Why are There So Many Denominations?

(Check out my previous article with a similar theme, “Why are There So Many Bible Translations?“)

Take a good look at this “family tree” of Christian denominations here. Confusing, isn’t it? And that doesn’t nearly include all of them.

Why can’t there just be one label on there, titled “The Christian Church” founded by Jesus Christ in 33 AD? Why can’t that single Church have a line drawn from it all the way up to 2016 AD, with no other branches? Why can’t it look like this?


Actually, in a sense, it is that way, but it doesn’t look that way. More on that in a bit.

The vast number of Christian denominations is something I’ve heard atheists cite as evidence against the Christian faith. As the argument goes, if Christianity is the truth and the only way to salvation, why are there so many divisions within it? Why would Christians be arguing among themselves? Surely, if Christianity were true, Christians would be in agreement concerning their faith.

Now, this argument mostly ignores that fact that historically, Christians across the entire spectrum of denominations have affirmed many of the same central truths – the importance of Scripture, the work and person of Jesus Christ, the doctrine of the Trinity, etc.

More importantly, this argument presents a bit of a strawman picture of Christianity. The claim that “Christianity must be false, because its own followers can’t completely agree on everything” makes a strange assumption about the nature of religion. In essence, it is saying that “if a religion is the truth, all of its adherents will be in complete unity concerning that religion.” This assertion does not have any foundation. It certainly isn’t an assumption that historical and orthodox Christianity has ever held.

In fact, the New Testament writers anticipated divisions within the Church. The Apostle Paul instructed the Christians in Rome to “watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them” (Romans 16:17). There were even apparent divisions in the Church within a few years of Jesus’ ministry. The entire book of Galatians was written in order to refute the teachings of those known as the “Judaizers,” a sect of Jewish Christians who taught that all Christians must observe Old Testament Jewish customs in order to be saved. IMG_2976

Whenever talking about “the Christian Church,” it is helpful to make a distinction concerning what we regard the church to mean. Christian theologians have typically described the church in a twofold manner: the invisible church and the visible church.  The invisible church consists of all those who have been called by the gospel and justified by Christ. It is termed “invisible” because we as humans cannot see into people’s hearts to discern who has faith and who doesn’t. In this sense, the invisible church is the “true” church due to the fact that all of its members have true faith. The visible church, on the other hand, is a manifestation of the invisible church. We cannot see into men’s hearts to discern their faith, but we can get an idea of who our fellow believers are due to their confession of faith and their works before us. Charles Porterfield Krauth, a great Lutheran theologian of the 19th century, summarized this by saying: “Faith makes men Christians; but Confession alone marks them as Christians… By our faith, we are known to the Lord as his; by our Confession, we are known to each other as His children.”[1]

Even though Christians belonging to different denominations can vary in their beliefs about the Christian faith, true believers in Christ can be found throughout the visible church, even with all of its divisions and debates. The invisible church, that is, those who have saving faith in Christ, can be found all throughout the visible church, in all manner of denominations. This does not mean, however, that every individual denomination is correct in its teachings. Edward Koehler describes this well in A Summary of Christian Doctrine:

The visible church is divided into many denominations or confessions, also called churches. There are three large branches of the visible church: the Roman Catholic Church, both Greek and Roman; the Reformed Church, comprising a large number of denominations; and the Lutheran Church, which is also divided into a number of bodies.

These denominations or confessions differ from one another in points of doctrine, and each asserts that its teachings are true. It is absurd to assume that all these churches have the true and right teachings. There is but one truth. A doctrine is either true or false. It cannot be both. . . There is only one true doctrine concerning the creation of the world, the Holy Trinity, the person of Christ, the redemption of the world, the conversion of man, etc. Whatever does not agree with this doctrine is false (323).[2]

So while we recognize that there are true believers (members of the invisible church) throughout various denominations, we also acknowledge that not every denomination can be correct in its public confession of doctrine, due to the exclusive nature of true doctrine. Additionally, there may be those who appear to confess true faith in Christ, yet still do not actually believe it in their hearts. Jesus tells us in Matthew 7:21 that “not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.” These individuals would belong to the visible church due to their confession, but not the invisible church, due to their actual lack of belief. Again, Koehler states:

Unbelievers and hypocrites may be active and affiliated with a congregation. However, they do not belong to the [true] church because the terms used in the Scriptures to describe the church indicate that there exists an inner relation and spiritual communion between her members and God. . . All true believers, no matter to which denominational body they belong, are members of this church. However, if one does not have faith, then one is not a member of the church, though he is a priest, minister, or the pope himself (314).[3]

There is only one true and invisible church established by Christ. Anyone who has true faith in Jesus Christ for salvation is a member of this true church, regardless of denominational affiliation. Regardless, denominations are important because they allow Christians of similar conviction and confession to engage in fellowship. We are not to ignore these doctrinal differences, especially those that are blatantly false and harmful. We are told countless times throughout Scripture to avoid false teachers and those teach destructive doctrines.

Why are there so many denominations? It is simply due to the sinfulness of humans. We have a tendency replace God’s words with our own and, in some cases, ignore Him completely. Splits occur because division and disagreement arises along with false teaching. Regardless, God is faithful to His children. The large number of divisions within Christianity are not divisions within the true invisible church, but rather are divisions within the visible church, the imperfect manifestation of the true church.

If you feel troubled by the apparent divisions within Christianity, take heart in the fact that there are true believers throughout many different confessions. Take to heart the words of Jesus in Matthew 16:18 – “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.



[1] Charles Porterfield Krauth, The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology. Philadelphia: United Lutheran Publishing House, 1913: 166.

[2][3] Edward W. A. Koehler, A Summary of Christian Doctrine. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006.

Bible Versions and Translations

This article is a re-publishing from the Bible Versions and Translations article I wrote about a year ago. I added some new information and refined some of my statements, as I have learned a lot about this topic within the past year.

The poll I posted on Bible translations seemed to spark some interest among readers as to what all of the differences are between the most popular Bible translations used in American churches. This is a huge topic that can’t completely be covered in just a short article, so I also would recommend checking out the descriptions of different Bible versions on BibleGateway. It offers short and (mostly) impartial summaries of most of the English Bible translations used today. This chart from mardel.com offers a comparison of the different “reading levels” of popular Bible translations.


I’m writing this from a slightly more opinionated approach, and I believe that Christians need to be very careful and considerate about the translation(s) they choose to utilize. God’s Word needs to be respected, and it’s a Christian’s obligation to recognize which versions of the Bible give Scripture its due respect. True, some translations are far less accurate to the original text and introduce more bias than others, but choosing a version is largely a matter of personal preference and Christian freedom. I would recommend, however, that one would research a potential Bible translation before committing to it.

There are two main philosophies for undertaking a Bible translation. “Formal equivalence” translations seek to retain a more “word-for-word” rendering of the original text, attempting to stay as close as possible to the original language and its phrasing. At times, this can make certain sentences sound awkward or confusing to Christians who aren’t heavily acquainted with Biblical phrases. “Dynamic equivalence” translations attempt to provide a more “thought-for-thought”

rendering of the text, taking larger portions of sentences and translating them into phrases that sound more normal to modern English speakers. This helps some understand what they’re reading, but it can also introduce bias and inaccuracies into the text. Certain phrases in the Bible don’t really have a modern equivalent that retains the original meaning, so some of the intention of the original can be lost. In addition, those who are translating the text have to choose what they believe to be the best modern rendering of the text, leading to biases (as seen below.)

It is also important to note that it is often times very helpful for a Christian to make regular use of more than one Bible translation. For instance, one can use a more “dynamic equivalence” translation for personal devotion, as it may be easier to read and understand. In addition, if one comes across a passage that seems strange or out of place during devotion, they can consult a more “formal equivalence” translation that gives a better idea of the phraseology of the original languages. I often look up a single verse or section that I find confusing and compare it across multiple translations. That way, I can see if anyone else has it rendered in a manner that gives more clarity to the meaning.

With these things in mind, let’s take a look at some of the most widely-used Bible translations in America.

The King James Version (and the New King James Version)
This version, the most classic English Bible translation, was completed under the Commission of King James I in 1611. I agree, along with most of Christianity, that the KJV is a faithful rendering of God’s Word. It set the high standard for the Bible translations that would follow, and was used for centuries, even into the present. The KJV offers a very beautiful and poetic rendering of Scripture that is basically unparalleled in modern translations. (For a classic example, see Psalm 23)

Strangely enough, there’s a sizeable number of people in Baptist Christian circles that claim that the KJV is the only true Bible translation, and all others aren’t actually God’s Word. (This has come to be known as the “King James Only” movement.) The idea is that God Himself was personally involved with the translation of the KJV, and that He prevented any errors from developing in the translation. According to this position, all other translations since the KJV have been a purely human undertaking lacking God’s approval. Thus, it is argued, all other translations except the KJV are inaccurate or even “satanic.” I’ve tried very hard to understand the reasoning behind this opinion, but there is really no Scriptural or logical evidence to back up this claim.

Like I said, the King James Version is a useful and significant translation, but no Bible translation itself is “inspired” in the same way that the original manuscripts are. To claim that the KJV is the only true translation places a heavy (and false) restriction on Christians and their options when choosing a translation. The King James also isn’t without its flaws. At the time it was being translated, the scribes were using certain Greek texts (known as the textus receptus or “Received Text”) that have since been regarded as potentially containing textual errors. These inaccuracies don’t undermine significant aspects of Christian doctrine, but they are still thought to be less accurate than other text forms that have since been discovered. The argument about which text type is most reliable and accurate is hotly contested to this day, but it is simply wrong for one to claim that the KJV has no potential to be incorrect in its translation. There were also portions where the translators had no Greek manuscripts at all, and were forced to use more recent copies that were written in Latin, which themselves have been disputed in terms of their accuracy.

There are also a few portions where it seems as if the translators inserted certain portions of text to back up certain Christian doctrines which they strongly believed. The KJV translates 1 John 5:7 as “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.” It is widely contested that original text of this verse doesn’t mention the three members of the Trinity. Instead it reads: For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree.” While it is admirable and right to have a strong belief in the doctrine of the Trinity, it is simply dishonest to insert portions into Scripture that aren’t found in the original, even if the additions reaffirm the Truth. There are a few other potential “errors” in the translation of the KJV, but none of them are necessarily dangerous or contrary to the rest of Scripture. In 1975, a group of scholars set out to write the New King James Version, an adaption of the KJV into more readable modern English while still retaining the character of the original KJV. A few (not all) of the aforementioned errors were corrected in this new version, and notes were placed in the margin where textual variances exist. These updates make the NKJV a faithful and useful translation of God’s Word.

New American Standard Bible (NASB)
The New American Standard Bible, first published in 1971, is a revision of the American Standard Version published in 1901. I have not used it much personally, but the general consensus I’ve seen is that it is a faithful and accurate literal translation. The most recent edition was published in 1995, and modernized some of the language. Pastor Brian R. Keller (of the Wartburg Project), in his essay Evaluating Bible Translations, says about the NASB:

The NASB stands as an excellent example of literal translation. The NASB is a very faithful, conservative Bible translation… You may decide for yourself if NASB ʼ95 reads well enough or if it is still rather stiff or wooden. Its strength lies in the fact that it closely follows the original text. For this reason, the NASB is recommended as a reference Bible. If someone does not know Hebrew or Greek, and would like to check the translation of a Bible passage, the NASB is helpful… The NASB ʼ95 is a fine conservative Bible translation, which does not introduce false doctrine. I am not aware of any problems with NASB ʼ95, other than whether it reads well enough. That can be decided by more use… Unfortunately, the NASB ’95 lacks confessional Lutheran materials to go along with it (i.e., no hymnals, Catechisms, Bible history materials, to my knowledge, make use of it). Some confessional Lutherans prefer it and quote it. NASB ʼ95 hovers near the bottom of the top ten list, in terms of sales, and can be more difficult than other choices to find for purchase. (p. 16-19) [Full essay can be found here]
By all accounts, the NASB appears to be a good literal translation. It might be harder to understand than many of the other modern translations, but it works very well as a reference Bible.
The New International Version (1984 and 2011)

I grew up with the NIV 1984 edition, using it both for school and church. It was adopted as the standard Bible translation for the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. I still use the Concordia NIV Self-Study Bible in my theology classes today. The study version provides really great reader’s notes, maps, and other useful information.

The NIV is currently the most popular Bible translation in America. Fans of the NIV enjoy it because it strikes a nice balance between formal and dynamic equivalence. It remains faithful to the original meaning without sounding too complicated or formal. Again, with any translation that wants to sound modern, there are verses than don’t quite replicate the original meaning. I attempted to search for some issues with how the NIV 1984 is translated, but I could only find angry “King James only” Christians who were making fairly dishonest claims. (Like I mentioned above, they were attacking the NIV for not including certain parts that are in the KJV, even though these portions aren’t in the original manuscripts.)

However, when the NIV was modified around 2011 to ensure it remained “up-to-date,” there were some changes that many might not find agreeable. Many of these alterations have to with with gender-inclusive language and more politically correct views on the roles of men and women. There is a fair and accurate critique you can read of the NIV 2011 changes done by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and I’ll try to touch on a few of the points it mentions. As one example, the original NIV 1984 rendition of 1 Timothy 2:12 reads – “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” However, the NIV 2011 updated this verse as – “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” While the new reading seems fairly close to the original at first glance, it also seems to imply that it is only wrong for a woman to have authority over a man if she takes such authority wrongly or forcefully. If a woman is, for instance, appointed to the Pastoral office and not forcefully assuming it, there wouldn’t seem to be any problem. The increase ambiguity of this verse would definitely lead to some confusion, and the NIV 2011 reading would be quite ineffective for arguing against the ordination of women.

To the credit of the NIV 2011, it does make some honest changes to gender usage. When the original context implies both men and women being mentioned, it’s translated as “people” (or similar words) instead of just “men.” Even though “men” is usually used to refer to humanity, some people see it as an attempt to exclude women.

Unfortunately, the bad changes found in the NIV 2011 outweigh the good ones.[1] The 2011 isn’t a terrible translation, but neither is it exceptional. I would still have to recommend the 1984 version, even though it is being fazed out by the 2011. However, it can still be found online and in certain stores if you look for it. The NIV 1984 is overall an accurate and readable translation, and I would recommend it for personal Bible study or for those who might find more formal versions difficult to understand.

The English Standard Version
The English Standard Version, first published in 2001, is generally a highly regarded translation because of its commitment to rendering the Bible in its literal sense. The ESV is essentially a revision of the Revised Standard Version published in 50 years earlier. There were many apparent problems in the RSV, at least from a conservative Christian standpoint. The translators of the RSV did not believe in the inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture, and attempted to downplay any apparent Messianic prophecies about Jesus in the Old Testament. For instance, Isaiah 7:14 normally talks about the virgin conceiving and bearing a son. The RSV, however, renders “virgin” as “young woman” in an apparent attempt to downplay is Messianic and miraculous significance. Lucky, the ESV corrected many of these errors that were in the RSV.

A team of over 100 pastors and scholars collaborated to produce the ESV, giving it a high degree of credibility. I commonly use the ESV for my personal Bible reading and study because of its formal and precise rendering of the original languages. It uses a more extensive vocabulary than versions like the NIV, which can pose challenges to younger readers. However, the increased vocabulary makes it easier to replicate the intention of the original Greek and Hebrew.

The ESV was adopted for use in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, as it was found to be more desirable than the NIV or the NKJV. More “liberal” Christians might not embrace the ESV because it’s regarded as a more “conservative” translation, not taking many liberties to conceal parts of the Bible that are frowned upon by modern society (traditional roles of men and women, etc.) I would highly recommend the ESV to any Christian who has a fairly firm grasp on the concepts of Scripture, and would suggest the Lutheran ESV Study Bible because of its useful notes and commentary.

Various Paraphrases (New Living Translation, The Message, etc.)
I’m grouping the various paraphrased versions of the Bible together because they largely share the same strengths and weaknesses. Some of them are more accurate translations than others, so it’s good to do research before buying. Paraphrased Bibles seek to translate the thoughts and concepts of the original text into modern English equivalents. This is intended to lead to a clearer understanding for Bible passages that sound confusing in a word-for-word translation like the NASB. One major danger of paraphrased Bibles is the potential for bias on part of the translators. When a group of sentences is taken as a whole and paraphrased into modern language, sometimes the translator will have to look to their own theology for help. For this reason, paraphrased versions are more likely to introduce doctrinal errors than formal equivalence translations.

For instance, the Living Bible (TLB) paraphrase exhibits a number of errors in places where false doctrine was used in attempt to clarify certain passages. Mark 1:4 is (correctly) rendered in the ESV as, “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Sadly, the Living Bible handles this verse poorly, paraphrasing it as, “This messenger was John the Baptist. He lived in the wilderness and taught that all should be baptized as a public announcement of their decision to turn their backs on sin, so that God could forgive them.

The level of bias in this paraphrased verse is clear. There is nothing in the verse’s context (or the rest of Scripture) to suggest that baptism here is meant to simply be something a believer does for God. Additionally, the verse makes God’s forgiveness dependent on the works of man. The traditional understanding of “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” has been that baptism is actually efficacious for forgiving sins. It is not man’s work, but solely God’s act of grace. TLB here unfortunately interprets this verse as the opposite.

It is also important to note that many popular paraphrases of the Bible were not actually taken from the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts, but were only paraphrased from existing English versions. Unfortunately, this means there might be errors in places where an English translation is hard to understand. Additionally, if the referenced English translation was wrong in its translation of certain verses, the error would potentially be even larger in the paraphrase.

Sometimes it’s difficult to find modern equivalents for the original Greek or Hebrew meaning, causing the paraphrase to ironically sound awkward or unclear. Paraphrased Bibles also don’t make as much use of “theological” words like propitiation and reconciliation in an attempt to be more readable, but this sacrifices the specific meaning that these words hold. It is important for a translation to be accessible and readable, but theology is often very precise and relies on these kinds of words to get the proper point across.

The Message Bible, a paraphrase that has gained popularity in certain Evangelical circles, should generally be avoided. The Message was essentially developed by a single person, pastor Eugene Peterson, which immediately would suggest low credibility. In an attempt to sound modern and relevant, The Message often ends up sounding comical and confusing. 2 Corinthians 2:17 is translated as These hard times are small potatoes compared to the coming good times On other occasions, Peterson seems to insert a certain personal/political agenda into the text, as is the case in The Message‘s rendering of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 – Don’t you realize that this is not the way to live? Unjust people who don’t care about God will not be joining in his kingdom. Those who use and abuse each other, use and abuse sex, use and abuse the earth and everything in it, don’t qualify as citizens in God’s kingdom.” The original text makes no condemnation whatsoever of those who “use and abuse the earth.” The paraphrase also removes the explicit reference to homosexuality as a sin, replacing it with the phrase “those who… use and abuse sex.” The translator’s bias seeps into the text on more than a few occasions.

Although paraphrases are generally more prone to error than the more “formal” translations, they can still be used well by Christians who wish to have a “more readable” version for personal devotions. However, they shouldn’t be used as a Christians “main source” of Biblical doctrine, one should look up controversial or difficult texts in more than one translation in order to avoid falling into the translator’s bias. Paraphrases can also be useful for teaching children, as they make use of simpler terms that are understood by a younger audience. The most widely used paraphrase in America is the New Living Translation, but I can’t personally attest to it’s reliability. You might consider reading this article that examines the NLT.

Dishonorable Mention – New World Translation
If there is a single Bible version that Christians should stay away from, it’s the New World Translation. The NWT isn’t really considered as a Bible translation in Christian circles. However, it’s worth putting it out there because it should be avoided. The NWT is a project undertaken by the Jehovah’s Witnesses church body, a group that usually presents itself as Christian yet denies things such as the Trinity and Jesus’ divinity. The main issues with the New World Translation lies in the fact that it holds an extreme non-trinitarian bias. There are countless examples of passages that are mistranslated to fit their beliefs, but their translation of John 1:1 pretty much tops them all. As I said, Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t believe that Jesus is truly God, rather than just a divine being. Let’s see if you can detect their doctrine in the NWT rendering of John 1:1 – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.”

Jesus (the Word) isn’t described as being God. He’s portrayed as a god. Jehovah’s witnesses believe that there are multiple other deities apart from God, but they seem to have an issue with Jesus being a member of the Godhead (the one True God). They will argue that this translation is accurate, because the Greek word for God (theos) can be used to refer to either the true God, but it can also be used to refer to “gods” (any type of supernatural/divine deity.) There are Greek grammar rules that refute their mistranslation, but it’s plain to Christians how the word should be translated in this case. (For a thorough refutation of this translation, check out this article.) I doubt many Christian will ever encounter the NWT, but it’s worth warning against.

Whichever Bible translation you use, I pray that you would “read it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in all believers” (1 Thessalonians 2:13).

I also encourage you to check out the Wartburg Project, a group of Lutheran Pastors and professors who have worked to produce a versatile translation that corrects many of the issues contained in other modern translations. Their translation is called the Evangelical Heritage Version (EHV), and it is available for purchase now.

[1] For more discussion on the good and bad updates to the NIV 2011, as well as a general discussion on different modern translations, see the following essay by Brian R. Keller: http://wartburgproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Essay-Keller.pdf

The following resources were used in research for this article:

Bible Versions
Top 10 Bible Translations
The Message Bible

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)