What is the Euthyphro Dilemma?

Socrates is probably my favorite philosopher. The guy just walks around ancient Greece asking questions. Who can’t relate to that? I’ve always been the annoying kid with a thousand questions. One observation I have gleamed from asking questions is that people don’t like being questioned. Even if you are genuine in your asking, many people don’t want to be questioned or criticized. They are rather content with their ideas and not interested in learning something new. It’s a strange phenomena, but I understand why they would do so.

The Origin

Socrates didn’t really care if people didn’t like his questions. If you had the boldness to make a claim to truth, you’d better be prepared for questions. In Plato’s Euthyphro, Euthyphro proposes that what is pious is what is loved by the gods. Socrates immediately sees a problem which he reveals with one question: Is it pious because the gods love it, or do the gods love it because it is pious?

The Dilemma

The question has evolved with the rise of monotheism in general and Christianity in particular, but it is essentially the same. Is something good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is good? The horns of the dilemma are thus, what is good is outside of God, or what is good is arbitrary to the will of God. The Christian cannot say that goodness lies outside of God and also cannot say that goodness is arbitrary. What will she do?

When faced with a dilemma, it is usually best to take a step back and reassess the assumptions of the dilemma. What is assumed? That these are the only options. Are they? Just looking at the way I’ve phrased it here, a third option emerges. Can the standard of good be “inside” God and not arbitrary?

Voluntarism and Intellectualism

Theological voluntarism places the good on the will of God. Here you find the Divine Command Theory. What God commands is good. The question raises again, is it good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is good? I actually agree with Socrates that this would fall prey to the dilemma. A theological voluntarist would have to pick her poison and live with the consequences.

However, there is another option, one in the line of Thomas Aquinas. Theological Intellectualism places the good in the intellect of God. Are we now just playing silly philosophical word games? Eh, maybe. But I think there is actually an important distinction to be made here. A command doesn’t become good because God commands it, but the good also isn’t outside of God; it’s in his “intellect”. The good is known by God (not arbitrary and not outside) and then commanded. God is good. This does, in my opinion, not only satisfy the dilemma, but actually avoid it all together. It doesn’t even become a question anymore.

Abraham and Isaac

This is where the rubber meets the road, and also why I think this is more than a philosophical word game. God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Is this not evidence that God’s commands are arbitrary? Was it good for God to command this? Was Abraham good for obeying?

This seems to be the “go to” for proving the arbitrariness of God’s commands. I think it was Christopher Hitchens who used to say something to the effect of “Religion makes otherwise decent people do horrible things,” and the story of Abraham and Isaac is the prime example.

Consider a few things. God promised Abraham that his lineage would spread through Isaac. This assumes that Isaac has a future. Abraham had been on a journey to trust God’s promises. He had already learned not to doubt them. So, if the God of the universe promises you that your son has a future, it’s a safe bet. If you think I’m mistaken in thinking Abraham would be aware of such a thing consider Hebrews 11:17-19:

“By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac. He received the promises and yet he was offering his one and only son, the one to whom it had been said, Your offspring will be traced through Isaac. He considered God to be able even to raise someone from the dead; therefore, he received him back, figuratively speaking.”

Abraham had decided to trust God’s promise that Isaac had a future. Even if Isaac were to die on this altar, he knew God must raise him from the dead to keep his promise. God always keeps his promise. However, in a sense, Abraham was wrong. There would be no sacrifice and therefore no resurrection. That would have to wait. Instead, God intervenes and provides a ram for sacrifice. What symbolism. A sacrifice in Isaac’s place. This is a typology of the sacrifice Jesus would make in our place.

So was it morally wrong, or arbitrary of God to command this? God is not interested in child sacrifice and he condemns and judges those who practice it. The command of Isaac’s sacrifice was preceded by the promise that Isaac had a future. Abraham knew that Isaac wouldn’t stay dead and it actually turned out that he didn’t need to die in the first place. So, I don’t see the arbitrariness in this command given the context.

Would You Sacrifice Your Son?

One last question: would you kill your son if God commanded it? First of all, if I heard a voice say, “Haden, sacrifice your son, this is God speaking.” I would immediately think that it wasn’t God speaking. Secondly, God has never promised me a son, let alone guaranteed that my son will have a long future. So, would I, Haden, sacrifice my son? No. God would never require it. Should Abraham have? Yes, the context is the answer.

What if we asked God, “Would you sacrifice Your Son?” His answer would be, “I have, for you.” Is God cruel for this? Maybe, if there was no resurrection! Just like with Isaac, Jesus was led to the slaughter, but God could’ve raised Isaac from the dead and He did raise Jesus!

God’s commands are good and never arbitrary. If it seems that they are, the fault is in your understanding. For the believers out there, always assume that the dilemma itself is faulty. When you think God is arbitrary, assume your knowledge is faulty. Don’t forget all the reasons you have to believe that God is good.

Now it’s your turn to play Socrates. Where have I erred? Is theological intellectualism just as flawed as voluntarism? Be gracious!

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9 Replies to “What is the Euthyphro Dilemma?”

  1. I’ve heard the third option to the dylemma also referring to the character of God, instead of his intellect. William Lane Craig argues that God’s character itself is goodness and His commands stem from his character. I also like the idea of “theistic activism,” what philosophers like Tom Morris and Alvin Platinga, following the tradition of thinkers such as Augustine, Aquinas, and Descartes, have proposed… This alternative holds that the whole ecology of reality stems from God’s own nature, all that is possible and impossible. God’s creative power sustains all of reality and everything apart from him is dependent on him. This third alternative also responds to Descartes’ proposition of universal possibilism, the idea that God could will anything to be good, including what we would think of as abhorrent. This idea should be rejected and instead what philosophers like Plantinga argue is for the theistic activism that argues that “God believes a proposition because it is true, but the proposition exists because God thinks it”

  2. God is the master at drawing an answer out of mankind through a challenging situation. God was never intending for child sacrifice (other than Jesus), but testing Abraham’s belief in His life giving power. Did Abraham really believe God can keep promises? Abraham was really operating in faith by demonstrating his willingness to sacrifice his son.

    Today we know that God wouldn’t ask for this kind of test because Jesus was the fulfillment of this foreshadowing story. It was all about Jesus. Great post!

  3. I really don’t know where you get this stuff from but I really want to thank you for bringing it up. It’s really awesome. Made me think today.
    First of all, I would agree with both statements. The problem with us is that we define good by our own standards, not Gods. We may feel pain now but the good could be for tomorrow. God is not on our timeline to standardize good or bad. Look at Lazarus for example, was it good for Jesus to let Him die? or did Jesus let him die for the good? I would say both because if Lazarus didn’t die, we would not know that Jesus had the power to raise the dead. Four days of judging the bad, questioning the character of God but good eventually sprang from this decision…..

  4. “Is something good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is good?” My answer would be “both.” You wrote that “God is good.” That is true but it neglects defining “good.” I don’t think that God’s intellect or his commands are sufficient to encompass the magnitude of his goodness. I would prefer to think of his goodness in terms of ultimate results. For instance, Jesus died to allow his Father to justly forgive our sins. However, Jesus’ death was the path to glory that he had been given to walk when he came to earth. His life, death and resurrection made both his and our ultimate glorification possible. This is an illustration of God’s innate goodness, even if the whole process has resulted in a lot of “collateral damage” that is difficult for us to see as “good.”

  5. To me, I don’t see a dilemma. For me, the answer is always, “it’s good because God commands it”. Free will allows our “good” and “evil”. Jesus died for our sins. While we will never be without sin, no matter how hard we try, we will always be forgiven (which is good). It’s our personal relationship with God and through knowing and accepting him is how we will have eternal life. Everything happens for a reason; even if we don’t consider it good. What we go through allows us to grow. It allows us to become closer to God (if we choose to let it). God has a plan for each of us. The good (or bad) is our perception; not His.

  6. I would have to say, God is good, and personally defines good, even when we cannot understand it. His word and Spirit helps us know good from bad. He can bring good out of what seems to bad, as in Joseph’s case. Some would say we should not eat bacon, because God had a good reason for prohibiting it in the old testament law. So I’d would say they would be on the God commands it so it is good, way of looking at things. If pushed to choose I would, I would say something is good because God commands it. However I agree the third option, trusting the thoughts and understanding of God.

    I agree with Sullivanspin, its all about Jesus, now. His fulfilling of the law for us, and trusting in His obedience and righteousness credited to us. His Spirit indwelling and teaching us to live a life worthy of the gospel through His strength and working in us.

    Good post and thoughts.

  7. Thank you for this post. My husband listens to Hitchens and subsequently brings up the God/Abraham/Isaac/sacrifice topic often. You’ve given me a talking point on the other side. 🙂

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