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What is ‘good’? (Answering the Euthyphro Dilemma)

Ruben J. from the Netherlands asks some important questions about how morality can be grounded in a biblical worldview. Dr Jonathan Sarfati responds.

Photo wikipedia.orgSocrates
Dear CMI, I am a biblical creationist, but have some inquiries regarding the nature of ‘goodness’ and ‘righteousness’.

Creationists often say that atheists don’t have an objective and solid foundation upon which to decide what is right and what is wrong. After all, we are just “rearranged pond scum”, and there is no real reason to say that, for instance, rape is wrong. I totally agree on this: atheism leads to moral relativism.

You put the argument very well. Some atheists have mispresented this argument as ‘atheists cannot be moral’, but you have stated the genuine argument. Some readers may wish to check out this feedback Bomb-building vs. the biblical foundation which explains it in more detail.

But then creationists claim that Christianity does provide a solid foundation for morals. After all, if God made this world, He owns it, He makes the rules, and we have to obey them. God’s will is then ‘good’, and everything that’s against His original intentions is ‘bad’. So health is good, illness is bad (because God originally created healthy bodies), and honesty is good, dishonesty is bad (because God forbids lying), et cetera.

So God decides what is good.

This is a restatement of Plato’s famous dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro. Euthyphro defined goodness as whatever is loved by the gods, and Socrates posed what is often called the Euthyphro Dilemma (paraphrased):

‘Is something good because the gods love it, or do the gods love it because it is good?’

The horns of the dilemma are:

  1. If something is good merely because the gods like it, then goodness is arbitrary.
  2. If the gods like something for its goodness, then goodness is a property that exists independently of, and above, the gods.

The first thing to note is Euthyphro was a polytheist, and their gods were merely somewhat more powerful and knowledgeable than humans, but were still flawed. Therefore it was conceivable to Socrates that there was a standard of goodness to which the gods were beholden.

However the true God of the Bible is infinitely more powerful and knowledgeable. Indeed, He is totally sovereign, and perfect goodness is an essential part of His character, not something outside Him.

Thus the dilemma can be shown to be a false one. God indeed commands things which are good, but the reason they are good is because they reflect God’s own nature. So the goodness does not come ultimately from God’s commandments, but from His nature, which then results in good commandments. As Steve Lovell concluded in ‘C.S. Lewis and the Euthyphro Dilemma’ (2002):

‘The commands of an omniscient, loving, generous, merciful, patient and truthful Being would not be issued without reason, and that since these characteristics are essential to God, His commands possess a strong modal status. It was also observed that God’s possession of these attributes is sufficient to give significant content to God’s goodness.’

Indeed, the Euthyphro Dilemma can be turned around on atheists: Do you approve of an action because it is good, or is it good because you approve of it? If the latter, then your moral standard seems to be subjective and arbitrary, so you complain about God’s alleged arbitrariness. And if the former, then you are back to explaining where this objective moral standard comes from. As shown above, evolution can’t provide this, so the above Divine Nature Theory is back on the table.

Similarly for social theories of good—is something good because society makes a rule about it, or does society make a rule about it because it’s good?

But doesn’t that make it strange to say “God is good”? That would be a tautology! Of course God is good, whatever He does, because God defines good! Even if God would do ‘bad’ things, those acts would be good by definition.

Also the meaning of ‘righteousness’ becomes uncertain. Righteousness then is just whatever God decides it is. “God is a righteous judge”, it is often said. That gives no comfort at all! God’s judgement is ‘righteous’ whatever it is.

It did comfort Abraham though: ‘Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?’ (Genesis 18:25). How did Abraham know this? It’s likely that being made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26–28) includes having a moral nature. This is consistent with the explicit teaching of Romans 2:14–16 that we have a conscience and the Law written on our hearts, and we don’t even live up to this standard.

But the Bible also explains that the conscience is no longer an infallible guide because of the Fall, because it can be seared (1 Timothy 4:2). Thus our consciences now must be properly informed, and we do that by studying God’s Law (Psalm 1:2).

“God’s judgement will be righteous” can thus be restated as “God’s judgement will be according to God’s will.” So Christian terminology contains some disturbing tautologies,

As above, there is more to it than that. But it’s worth noting that tautologies are not necessarily disturbing. All definitions and logically valid arguments are tautologies. Many scientific ideas are formulated in terms of tautologies as well:

  • Hooke’s Law states that the extension of an ideal spring is proportional to the force; an ideal spring is defined as one that obeys Hooke’s Law.
  • What is electric charge? That quality of matter on which an electric field acts. What is an electric field? A region in space that exerts a force on electric charge. But no one would claim that the theory of electricity is thereby invalid and can’t explain how motors work.

This is why we advise against the ‘natural selection is a tautology’ argument.

and we have no guarantee that God’s ‘righteous’ judgement will resemble anything that we think is ‘righteous’ (although the Bible gives some clues for certain situations).

But as stated, if there is a lack of resemblance, the fault is ours, not God’s.

So we might as well stop applying terms like ‘goodness’ and ‘righteousness’ to God, because we cannot infer any real meaning from such combinations of words.

Not really, if we correctly understand ‘God is good’ as a subject-predicate statement, not an identity statement. To explain, an example of the former is ‘my father is tall’, and of the latter is ‘my father is my male parent’. In the former, it provides additional information about my father, in the latter, ‘my father’ is by definition ‘my male parent’—there is no new information. So God is not good in the same way as my father is my male parent, but in the same way that my father is tall—goodness really is additional information about God’s character.

Oh, I have this other little question. Sarfati argues in his book, Refuting Compromise (by the way, I often recommend this brilliant work to compromising Christians),

Thanx. Hope it helps undo some of the compromise.

that animals do experience suffering. If this is true, then billions of animals are experiencing the most agonizing pains, while they are innocent (they do not know the difference between right and wrong). In contrast to some humans, they will never be ‘repaid’ for all this suffering in any way. CMI says animals don’t have an after life. How can this be righteous?

The Western culture is very individualist in thinking, but the Bible was more collective, as are most cultures even today—for an explanation see Honor and Shame in the Biblical World.1 This explains the frequent Corporate Punishment in the Bible. So when Adam sinned, because he was the head of humanity, we all sinned in Adam (Romans 5:12–19). But Adam also had dominion over the rest of creation, so when he sinned, the whole creation under him was cursed as well, in line with the principle of corporate punishment (see The Fall: a cosmic catastrophe).

Note, if corporate punishment is ‘unjust’, whatever that might mean in an atheistic framework, then so is corporate redemption. Yet the Bible teaches this concept: believers in Christ are saved because our sins were corporately imputed (credited) to His account (Isaiah 53:6) when He was on the cross. And His perfect righteousness was imputed to believers in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Some animals only suffer during their short, innocent, miserable lives, but they will never be compensated for this. If innocents suffer but never get compensated, that’s not righteousness, not by my definition at least. Of course you can say that God is the one who decides what’s right and what’s wrong, and that I shouldn’t be arrogant.

Yes, one could, because your knowledge is fallible and your conscience imperfectly informed. After all, you cannot prove that God hasn’t a good reason for allowing the suffering of animals, e.g. to achieve a greater good. See also the discussion in The problem of evil.

But that makes the word ‘right’ meaningless, because even the cruellest things can then be ‘right’.

Indeed, given our imperfect knowledge, you are in a sense right. Consider how a tribesperson from a low-tech culture might view the removal of an eye in a child after a minor injury that seems to have healed. The specialist knows that the patient has ‘sympathetic ophthalmia’, and if the injured eye is not removed, the patient will go totally blind in both eyes, as happened to Louis Braille. Removal of the eye (without anesthetic, if none is available) seems ‘cruel’, but is definitely ‘right’ given the greater knowledge. God’s knowledge relative to ours is infinitely greater than the disparity between the knowledge of the eye surgeon and the tribesperson.

Thank you,

You’re welcome

Jonathan Sarfati

Published: 5 May 2007


  1. There are pluses and minuses of both types of cultures—see the secular article Shame-culture and Guilt-culture. However, the countries most influenced by the Reformation are the most individualist, with all the prosperity that individual and property rights can bring. This is due to the rediscovery of the biblical doctrine of justification by faith, which elevated the independence of the individual. So did Jesus’ condemnation of sins of the heart which no other human could see, such as anger and lust (Matthew 5:22,28). So while biblical culture was collectivist, and must be understood in this context, many of its teachings subtly addressed the downsides of this type of culture and laid the foundation for the positive aspects of an individualist one. See John Robbins, Christ and Civilisation, Trinity Foundation, POB 68, Unicoi, TN 37692, 2003. Return to Text

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