The Euthyphro Dilemma, Part 1

Is Good “Good” Because God Commands it? Or Does God Command it Because it is Good?

That’s the crux of the Euthyphro dilemma, so-named because it derives from Socrates’ question in Plato’s Euthyphro, “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” It’s a great question. And it raises an interesting question about whether the “essences” of God are created by Him or are inherent and unchangable, even by God. For example, we know that God is Love. Could He decide not to be Love and still be God? Could He decide not to be Love at all?

The Biblical Evidence: Titus 1:2
Titus 1:2 is a lone verse which holds a lot of importance, because there is a chance it provides an answer. In it, Paul either says that “God cannot lie” or that “God does not lie.” Obviously, there’s a world of translation between those two concepts. The first establishes that there is a limit on God’s omnipotence: that His Power and Sovereignty is bound by His Goodness and Love. The second doesn’t suggest anything of the sort: perhaps He does not lie because He cannot, or perhaps because He chooses not to.

The English translations are split between these two, as this list of translations shows:

  1. The NASB, ISV, KJV (interestingly), AKJV, ASV, Darby, ERV, Webster’s, World English Bible, are solidly in the first camp: they all translate the verse as saying that God cannot lie.
  2. The NIV takes the latter position: that God “does not” lie. So does Young’s Literal Translation: God “doth not” lie. The Weymouth New Testament says God “is never false to His word,” which isn’t very helpful either way, but leaves the possibility open that God could lie.

So a 9-3 skew amongst Protestant Bibles. Of the Catholic translations, the NAB says that God “does not” lie, as does the NJB. The Douay-Rheims says that God “lieth not.” The RSV:CE says that God “never lies.” So they’re 0-3, strangely enough, bringing it to a 9-6 total. Obviously, this isn’t the most accurate way of determining what the verse says, so the next step should be taking a look at a good Concordance/Lexicon. Strong’s is great, and it’s free online. Turns out, the term being translated as either “does not lie” or “can not lie,” apseudēs, is defined by Strong’s as “without lie, truthful,” or alternately, “veracious – that cannot lie.” Which means that even amongst the Lexicon definitions, it looks like it can mean either “does not” or “cannot” lie. What about context? Well, apseudēs appears all of one time in the Bible: in Titus 1:2, of course.

So Titus 1:2 is a hint at the answer, but that’s it. Comparing translations, looking at lexicons, and examining parallel uses of the Greek word all come up short.

The Philosophical Question: Can God Command the Immoral?
Søren Kierkegaard, in his book Fear and Trembling, uses the story of Abraham and Isaac as a starting point to ask this basic question. He wants to know if there is a “teleological suspension of the ethical?” That is, can God command (for purposes known only to Him) you to do unethical things? Is your duty to God higher than your duty to behave ethically, so that no Christian can have an absolute code of ethics or even morals? The story Kierkegaard chose is perhaps the most compelling within the scope of the Bible. Normally, human sacrifice is both immoral and unethical. But what if God commands it?

I think that the case Kierkegaard offers still has an exception, though. Yes, Isaac is innocent. But here, it’s an issue of life and death, and God gave life freely, and can take life freely. We can’t hold God to the same standards of not killing the innocent because: (1) He’s the Author of Life, and can take it at His pleasure; and (2) if God killed only the guilty, Heaven would be empty. Think about it: the only way innocent people ever get to go to Heaven is if God kills them, has someone kill them, or permits them to be killed. So just as God can commission “natural causes” to take the lives of the innocent and bring them to Heaven, He can also commission their depature from this Earth in other ways – indeed, any way He chooses.

So here, it’s not simply that one’s obligation to God overrides the ethical or moral concerns against taking human life. It’s that taking human life is only wrong if we’re doing it outside of our authority. So, taking the life of the justly condemned isn’t intrinsically immoral, and neither is killing in the scope of duty (killing enemy combatants within the course of combat). Certainly, moral and ethical decisions remain in those cases, but they’re not intrinsicall evil in the way taking a life outside of your authority is (terrorism, murdering the innocent, assassinations, and so forth). If God commissions you to do something, it’s now within your authority, so it’s not that God’s will trumps the moral calculation, but that His approval actually changes the moral calculation. Similarly, an executioner killing someone he suspects to be a murderer is wrong; but if a valid tribunal finds that suspect guilty and condemns him, the moral calculation is changed.

A better question might be this: could God command the intrinsically evil, like torture, abortion, or rape? Things which are instrincially immoral? My strong inclination is that God cannot command these things, since they’re outside the bounds of His authority as a Loving God. As Author of Life, He can lovingly kill (either to send souls to Heaven or remove their threat to other souls), and it’s well within His authority. Even the power to damn is an appropriate punishment for sin, and is fitting within His Loving Justice. But to torture or rape is outside of His authority. Yes, He might (and only might) have the power to do so, He doesn’t have the authority to do so, by virtue of His own nature.

These thoughts are just sort of a first take on the subject. I made a Euthyphro tag so that I can return to this later. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts on this!


  1. The story of Abraham and Issac is difficult, but not so much ( for me) because God has the right to “kill” Isaac and take him to heaven. The difficulty for me is that God would accomplish this by asking Abraham to do the killing. It’s too hard to grasp. Also, since God knows all things; the outcome was already known ( so why command Abraham to do it in the first place?)

  2. This question (nice to finally have a name to associate it with) is a particular one that seems to come up a lot in my discussions with those who do not want to believe. They first make the basic question, then point out that God has commanded “all sorts of terrible things” and questions what would happen if He were to command them again.

    In one such conversation, my friend wanted to know what I would do if God commanded me to kill someone else. I assured my friend that He would not so command me, and if I were to receive such a declaration, I would be assured that it was not from God. He altered his statement; now I had absolute assurance that it was God speaking to me. To him, this set a kind of philosophical trap: either obey God and do something that He previously instructed was evil, or obey our own sense of right and wrong, thus nullifying any claim of obedience to God.

    The chief problem from the argument is two-fold:
    First, we do not see the fullness of creation as God sees it, and therefore cannot judge it as He does. However, as C.S. Lewis points out, we must be able to distinguish good acts if we are to mean anything by calling God good. This is an act that we must take on faith, by observing what we know of God’s actions to this point and His history with being trustworthy.
    Second, people assume that God is capable of commanding a wide range of things because they have the experience of being able to change their minds. God does not change and therefore is not within our range of understanding. People assume that God could command an atrocious evil because He has changed, and they base that assumption on the observation that they change all the time. However, God cannot command the contradictory.

    This ultimately leads to the only logical conclusion of the argument: It is good because God commanded it. It must be so, because God cannot command a contradiction, and we know that God is good. To claim that God does it because it is good is to place a power above God in determining what is good and evil. What is more, we are presuming to know more about good and evil than God does Himself. In that sense, we simultaneously proclaim that there is a power above God, and that we know more about that power than what we presently call God. What arrogant fools we can be.

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