Euthyphro’s Dilemma

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Have you ever heard this question, or at least some form of it:

“Is something good because God says it is good, or does God say that something is good because it is good?”

How would you answer it?

If you agree that the first option is correct, that something is good only because God says that it is good, then things are only good or bad because God arbitrarily decides what is good or bad. But, God is not arbitrary, is He?

So, that cannot be the answer.

If you agree that the second option is correct, that God says that something is good because it is actually good, then “goodness” is something outside of God and is something He’s just skilled at identifying. But, God does not just identify what is good because of some standard beyond Him (which would also imply that He is not sovereign), does He?

So, this cannot be the answer either.

It’s a tricky question. It’s tricky because it is what’s called a false dilemma. A false dilemma involves a situation in which limited alternatives are considered, when in fact there is at least one additional option. In other words, it’s a dangerous trick question. It forces the hearer to choose between two false premises exclusively, making the assumption that no other option exists. As a result, it actually undermines Christianity (assuming that these two options are in fact the only two options, and that it is asked by someone with the intent of undermining the Christian worldview). It can, however, be asked honestly… but it’s usually not.

Bertrand Russell, a famous philosopher and atheist, attempted to use this dilemma against Christianity in his essay “Why I Am Not a Christian”:

“If you are quite sure there is a difference between right and wrong, you are then in this situation: Is that difference due to God’s fiat or is it not? If it is due to God’s fiat, then for God Himself there is no difference between right and wrong, and it is no longer a significant statement to say that God is good. If you are going to say, as theologians do, that God is good, you must then say that right and wrong have some meaning which is independent of God’s fiat, because God’s fiats are good and not good independently of the mere fact that he made them. If you are going to say that, you will then have to say that it is not only through God that right and wrong came into being, but that they are in their essence logically anterior to God.”

So, where did this false dilemma called “Euthyphro’s Dilemma” originate?

“The question first surfaces in Plato’s dialog “Euthyphro”. In Plato’s dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro, Socrates is attempting to understand the essence of piety and holiness:

Socrates: And what do you say of piety, Euthyphro? Is not piety, according to your definition, loved by all the gods?

Euthyphro: Certainly.

Socrates: Because it is pious or holy, or for some other reason?

Euthyphro: No, that is the reason.

Socrates: It is loved because it is holy, not holy because it is loved?”

(This dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro, and also the above references from Bertrand Russell, is taken from an article by Greg Koukl)

So, what does the Bible say?

Psalms 136:1
“Give thanks to the Lord, for HE IS GOOD,
for his steadfast love endures forever.”

(Psalms 106:1, 107:1, and 118:1 all read pretty much the same way. Ezra 3:11 and Jeremiah 33:11, each make references to these same verses in the Psalms as well.)

Psalms 100:5
“For the LORD IS GOOD;
His steadfast love endures forever,
and his faithfulness to all generations.”

Psalms 25:8
“GOOD AND UPRIGHT IS THE LORD;
therefore He instructs sinners in the way.”

Scripture is clear. God is good BECAUSE He is the source of goodness. God does not just arbitrarily declare what is good, nor does He just identify what is good based on some standard outside of Himself. God reveals what is good based on who He is.

Here’s an example:

Deuteronomy 5:19
“And you shall not steal.”

Stealing is wrong, not because God arbitrarily says it’s wrong, nor because He is simply referencing some outside standard. Stealing is wrong… because God is good, and He is not a thief.

Take another example:

Deuteronomy 5:17
“You shall not murder.”

Murder is wrong, not because God arbitrarily says it’s wrong, nor because He is simply referencing some outside standard. Murder is wrong… because God is good, and He is not a murderer.

“Euthyphro’s Dilemma” is a smokescreen. We (Christians) must always be aware of clever mind games and attempts by the world to twist what is true. God gave us minds. We must use them to His glory and according to His will:

Colossians 2:8
“See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.”

I leave you with this encouragement to us regarding God’s goodness and sovereignty, from the prophet Nahum:

Nahum 1:7-8
“The LORD IS GOOD,
a stronghold in the day of trouble;
He knows those who take refuge in Him.
But with an overflowing flood
He will make a complete end of the adversaries,
and will pursue His enemies into darkness.”

Godspeed, to the brethren!

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3 thoughts on “Euthyphro’s Dilemma”

  1. Hi,

    I loved this post. I have neve seen a christian tackle this question (I’m sure others have but not in my circles). Thanks for the hope. This IS a rough question until you break it down like you did. Thank you!

    Bill

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  2. I don’t know if my comment was posted but well written! I don’t know if I’ve seen a Christian deal with this in my experience (probably because people don’t like tackling philosophy normally)

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