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February 04, 2014


The dilemma:

Is it Good because God commands it?
If so, then what's Good is up to the arbitrary whim of God.

On the other hand, does God command it because it's (already) Good? If so, then Good is something outside of God, which He just relays to the rest of us.

But this is a false dilemma, and it arises from the Greeks' understanding of their gods. They had multiple gods, and that presented problems for determining the single-point source of Good. The real Euthyphro Dilemma was, "Is it Good because the gods command it? Or, do the gods command it because it is Good?"

The difference is that on the Christian worldview, there is only one God, and he is the source of all, including Good. The second horn of the dilemma is faulty, because it assumes that if God commands what is good, then Good is something beyond Him (as it must be in the case of the multiple gods if the Greeks).

Actually, that which is Good is that which is in accordance with His unchangeable, holy nature.

God commands what is Good, not arbitrarily, but because it's in accordance with his nature.

I think the mistake is in thinking "good" must be good for some other reason. Most things we think of as "good," we do so to the degree that it conforms to an outside standard. But that means the outside standard must be the good itself--the standard by which everything else is deemed to be good. So it doesn't make sense to ask "By what standard is the "Good" good."

Somewhere in a vault in Paris, there is the International Prototype Kilogram (aka The Big k). Check out this video:


For the last 130 years or so, The Big k has been the standard kilogram. It is a block of platinum-iridium that meant to be the standard by which the mass of everything else is measured. It is what determines how much mass a kilogram is.

Well, the Big k is to mass what God is to goodness. It makes no more sense to ask, "By what standard is the Big k actually 1 kg?" than it does to ask, "By what standard is God actually good?" Just as the Big k is the one kilogram, so also is God the good. God is the Big G.

But, a person might say we arbitrarily chose the Big k to be the one kilogram, so that leaves us without an explanation for why God is the good. Who chose God to be the good? Or did he choose himself? Or could it have been otherwise?

This is harder to explain. I think the only way anything could be the Big G is if it were a lot like God. It would have to be a person since goodness doesn't even make sense in a world without any persons. Goodness entails things like value, oughtness, virtue, purpose, etc., which are all qualities that only make sense in a world with persons. So goodness must be grounded in a person.

I think it makes sense to say that the good is grounded in God because God is the only being of his kind. He is without peers.

But you might have said the same thing about the last Dodo bird, and obviously the dodo bird wasn't the standard of goodness. So I think being unique is a necessary condition for being the good, but not a sufficient condition.

I figure since God is the source of all other things that exist, then it's God who invests everything else with purpose. If God is the source of all things, and if he has no peers, then it seems to be God has authority over all things, he is the ultimate end in all things, and he is what everything exists for. So it seems to me that if anything is to be the standard for the good--what ought to be--it would be God.

What makes kindness good is that God commands it. But what makes the command good is that it's based on God's character. But since God's character is just the way he is, and since he's an eternal being who didn't come from anything or anybody else, then God's character is the standard for goodness. It's what determines his commands, which are then the standard by which every action by moral beings is considered good or bad. Since God's character is him, then he is the Big G.

It's not easy to explain, but that's how I see it.

Great comments so far. Mike Westfall said almost exactly what I came here to say.

So let me investigate the heart of someone who asks this question, because it's relevant to the secularization of society. It's not that Western Culture is becoming less moral, but that the moral standard has changed. We tend to think of people who would balk at admonitions to be sexually pure and not kill unborn children as saying that people should be allowed to do whatever they want to do. But really they have a morality that they expect us to follow. Try opposing their morality and see if they don't think you are wrong.

The difference between their morality and ours is that their morality is based on some popular consensus. This means a couple of things. First, that they believe that morality can be changed if only the cultural tides can be changed. So that's what they do. But second is that they also think that that's all that Christian morality is. So they send cultural emissaries to make inroads into Christian churches because they believe that Christian morality is as pliable as the culture at large.

The problem we have is that too many Christians don't understand that morality as defined by God isn't open for discussion. We might try to refine our understanding of it and talk about it in that regard, but ultimately it isn't up to us and God has been quite clear about it. So we have Christians who debate the idea that many sins are not really sins, like divorce, sexual immorality, killing people who aren't born, etc. This contributes to the idea that Christian morality is pliable.

But the recognition that even secular people who oppose Christian morality still have a morality leads to another observation. That is that we have a need for morality built into who we are. No one is purely amoral. That's a feature that was given by God to his special creation - those who are made in his image. We have a sense of morality, as imperfect as it can be, because there is a Creator who establishes all morality. It behooves us to learn what he thinks is good because as our Maker, we ultimately belong to him.

Excellent, well-thought-out comments!

There cannot be an infinite regress of standards that determine whether some other standard is good. God is good because He has a good nature. He does not decide what is good at random. There cannot be a higher standard than God and a higher standard above that standard. God is the ultimate standard and He is by definition good.

We know how we would like to be treated, and we consider it good the more we treat others so. Treating enemies as our own equal is probably the highest level of good that we can naturally comprehend. Then we have in capitalistic society, a notion that it’s OK not to treat others as our equal, and even take advantage of them, so long as everyone is free to do so.

So, in our world, while we have a basic notion buried deep with in each person of what good actually is, we justify ignoring it and proudly treat others unequally so long as any are free to do so.


If Good is treating others how they'd like to be treated, then I guess that it's good to supply my lazy neighbor with free bon-bons while he lays around on the couch watching TV all ay?

Mike, please read more carefully. I didn't say "how they'd like to be treated" I used the "Golden Rule", you know (hint), the one Christ himself spoke of, as a guide to understanding what good is.

Asking "By what standard does God see himself as good?" is an odd question that seems to misunderstand God.

I can think of some similar questions:

  • By what standard do I see myself has having brown hair and blue eyes?
  • By what standard does water see itself as wet?
  • By what standard do you see yourself as [insert unique attribute here]?

If I say Greg Koukl is the president of Stand To Reason and you ask, "By what standard?", I'm going to look at you quizzically.

I'm not exactly personally impressed with the answer "God must be good because it is in God's nature to be good". Seems to me like this answer is just painting itself deeper into the corner. If we assume Gods actions to be good because his nature is to be good, then the obvious question that arises is: what exactly makes God's nature good? We might say "Oh, God is loving and merciful and this is good", but what exactly is it about these qualities that makes one "good"? Suppose we assume it would be in God's nature to be hateful, unforgiving and wrathful. Should we call these qualities desirable if they reflected Gods nature? So the fundamental dilemma still stands: in order make "God is good" meaningful statement, the concept of "good" must stand outside of God, otherwise we are simply reduced back to the same tautology: God is whatever it is God does.

This answer also creates more questions: where exactly did this "nature" of God, which is supposedly even more powerful force then God's will if he can not break it, then come from? Or, if we assume that God can break his nature by choosing evil actions, does this mean we can not trust his commands?

I agree that there is an inherent problem with trying to find a "greatest" standard that can be adequately verified by some greater standard (which would then be the greatest standard).
But I'd also add to that it may also be the case that the only way to exemplify perfectly "good" behavior is within the Trinity. As Koukl says, "moral obligations are the kinds of things that exist between people." So the only perfect example could exist where multiple persons are harmonized into a certain oneness exemplified by unity and love and self sacrifice. The persons of the Trinity could be perfectly "other oriented" if they shared one another's goals and purposes perfectly. From that, morality then is what would draw others into that sharing. So "the good" then becomes what draws us into oneness with God. God's decrees then are for our own good for drawing us to him. It becomes very relational that way rather than just rule keeping. I like that.

By what standard does he see that his nature is good?

We don't recognize goodness by measuring it against a standard (which could be arbitrary, and therefore meaningless), we apprehend it directly (because it's objectively beautiful and desirable). You wouldn't ask, "Showing love is loving, but why?" We correctly apprehend the quality of being loving, and we correctly apprehend its great value.

Here's part of the answer I gave the person who asked me the question:

You ask, "What makes God good in himself?" We use the word "good" to describe Him, and we use the word "good" to describe everything else that comes close to being as He is. When we apprehend God correctly, we recognize that He is objectively beautiful and desirable. When we see Him and His actions, we experience the quality that we call "goodness." As human beings, we're able to apprehend and appreciate the quality of goodness that we see perfectly in God.

God commands us to do certain things that are in line with who He is, what He desires, and what we were created to do. He does this in love, and justice, and kindness. We call who He is "goodness." Goodness in the people around us is attractive because it reflects God to us, and God is objectively attractive.

Not everything we're able to apprehend can be fully defined by us. Think about love. We recognize love when we see it. It's hard to define perfectly, yet when we see someone loving, we recognize that he is loving. In the same way, we recognize that God is good. We're able to apprehend the quality of goodness, and we see that God exemplifies this quality. In fact, the quality itself comes from God. Since He is the foundation of the universe — who existed before any of us here existed, saw Him, and called the quality we experienced in seeing Him "good" — He is the source of all things good. Everything that has the quality of "goodness" only exists because God is the creator, and His creations reflect who He is. The more they are like Him, the more we recognize what we call "goodness" in them. The less they are like Him, the less "goodness" we'll see in them.

The Good, or Deserved Happiness, is what happens as a result of persistent Right action, or Virtue, under morally ideal circumstances. There is nothing in the nature of things that guarantees that such circumstances will obtain. That is, there is nothing in the nature of things that guarantees that virtue will receive the happiness it deserves. And indeed, in our world, it seldom does. Such circumstances will only ever be guaranteed to obtain if an omnipotent being makes them obtain.

What the above paragraph implies is two-fold:

1. Since reason requires that we seek both happiness and virtue in our actions, reason requires that we believe that an omnipotent being will, eventually, bring the two into alignment. Because our experience tells us that this does not happen during our lives on earth, reason also requires that we believe that we will survive death in order to see happiness and virtue brought into alignment.

2. The Good, as a concept, depends on the prior notion of the Right. So the question is not "What makes Good Good?" The question is "What makes Right Right?"

Now, Rightness, taken as a foundational concept, involves the following of a rule, or a Law. The reason an act is right is that it conforms to the Law. Rightness, then, is a form of legal requirement (where it is understood that the law related to that form of legality is the ultimate law, the moral law).

Now ask the Euthyphro question:

"Is the legally required legally required because the Law commands it, or does the Law command it because it is first legally required?"

What was difficult and puzzling before is now obvious and mundane. What it means for a thing to be legally required is that the Law commands it. Anyone who would deny this is simply being disputatious...there's nothing to any such denial.

"OK," one might argue, "but God commands the Law, and He might arbitrarily choose to command a different Law."


You can certainly find passages in the Bible where God can be seen commanding things be done. But the deeper truth of Scripture is not the God commands the Law, but that he is the Law. Jesus, in particular, is the incarnate Logos of God. And at the same time He is God. The Law and God are not separate things. The Word is with God and the Word IS God.

But what are we to say? Are we just lucky that it turned out that God is the true Law? Mightn't it have turned out that God and the Law were wicked?

No. Think of what is being asked. Could the Law by which Right is defined somehow not be a law of Righteousness?

Maybe the question is different. Maybe the question is whether God could be different. Granting that we'd still call Him the Law of Righteousness, and He still would be, the question is whether God could be so different that things we now think of as wrong and even repugnant would be right.

Is that a possibility? Could, for example, the Law of Righteousness, be so different that it's morally praiseworthy to skin children just for fun?

Could it?

In what sense of "could" would that be possible?

Amy, I think you interpreted his question differently than I did. You seem to be answering the epistemological question of how we can know that God is good, but I took him to be asking the ontological question of what makes God good, or what it means for God to be good.

Sam, possibly...he was having trouble understanding what it meant to say that God is good, and it was meaningless to him to hear that God is the epitome of goodness (the standard itself). I think that's the right answer, but it wasn't enough for him. In a comment above, someone asked, What if God were evil? Would we then call that good? And I think that's the problem he was having. That is, is goodness arbitrary if it's just whatever God is like, such that if God were different, something else would be desirable?

But I think he was missing the objective moral quality of God's goodness. God is objectively morally desirable – not because He happens to be God (such that a different god (as if such a thing were possible!) would be called "objectively morally desirable), but because this is true about Him. It's something we're able to apprehend about Him – His wholeness, His perfection, His beauty. I don't think it's just because He created the world, I think it's objectively true about Him. We see Him, and we name what we see "goodness." Not because He's the standard (though He is), but because we apprehend the desirability of His goodness.

The person who asked the question was starting to panic because he stopped knowing what "good" actually was, so I was trying to stop his endless loop by saying we're able to accurately apprehend it as something real.

I don't know how helpful my thoughts were to him (and perhaps there are even mistakes in my response), so that's why I thought I'd open it up to everybody's input.

Oh, I see. I had the same difficulty several years ago. I called the radio show one time to ask Greg about it. He said essentially the same thing you're saying.

Here's a Solid Ground where Greg addressed this issue. It's under the subheading, "A second problem."


I think I called his radio show on July 20, 2003 (I found it on the wayback machine), but it doesn't seem to be archived. Or if it is, I can't find it on the current web page.

Thanks so much, Sam! I'll see if I can find it so I can pass it on to him.

Our archive only goes back to 2004, unfortunately.

If one creates a simulation or a matrix with two big variables of pain and happiness, and then creates beings with a moral and an emotional makeup bent on reaching happiness and avoiding pain, goodness on the part of the creator of the matrix is the attribute that allows him to abide by the same rules without changing them arbitrarily just because he can.

So, yes, something is good because the creator makes it that way (he determined the parameters of the matrix), and then sticks to it.

God is good for the very reason that He does not arbitrarily change variables of His matrix, nor does He stand above them like a lawless despot; on the contrary, He himself perfectly respects those rules without failing.

I wonder whether Socrates would have asked that question had he been not a Greek but an Israelite.

I think the question about what if God just happened to be evil is interesting.

But, following the same logic as the Ontological Argument, I don't think it's possible for God's nature to be anything other than what it is.

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