sinner of their bad habits. So hell serves no purpose because punishment is meant to discourage that sinner from such wicked behaviors. The punishment of an infinite torment in hellfire will have no effect because it will never end. One will never learn their lesson and no one who knew that damned person could ever realize justice had been served until they too, died. Suffering will never be destroyed as long as the wicked are kept punished for all of time. So the argument that God works in mysterious ways is another dead end, at least from a philosophical point of view because we can’t learn anything more once we start talking about God’s intentions. The DCT faces some serious flaws now that we’ve dissected it a bit because it doesn’t take much effort to realize that if goodness is a defining characteristic of God, then it is circular reasoning at best, and if this isn’t true, then the entire theory of Divine Command is false.
Our discussion of the divine command theory has been to critically examine the assumptions some people hold about the nature of morality and where humans get our morality. The implications of this discussion determine not only how we should act, but why we should act in a certain way, and most importantly it presents a view of morality without God. The Divine Command Theory’s failure tells us that God cannot decide what is right or wrong and certainly cannot punish someone for when they do act immorally. Anyone who needs a concept of God to behave morally out of fear of divine punishment cannot be moral.