The Euthyphro dilemma

Plato wrote of a conversation between Socrates and a man named Euthyphro in which this question was raised: Does God command us to do things because they are good or are they good because God commands them?   Many people feel that either answer creates a problem.  If God commands us to do things because they are good that implies that there is a standard of goodness independent of God to which he must conform.  If the things God commands are good because he commands them then good and evil exist only because of God’s arbitrary decision to call certain thing good and others evil.  This problem is known as the Euthyphro dilemma.

The Bible reveals that there are commands in both of these categories: God commands some things because they are good and others are good because God commands them.

The Bible declares that God is good.  A person is considered good when his life and character conform to an external standard of goodness.  God isn’t subject to any external standard.  It is his character that defines goodness.  For example, he cannot lie, so that means that lying is evil.  He is loving, so that means that love is good.  His moral commands are based on his character and can be summarized in two commands.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.
Luke 10:27

The Bible records many acts by God that don’t seem to be good.  He sent a flood that destroyed all life except Noah and his family and the animals that were with him in the ark.  He ordered the extermination of all of the inhabitants of Canaan.  He often ordered the deaths of individuals and groups.

Those who call these acts evil don’t realize that goodness requires not only doing what is good but doing all that is possible to eliminate what is evil.  Humans have sinned against God and because he is good he must punish all sin.   This explains why it was necessary for Christ to die for our sins before we can be forgiven.  God must punish our sins and we can only be forgiven if someone else takes the punishment we deserve.

Just as God does what is necessary to rid his creation of evil he commands us to do what is necessary to rid our lives of evil.

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.
Matthew 5:29-30

Since sin originates in the mind rather than in our physical bodies this command isn’t to be literally obeyed but is a metaphorical way of saying we must purge our lives of anything that would tempt us to sin or make it easier to sin.  A literal expression of this command is found in Romans 13:13,14.

Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

In addition to establishing moral standards that apply to everyone and never change God also gives commands to specific individuals and groups.  Here is one example of such a command:

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”   
Genesis 12:1

Leaving your home and going to another country is an act that is morally neutral and not intrinsically right or wrong.  When God commanded Abram to do this it ceased to be morally neutral for him but was a command Abram must choose to obey or disobey.  It was good because God commanded it and since it was given only to Abram he was the only one required to obey it.

The laws that God gave to Israel through Moses included commands of both kinds.  It incorporated God’s moral laws but also included laws ceremonial and dietary laws that only applied to Israel.  Many of these laws were pictures of what Christ would do and were only intended to remain in effect until he came.

Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.
Colossians 2:16-17

We can’t interpret the Bible correctly unless we understand the difference between these two kinds of commands.

Posted on March 17, 2014, in Bible study and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on The Euthyphro dilemma.

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