Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Euthyphro Dilemma

"How can God be both good and sovereign?" 
 "If God is love, why is there so much suffering in the world?" 
 "How can a merciful God send people to hell?"
"Does God demand what is right because He loves righteousness, or is it righteous because He demands it?"
We've all had to wrestle with these questions at some point. Maybe you're wrestling with them now. With such terrible tragedies plaguing the news on any given day -- let alone throughout history -- the evidence seems to declare, "Aha! Either God is not sovereign, or He is not good."

Let me assure you, you're not the first to face this dilema. In fact, Plato posed the last of the questions above over 2,400 years ago! In his dialogue, Euthyphro, Socrates turns to Euthyphro and presents the challenge:
"Is the pious (*1) loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?"
The reason I draw your attention to the fourth question first is because the way we answer this one will, like dominoes, affect all the rest. You see, each of these dilemas is alike in their underlying greek philosophy of moralism (*2). Moralism is the idea that there is an ultimate "force" in the universe which distinguishes what ought to happen from what ought not to happen.

We could also pose it this way: Who defines "good?" Is it God, or does good come from outside of God? (*2) Plato, Aristotle, Kant and American ideology in general all teach that "good" is beyond God, outside of God, and ultimately capable of governing God's decisions.

But we must realize that unless we identify that moral "force" outside of God to which God answers, who is ultimately defining what is good? We are! Moralism holds the same conclusion that Protogoras came to circa 450 B.C. when he infamously declared "Man is the measure of all things."

C.S. Lewis, on the other hand, would take issue with this reasoning. In his book Mere Christianity he recounts his days as an Atheist:
“My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such a violent reaction against it?"
And so, we are forced to answer the question: Who defines "good?"

Biblically, the answer is clear. Goodness comes from God. (Ex 4.11-12; 31.3-5; 2 Chr 6.41; Pr 2.6; Isa 28.26; Dan 2.21-22; Mt 7.11; 13.11; Jn 3.27; Eph 2.8; Tit 3.4-5; Jm 1.17; 1 Pet 2.3) Consider that while God knew and could identify good from the beginning (Gen 1.4; 2.18) Adam and Eve didn't acquire such knowledge until Genesis 3 when they attained it through sin (Gen 3.7). And once they did have the knowledge of good and evil, the Bible shows time and again that men prefer evil over good (Is 30.9; Jn 3.19; Ro 3.10).

Because of our ancestors' fruit-craving we can distinguish good from evil (Ro 2.15), yet such judgements are polluted by desire, biased sentiment, and personal gain. Our judgements become so relative they lose all semblance to the objective "force" of morality we're trying to define. Beauty gets redefined as, "whatever attracts me to it." Value gets confused with, "whatever I need most right now." Good becomes "whatever I enjoy." Once you've added a variable so wavering as the human heart into the logic, it is bound to be flawed (Jer 17.9). At best, the Euthyphro dilema is over simplified in suggesting that good can possibly be an objective force unaffected by time, space and human will.

However, Euthyphro's question is further flawed in that it creates a false dilema. I say this because he has overlooked a third option, which is in fact the option the Bible teaches. That is, of course, that God is not only the source of all things good, but that He, Himself is good. God = good. Good = God. (Ps 34.8; 100.5; 135.3; 145.9; Nah 1.7; 1 Pet 2.3.) He doesn't arbitrarily choose it or make up its definition. Goodness is part of who He is. It is one of His attributes; it defines Him.

That's why when Moses asked God, "Show me your glory?" in Exodus 33, God replied back, "Ok, I will. Go hide in the rock over there and I will make all my goodness pass before you..." (Ex 33.17-9, paraphrased) Did you catch that? His glory is interchangeable with His goodness. That's significant. He is sovereign because He is good, and vice versa. His goodness is wrapped up in His sovereignty.

So when we face such contorted dilemas that urge us to choose whether God is sovereign or good, I hope our response can be a resounding, "Yes!" with full confidence that He is a good King and He rules rightly, perfectly and absolutely.


God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. 
Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, 
though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, 
though its waters roar and foam, 
though the mountains tremble at its swelling. 
(Ps 46.1-3)


*1 - τὸ ὅσιον: "morally good" or "righteous," particularly behavior
*2 - Our idea of Moralism today has been influenced heavily by Plato and Aristotle, and later more fully defined by Immanuel Kant.
*2 - Let's take this question a step further and ask who gets to define -- anything? The definition of marriage seems to be up for grabs today, as does the definition of a baby. 

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