The Euthyphro Dilemma, a Socratic dialogue found in Plato’s writings, famously challenges the ideas that ‘the gods’ are a legitimate source of morality. In the dialogue, Socrates asks his friend Euthyphro, “The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.”
A few things have changed in the past twenty-five hundred years, and most religious people are now monotheists (‘one god’) instead of polytheists (‘many gods’); the argument has been updated accordingly. Still, the basic challenge of the modern-day Euthyphro dilemma boils down to a seemingly impossible choice:
- Either God sees what is good, and then commands our obedience to the good.
- Or God commands our obedience, and whatever God commands is good.
If we go for door #1, we would reluctantly have to accept that ‘God’ and ‘the good’ are separate entities. This would powerfully undermine the idea that God is good. But if we go for door #2, and we assert that what God commands is the good, this seems arbitrary. The theist seems trapped: either God is not good because a) ‘the good’ is outside of God or b) because attributing goodness to God’s commands is arbitrary.
As it turns out, there are many excellent responses to this philosophical quandary. While expressed in different ways, here are two of the best responses:
First, as famous as this philosophical challenge might have become (Socrates proposed it!), it is nevertheless a logical fallacy. Why? Because it presents us with a false dilemma. What’s a false dilemma? “When only two choices are presented yet more exist, or a spectrum of possible choices exists between two extremes.”
The second response illustrates just how false the dilemma is by giving us another option. Namely, to make the obvious point that God is good! If God is good, then God does not need to look outside of his nature to see the good and command it. Nor are God’s commands arbitrarily good just because the all-powerful “God” says so. Rather, the thoughtful theist believes that, because God is essentially good, therefore God only issues good commands for our benefit.
Ever since I heard this response, it has seemed satisfactory to me. After all, the Euthyphro dilemma only works by smuggling in the assumption that God is not good. Once you see this, the objection goes from being powerful (and famous!) to pretty silly: Hey, God-believer, which way do you think God is not good? Option 1 or Option 2? Wait, hold on a second. The definition of “God” is, in part, “a perfectly good being.” I don’t think your objection is very ‘good’ (bad pun intended).
But why is God good? At this point, many atheists I have talked to have strenuously objected to me defining “God” as a “morally perfect being.” It just seems unfair. Whatever the problem is, the theist can tweak the definition of “God” a bit to make everything work out. So how can we adequately show that the statement “God is good” is logical and reasonable?
One standard approach is to back up a step. Approach it this way: God is the greatest possible being. What would be involved in being the ‘greatest possible’ being? Surely the greatest possible being would be perfectly good, otherwise, it would seem that there is a major imperfection in the nature of God. Let’s say we have a proposed candidate to be “God.” The only thing is, a criminal background check reveals a murder here, a little stealing from an old lady there… that won’t do. If God is the greatest possible being, then God must be perfectly good.
I think this line of reasoning is sound, but it still feels a little technical. A bit cold. Very formal. And hardly inspiring. And so, I’d like to propose that from now on, whenever Christians are asked about the Euthyphro dilemma, that we joyfully share our unending love and admiration for the Trinity. For instance, here’s how Michael Reeves describes the Trinity in his excellent book Delighting in the Trinity:
For it is only when you grasp what it means for God to be a Trinity that you really sense the beauty, the overflowing kindness, the heart-grabbing loveliness of God. If the Trinity were something we could shave off God, we would not be relieving him of some irksome weight; we would be shearing him of precisely what is so delightful about him. For God is triune, and it is as triune that he is so good and desirable…
Single-person gods, having spent eternity alone, are inevitably self-centered beings, and so it becomes hard to see why they would ever cause anything else to exist. Wouldn’t the existence of a universe be an irritating distraction for the god whose greatest pleasure is looking in a mirror?…Everything changes when it comes to the Father, Son and Spirit. Here is a God who is not essentially lonely, but who has been loving for all eternity as the Father has loved the Son in the Spirit. Loving others is not a strange or novel thing for this God at all; it is at the root of who he is.
That is, God’s innermost being (hypostasis) is an outgoing, loving, life-giving being. The triune God is an ecstatic God: he is not a God who hoards his life, but one who gives it away, as he would show in that supreme moment of his self-revelation on the cross. The Father finds his very identity in giving his life and being to the Son; and the Son images his Father in sharing his life with us through the Spirit. (Kindle, 49-52, 563-565, 568-570, 642-648).
The Christian God is an eternally Triune God. That is, “God” is perfectly good because God is the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, existing in amazing and awe-inspiring love for one another. From forever ago, and going on for forever, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are always demonstrating a supremely other-centered love.
And how have we experienced this Triune God acting on our behalf?
- Is Creation not bursting with goodness far beyond what is necessary for life?
- Has God not loved us though we have rejected him over and over and over again?
- Did he not become one of us in the Incarnation?
- Did he not give up his very life for us on the cross?
- Have we not been forgiven, revived, renewed, and adopted as sons and daughters?
- Is he not willing to dwell within us?
- Has he not invited us into his loving fellowship, both now and for forever?
What accounts for such extravagant acts and promises for our greatest happiness and joy? Why would God be so, so good to us? It is because this is who a Triune God is in His very nature. The Father delights in seeking the best for the Son and the Spirit, and around and around this other-seeking love has gone and will go on for all eternity. It is the Triune God who is good and who is good to us. Why does this God command us? Certainly not because He ‘sees the good’ standing over there in the corner or because his commands are arbitrarily good. The very great good news is that the Triune God of love requires us to love God and love others because God is love and we, as God’s image-bearers, are invited to know God’s love and become as loving as God is.
I don’t want to deny that debating the academic merits of the Euthyphro dilemma is good fun (even though it is a relatively simplistic logical fallacy). But even if this age-old question presented a serious challenge to Christian faith, this would be all the more reason to discuss the beauty and glory of our Triune God. Answering a logical objection with a reasonable answer is good. But from now on, let’s answer it so that our friends hope the Triune God of love is real – and loves them too. And if you’re still investigating, I hope you will open your heart to the love of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit: God loves you. As the apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 13:14 (ESV):
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.