Question: I was debating an Atheist, and we were on the subject of morality. I used some of Frank Turek’s answers and responses, and everything was going okay — but then the atheist asked me, "If God is the ultimate source of morality, then if He said that raping someone is okay, would that make it okay? Since you take orders rather than form your own idea of morality, you have to believe whatever God tells you to. Would raping then be okay if God said it was?" I answered with, "Although God has already stated in His Word that rape is not morally good, but morally evil, this is a ridiculous question and it’s useless since He's already made His opinion on it set. This is no more than an alternate universe type of question.” But, in the end, I admitted that whatever God says, whether we think it’s good or bad is morally right if He says it is. How would you have responded to the Atheist?
Answer: Greetings brother — and thank you for fighting the good fight! I am impressed that someone under 18 is not only making this argument, but knows an alternative universe objection when he sees one! Plus, you stood firmly for the rightness of the Bible… and amen to that! But I think that your atheist is trying to stick you on the horns of the Euthyphro Dilemma (whether he knows it or not) — and, of course, I’ll explain… but just a bit.
The Euthyphro Dilemma has spawned much discussion through the centuries… nearly twenty-five of them! But I’m one of the people who see Euthyphro’s as a false dilemma, and the reason why I see it as such would be my response to an atheist like yours. Now, your responses were indeed right on the mark, but you can probably feel the logical barb: if what a god says goes, then morality is arbitrary… but I think we can fix that.
By “we” I mean William Lane Craig of Reasonable Faith Ministries. I’ll let him give both the overview of the issue and the solution. Here is a section from his podcast The Euthyphro Dilemma Once Again.
Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, the Euthyphro Dilemma has captured the imagination not only of philosophers but of laypeople as well. Even though it is very old – it goes all the way back to Plato – it has come roaring back. A lot of that is because – well, for one, Reasonable Faith and yourself – you've found yourself in a position to address this dilemma many times. It is something that you call a false dilemma. Give us a quick sketch.
Dr. Craig: For those that aren't familiar with it, the question is: does God will something because it is good, or is something good because God wills it? If the theist says that God wills something because it is good then the good is independent of God and, in fact then, moral values are not based in God. They are independent of him. On the other hand, if you say something is good because God wills it then that would seem to make what is good and evil arbitrary. God could have willed that hatred is good; then we would be morally obligated to hate one another, which seems crazy. Some moral values seem to be necessary, and therefore there would be no possible world in which hatred is good. So the claim is that this shows that morality cannot be based in God.
I think it is clearly a false dilemma because the alternatives are not of the form “A or not-A” which would be an inescapable dilemma. The alternatives are like “A or B.” In that case you can always add a third one, C, and escape the horns of the dilemma. I think in this case there is a third alternative which is to say that God wills something because he is good. That is to say, God himself is the paradigm of goodness, and his will reflects his character. God is by nature loving, kind, fair, impartial, generous, and so forth. Therefore, he could not have willed that, for example, hatred be good. That would be to contradict his very own nature.
So God's commands to us are not arbitrary, but neither are they based upon something independent of God. Rather, God himself is the paradigm of goodness.
The burden is on the atheist, not on the theist, to explain human morality — but particularly, to explain those feelings of guilt which are universal in our species. We theists have an explanation… and the atheists do not like it. So, they want to put us in a position where morality exists as some sort of a transcendental “good” within itself… and decidedly without the Christian type of God. Or alternately, if some god does indeed exist, then morality must be somehow “over” him or her. But did you notice what Craig added to the argument? What God wills is not arbitrary; it is consistent with his nature — with his ontology. So, things which agree with his character are good because he is himself good… in fact, he is the paradigm of goodness.
So, as a paradigm — and as a God who changes not (Mal. 3:6) — his moral decree is also unchanging… which chafes at post-modern, humanistic and atheistic thought which asserts that no absolute truth exists. Such atheists assume that claims of truth or an insistence on morality are merely the result of social mores which tend toward “goodness” as an adaptive advantage in cooperative living. But the theist believes that the good mores are Godly sourced… and that guilt can only be quieted with callouses (Heb. 3:12-13).
Since atheists do not subscribe to God, the information above probably will not convince them that God exists… but that’s not the immediate issue. You see, when they engage us in a discussion about God, they have to postulate a god for purposes of the argument... and here’s the thing: they do not postulate our God — and we can’t let them get away with that. When our opponents invent a theoretical god who decrees that rape is moral, they are creating one who is capricious, arbitrary and amoral — and that’s simply not our God! That’s one of Plato’s gods — a flawed demigod — and not the transcendent Creator of the cosmos whose character is seen globally in creation (Rom. 1:18-25) and specifically in humankind (Rom. 2:14-15). Therefore, since the God of our argument is not the god they postulate, they have presented a false dilemma — and we do not have to respond to its either/or logic.
Your intuition was right: What God says goes… but this is because God cannot say anything immoral or illogical like, “May I have your attention please. The definition of ‘moral goodness’ has been modified to include rape, murder, adultery, etc.” You see, even God cannot change definitions arbitrarily; this because God cannot act or decree contrary to his nature. But this is not a restriction on his divine power; this is a logical requirement for any God worthy of the name.
As to your atheist’s primary assertion then, we do not take orders rather than form our own ideas of morality; we have these ideas because of who we are. This is not because we are intrinsically good, independent of God; it is rather that our human essence mirrors that of our Creator (Gen. 1:27). Therefore, we do not “form” these ideas: God has already formed them; we merely express them. The fact that we do this imperfectly speaks to our sin natures… which in turn shows the biblical worldview to be the best explanation of all the data — but especially that of the empirical human condition.
I pray that this explanation has helped to get you out of that temporary bind — and I commend you again for your readiness to stand up for the Truth. Let me add also that a person with your aptitude (and appetite) for Turekian apologetics should take a look at Reasonable Faith’s Defenders series of teachings. This series would sharpen both your biblical and the philosophical swords. Here’s the link… and God bless you.