Answering ancient questions: what is goodness?


People’ve been asking this question for a long, long, long time.

About 2,300 years ago, in ancient Greece, a very wise man named Plato recorded many of the words of his master, Socrates. Once, Socrates had a conversation with a priest of the gods, whose name was Euthyphro. Socrates loved to ask people questions about all sorts of things. In this case, he questions Euthyphro on the nature of “piety” or “piousness:” that is, following what the gods command.

The fundamental question becomes: is the pious pious because the gods ordain it, or is the pious some higher standard that the gods adhere to?

This question has come down through history to us like this: is goodness good because God commands it, or is God held by some higher standard of good? Both answers have problems.If the first, then would murder be good if God commanded it? Could God command us to hate him? This is unconscionable: even if we believe God never would command something like that, it’s deeply disturbing to think that he could, and it doesn’t seem to square with what we know of Him.

The second answer — if God is held to some higher standard of good — doesn’t make sense either, because how could there be anything higher than God? God is, by definition, highest in authority. If we talk about God being held to a higher standard, we are talking about something other than Yahweh God of the Bible.

Both answers seem unacceptable. So where’s the way out?

This question has been so troublesome that it’s known as the Euthyphro Dilemma (and even has its own Wikipedia page). Throughout history, many people have come up with a lot of different, very complicated ideas to try to resolve this dilemma, but I think the answer is actually very simple.

I think the answer is this: goodness is defined by God’s nature. He does not merely act good or decree good: He is good; He is love (1st John 4:8); He is goodness personified. There is no higher standard: God is the standard.

Neither is goodness some arbitrary decree: whatever God commands is good, because He is good, and He could not have commanded otherwise.

“But Nathan,” you say, “I thought God could do anything!” Well, yes and no. He has shaped the heavens and birthed all matter with His words; He knows all thoughts and all events, past and future; He could in one instant create a whole new universe or destroy this one entirely. In the words of one of my favorite bands, who dared put words in the mouth of God:

I am the flare behind every star

I am the pulse that drives every heart

The pendulum swings as I keep the time

If I skip a beat, a universe dies

In one sense, God can do anything. But in another sense, there are things He cannot do. For instance, He cannot lie (Numbers 23:19). He can’t get tired (Isaiah 40:28). He cannot change (James 1:7).

In short, God can do all things that are consistent with His nature, and cannot do anything otherwise.

In short, God cannot command anything other than good, because He is good.

Of course, I’m not the first to think of this answer. Anselm, Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, and others all gave it long ago, and I’m convinced it’s simply the best we have.

Image credit: Death of Socrates, by Jacques Louis David. 1786. Public domain.

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