‘God is good’, we blithely proclaim. ‘Goodness’ is a quality that many of us - certainly if we are theists - automatically associate with the supreme being. And most people, whether or not they believe in His existence, probably assume that the word ‘god’ is, indeed, related etymologically to the word ‘good’. But is this really the case?
The answer is a very simple No.
My Collins English dictionary reveals that the English noun for the (or a) deity goes back to Old English god, which is related to the Old Norse goth, and Old High German got. By contrast, the English adjective good goes back to Old English gōd, related to Old Norse gōthr and Old High German guot. As you can see, the long vowel preserved in the modern English adjective was there from the beginning. The words - and the underlying concepts behind them - were always linguistically distinct.
Moral goodness is not something that the Greeks and Romans, or other ancient cultures, automatically attached to their gods. The Olympian gods (by way of example) were a capricious, jealous bunch, consumed and riven by petty differences, constantly scheming against one another, with their human worshippers on earth below forever used as proxies and pawns in their intrigues. They were gods made in our image - very much the opposite of what the Book of Genesis asserts when it claims that humans were made in the divine image.
The gods of the Canaanites and other Ancient Near Eastern cultures that YHWH opposes in the Hebrew Scriptures are depicted in even more despicable terms than the gods of Olympus. The greatest condemnation is reserved for the Canaanite god Moloch, whose worshippers indulge in child sacrifice. In no sense would we regard such deities as ‘good.’
But in the 21st century we live in an age where the ‘goodness’ of any god is open to question. When we consider how religious belief has been used to justify some of the most heinous acts in human history, then it is no surprise that the casual and causal linkage between ‘God’ and ‘good’ is challenged. The late author and journalist Christopher Hitchens famously entitled his atheistic polemic, published in 2007, God is not Great - but he might just have easily entitled it God is not Good. The moral argument for the immorality of faith is increasingly heard these days: and when one hears the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church describe Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression in Ukraine as a ‘Holy War’, it’s not surprising that many almost want to puke at the very suggestion that such an individual can truly be a man of God. For if he is - then what kind of God would use him as (one) of his servants and instruments upon earth? Hardly a ‘good’ God.
Of course, Christians and other people of faith would wish to remind their critics of the inherent goodness displayed by many of their most cherished leaders, and certainly the founders of their faiths. They would also point out that the greatest depths of human depravity and wickedness were probably plumbed by individuals who lacked any sense of understanding or being answerable to an all-loving, all-wise, all-knowing God. And as a person of faith myself, I wouldn’t disagree with that assessment.
But - ‘good God’ - all I’m saying is…
‘It ain’t necessarily so.’
Choose your words as wisely as your gods.