The Euthyphro Dilemma – What Makes God “Good?”

From the very beginning of Christianity, its theology has been explored and expounded upon with the aid of philosophy – “the rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct.”1 This is because philosophy and theology often deal with many of the same ideas, such as morality, wisdom, and other complex issues. Philosophy has also been used heavily in attempts to understand God and His nature. While philosophy can be used positively to death-of-socrates-abreaffirm and explain theological truths found in Scripture, others have used philosophy to attack Christianity and religion in general.

Socrates (470-399 BC), a very prominent Classical Greek philosopher, had been known to utilize philosophy and logic to challenge the Greek polytheistic religion of his day, something that eventually got him in trouble with the government, resulting in his execution. Plato, who was Socrates’ most famous student, recorded a discourse of Socrates in his dialogue Euthyphro. In this work, Socrates engages in discussion and debate with the eponymous Euthyphro, a religious expert and prophet of his day. The dialogue consists of Euthyphro’s attempts of defining what “goodness” and “piety” are – and Socrates’ challenges to his assertions.

Euthyphro gives this definition of goodness — goodness is that which the gods love (“the gods” can be replaced with “God” if we adapt this to the context of Christianity). However, this definition led Socrates to present the following question or dilemma:

  1. Is something good simply because the gods love it?
  2. Or do the gods simply love it because it is inherently good?

Either of these two answers leads to their own problem:

  1. If something is “good” just because the gods say that it is good, then goodness becomes arbitrary. Goodness is then not necessarily absolute, because the gods could decide to change what they decide is “good.”
  2. If the gods love something because it is good, then goodness itself is something that is above the gods, and something that they submit to because of its nature. Therefore, goodness is something independent of the gods, and the gods are not supreme in their authority.

In the context of ancient Greek mythology, there is little wonder this dilemma stumped Euthyphro. The gods of Ancient Greece were extremely petty individuals – they fought among themselves over petty problems, had sexual relations with mortals on various occasions – so they hardly exuded a strong ideal of “goodness.” He really had no way of answering this dilemma, because the gods he believed in were a far cry from the true God of the Bible.

This dilemma has been used frequently by atheists and critics of Christianity to challenge the idea that morality can be derived from God or, by extension, the Bible. If goodness is something completely arbitrary that God decides on a whim, then how cHoly_Trinityan that morality be any better than what a human wants to choose it to be? And if goodness is an ideal that is distinct from or even above God, then why does religion claim to have a monopoly on morality?

However, the triune God of the Scriptures stands up well against this challenge to Christian morality. In fact, the dilemma presents a false dichotomy – it only gives two choices when more than two are actually possible. In reality, goodness can be defined as whatever is godly. Something isn’t good just because God says it is good, but because it reflects and exemplifies God’s nature. In other words, godliness is goodness, and goodness is godliness. Goodness is not something outside of God that God must yield to. Goodness is what God is. Because God is perfect, holy, and supreme in his power, the goodness he exemplifies is perfect as well. In fact, the Apostle John tells us in 1 John 4:8 that “God is love.”

Goodness is also not arbitrary, because God is not arbitrary. Because God is omniscient and omnipotent, and because he does not change (Psalm 55:19), the goodness of his nature is a firm and eternal ideal of morality. As the Psalmist proclaims in Psalm 106:1-3:

Praise the Lord! Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever! Who can utter the mighty deeds of the Lord, or declare all his praise? Blessed are they who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times!

The Dilemma for Atheism

Euthyphro’s dilemma can similarly be adapted in order to challenge atheistic assertions and claims to morality. Because atheists cannot derive their morality from any kind of supreme being or law, they are left to be their own source of morality. By substituting “the atheist” for “God” in the questions above, we get:

  1. Is something considered good simply because the atheist approves of it?
  2. Or does the atheist simply approve of it because it is inherently good?

If option 1 is correct, then “goodness” is an arbitrary concept that can quickly be redefined if the atheist chooses to do so. By this standard, morality could be a constantly-changing morality1aideal that is completely up to the individual. This also leads to the problem of two atheists with conflicting moral views. If one person believes that stealing is wrong, but another believes that stealing is perfectly fine, which one is correct? They could be “subjectively” correct, but there cannot be an objective morality due to the Law of Noncontradiction.

(While writing this article, I came across the fascinating fact that prominent atheist Richard Dawkins in an interview was unsure whether or not rape is inherently wrong (transcript here), but shows no hesitation in claiming that it is child abuse to call a child “Muslim” or “Christian.”)

If option 2 is correct, then the atheist is forced to admit that there is some transcendent ideal of “goodness” that exists separate from the laws of science and the material world. At that point, the idea of God existing is not too far off. For the atheist to admit that a transcendent and absolute “goodness” exists is to open the door very wide for accepting a belief in a higher power.

Atheists are perfectly capable of having a moral code of ethics, and might even believe that objective “good” exists. However, the notion of absolute morality is ultimately inconsistent with their belief system, painful as it may be to admit. The only “morality” that Darwinian evolution confers to humans is to take any measures necessary to survive and reproduce. There is no prescription to care for the weak, sick, or poor, as it weakens the species. For this very reason, famous atheist Richard Dawkins has described himself as strongly anti-Darwinian when it comes to society and ethics. Rather, he supports a Christian moral system when it comes to societal values.[2]

God is Good

Christian theology and the One True God of the Scriptures have stood up against scrutiny countless times in the past, and will only continue to do so in the years to come. Various secular scholars, beginning during the Enlightenment and continuing the today, have made claims that it’s only a short matter of time before people will realize how “irrational” it is to believe in God, and will trade their theistic beliefs for atheistic ones. However, the claim never seems to even come remotely true. Religion continues to stand firm against assaults of secular humanism. In fact, the cold and cruel ideals of Darwinian evolution and secularism seem to drive people towards religion as they search for true meaning.

We know that it is God who informs our morality by telling us what is right and wrong by means of His Word. And these moral standards are not arbitrary in the slightest – goodness reflects the holy and righteous nature of God Himself. These values should not be followed out of the fear of being punished, but as a loving response to God’s own love for us and our desire to serve all people. Those who have been called to faith are tasked to walk through this life with goodness and love:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

St. Paul to the Philippians, 4:8 (ESV)

Additionally, we are given the great mission of proclaiming the message of God’s ultimate act of goodness to all people:

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you. . . For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. . .

1 Corinthians 15:1-4 (ESV)

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. Amen. (Romans 15:13)

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