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)

Christianity and Evolution – Compatible or Contradictory?

“Theistic evolution is the proposition that God is in charge of the biological process called evolution. God directs and guides the unfolding of life forms over millions of years. Theistic evolution contends that there is no conflict between science and the Biblical book of Genesis.” [1]
Worldview Warfare
Across the world, in churches of varying denominations, faithful Christians are having their scriptural beliefs and worldviews compromised. As the values of secular culture continue to seep in through the cracks of unsuspecting churches, more and more Christians are trading their beliefs for those of the world. These ideological assaults on churches are easily visible in the debates and issues prevalent in our modern culture. The clash of worldviews on abortion, homosexuality, and evolution rage on around us and in our lives, with Christianity generally making a stand for the “conservative” side.
Each of these three topics would take pages and pages to cover, and that would barely scratch the surface. I want to address all of these issues eventually, but right now I am focusing on only one of them.
The Rise of Theistic Evolution
The historic and ancient Christian Church, with very few exceptions, has always accepted the creation account of Genesis 1 to be literal history. The acceptance of this interpretation has been on a decline ever since the foundations of evolutionary biology were established by Charles Darwin in the 1800s. To be fair, Darwin’s theory of natural selection is not completely synonymous with modern evolutionary theory. However, it did lay the foundation from which an evolutionary worldview would soon be born.
The problem of theistic evolution can by no means be discussed in full in just a few paragraphs, but I hope to present a general understanding of some of the dangers of theistic evolution.
I’m not trying to engage in an ad hominem attack on Christians who accept evolution. They are, for the most part, well-meaning Christians who simply want to remain Christian, but feel as if believing in creation labels them as uneducated fundamentalists. Seeing the evidence of evolution paraded around by biologists, paleontologists, and geologists, they can’t help but accept evolution as a fact. I’m not stating a scientific argument for creation and against evolution. I simply want to discuss the implications of believing that God used evolution (over millions of years) to create humans.
Theistic evolution, in summary, is the belief that God created the universe and all that is in it, but did not do so in just six days. Creationists believe that all animals and organisms in the world were present at the time God stopped creating, on the seventh day. Theistic evolutionists believed that God created and developed the natural world through the process of evolution of a long period of time.
Understanding the Text
Believing in creation is not just an issue of examining historical evidence and seeing that it points to a young earth. Rather, it is also an issue of taking God’s Word at face value. By examining the historical context of the books of the Bible (isagogics), and using the context of Scripture as a whole, theologians are able to understand when the Bible is speaking in a literal sense, and when it is speaking in a symbolic sense. The visions found in Daniel 7, along with the book of Revelation, are examples of symbolic literature. They are inspired and inerrant, just like all of Scripture, but they use dramatic and vivid imagery to convey what God has to say.
The entire book of Genesis was meant to be a literal history of God’s creation of the world, in addition to a testament of His mercy toward His people. It is presented and portrayed, from beginning to end, as a historical account. There is nothing in the text that would signify a shift from symbolism to history at the end of the creation account. This is very important to understand, as it makes the basis for the most important arguments against theistic evolution.
Jesus’ Mention of Creation
In Mark 10, when Jesus is confronted on the topic of marriage and divorce, states that “from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’” Now, taken at face value, Jesus’ language seems to suggest that humans were there at the beginning of the world. One could make an argument that Jesus only said “from the beginning of creation” because it’s what the Jewish people believed, they themselves holding to a view of six-day creation. One can claim that Jesus only meant “from the beginning of creation” in a symbolic sense. But as is the rule for Biblical interpretation, we always take the plainest and simplest meaning of the text unless the context would tell us to do otherwise.
The Problem of Death
One of the bigger issues with theistic evolution is the way it deals with death. We are told in Genesis 1:31 that God saw His creation as “very good” after He had finished creating. His creation was good because it was perfect: there was no trace of sin and death, because God didn’t create it that way. In order to hold to a view of theistic evolution, one must believe that God formed the universe and started the “evolutionary chain of events” that would transform primitive organisms into humans over millions of years.
Evolution requires two major things to succeed: time and death. In order for organisms to evolve into more advanced creatures, the weakest animals need to die, only allowing the stronger ones to reproduce. Transition of one organism into another species requires generation after generation of that organism to die off in order than stronger and better versions of that organism can take their place. Millions and millions of years of natural selection and death are necessary for evolution to take place. In order to hold to theistic evolution, one must believe that God created a world that was filled with death.
However, Paul tells us in Romans 5:12 that “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin.” Paul is clearly stating that sin is a prerequisite and cause of death entering the world. Sin only came into the world after Adam disobeyed God, so death did not exist in God’s creation before the Fall of Man. Believing that God used death and evolution to produce mankind seems to lie contrary to what the Bible tells us about sin, death, and the Fall of Man.
Jesus, the New Adam
Most theistic evolutionists see Adam and Eve as allegorical representations of the first human beings, not as real historic people that lived in the Garden of Eden. However, the doctrine of justification discussed by Paul in Romans hinges on the fact that just as Adam was the one man who brought death into the world, Christ is the one man who undid Adam’s curse. As written in Romans 5:17 – For if, by the trespass of the one man (Adam), death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!
Jesus is and his saving work is the exact antithesis of Adam and his fall into sin. If Adam were only a symbol of the first men, and death existed in God’s original creation, the redemptive work of Christ is undermined. We are made righteous in Christ the same way we were all made sinful through Adam. “Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:18). The redemptive work of Jesus Christ, the New Adam, has undone the work of the Old Adam.
Can we Trust the Bible?
Ultimately, when the authenticity of the historical accounts written in the Bible is brought into question, the accuracy of the entire Scriptures is endangered. Once a certain story is labelled as a myth, it raises doubt about the rest of the history recorded in Genesis. The entire book of Genesis, as true history, is an absolutely vital piece of God’s plan for salvation. The lives of Israel’s Fathers, such as Abraham and Jacob, are referenced frequently in the New Testament as testimony to the Truth of Christ. If the entire Bible isn’t trusted as inerrant, it leads to the picking and choosing of only the doctrines we find agreeable. When it comes to inerrancy, it’s either all or nothing.
There are many objections that theistic evolutionists can raise to refute the problems listed here. However, for a more thorough treatment, check out these websites for great scientific and theological material challenging evolution:
Creation Ministries International (and this article on the dangers of theistic evolution)

“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.”

-Acts 17:24-25 (ESV)

Is Faith Blind?

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Romans 12:2 (ESV)

Christians should constantly make an effort to grow in their knowledge of God and the Word He has given us. In addition to the growing of one’s faith, it’s important to also grow in one’s understanding and knowledge of God’s Word. This is because the two of them are intertwined. It’s possible for someone to have a simple yet saving faith in Jesus without knowing much about the Bible or theology in general. However, Christian faith is placed in Christ, trusting that He died and rose again. These realities are true, historical facts that happened 2,000 years in the past. It is definitely true that none of us believe through our sight, because none of us have seen Christ in the flesh. Jesus appeared to His apostles and others in Jerusalem once He rose from the dead. Once He ascended into heaven, that would be the last anyone would see of Him (with the exception of Paul and John) until the end of the world, when He will return in glory and majesty.

However, Jesus did give us His Word. The faith we have in Christ is not just something that was passed down through oral traditions and word-of-mouth. The reality of the true man Jesus of Nazareth was not corrupted along the way as it was transmitted across the globe. Rather, for the sake of the Church, He ensured that the entirety of Scripture would be written down, copied with diligence, and exist throughout the rest of mankind’s time on the earth. When we look back at the oldest Bible manuscripts, it is astounding how certain we can be that they are accurately the same message as the original writings (despite what secular scholars might want you to believe.)

Side note: for more information on the reliability of Biblical texts and the accuracy of Scripture, I highly recommend checking out Alpha and Omega Ministries, run by Dr. James White. He has tons of blog posts, videos, and debates defending the historical integrity of the Bible, and the information he presents is sure to nurture your confidence in Scripture.

Seeing is not everything, especially when it comes to Christianity. When Thomas the apostle did not believe in the resurrection until he saw Jesus in the flesh, Jesus replied, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29) We are blessed by the fact that our faith in God is not a belief of mere physical sight. Even those who personally saw Jesus still needed the Word of God preached to them! Simply physically seeing Jesus doesn’t produce Christian faith. Rather, we are given the gift of faith through the Words of Jesus’ mouth, and he extends that Word to us in baptism and preaching.

It’s a common misconception that the faith of a Christian is just blind trust, where we “follow” Jesus just because. When a young child asks a difficult theological question that they legitimately want an answer to, their parents might be quick to tell them, “That’s just how it is. You need to have more faith.” 

I’m not trying to say that we can understand every reason behind God’s every action. I’m also not implying that we shouldn’t trust God with all of our heart, no matter what situation we are in. Rather, we should be joyful and recognize the fact that He has blessed us by giving us answers.

He has given us the privilege to know His plan of salvation and why He does certain things. He is not asking us to blindly follow Him, with God silently marching ahead and never saying anything to us. Instead, He takes hold of our lives and guides them with the instruction of His Word. He communicates His intentions and plans through the Word and Sacraments. We are perpetually blessed by the fact that we can always hold on to Christ and His crucifixion, even when everything else in our short lives seem uncertain.

It’s important, though, to talk about the other side of the coin. The writer of Hebrews tells us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1) Faith in Christ does not work in the same manner as the scientific world. Our faith is not a collection of data and observations, verifiable by repeated experiments conducted throughout our lives. Too many Christians base their faith on the condition of their own lives and what they find when they look inside their hearts. Sadly, these people are told that if they’re going to church enough, being nice enough to strangers, and making sure they tithe 10%, they can be assured that they have faith. Looking to ourselves and into our hearts for the assurance of our faith can never end well. When we look into our own hearts, even as Christians, all we find are “evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, and slander.” (Matthew 15:19) Our sinful hearts are the same hearts that Jesus came to redeem. Until we enter God’s heavenly kingdom, our hearts and minds will be filled with sin.

Every Christian, no matter how devout, will have moments of doubt and unbelief. In fact, our entire lives are spent still being sinners who are only justified on account of Christ. Instead of looking introspectively for evidence of our faith, we need to look to something (or someone) outside of ourselves. We look at the cross, Christ crucified. We look to His Word where He assures us that He has hold of us. We look back to the moment of our baptism, the moment when Christ claimed us as His own.

God could have written down just one sentence of Scripture if He had wanted to. He could have simply said, “believe in my Son because I say so.” And it certainly is true that we trust in God because He is omniscient and perfect. But how do we know this about God? How do we know He is loving and kind and gracious? How would we know any of these important details if God had not given us the full story? Thanks be to God that He wrote down an entire book for us, preserved it throughout all of history, and delivered it to us, where we read countless stories of God’s mercy and faithfulness. God rules over our world and all of our history. He didn’t leave us on our own to figure things out with our own reason. He called us to faith with comprehensible, faith-creating words. The Word – His Son, Jesus Christ.

“In these last days [God] has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.”

Hebrews 1:2 (ESV)