01 Aug 2016

Is God a Tyrant?

Religious 36 Comments

That’s the question I will be tackling as a speaker at this weekend’s Libertarian Christians conference. Especially for you agnostic/atheist libertarians, can you give me your best arguments on this? Also, if you could give me quotes/citations to famous critics (like Hitchens) on this topic, that would be great.

36 Responses to “Is God a Tyrant?”

  1. Khodge says:

    Define tyrant.

  2. Harold says:

    From wiki: “The original Greek term, however, merely meant an authoritarian sovereign without reference to character”

    God could be tyrant by this meaning, but we have moved on since then. Again wiki: “in its modern English usage, is an absolute ruler unrestrained by law or constitution, or one who has usurped legitimate sovereignty.”

    Clearly, if the biblical God exists he cannot have usurped legitimate sovereignty, but could he be unrestrained by law or constitution? Well, there is no constitution or law that can restrain God, since he is the author of all law. So, yes, he is tyrant by this definition too.

    This is a re-phrasing of the Euthyphro Dilemma, and similar answers will follow.

    • Andrew_FL says:

      God, you bring a dictionary to every argument, don’t you?

      • Harold says:

        Is that addressed to me,or God? Given the very first post here it seems a good idea to define your terms, so yes, I pretty much do. It can save a lot of time talking past one another

        • Andrew_FL says:

          Now that, Harold, was you being annoying on purpose and you know it. I can’t believe you don’t realize you just tried to settle an argument with a dictionary twice in a row.

          • Harold says:

            Not settled – not if you define Tyrant as one who has surpassed legitimate sovereignty. And the introduction of Euthyphro surely introduces the possibility that God is in some way restrained by a law or constitution. Can God be bad? No, but is it because God only does what is good-i.e. he is restrained in some way, or because whatever God does is good – in which case he is a tyrant.

          • Major.Freedom says:


            There is nothing wrong with asking for a definition in this case, since the question is about whether the readers believe God can justifiably be defined as a tyrant, and how so.

            Obviously if one is to answer Murphy’s question in the manner it deserves, the reader would be better off knowing what definition Murphy has in mind.

            • Andrew_FL says:

              Asking for a definition is a different thing than whipping out a dictionary to produce one of your own.

              Though the real problem here, is that it’s not Bob’s definition of tyrant that matters, but the definitions of those in the audience.

              • Major.Freedom says:

                Agreed, but by introducing a definition, it at least invites Murphy to respond and thus provide what the readers are supposed to be answering.

                I dunno, I just find it rather presumptuous to straight up answering yes or no to this question without confirming what it is being answered as yes or no. Especially when it comes to the concept of God, which is rife with all kinds of understandings. For example, we’re told that God is defined as good in part because of his historical plan to have millions murdered in war.

                There is a lot of definitional flexibility to say the least.

              • Major.Freedom says:

                It will definitely be presumptuous of me to say that I don’t expect Murphy to provide a definition of tyrant, because by defining a tyrant, God as the initiator of all events would necessarily be a tyrant, and the goal is to define God as not a tyrant. I expect there to be just a gathering of people’s understandings of tyrants and then some mental gymnastics to debunk them one by one.

              • Harold says:

                MF All you need do is define tyrant as someone who has usurped legitimate authority and you have it in one.

                Surely the objective is either to describe God as not a tyrant, or to describe tyrants as good. Either would do.

                I think the comparison with Euthyphro is valid. Similar mental gymnastics can be used in this case too.

  3. ron says:

    The question is void for vagueness.

    Pardon my conjecture.

    A loving God sent his son to be the sacrifice to atone for a broken law. God is law, that is his Priesthood. The world broke his law in the garden of eden and because mercy cannot rob justice, only a divine sacrifice could satisfy the divine law. Gods justice is not tyranny but is perfect.

    • John Arthur says:

      Hi Ron,

      Is perfect justice retributive or restorative? What is divine law and why must it be satisfied? Why does it require a sacrifice? Why can’t god forgive those who begin the love one another, whether they believe in God or not?

      If God doesn’t exist then the whole question of God’s mercy and justice is irrelevant. It only becomes relevant of he/she/it exists and only if we can have confidence that such a god has revealed god’ self. So do the purported ‘revelations’ of God e.g. (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) show god to be tyrannical I guess it depends on how you define tyranny) or not?


      John Arthur.

  4. Dinch says:

    I think that largely depends on where you stand on the reformed spectrum. If the Calvinists are correct, God is indeed a tyrant. But thank God they aren’t correct. So he’s not. He could be. But he isn’t.

    • John Arthur says:

      Hi Dinch,

      Jesus seems to have taken a non violent stance in both the Sermon on the Mount and in the Sermon on the Plain. Yet in the OT we have a god who commands genocide on some occasions and who seems to support some of Israel’s aggressive wars.

      Jesus is said to have commanded his disciples to love their enemies and I find this inconsistent with commands to obliterate whole populations, including defenseless women, little children and babies , no matter how ‘wicked’ these populations may have been. This kind of god seems to me to be tyrannical and does not support the principle of non aggression.

      On the other hand, the Jesus of the synoptic gospels is, by and large, non violent though there are some passages that seem to suggest that he, also, is violent (though they could be interpreted in a non violent manner as most Anabaptists and Quakers do and have done).

      Whilst I agree with you that the Calvinist god is tyrannical, some other forms of the Christian God are not. e.g. A God of peace and compassion who ,himself, loves all human beings, including his enemies,


      John Arthur

      • John Arthur says:

        Rejection of the principle of non aggression does not necessarily imply tyranny but wiping out whole populations, including the barbarous murder of innocent children and little babies does suggest to me that such a god is tyrannical. Non aggression is a principle that I support.

        Together with peaceful co-operation, nonviolent exchange and freedom of thought we find important components in a non tyrannical position (though not the only ones). Though the non aggression principle might not be essential, it is certainly helpful and would contribute much to a non tyrannical view of the world

        John Arthur

  5. Gil says:

    Yes, yes He is.

  6. Tel says:

    Well I think of myself as an atheist and I would feel a bit hypocritical attempting to claim both that God doesn’t exist and also that God is a tyrant, so I’ll choose “No” for that one thanks Bob.

    As I have said elsewhere, empiricism is unable to decide between no God at all, and some sort of non-interventionist God who stands back and just lets it all happen. However in either case there is no Tyranny so the answer would be the same.

    If, in the future, we discover ways to measure God, and possibly we discover that God has a finger on the scale as it were, then perhaps we can discuss our moral reaction to this, based on whatever we figure out that God is up to there.

  7. Tel says:

    For what it’s worth, this is the Christopher Hitchens quote:

    Only a humorless tyrant could want a perpetual chanting of praises that, one has no choice but to assume, would be the innate virtues and splendors furnished him by his creator, infinite regression, drowned in praise!


    I think what he is getting at is that if God did create humans and God also wants us to sing hymns in praise of Himself then that’s a bit like writing “You are so cool” on a piece of paper and then FAXing it to yourself 100 times, or taking lots of photos of yourself and hanging them up around the house.

    People probably don’t get what I’m saying because no one uses FAX machines any more, so ummm just imagine the sort of person who creates lots of Facebook accounts just so they can give themselves the thumbs up on social media… that’s the kind of thing. I know people do this because I get a lot of email offering to do the same thing for me at a reasonable price.

    Mind you another quote right next to that one:

    Time spent arguing with the faithful is, oddly enough, almost never wasted.

    Well, I’d say it’s pretty easy to demonstrate that almost all arguments between atheists and believers are a waste of time, just skim through the many blog posts on the topic.

  8. skylien says:

    Well I am agnostic and I think that if God would put me into hell for not worshipping him although aside from this I lived a decent “christian” life, then he is a petty tyrant.

    • John Arthur says:

      Hi skyline,


      If God is just how can he punish someone with everlasting punishment for finite sins committed in finite time?


      John Arthur

      • skylien says:

        Hi John,

        Right, obviously that is an extension of the problem.


  9. Giovanni says:

    (I’m not an atheist, but the question is sincere.)

    God doesn’t make clear what his laws are, and yet he judges us based on them. This sounds like a tyrant, right?

    And it doesn’t make sense to say that the laws are there in the Bible, because a normal person can’t be 100% sure that the Bible is God’s Word.

    • Andrew_FL says:

      Giovanni, have you read The Abolition of Man by any chance?

    • John Arthur says:

      Hi Giovanni,

      Good points,


      John Arthur

    • skylien says:

      Rules would only be a problem if they are not self evidentily clear. As long as it just means to more or less follow the golden rule, I would see no problem.

  10. Bob Murphy says:

    OK thanks, some of you are helping. To be clear, I need (in this speech) to take on such objections, preferably written eloquently by Hitchens etc. But I’m also happy if you guys formulate your own specific versions, as some of you have done.

  11. msouth says:

    Mormon conception:

    We existed as spirits before coming here.

    A plan was put in place to give us an opportunity for growth–to gain a physical body, and live without directly experiencing God. Allowing us to struggle, to choose, to experience the consequences of those choices.

    Since we would clearly not make correct choices all the time, a savior volunteered to make payment, and those that accepted the terms of this payment would be able to return to God’s presence.

    God, in our view, is more or less just explaining the spiritual physics of the universe to us. “If you do this thing, you are choosing to move outside of the protection of the Atonement. You’re going to regret that when you leave this mortal world. So don’t do that.” You need stronger terms for those that are spiritually immature, because they are not going to avoid tantalizing temptations merely on some abstract theory of future regret. Hence the imagery of Hell, which is basically just a means of explaining to mortals the infinite intensity of a spirit’s experience of regret when it comes into full knowledge of the implications of what it did with its agency.

    We wouldn’t generally say that God created truth–the truth is just “whatever is true”. God is attempting to guide us to happiness based on his greater understanding of what that means.

    A two year old will mistake a parent’s yelling at him or spanking him for going out into the street for tyranny–that nasty tyrant, Dad, won’t let me play in traffic! And he smacked me on the butt!

    When the child is older they will understand that it wasn’t tyranny, it was an attempt to protect them from actions that they didn’t, at the time, fully comprehend the implications of.

    Likewise, a spiritually mature person can recognize that “thou shalt not commit adultery” is telling you *how* to be happy, not keeping you *from* being happy.

    To a spiritually immature person it looks like a bunch of restrictions that he puts on you for his own reasons, but the reality is that he’s doing the best job that can be done to guide us into the choices we will wish we had made. But it’s done in such a way that we still fundamentally have the power to choose.

  12. Andrew_FL says:

    Should we *care* if God is a tyrant? Heck if he’s literally omniscient, he has the potential to be a benevolent, perfect central planner, yeah?

    • Khodge says:

      I don’t want to be “planned,” no matter how benevolently it is done.

      • Andrew_FL says:

        You’re alright, Khodge, you’re alright.

  13. Khodge says:

    Doesn’t it come down to free will?

    Following Calvinism, we are forced into this hell-hole with no beauty and no chance of changing our ultimate goal.

    Following Lutheranism, we are piles of dung which a “merciful” God offers to hide under a pile of snow (if and only if we agree that we are saved).

    Neither sounds like a god I would choose to exist under, so a big yes to God is a tyrant.

  14. RPLong says:

    Bob, you may want to take a look at the debate in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose over whether or not god laughs. I’m having a hard time fully recollecting it right now, but the back of my mind tells me that it is relevant here.

    • RPLong says:

      Just to flesh this idea out a little further, Bob, take a look at this article:

      The article points to Psalm 2 as an example:

      Why do the nations conspire[a]
      and the peoples plot in vain?
      2 The kings of the earth rise up
      and the rulers band together
      against the Lord and against his anointed, saying,
      3 “Let us break their chains
      and throw off their shackles.”
      4 The One enthroned in heaven laughs;
      the Lord scoffs at them.
      5 He rebukes them in his anger
      and terrifies them in his wrath, saying,
      6 “I have installed my king
      on Zion, my holy mountain.”
      7 I will proclaim the Lord’s decree:

      He said to me, “You are my son;
      today I have become your father.
      8 Ask me,
      and I will make the nations your inheritance,
      the ends of the earth your possession.
      9 You will break them with a rod of iron[b];
      you will dash them to pieces like pottery.”
      10 Therefore, you kings, be wise;
      be warned, you rulers of the earth.
      11 Serve the Lord with fear
      and celebrate his rule with trembling.
      12 Kiss his son, or he will be angry
      and your way will lead to your destruction,
      for his wrath can flare up in a moment.
      Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

  15. Schepp says:

    Learned from a sage old structural engineer in my young career:


    Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely….”

    My reply: What about God?

    The remainder of the quote I found today: “…Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency of the certainty of corruption by authority.”

    While the full quote clearly implies the quote applies to men, it is an interesting question on how God is restrained if God is all powerful.

    • Harold says:

      I guess he is all knowing as well, which makes a difference. Whether God is restrained to do good is again the Euthyphro Dilemma.

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