Dear Mr. Barker,
We have been considering your "letter from God," and come to the third section, in which you ask the question, how would God know the difference between good and evil? We take it that your aim here is to challenge what is known as the Divine Command Theory of morality.
You suggest that the Divine Command Theory would make morality purely arbitrary. God would simply make something up and impose it upon mankind by legislative fiat. If, on the other hand, you suggest, God conforms to a standard external to Himself, then He is obviously not free, and hence less than God.
We are frankly amazed that atheists have such difficulty with so simple a concept. It is a bit like having to explain to a new employee why he has to follow the boss's directions. It is a simple matter of who is in charge, and in this case it is not us.
So you want to know how God decides what is right and what is wrong? The answer is that moral law is largely determined by two factors. The first is God's own character. "But thou, O Lord, art a God full of compassion, and gracious, longsuffering, and plenteous in mercy and truth" (Ps. 86:15). It is precisely because He is a God of compassion, that He hates injustice, cruelty and oppression of every kind. "For the Lord trieth the righteous: but the wicked and him that loveth violence his soul hateth" (Ps. 11:5). He does not view evil with the eye of detached indifference.
You object that if God has a "nature" (defined as His character or attributes), then He is not free. You imagine God as saying, "If my nature is clearly defined, then I am limited. I am not God" (p. 154). But that is exactly what the Bible says about God: He has a clearly defined nature, and therefore cannot act contrary to it. That is why God is trustworthy: He is not arbitrary or capricious, a cruel, unpredictable tyrant. "It is of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness" (Lam. 3:22,23).
The other major factor that determines God's moral law is His creative purpose for us. We were designed to function a certain way in human society, and some of God's laws are frankly intended to protect us from each other.
Take, for example, the Sabbath. You seem to have a major problem with this one. You picture God as saying, "In fact, I'll make it one of my Ten Commandments and I'll order your execution if you disobey it. This all makes perfect sense, though I don't know why" (p. 153).
Now if you are an atheist, and all you have to live for is filthy lucre, and you really don't care about the well-being of your fellow human beings, then, granted, the Sabbath is a major encumbrance. You are forced to shut down your business one day a week when you could be making money 24/7. God, however, is concerned with more than just your bank account. "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath . . ." (Mark 2:27). What God knows, and what we often fail to appreciate, is that we need periodic physical rest, we need to spend time with our families, and we need to put life in its proper perspective. Life is more than just making money.
In the next chapter of your book ("The Bible and Morality") you state that "Only three of the Ten Commandments have any relevance to American law: homicide, theft and perjury." You then add the parenthetical note: :"Adultery and Sabbath laws are still on the books in some states, but they are artifacts of theocracy" (p. 186). Now that the prohibitions against Sabbath-breaking and adultery no longer "have any relevance to American law," is it a mere coincidence that our family structure is crumbling? The anomaly of the situation was recently brought out, no doubt inadvertently, by President Obama. In his Second Inaugural Address he gave a ringing endorsement to same sex marriage. But then in his State of the Union Address not long afterwards he called for the expansion of preschool programs to overcome the learning deficit among many youngsters. What research shows, however, is that academic performance is directly tied to family stability. Poor learners typically come from dysfunctional families. If the President was really concerned about the well-being of America's children he would defend the traditional family. The price we pay as a society for our "progressive" social attitudes can be measured precisely in the tax dollars spent on health and family services. Sometimes when we try to be wiser than God we wind up hurting ourselves.
If God exists His will is normative. If He does not exist, morality becomes a matter of what we can get away with. In that scenario it is useless to pretend that there is anything that is truly "right" or "wrong." There is no universally binding code of conduct.
Related blog posts:
What Is Morality?
What God Requires
The Case for Moral Absolutes
Capitalism and the Sabbath
The Future of Playboy America