God, hell, and the Euthyphro dilemma

There’s a discussion over at Jesus Creed on a new book called Erasing Hell, which is, I take it, a response to Rob Bell’s Love Wins. I haven’t read either book, but the argument of Erasing Hell, as sketched by the author at Jesus Creed, calls for some comment. From the post:

A central claim of [Erasing Hell authors] Chan and Sprinkle—which creates their foundation (and breathing room) for embracing the traditional view of hell as eternal conscious torment—is the idea that whatever God chooses to do is, by definition, “right”. At the outset, the writers in defining the purpose of their book say,

“This book is actually much more than a book on hell. It’s a book about embracing a God who isn’t always easy to understand, and whose ways are far beyond us; a God whose thoughts are much higher than our thoughts; a God who, as the sovereign Creator and Sustainer of all things, has the right to do, as the psalmist says, ‘whatever He pleases’ (Ps. 115:3). God has the right to do WHATEVER he pleases. If I’ve learned one thing from studying hell, it’s this last line. And whether or not you end up agreeing with everything I say about hell, you must agree with Psalm 115:3″ (p.17, emphasis theirs).

Though the word “right” (which adds a moral element) does not appear in Psalm 115, this is a foundational idea at work in Erasing Hell. The writers fall back on this argument and use the language of God having the “right” to do whatever he wishes throughout the text, and from this argument they establish that, because God is supremely powerful and all-knowing, God has the moral authority to create a state of eternal conscious torment if he so desires.

As noted in the post, this looks like a rather extreme example of the divine command theory of ethics. This view holds that right and wrong are dependent on the will of God. If God decides to torture people for eternity, then this is, by definition, the right thing to do. There are no “external” criteria by which we could judge such an action.

I think it’s safe to say that this isn’t the view of mainstream Christian theology. The issue actually pre-dates Christianity and goes back to the famed dilemma proposed in Plato’s Euthyphro: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” The problem is that embracing the first horn of the dilemma seems to set up a standard of right and wrong which is independent of the divine, while the other makes right and wrong a matter of seemingly arbitrary choice. Christian theology has, I think wisely, tried to sidestep the dilemma by proposing that the nature of good flows from (or is identical with) the divine nature, thus making good neither independent of God nor simply a result of a choice that could’ve just as easily been otherwise.

C.S. Lewis summarizes the traditional view in his essay “The Poison of Subjectivism” (found in the collection Christian Reflections):

God neither obeys nor creates the moral law. The good is uncreated; it never could have been otherwise; it has in it no shadow of contingency; it lies, as Plato said, on the other side of existence. It is the Rita of the Hindus by which the gods themselves are divine, the Tao of the Chinese from which all realities proceed. But we, favoured beyond the wisest pagans, know what lies beyond existence, what admits no contingency, what lends divinity to all else, what is the ground of all existence, is not simply a law but also a begetting love, a love begotten, and the love which, being these two, is also imminent in all those who are caught up to share the unity of their self-caused life. God is not merely good, but goodness; goodness is not merely divine, but God.

Consequently, Christians can say that God is the supreme reality, but also that God is good. This isn’t to deny that God’s ways are not our ways and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. Our apprehension of the good is always fragmentary and tainted by self-interest. But we do genuinely apprehend it. Just as there is a minority report in Christendom that holds that right is just whatever God happens to will, so there is a sub-tradition that holds that human reason is so damaged by the Fall that we are unable to perceive goodness. But again, the mainstream tradition has wisely steered a middle course, holding that human reason is capable of attaining to a genuine knowledge of good and evil. “Natural law” theory in its many variations is one expression of this basic conviction.

This by itself doesn’t show that hell can’t exist. But it does call into question the strategy of defending the idea of hell by appealing to a God who is, in effect, beyond good and evil.

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One thought on “God, hell, and the Euthyphro dilemma”

  1. The Catholic and more traditional view is commonly put as holding that the divine command theory renders vacuous the divine wisdom (perfect knowledge of values, as well as all else) and nullifies the divine goodness, justice, benevolence, and mercy.

    If I recall correctly, it was Calvin and not Luther who rejected that tradition in favor of the divine command theory.

    And nowadays it seems very common among Protestants, especially of the generic kind who call themselves “Christians.”

    That defense of hell – that, as you say, God is “beyond good and evil” – may be quite common, along with the notion that God owns us, having created us, and so can do anything with or to us.

    That ownership idea and Malebrache’s argument are the only two defenses of hell that don’t appeal to the divine command theory, that I know of.

    M claimed that the enormity of an offense (and so the deserved punishment) is not determined by the offense itself but by the offended so that all offenses being against God and God’s value being infinite the deserved punishment is infinite.

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