Friday, July 07, 2023

Too Hot to Handle: The Good, the Bad and the Godly

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Plato is among the most influential figures in philosophical thought. He is an absolute giant, and it would difficult to overestimate the extent to which his writing has shaped the Western mindset.

That being understood, unless you have studied theology or philosophy, you may find it hard to understand how a 2,400-year-old dialogue has any relevance at all to the question of whether God exists. And yet one question posed by Socrates in Plato’s Euthyphro is still bandied about online regularly.

The Horns of a Theological Dilemma

Tom: Last week, Immanuel Can, you and I had a lengthy conversation about it. The scope of the post I was writing at the time was way too narrow to accommodate even a fraction of what we discussed, so I thought maybe we could revisit the subject here.

For readers who have yet to encounter it, IC, what exactly is the “Euthyphro dilemma”, and in what sort of context is one likely to encounter it?

Immanuel Can: It’s a problem Socrates raises in one of his conversations. Essentially, he asks whether “the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods”. But you won’t generally find it repeated in quite so antique a way today. Usually, today, it is paraphrased as something like, “Is something good (or bad) because God says it is, or is it good (or bad) already?”

This gets turned into a kind of argumentative trap set for the Christian. If he says, “Whatever God says is good is thereafter good,” then the skeptic says, “Aha! So you’re saying that if God called murder good, it would be good to murder everybody.”

Tom: That’s exactly the way I’ve seen it framed.

Confused and Thrown Off

IC: But that doesn’t seem right, so the Christian maybe flips and says, “No, no ... it’s got to be the other way around: murder is plain wrong. God would never do that.” Then the skeptic says, “If murder’s already wrong, then God saying so isn’t important; in fact, God himself is subject to something greater than him — the concept ‘good’, which is greater than God.”

And the Christian feels confused and thrown off.

Then the skeptic says, “Now you see that the whole concept of God makes no sense. If he can call anything at all ‘good’, then he’s not particularly ‘good’ in any meaningful sense: he could do evil. On the other hand, if God doesn’t make the difference to what’s good and bad, then our concepts ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are bigger and more important than God — they judge him. So either God isn’t good at all, or God isn’t God at all. Which do you want?”

[Stunned pause.]

The skeptic closes: “See? Your theism’s just plain irrational! Gotcha.”

Tom: In the case of Euthyphro, I’ve actually seen Christians online take the bait and argue “Yes, if God said cannibalism is a good thing, then that would be just fine. He’s God, and he gets to dictate the terms.” That last bit is certainly true enough, but the God you’re left with is not a God who’s likely to appeal to your skeptic friend … or to you, frankly.

Dealing with “Gotcha” Questions

My experience is that with every “gotcha” question about God, the Christian faith or life generally, the danger to the faith of the unsuspecting comes in accepting the way the issue is originally framed, whether it’s the choice of words used, or the acceptance of the idea that you have to choose one of two options that appear to be the only possibilities. Unless the skeptic is actually right — which is almost never the case — the way to keep the trap from closing on you is to pause the moment the speaker lays out his “dilemma” and reflect on whether the question is actually a fair one, rather than leaping in enthusiastically on one side or another.

IC: Right! The trap is in the way the question is posed, and any answer is a danger, because the question itself contains the lie. In this case, the lie is that “good” is one thing, and “God’s will” is a different thing: actually, they’re the same thing. The question makes no more sense than to ask, “Are you a husband, or are you a male?” The right answer is actually “Both”.

Tom: How useful is it to argue abstractions like this with people? I’ve always tended to avoid answering hypothetical questions as much as possible on principle. They’re really only useful rhetorically, because you can’t prove anything definitively with them.

IC: Good question. I think, like every other form of witnessing, it’s a case of “He who has ears, let him hear.” A person who pulls out the Euthyphro dilemma may not have any sincere interest in listening at all. On the other hand, he may be someone who’s heard a flimsy thing like this, and it’s set him back on his journey to faith, in which case it’s good to help him out. Or we could be talking to a sincere Christian who’s been stumbled by being hit with, and not understanding, this challenge, so we could help him out too. It might still be worth working through.

Tom: Fair enough.

Pantheons and Schizophrenic Gods

IC: Anyway, the point is that Socrates could only pose the question in the first place because he took as certain that “God’s will” and “good” were not identical concepts. Why was he so sure they were different? Because he was a polytheist. If a person actually reads the Euthyphro dialogue, you find this very explicitly. Socrates says to Euthyphro, “I certainly did not ask you to tell me what action is both pious and impious: but now it would seem that what is loved by the gods is also hated by them. And therefore, Euthyphro, in thus chastising your father you may very likely be doing what is agreeable to Zeus but disagreeable to Cronos or Uranus, and what is acceptable to Hephaestus but unacceptable to Here, and there may be other gods who have similar differences of opinion.”

So even Socrates knew that his question depended on (a) there being multiple gods, not one, and (b) that they were supposed to have disagreements about good and evil so strong that what some deemed good others actually hated. “The gods’ wills” and “goodness” were then quite obviously not the same thing.

Tom: Right. We’re in a very different situation when we begin to discuss the God of the Bible.

IC: Absolutely. For the Christian, “goodness” is a word that describes the character — and hence, also the will — of God. And there is no alternative “good” to that.

The "Omnipotent" God

Now, here we have to clear up a massive, common misconception. It’s the word “omnipotence”, which is sometimes ascribed to God. If it means, “Able to do anything at all”, then we would have a problem: for “anything” would include silly things, contradictory things, bad things, and even downright evil things. But you see, that kind of “omnipotence” is not taught by the Bible — and not just because the Bible doesn’t use that word, but because it denies that God can do just anything.

I’m sure, Tom, that you know some of the things the Bible says God cannot do.

Tom: Sure. He can’t be contained, he can’t lie, he can’t be tempted with evil, he can’t forget his promises, he cannot deny himself … in short, he can’t act outside the bounds of his own revealed character, because to do so would be inconsistent. It would be self-denial.

The Truly Strong Man

IC: Right. And that’s how we should understand the word “omnipotent” (if we choose to use it at all): not as “can do anything”, but as “can do all that his nature requires”. Think of it this way: Is the strong person the man who does everything anybody else tells him to do, or the guy who’s so strong nobody ever gets to tell him what to do, so he only does what fits with what he intends? Which man is really “strong”?

In just this way, God is so strong, so “omnipotent” that he never does anything not harmonious with his own character and will. And that is what is meant by “good”.

To bring this full circle, then: Socrates’ question is a perfectly sensible one to ask a polytheist. It makes no sense at all — in fact, it’s a nonsense question — when posed to a monotheist or Christian. The fault is in the mistaken assumption of the question-poser.

Tom: And the key to not getting caught in this sort of semantic quicksand is understanding the trap in the question, which requires mulling it over. Solomon said, “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.” What did he mean by that? Everyone who gives an answer has heard something, or he wouldn’t be answering. What he’s saying there is that it is foolish to offer an opinion before you fully comprehend the issue you are purporting to address.

Look at the book of Job. Three friends gave Job answers that were simply too quick. Elihu patiently waited 31 chapters to offer his opinion, all the time just listening. His response was closer to the truth than anything the other three had to offer.

IC: Yes. And once again, as I’ve said in an earlier post, watch out for assumptions. Don’t take for granted that when a skeptic frames a question for you, his question is one that always makes sense, or one that is fair. He may well simply be a victim of weak reasoning. Be careful not to join him in that.


  1. Here is one :-?. You may want to clarify one additional thing. Since God's creation (the spiritual component of angels, humanity?) is a spin-off of him then why don't the same groundrules also apply to his creation from a character standpoint? In other words, they can (should) only act in a godly way? You will probably say because of free will. But then, God also has free will?

    1. A spin off? Ground rules? I’m sorry, Q … I think I’m missing the point you’re trying to make about that. Can you explain it more fully?

    2. Spin-off - our spiritual self should duplicate the properties and capabilities of our spiritual parentage, I assume. That includes character. And that should determine the groundrules for human behavior. In other words, no failure.


    3. Q: you’ll find that John 1:12-13, Romans 9:8, Acts 2:39, Galatians 3:26, Philippians 2:15, and a bunch of other verses show us definitively that “children of God” means only those born again, born from above by God. One is not a “child of God” by the mere fact that one is a product of God’s creation: one has to be brought into that family relationship through regeneration of the Spirit, by God himself. People who have not experienced this second birth are not called, “children of God”, but are said to be “children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3) or even “children of the devil” (John 8:44). So to be a child of God is not a matter of one’s origin, but of one’s heart-condition. And that condition is fallen, until it is “born again” (John  3:7) and regenerated by the Spirit of God.

      No wonder, then, that mankind can do evil: his evil comes from what he is, inside (Mark 7:20-23). To be a “child of God”, one must be given a new, godly nature. So that problem must be dealt with before anyone can be right with God. Mere “character training" will not do it.

    4. I can't disagree with what you are saying but it does not satisfy my need for consistent and logical completeness (which all of us are entitled to but which is not always available for various reasons). In this instance it is so simply because in this world there is always a timeline involved in everything.

      E.g., what your answer implies is that God either gifts a completely neutral spirit at our birth who he does not have any particular parental, emotional, or charitable bond with until formation of that spirit into a consciously choosing adult. If then choosing correctly, by your definition, this creation of his now becomes acceptable to him. That is currently what I think you are implying. Looked at it that way it is immediately clear that that cannot be the case with God since he his always a loving parent from the beginning (which must, of course, include discipline). Also, there definitely is the case of the saintly person who nevertheless has not found God by your or my definition but is absolutely acceptable to God (definition of saintly). So, then, how do you work out what you are saying in a consistent manner along a timeline and an absolutely always caring and fair God?

      (Btw I think it can actually be worked out given the nature of our universe).

    5. Well, the problem is not with God's disposition toward us, Q. It's with our disposition toward God. In sending his Son for us, God has done all that he would ever need to do to show his love for us -- a thing which he did not do because we were already "saintly" (Col. 1:12-14) but "while we were still sinners" (Romans 5:8). But God is also righteous. Against those who choose to cling to their sin and reject his Son, he has only wrath (Rom. 1:18). According to scripture, then, the fact of their having been created by God does not make them his "children". They are "children of wrath." (Eph. 2:3).

      It is possible to become a child of God. It is also possible to choose not to be. Either way, the deciding factor is not physical birth but the new birth of faith in Jesus Christ (John 3:36).

    6. Well, I see it differently to some degree. Basically you are restating what you had said previously. What I am trying to get across is that real life is far more complex than that and that God, obviously, and to be fair, will take that into account. By complexity I mean that many people were born into Hell's kitchen through no fault of their own (unless Calvinism is correct that that was their destiny). And they were raised such without even a remote chance to acquire the disposition you imply we must have to choose God now or later in life. And there are many shades in between of this type of situation. Granted we we have a built in conscience but realistically it can be terribly malformed and twisted depending on where and how we landed and progressed in this world under it's various influences. I am therefore convinced that God, being familiar with each of our situations, compensates for the bias in our circumstances even taking into account the fact that due to circumstances people are unable to commit to him in their life the way you imply they should.

  2. Just in case there are no takers let me supply some suggestions. There are several things here:

    Timing -
    Establishing a good or bad character:

    By having the property, or creating and granting the property, of Character it is implicit that for the sake of freedom a character needs time to prove itself to have more or less positive or negative properties. God has existed long enough to have established to have a divine and eternally good character. His creation needs time to prove itself or else would not be free. It is during that time that character can fail.

    Process of creation -
    Equivalency of creation:

    We have all heard of Skynet I assume. Just arguing from my own basis, why would I want to create a duplicate of myself that therefore can potentially outsmart me and cause havoc. It would be better to instill a need for dependency in my creation which would provide a compass for it to seek the freedom it is entitled to. This is also linked to reward and status based on that effort.

    And mostly - Love for his children:

    We are God's children. My children were not equivalent to me when they grew up. I don't know about you but when I got older I nevertheless had a hard time with differential equations and calculus. So, out of love for his finite creation God asks us to do those things that will not blow our mind. That is because he is eternally a responsible and caring parent. To act in such a manner presupposes good character. Unfortunately we see that that is where humanity often fails itself.