RESPONDblog: Terror and the Horns of a Dilemma

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We live in a post 9-11 world.

Religiously fuelled terrorism is a tragic staple on our news feeds. At a time where people fly planes into skyscrapers, randomly shoot holiday makers at the beach and drive trucks into crowded Christmas markets, man’s inhumanity to man seems to be in no risk of letting up.

What’s fascinating to me is the way many terrorists justify their horrific acts by appealing to God and their religious outlook. For example, “Allah told me to do it.”[1] And I’m sure this line of reasoning isn’t solely limited to Islamic terrorism.

But I feel I need to point something out here.

While this is a common radicalised religious view (referred to theistic voluntarism) …it is not and has never been the Bible’s view of God as properly understood. And despite the Christian church’s failures in living up to it over the centuries…it is not the way ethics is supposed to work in the world.

God is good. It’s his nature. Ontologically speaking, it’s his being. And his offer to all of us – is that with his help, we can be restored to the goodness that he intended for us from the beginning.

“God, God, a God of mercy and grace, endlessly patient—so much love, so deeply true—loyal in love for a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, rebellion, and sin.”[2]

Now at this point…my philosopher friends may nod their heads…and raise their hands. Because one of the founding fathers of modern philosophy, Plato, posed an interesting dilemma that relates to this very issue. It’s become known as Euthyphro’s Dilemma.

There are two horns of this dilemma.

First – is something good because God commands it?

If I say yes…then I’m faced with the possibility of terrorist morality. “God told me to crash the plane – there’s a greater good being done here thru terror – I must obey.” And even though the average person recoils in horror at this…the terrorist feels morally justified. But that wouldn’t make God very good tho…would it? Not by our intuitive sense of right and wrong.

If I say no…then I have another problem. God no longer becomes the source of all moral goodness. And in that case…he ceases to be God. He has no moral basis with which to command anything of me. He “promptly disappears in a puff of logic.”[3]

 

What about the second horn? It goes like this.

Second – does God command something because it is good?

If I say yes…then again, something is already good before God does it. Goodness and morality must exist separately from God. God is expected to obey these moral laws like us. He’s not God any more. He’s irrelevant. Puff of logic again!

If I say no…then this opens the door again to God commanding us to do morally questionable actions.

 

If this mind bender sounds irrelevant…I understand…but actually it isn’t irrelevant. Because it challenges us to answer the question – “What is good, and where does good come from?” If there is no God after all…then good is simply a person’s point of view. And if that’s the case then we’re in BIG trouble.

Relativism might be the law of the jungle ethics for many people…but that does not make it right and good. Christianity demonstrates that this is not how ethics is supposed to work at all.

The point that the Bible makes about God is that he is good…it is his being…it is who he is.

And so the Christian perspective doesn’t respond to Euthyphro’s Dilemma. Instead the Christian understanding of God demands that we reject it altogether. On what grounds, do we reject it?

 

First – is something good BECAUSE GOD COMMANDS IT?

Scott Smith draws a distinction between two forms of goodness. Metaphysical goodness and moral goodness[4]. God is revealed to be metaphysically good. He is transcendent…he just is good. Yet people are different. We are moral beings. There is the potential within us of moral goodness. But there is also the potential that we choose actions which are the very opposite to moral goodness.

Another way to put it – is like this. People’s behaviour is arbitrary. If I have a bad day at work, I’m much more likely to snap at my family and say something I regret afterwards. Yet God’s not like that. He’s good…all the time. People are therefore essentially…ontologically (relating to our being) different to God.

How are we different? Well there’s always a question over my goodness. And for that reason, we have an “ought” hanging over us. There is a way we “ought” to behave and it is good. Yet no such “ought” exists for God. Because there is no question over how he will behave. He is predictable and reliable. God is good – all the time.

Another way to put it is like this. God doesn’t make commands for his benefit. He doesn’t choose whether to obey them or not. We do. And there’s no guarantee we will. But the command itself – by the nature of its existence – performs a governing function for us. It works to try to keep us on the straight and narrow path that God is always on anyway.

So – is something good BECAUSE GOD COMMANDS IT? The question doesn’t work for the Christian understanding of God.

“’God does not, say, keep promises because he ought to (which would imply some external moral standard). Rather, the theist claims that God will keep promises,’ since it is impossible for God not to act morally.”[5]

God simply is goodness. Whatever people choose to say or do.

 

Now the second horn – does God command it BECAUSE IT IS GOOD?

Again, the question doesn’t make sense. Because if God is good, if his nature embodies goodness in a complete way, then there is no risk of arbitrary behaviour and no goodness beyond Him.

Someone might say, “Hang on. I didn’t learn to be polite and act in a good and proper way because God taught me.” Absolutely right. It was probably your mother or a significant adult in your life. But just because there are many ways that we learn how to act in good and proper ways does not mean that there is no God underpinning it after all. Both things are true. Your mum’s moral goodness can ultimately be traced back to the very heart of God. It’s impossible for him to act any differently.

Someone else might say, “God’s redundant. I have a conscience, after all. I have a sense of right and wrong. I don’t need him telling me what to do.” Speaking personally – I respectfully disagree. If only that were true! I have many times seared my own conscience thru my own thoughtlessness and selfishness. And besides, people often disagree over the right thing to do and say. We need an objective standard and his gentle reminder.

 

Euthyphro’s Dilemma might have been relevant as Plato was musing on mankind’s interactions with the fictional, created Greek gods. But it has no place in relation to the God who is revealed through the Bible.

When a religiously motivated person hurts someone else under the banner of “the end justifies the means”, they are on their own. They do not have God in their corner at all. It’s an appalling fantasy that must be rejected…and strongly challenged.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/15/canada-stabbings-allah-police.

[2] Exodus 34:6-7, The Message.

[3] Douglas Adams, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.

[4] R. Scott Smith, In Search of Moral Knowledge: Overcoming the Fact-Value Dichotomy, IVP Academic 2014, p. 32.

[5] R. Scott Smith, p. 34.

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stuartgrayuk

I live in the UK, I'm married to Janet and I'm passionate about proposing a case for the historic Christian faith. You can find me on Twitter at @stuhgray.

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