I still remember the moment when it dawned on me, as a Christian, that God could not be the source of right and wrong. I was sitting on a stool at our kitchen counter, next to the cereal cabinet (where I often found myself) when it popped into my mind, unbidden.
Do we say God is good because he conforms to an absolute standard of goodness, or must we define goodness as “how God happens to be”?
If God merely conforms to The Good, then he is not the source of it.
On the second option, the sentence “God is good” is redundant. We might as well end the sentence at “God is.” The word “good” contributes no meaning.
I later learned that this is a variation of a dilemma that Plato posed in one of his plays. He has Socrates ask Euthyphro, “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” Or, as the comic strip Jesus and Mo puts it…
All my adult life, I had believed that God was the source of Good. Without him, morals and ethics could not exist. Now I realized that if that were true, then right and wrong must be arbitrary — just rules God had made for no reason at all, or at least not for any reason that pertained to their intrinsic justice.
Ironically, my conviction that right, wrong and justice are real had had a lot to do with my becoming a Christian. Now that same conviction was to become an early factor in the unraveling of my faith.
I faced the choice of
- admitting that right and wrong were just God’s caprice, or
- admitting that God was not the ultimate source of Good, or
- admitting that right and wrong do not exist.
Eventually (and for reasons that had nothing to do with Euthyphro’s Dilemma), I went with the second option.
How about you? I’d love to hear your thoughts, especially if you believe in God.