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The Euthyphro Dilemma as it Applies to the Doctrine of Atonement

Many theists and nontheists alike are familiar with the “Euthyphro Dilemma,” so-called because a version of it was first formulated in Plato’s Dialogue Euthyphro. In this dialogue, Socrates poses the question: Is something good because it is pleasing to the gods, or is it pleasing to the gods because it is good? While Socrates (and Plato, of course) lived in a polytheistic culture, the question can easily be updated for a predominantly monotheistic culture: Is something good because it is pleasing to God, or is something pleasing to God because it is good?

How one answers this question has profound implications. On the first horn of the dilemma, we end up with Divine Command Theory, the notion that something is good because God commands it. This implies that the good is simply what God says it is. So if today God commands charity, mercy, and forgiveness, those things are good. But if tomorrow God commands rape, murder, and genocide, such atrocities would then become good. If God does not change his mind, we are just lucky.

If we take the other option, then what is good is good inherently, regardless of what God or anyone else happens to think. This would mean that there are standards of conduct according to which even God can be judged.

Some theists have tried to escape from this trap by claiming that God’s own nature is the standard of goodness. Thus God would never command atrocities because it would not conform to his nature, which can properly be described as good.

But this is an obvious confusion. We can simply reformulate the question: Is something good because it is in conformance with God’s nature, or do we say God’s nature is good based on some other standard? If the good simply refers to God’s nature, then again we can say that whatever is in God’s nature happens to be good. Were it in his nature to command atrocities, then the commission of atrocities would be good. If his nature does not condone such things, we are, again, simply lucky.

There is another line of argument which can be employed that shows that in fact most people, to the extent they think about it, reject Divine Command Theory. We might ask, as does the philosopher Kai Nielsen, what is it exactly we mean when we say “God is good?” If the good is simply equivalent to God’s nature, then we should also be able to say “good is God.” But clearly that is not what we mean. They key factor has to do with the meaning of the verb “is.” Sometimes, “is” can be used to mean “the same as,” as in the mathematical statement 2+2 is 4, or in the proposition “an unmarried male is a bachelor.” But this is not the only way the verb is employed. We might say “the car is red.” Here “is” is not meant to imply equivalency. Instead, it is meant as part of a descriptive statement about something, in this case a particular car. When we say “God is good,” it is in this latter sense that the verb “is” is employed. But this implies that we already have in mind a conception of the good, even if it is not fully formed, according to which we are comparing God.

In any case, an interesting question is this: What implications does the Euthyphro Dilemma have for the Christian doctrine of atonement? By the doctrine of atonement, I mean the theological belief that humans had sinned and were judged by God to be deserving of punishment, but that God chose to send his son as a blood sacrifice to bear this punishment in humanity’s stead.

The Euthyphro Dilemma has a direct bearing here, for the following reason. If Divine Command Theory is correct (the first horn of the dilemma, which most, though not all, would reject), then the doctrine of atonement is sound only because God decides it ought to be so. In other words, what is being asked is this: Why is it necessary that either humans be punished or that the Son of God be punished in their place? On Divine Command Theory, the answer is simply that this is what pleases God. But this presents a singularly strange picture of God, especially when the doctrine of the Trinity is included. According to that doctrine, Jesus, though “the only begotten Son of God,” is also God. Thus, it pleases God to have himself tortured and killed to appease his own wrath.

On the other hand, if we choose the other horn of the Euthyphro Dilemma, that which says that what pleases God really is good, and that it is not merely a matter of his preference or conformity to his nature, then it is within our rights to ask: According to which principles can the doctrine of atonement and blood sacrifice be defended? We can imagine ourselves as a “moral jury” of sorts. Is there some sort of objective moral law which requires, first, that death be administered as punishment for wrongdoing? And if so, how is it that the death of an innocent, rather than the guilty party, satisfies the requirement of this law?

Of course, to suggest that such a law actually exists is absurd. Even if we were to accept that the guilty must die, it is hard to imagine any moral principle that would be satisfied by the death of an innocent.

Some further unpacking is required here. Perhaps it could be argued that a vicarious sacrifice might inspire those made aware of it to laudable actions. So perhaps there is some utilitarian argument that can be applied. But this is questionable; it is just as easy to imagine that the belief that the sacrifice of another will absolve ones sins will simply cause one to sin with greater confidence. But in any case, it does not seem that the principle of utility is being appealed to. The Christian view is that “the wages of sin is death.” This sounds like a deontological principle. But how, then, does the death of an innocent satisfy such an obligation, were it to exist?

The truth is, no true moral principle is involved. Rather, it is simply to appease the wrath of God that caused ancient peoples to believe they must offer vicarious sacrifice. The Christian belief, at least in traditional iterations of that faith, is that any action that offends the Christian God is punishable by death. Thus, the Christian necessarily must embrace Divine Command Theory, and then we are left with the exceptionally odd view of God described above. Further, at least in this instance his commands would have no connection with morality, but only with placating his own wrath. To be sure, the Christian is free to believe this. But then let us decouple the obligations of moral behavior from religious dictates.