So God is Only Human?

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by Neil Godfrey

For God so loved the world that he did what many other people would have done — only to undo all his good with a much worse act later.

trolley-switchOne mind-game that keeps recurring in my recent and current readings in the nature and origins of our moral sense is the trolley experiment.

You see a trolley is running out of control along railway tracks and is about to kill five people hedged in by high banks on the track ahead. You have the option of pulling a lever to re-route the trolley to a side-track but there is another person similarly trapped there and who will die of you do.

Is it permissible to pull the lever so the trolley kills the one but saves the five? Most people say it is.

Then it occurred to me that isn’t this a bit like what the Christian gospel is about? God sees many people doomed to die, so he flicks a switch so that only one dies instead. (Okay, there are more theological trappings to this: those five have to repent or believe or they’ll find themselves in the same situation again and then God will decide not to pull the lever and they’ll all die anyway!)

So far, apart from the theological monstrosities, does not God’s great act of salvation appear to be little more than a perfectly natural human act in accordance with perfectly natural human ethics?

The mind-game gets more interesting if we introduce some variations. What about tossing a very heavy bulk of a man onto the track to stop the trolley if there is no lever to save the five; or what about pulling a lever that will drop the heavy bulk of a man on to the track so you don’t actually push him, and so forth.

Then there are other types of variation to introduce. One of these is having the solitary person on the side track being a close friend or relative of yours, perhaps your child? What if the five people are all staunch supporters of [fill in your most hated politician/party here]?

Then try the variants of scale. What if not just five people were doomed but an entire city by something accordingly matching the trolley?

If you saw the entire population on earth was doomed and the only way to save them was to allow your child to die, what would you do? It would be horribly painful but I suspect some, even many, people would even sacrifice their child.

Would God, then, have been any better than many mere mortals?

(Come to think of it, how many mere mortals, lacking awe and mystery, would then doom that entire population in a re-run if they failed to believe God had not lost his child after all but had magically brought him back to life?)

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38 thoughts on “So God is Only Human?”

  1. Complicated subjects. The biblcal response seems to be endless equivocation. Wheels within wheels within wheels. Theolgians ask: did the Bible really support substitutionary atonement?

    We might also ask: did Jesus even really die? The Bible seems to try to have it both ways. Jesus died for our sins. But he is immortal and didn’t really die.

    Finally many different morals are outlined. Finally even the Bible doesn’t really settle firmly on any one.

    1. “We might also ask: did Jesus even really die? The Bible seems to try to have it both ways. Jesus died for our sins. But he is immortal and didn’t really die.”

      theology says that god has been creating flesh for millions of years. theology also says that god appears as a ghost, unknown gardener, lamb, goat and many other things. doesn’t matter if a god loses one of his faces for few days, he has many remaining.

  2. Is it permissible to pull the lever so the trolley kills the one but saves the five?

    What of personal moral integrity?—should one become a murderer in order to “save”?…if so, is there a ratio of murder and “saving” that is acceptable?—If yes, then can we condemn ISIS without being hypocrites?

    Ethico-Moral values/principles should be balanced between two aspects of human “being”—the individual and the social in order for it to be comprehensive, coherent and consistent.

    1. Murder is intentional killing. That is not what is described in the first scenario of the trolley problem. The one pulling the lever does not want to kill anyone. The death of one is the inevitable consequence of saving five from certain death.

      There is a difference between manslaughter and murder in all legal codes.

      1. If you choose to flip the switch knowing that doing so will cause the death of a person who would not otherwise die, that’s an intentional killing, i.e., murder. And I don’t think there is legal justification or defense for it, although I also don’t know that, as a practical matter, most prosecutors would charge anyone for murder under such a scenario (although it clearly is murder).

        1. There is nothing premeditated or intentional about killing another person when pulling the lever to save five lives so it is not murder according to probably most legal systems and social conventions.

          Pushing the fat man on to the track is indeed committing murder to save the five.

          Most people see a stark difference between the two actions.

          Apparently you are one of the few who would beg to differ.

          1. The problem here is that I know what the law says, and you don’t. So, I am not begging to differ, I am telling you that you are wrong.

            Everything about choosing to kill another person is premeditated and intentional. Premeditation does not require bad intentions, only knowledge that death will result from your actions.

            On the other hand, if you don’t pull the lever, you have not committed homicide at all, let alone murder.



            The real question is whether intentionally choosing to kill someone is justifiable in the eyes of the law, e.g., via the necessity defense.


            Unfortunately, the answer to the question of “necessity” depends on the social value of the five relative to the one. If the five are escaped murderers and the one is Bill Gates (or name your favorite oligarch), you will be convicted of murder. No legal or moral clarity to be found there. Sorry.

            Unless you are the one you choose to sacrifice, the true moral (and legal) choice in your scenario is to do nothing at all. Unless you occupy a position in society in which society has empowered you (and expects you) to make such decisions, the fact that you have power over the lives of others does not mean you should wield it just because you can and have the opportunity to do so.

            1. I said you disagreed with most other people who do the test.

              You then go on to other qualifications of which I said there were many that change the ways we make the decisions.

              Sounds like you are just disagreeing for the sake of disagreeing.

      2. There is a difference between manslaughter and murder in all legal codes.

        Is that a justification for the idea of “collateral damage” the west likes to use in their wars?

        1. What do you mean by “the West”? Speaking of the West as if they are all one mind is as bizarre as Steven Carr and others speaking of Muslims as if they are all blood-stained terrorists or terrorists just waiting to be.

          1. “the west”—my bad, sorry. Modern tradition has a “Just War” theory(Jus ad bellum, Jus in Bellum, Jus post bellum)—perhaps inherited from its Christian past…and the restrictions and moral responsibility it places on human beings is good. However, my opinion is that Modern tradition (Enlightenment onwards) has not adequately understood the concept of “equality” (equivalent value of all humanity) and so its (ethico-moral) philosophy can become somewhat distorted. (…both Kantian and Utilitarianism)

            Ethics/morality are elaborations of rules governing human behavior/social expectations therefore how “Human being”/human nature is defined is the premise on which ethics/morality is based….

            There are 2 types of underlying desires that motivate human actions—self-interest and altruism. Its not either/or—rather, the underlying motivation lies in degrees between these two types….this is so, even when human beings pursue peace, or happiness, or justice or other aspirations…..

            Just War theory

            Collateral damage (killing civilians)
            Utilitarianism, which promotes the idea that what is best (moral) is whatever is good for the greatest number of people–can justify the killing of a few to “save” the many….

            Another scholar….Micheal Walzer argues that a “Supreme Emergency Exemption” can allow states to violate “the laws of war”(specifically the killing of “innocents)

            ‘… individuals cannot kill other individuals to save themselves, but to save a nation
            we can violate the rights of a determinate but smaller number of people.’
            (Walzer, 2000: 254)

            ‘“Supreme emergency” describes those rare moments when the negative duty
            that we assign – that we can’t help assigning – to the disaster that looms before
            us devalues morality itself and leaves us free to do whatever is militarily necessary
            to avoid the disaster, so long as what we do doesn’t produce an even worse
            disaster.’ (Walzer, 2005: 40)

            1. You are speaking in vague generalisations. Who, exactly, are you thinking of when you speak of certain traditions and theories? Which group/s or persons adhere to and base their practices on the ideas you speak about?

              It sounds to me like you are once again making wildly generalised assertions about “The Other” that on closer inspection completely break down or have so many exceptions and opposite case scenarios that the original claim becomes meaningless.

              I reject the notion that the whole of the West (as you put it) fails to understand equality. Sweeping generalisations and discussions of abstract theories instead of specific groups and individuals is a form of depersonalisation and unhelpful.

              1. Modern Tradition as articulated by philosophers and scholars such as Lock, Rousseu, to Rawls, Walzer, Sandel…etc. Used by political and military institutions and policy makers…..

                opposite case—True—what is considered “post-modernism”—has already criticized some of the assumptions that “Modern” philosophical tradition has been based on…..

                Depersonalized generalizations—I agree, will be attentive in future conversations….If you have any suggestions for a better/more specific labeling system…pls inform…

                Here is a simple overview of “Modern” philosophy…and in particular, political philosophy….

              2. What about looking at what specific people/organisations actually say and do? Which ones don’t understand ‘equality’ properly? How does this show? (“Military institutions” is an odd choice, given their job description and that in democracies they are normally under the direction of civilians, the Parliament…; “policy makers” — which ones? who? what policies, specifically?)

                The course overview is not a guide to exactly what the “West” thinks — past philosophers are discussed, and used as starting points for discussion. People are free to think and modify and adapt and learn. Education involved discussing and thinking about the philosophical views, of critiquing them, of making informed and critiqued decisions – not slavishly following them.

    2. “What of personal moral integrity?—should one become a murderer in order to “save”?”

      christian theology says that god committed suicide so he took his own life in his power and control. so all the piercing and opening of flesh were divine acts purified.

      1. The whole “saving” business has also been inherited by Western culture—The savior complex is very apparent in Hollywood movies as well as in war propaganda—such as “saving” Afghan women or bringing democracy (and thus “saving” Iraqi people….etc)

        What is toxic about it is not the idea of “saving” in itself—rather that one does the “saving” through destruction . The apocalyptic scenario also has a similar idea—but inverted—destroy to save….

        What value does one put on human life?—is it quantifiable?—The Quran and Talmud have the idea that their is no difference of value in one life or a whole community—If you save one soul, you have saved the whole community/mankind—In other words—on both sides of the track—the value of human life is the same.

        The U.S. “killed” half a million Iraqi children because of sanctions and Madeline Albright said “it was worth it”.

        Today people are trying to bring “peace” through war…

        1. christian theology has clearly limited their gods powers to exercise other types of saving. theology says that gods forgiveness is on standby until he violently /ritually opens his created flesh.

    3. Most people reject the murder option — that is, that one should push the fat man on to the tracks to save the five.

      Anon’s implicit justification of terrorist tactics is generally rejected according to the studies.

      1. There is no real difference between pushing a fat man onto the tracks and pushing the lever to make the train to run over a fat man already tied to the tracks. If you had done nothing, the fat man would still be alive. Instead, you decided that he should die and acted to ensure his death. It really is that simple.

        Yes, you can try to justify legally your premeditated killing of the fat man, but your success in that effort will depend entirely on the facts (e.g., what if the fat man you pushed onto the tracks is the guy who caused the train to go out of control with intent to kill the five people?; what if the fat man tied to the tracks was the warden of the prison that the five escaped rapists on the other set of tracks had escaped from?), which suggests that a legal justification for intentional homicide is not necessarily a moral justification for it.

        This all reminds me of the experiments that led to Prospect Theory. How you frame the question affects how people answer it. Framing a question one way causes people to embrace an outcome they would reject if the question were framed another way.

        1. There are many such permutations. What is interesting for me is what the feedback (cross cultural, of course) informs us about “human nature”

  3. God the father is God and Jesus is God the son, who is God. God sent himself to die, but not really, for imperfections in his creation. It’s an elaborate con. Punishing his imperfect creation for his being an imperfect creation isn’t just. Requiring his imperfect creation to accept himself in disguise because they didn’t accept him in another guise is a con. Sacrificial death, even a fake one as this, can never atone for anything in any moral sense. Only the person who dd the crime can do the time. But there was no crime, as God is just punishing his creation for being imperfect. That’s the creator’s error, not the creations.
    Then the reply is that God had to allow free will, an imperfection, so that his creation could choose God because reasons. In the end God is using people to his end, and using people to an end isn’t moral.

    1. So finally Nietzsche hinted that our gods and idols, and their ethical systems, are all too obviously the creation of fallible human beings, and not gods. They are obviously “all too human,” and flawed. None of the old religious value systems, moralities, really stand up to close scrutiny.

      For that matter, the new systems are problematic too. Though at least they often don’t pretend to be perfect always.

  4. That last paragraph exposes the goofiness and in my opinion the immorality of the entire Christian religion. Perhaps Pliny the Younger (if he wrote that letter 10, 96) was right after all.

  5. Hello Neil

    it seems to me that christians have placed their god in similar situation to the person who has to decided whether to switch either left or right. this implies , in my opinion, that there really can not be a free and willingly sacrifice i.e, god was forced to make a decision or else…

    do you agree ?

  6. Agreed, the analogy is not exact. I was thinking from the perspective of God the Father’s role — the world is doomed unless he chooses to “pull the switch” to let his Son die instead. There was some flippancy there.

    Once you get into all the details of the Gospel message then it’s not long before you are confronting a moral monstrosity that few humans could ever really take seriously.

    1. “Agreed, the analogy is not exact. I was thinking from the perspective of God the Father’s role — the world is doomed unless he chooses to “pull the switch” to let his Son die instead. There was some flippancy there.”

      it seems that the situation god created for himself “done him over”

      then the created thing gives god limited choice.

      1. “then the created thing gives god limited choice.”

        And because His Son is also Himself (figure that one out) — and even if His Son weren’t Himself –, God created a trap that even He could not get out of.

        1. the tree of life was really the tree of gods death sentence.
          as soon as adam made his choice to eat from the tree then god couldn’t kill of adam, but had to await his death sentence. the tree of gods death sentence reduced god to a human being with limited choice.

  7. @Neil

    My comments were meant to be confined to the trolley example and the consequent ethical/moral dilemmas….and how “collateral damage” is or is not justified in the general thinking of those in Europe and North America….particularly in light of your comment about the degree of difference between homicide and manslaughter…

    “Which ones don’t understand ‘equality’ properly? How does this show?
    —-One glaring example of course is the hysteria caused when “civilians” who are North American or European are killed vs the lack of it when civilians that are “other” are killed….

    “Military institutions” is an odd choice, given their job description and that in democracies they are normally under the direction of civilians, the Parliament”
    —-This argument that the military is under the direction of “civilians” (citizens) is the excuse that Bin Laden used to justify targeting civilians in democracies—claiming that they are responsible for the killing of innocent civilians outside their countries because they fail to exercise their power to stop such killing….
    Do you agree or disagree with such a justification? Are citizens truly powerful in democracies or is this a myth?

    1. All humans naturally have stronger feelings for those closest to them. That’s how we have evolved. Our empathy extended to our immediate group and is not evolved to naturally have the same feelings for those distant from us. Ideas of equality have to do with believing in principles of justice and opportunity — something different from the biological settings that apply to all humans. Your example applies to all races, to all people, everywhere.

      No I don’t agree with Bin Laden’s justification for holding all civilians responsible and therefore deserving of death because that is to de-personalize Westerners just as many Westerners depersonalize Arabs or Muslims. Many western civilians oppose their own governments and do not vote for those civilians who are put in charge of the military. We saw the clearest demonstration of that when millions around the world came out into the streets to express their opposition to the invasion of Iraq.

      If in some countries such as the USA more people did support invasions (if that were so) then it is most certainly not just to kill those who opposed that majority along with those who supported it.

      Westerners themselves are very aware of the failings of our systems and many of us are working to change it and work to better inform those who are less aware. We have freedom to debate and work towards better the system from within. Islamists depersonalize the Westerners and treat them all as tools of generalized ideas.

  8. …”Ideas of equality have to do with believing in principles of justice and opportunity — something different from the biological settings that apply to all humans. Your example applies to all races, to all people, everywhere.”

    —I agree (at least, about Justice…). I am not faulting loyalty or identity—but the resultant actions of domestic vandalism/hate crimes and the military attacks on other countries…If Justice is consistent, comprehensive and coherent—It has to recognize the equal value of all humanity—which includes rights and responsibilities—and also excludes/restrains infringement of those rights or the abdication of those responsibilities. The peoples of North America and Europe hold Muslims responsible and demand apologies for terrorism…we Muslims may not have power to stop ISIS but it is good when we stand up for principles and condemn terrorism (both State terrorism and non-state terrorism)….There are groups within North America and Europe that are standing up against domestic hate crimes/vandalism and harassment of Muslims/Minorities mistaken for Muslims….but more can be done to restrain international violence/war…instead “National Security” is based on the idea of being “safe”(at home) at the expense of the safety of others…(particularly when profits are to be made by war and violence by powerful multinationals such as the weapons manufacturers, security companies who supply the mercenaries, criminals dealing in stolen oil such stuff…etc…)

    If this is “OUR” world, and Justice and Equality are “our” values…then we should work towards the safety and happiness of all humanity—not just the “privileged”…this responsibility is not just on the shoulders of Muslims alone—but on everyone…
    (AND we need not sacrifice loyalty to identity in order to do so….some sort of homogeneous neutrality…..we just need to be more inclusive and accepting of diversity.)

    What the world needs to move towards peace is not more war and violence—but more Justice…(and the institutions, the systems and the principles that will promote and implement it)

  9. Confucius advised to reciprocate evil with justice and kindness with kindness….

    Respect, Reciprocity, and Reconciliation are good values to build societies with…..

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