One of the arguments raised against God being the basis for morality is the age-old Euthyphro Dilemma. Socrates, in Plato’s dialogue, asks Euthyphro: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” The modern adaptation raised against theism goes something like this: “Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?”
The Catch-22 for the theist is this:
- God could command any arbitrary thing that popped into his head – like killing kittens – and we’d be obligated to obey and call it good because God says so. Or
- God answers to some sort of higher moral standard outside of himself, thus he cannot be the basis for our morality.
Euthyphro – A false choice
This might have been a problem for the polytheists in Plato’s day, but based on biblical teachings, I don’t think the Euthyphro dilemma poses a real problem for the Christian at all. If the statements found in the Bible are even possibly true in what they say about God, then the Euthyphro dilemma is really a false dilemma.
- “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.” (Referring to evil as darkness and light as good) (1 John 1:5)
- “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8)
- God is triune “And I (Jesus) will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you” (Jn. 14:16)
- God is eternal and necessary. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” (Jn. 1:1-3)
- God’s character is unchanging. “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. “ (James 1:17)
So if God is light and he is unchanging, then He cannot on a whim become a “dark god” and command torture of little babies for pleasure. If God is love, then what He commands will by necessity be loving. After all, He values people above all. (Psalm 8:3-5) And what God values determines what is good.
And if God is triune, then His morality is not found outside himself, but within the persons of the Trinity. The persons who make up the Godhead relate to each other freely not out of law or arbitrary demands, but out of perfect and maximal love for the other. “For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God gives the Spirit without limit. The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands.”(John 3:34-35)
So assuming the Bible is correct in what it says about the nature of God, God cannot have other traits than the ones that He has, so there’s no arbitrariness. Furthermore, there is no higher moral good than a love of the self-sacrificial, agape kind. God’s commands flow from his loving nature, and the New Testament command is to love as Christ loved. (Jn. 13:34-35, 1 Jn. 3:22-24) There is no love standard that the triune God answers outside of himself, He is necessarily a perfectly loving being by his very own nature.
Here it might be raised that the God of the Bible has commanded some pretty bad stuff. I’m not here to say that there are not time-specific commands that God has made to individuals or groups that people might not like, like the Canaanite conquest or the binding of Isaac. I’d dispute that these were irredeemably evil commands even if I’ve at times found them to be troubling. That we don’t understand or like these commands is our fault, not God’s.
Even Atheists know God’s commands
Moving on, we read elsewhere that whether we directly know God or not, He has “hard-wired” all humanity to recognize his commands. The commands aren’t imposed on us from the outside, but rather we recognize internally that we ought to love our neighbor as ourselves. If we do love our neighbor as ourselves, then we won’t steal from them, sleep with their wife, kick their cat, throw fireworks at their dog, etc.
“Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.” -Romans 2:14-15
Christian believers have a special advantage. Not only does the Christian experience the benefit of having their sins forgiven, but they also God’s very own Spirit living within them, enabling them with divine grace to keep God’s commands.
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. (Ezekiel 36:26-27)
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Gal. 5:22-23)
Might makes right, but “might” became weak
Not only that, but the reason the Christian will want to keep God’s commands is that they value what he values — people. Because we’ve experienced His love for us, we’ll want to love others.
In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:10-11)
Now because God is the “head honcho” of this entire cosmological establishment, He can tell us what is permissible or what’s forbidden. He values what He created, and He knows what’s best for us and will hold us all accountable for the light He’s put in our hearts. (Romans 2:16)
While some atheists have complained that “might doesn’t make right”, that God created us and is all-powerful sets him apart from human lawgivers. But he’s also infinitely wiser than human lawgivers, and He knows what will make humanity flourish. You can’t just say “well that’s just your opinion, man” to the all-wise and powerful Creator and Judge. (Ecclesiastes 12:13, 2 Corinthians 5:10)
But He’s not an authoritarian dictator. The second person of the Godhead took on human flesh, experienced every temptation we face but was perfectly obedient, and suffered the death we all deserved for flaunting his commands. Mercy and justice meet together at the cross. (Psalm 85:10, Hebrews 4:14-15, 2 Corinthians 5:21) Unlike the far off and aloof God of Islam, God experienced everything we’ve dealt with (and a lot more) in the person of Jesus.
Addressing a few other issues
Now someone might want to kick this up a notch and press the dilemma further. The skeptic could call God’s character into question and ask if the character of God is good because it just happens to be God’s, or is God’s character good because it conforms to an external standard of goodness? In response to that, we can ask them a similar question: Are moral values good because they’re good, or do they also conform to an external standard? I fail to see how their argument has some sort of special advantage over theism.
Inserting some moral standard apart from God to assess the connection between God and morality becomes extraneous. We also must eventually arrive at some self-sufficient and self-explanatory stopping point beyond where the discussion can’t go. God is the least arbitrary stopping point, as values are the properties of persons. A free-floating, non-natural value called ‘goodness’ independent from minds just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Sorry, Plato. It makes more sense to say that what God values determines what is good. That’s the definition of ‘good’.
So if Christian theology and anthropology are correct, then the Euthyphro dilemma really is not a dilemma at all. Socrates may have stuck a pebble in Euthyphro’s shoe (or sandal, I should say) but for the Christian believer, there is no quandary.
Erik is a Reasonable Faith Chapter Director located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s a former freelance baseball writer and the co-owner of a vintage and handmade decor business with his wife, Dawn. He is passionate about the intersection of apologetics and evangelism.