The “Euthyphro Dilemma” is often cited by atheists as a question that Christians cannot answer. The “dilemma” is used to propose that it is impossible to depend on a Divine command (God’s words/judgements) for a standard of morality and ethics. The Euthyphro Dilemma can clearly be stated as: “are morally acceptable deeds approved by God because they are morally acceptable, or are they morally acceptable because they are approved by God?”
What is the Dilemma?
The dilemma can be found in its original form in “Plato’s Euthyphro” which is an account of the Philosopher Socrates discussing holiness with an ancient Greek mantic priest named Euthyphro as recorded by Plato. While the dilemma really was a dilemma for the faulty, polytheistic theology of the ancient Greek pantheon; it is a false dilemma when viewed in the reality of the True God. According to the original dilemma, either an action is in the state of being approved by the gods because the gods decide to approve it (completely arbitrary, it would seem). Or, the gods decide to approve an action because it is an action that they approve of (very circular, redundant, and illogical).
In the dialogue, Euthyphro contends:
(1) An action is approved by the gods because it is holy (if A, then B).
(2) An action is approved by the gods because it gets approved by the gods (if B, then C).
(3) What is holy is what is approved by the gods (A=C).
What is holy and what is approved by the gods are indeed the same thing if everything that is approved by the gods is indeed approved by the gods, and if everything that gets approved by the gods is holy. However, Plato contends that A (something approved by the gods) and B (something holy) do not have the same meaning, even if they are the same thing. Plato suggests that “an action approved by the gods” and “an action which is holy” do not mean the same thing, and cannot said to be equivalent.
It is submitted that if the theist confirms that morally acceptable acts are morally acceptable because they are approved by God, he faces the “independence problem.” If actions are being willed by God because they are morally acceptable, then a moral standard exists independent of God. Thus, God is not needed to know that a moral act is moral, or that an immoral act is immoral; and God’s word is no longer needed as the basis for a human’s determination of righteousness.
But, if the theist confirms that morally acceptable acts are morally acceptable because they are willed by God, he faces the “arbitrariness problem,” “emptiness problem,” and “the problem of abhorrent commands” (see ‘appendix’)
The arbitrariness problem:
This yields that morality is solely based on the unknowable whims of God. How can moral arbitrariness be the basis of morality? Thus we see that the standard of morality would be arbitrary.
The emptiness problem:
The problem occurs when individuals make claims like “God keeps his commands” and “God’s commands are in accordance with his commands.” Such statements are noted as empty, redundant statements that don’t prove anything.
The problem of abhorrent commands:
Such correctly states that if morality is determined by God’s arbitrary whim, then an abhorrent, terrible, immoral act could be deemed as moral by God.
A Third Option
To get a correct answer to this dilemma, we need to understand the nature of God. God is holy, righteous, and perfect. There is an objective moral standard, but it does not exist independent of God, it is based on the characteristics and essence of God. The objective moral standard is internal to God. So God’s commands are not a matter of arbitrary whims, but are rooted in his perfect nature. Moral goodness does not exist if God doesn’t exist; not that they are the exact same, but that one is an essential characteristic of the other. God is the source of justice, goodness, love, perfection. He doesn’t arbitrarily decide the standard, his nature is the standard. Nor is there moral goodness to be found outside of God and his existence (see ‘appendix continued’).
Moral goodness is rooted in God’s character (or nature) which is expressed in his commands. Below is a table of Scripture to demonstrate how morality is an expression of God’s nature:
|It is commanded of man:||Moral commandment as an element of God’s nature:|
|Not to lie (Ex. 20:16; Prov. 6:19; 1 Pet. 2:1)||God cannot lie by nature (Heb. 6:18; Num. 23:19; Tit. 1:2; 2 Tim. 2:13)|
|To be holy (1 Pet. 1:15, 16; 2:5, 9; 2 Pet. 3:11)||God is holy by nature (1 Pet. 1:15, 16; Ps. 99:3, 9; Heb. 7:26)|
|To love one another (Mt. 5:44-46; 22:39; Jn. 15:12, 17;||God is loving by nature (Ps. 119:64; 1 Jn. 4:7-21; etc.)|
|To be righteous (Mt. 5:20; 25:46; 1 Jn. 3:7).||God is righteous by nature (2 Chron. 12:6; Ps. 11:7; 119:137; 1 Jn. 3:7)|
|To be merciful (Mt. 5:7; Lk. 6:36).||God is merciful by nature (Deut. 4:31; Ps. 86:15; Lk. 6:36)|
In fact, we are exhorted often in scripture to be godly (1 Tim. 2:2, 10; 4:7, 8; 5:4; 6:6, 11; Tit. 2:12; 2 Pet. 3:11). Godliness is, by definition, being God-like. God does not wish us to conform to his arbitrary rules, nor to some moral standard which exists independent of him. He wants us to conform to him, to his nature and essence.
All of the Scriptural arguments above are a Biblical basis to solve the false dilemma, and the following:
- “The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he” (Deut. 32:4).
- “This God—his way is perfect; the word of the Lord proves true; he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him” (Psalm 18:30).
- “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48).
- “But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing” (Jas. 1:25).
Please note that God’s law is not arbitrary, it is perfect. Likewise, attributes of God are what are expressed as morally good. Moral goodness is not chosen, nor does it exist independent of God. Thus, it is clear that morality’s standard is indeed God, but not because of his approval of an action or his mere recognition, but because his nature declares it as so.
The Damage of the “Dilemma”
This “dilemma” unfortunately justifies certain individual’s disbelief in God (in their own minds). When individuals stumble across things like these, they feel that they have a tangible, logical reason for not being a Christian. Plato and Socrates are revered as the greatest minds of all civilization, how could they be wrong? But when we logically look at the dilemma, we can see that it is indeed a false dilemma in light of rationality and the Scriptures.
Answering “dilemmas” like this can do a lot for one’s faith. When we examine logic and the Scriptures, we can see that our faith in God is not misplaced. An exercise such as this is great for Christians because, not only does it expose the thought process of a studious atheist, but it gives us another arrow in our quiver of defense (cf. 1 Pet. 3:15). Truth does not fear inspection, and Christians should not feel intimidated in the face of secular academia or philosophy.“Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Cor. 1:20).