Can God create a stone that is too heavy for him to lift?
That, and other questions, still elicit enthusiasm & excitement from sophomore philosophy students.
Unfortunately, they possess little argumentative ability for meaningful dialogue outside the undergraduate classroom. A false dilemma by any other name is still a false dilemma. Plato presents us with such a scenario in his famous account of a conversation between Socrates and Euthyphro, in which two categories are offered as the only explanations for moral goodness: Either God legislates what is good, or God merely recognizes something as externally good.
Either morality is arbitrary or it is sovereign.
If these were the only options, Christianity would indeed be marred with internal inconsistency. But this is not the case, and for this reason the Euthyphro dilemma is only problematic if the entire biblical depiction of God is ignored.
I’ll frame a brief response to this around three points at which I think this alleged dilemma is naïve:
1. A Naïve View of God
If the point of using this argument today is to uncover an internal problem within the Christian worldview, then one has to overlook the Bible’s teaching about the nature of God. On a philosophical level God can be described as the greatest being. Of course if there were a being greater than God, then that would itself be God, so God by definition is necessarily the greatest being. As such, the Bible explains God as the source of all things. Thus, moral goodness flows from his essence.
Morality is not an external reality, but a necessary part of his internal character. Morality is grounded in the character of a transcendent God. Thus, it is not external and authoritative over him, and it is not arbitrary. This is the clear example portrayed in Hebrews 6:13-18a:
When God made his promise to Abraham, since there was no one greater for him to swear by, he swore by himself, saying, “I will surely bless you and give you many descendants.” And so after waiting patiently, Abraham received what was promised. People swear by someone greater than themselves, and the oath confirms what is said and puts an end to all argument. Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath. God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope set before us may be greatly encouraged. We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.
2. A Naïve View of Man
I don’t deny that humans can recognize moral goodness apart from belief in God. That’s why atheists can be good, but they are good without belief in God, not good without God. This nuance is important and fundamental to the conversation. Just because man can recognize moral goodness on his own, does not somehow negate a transcendent source. In fact, the Bible accounts for man’s moral intuition. Nearly 2,000 years ago the Apostle Paul recorded, in his letter to the Romans, that God has written his moral code on the hearts of all men (Romans 2).
The evidence of humanity’s longing for justice, sense of moral ought, and respect for altruism isn’t better supported by a naturalistic worldview. As Dr. Edgar H. Andrews, Emeritus Professor of Materials at the University of London, has aptly stated, “Morality and conscience are unique to man and, despite heroic efforts, atheism’s attempts to explain them self-destruct in contradictions.”
Morality finds its source, standard and grounding in a theistic worldview. However, many have long since denied the existence of God, and yet continue to flourish from the basic premises grounded in Christianity. This is why Francis Schaeffer said the humanist lives on “borrowed capital.” This “capital” has been given to all of mankind. We are endowed with these unalienable gifts.
Man does not lose value through disbelief in God, he just loses sight of the source.
3. A Naïve View of Morality
If man is nothing more than a “featherless biped” who is truly the “measure of all things,” then Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky is right, “All things are permissable.” If morality is grounded in human experience it can only result in moral relativism. Naturalism does not offer more support for morality in the face of the dilemma, it offers less. As philosopher Mark Linville points out, “And so the naturalist is saddled with a view that explains morality away. Whatever reason we have for believing in moral facts is also a reason for thinking naturalism is false.”
If you talk to a secular humanist for long at all, you will quickly realize the difficulty they are faced with in ascribing a moral value to any number of actions. Take suicide for example, if a person would be the most happy in ending their own life they should be free to do so. However, this is more than short-sighted in that the taking of one’s life has a profound effect upon the personal happiness of many others. So which is moral, living an unhappy life or ending it and thus robbing others of their happiness?
Moral relativism is unlivable. It is also unavoidable apart from the existence of God. In short, there is no reason to believe in an objective morality apart from God. However, if there is such a thing as a universal and objective moral law (as we all live as though such a thing truly does exist), then such evidence would be good grounds for believing in a transcendent being who is the Supreme Law Giver.
Is morality arbitrary or sovereign?
It is neither. Goodness reflects God’s moral character and has been written on human hearts. Our recognition of an objective goodness points to a transcendent source. Apart from God we have no reason to believe in objective morality. But in the face of an objective morality we do have good reason to believe in God. For Francis Collins, one of the most prestigious scientists in America, it was this truth that led him to abandon his atheism and embrace Christianity. As Collins states, “After twenty-eight years as a believer, the Moral Law stands out for me as the strongest signpost of God.”
For Collins, goodness was not a dilemma, but an invitation. He simply followed the advice of the Psalmist to, “Taste and see that the LORD is good. Oh, the joys of those who take refuge in him!”