In pockets of the United States are swarms of atheists. Centered around institutions of higher learning, these intellectual folk are hot for debate and hot for religion, just not in any way that would be supported by the local Christian church. Yet, housed within these groups is something intriguing, that they even do not realize is there. The seed of truth that has lain dormant for so long is germinating in this oddly fertile soil.
The “Good without God” campaign seeks to canvas the country with billboards and fliers announcing that it is possible to be a moral person without belief in a Higher Power of any sort. Even in nearby Bloomington, Indiana, home of Indiana University, a humanist group started a controversial bus ad campaign declaring that people all over the world do not believe in God and still are able to resist committing murder, adultery, and theft. Oddly enough, with full agreement, the church may find the answer to its current identity crisis.
Can I Really Be Good Without God?
Few would contend against the Bible being a book of morals, of good ways to live. Virtually from cover to cover are laws, “thou shalt nots,” and proverbs that are intended to instruct people in what is right and wrong. No doubt God is concerned with moral standards, good vs. evil, right and wrong. Yet within the context of the Bible and an understanding of the nature of God is often buried an equivocation in full view.
The fallacy of equivocation is giving the same word and using its multiple definitions to mean the same thing in a conversation. For example:
I can prove to you that I am not here right now.
Well, I’m not in San Diego, right?
And I am not in Detroit.
And I am not in St. Louis.
So if I am not in San Diego, Detroit, or St. Louis, then I must be somewhere else, right?
And if I am somewhere else, then I cannot be here!
Did you notice the break in the logic? The words somewhere else were used in two different ways in the argument. Obviously this example is not logical, but it is just as illogical as the use of the word good in this debate on moralism.
Good and Good
The atheists are both right and wrong about being able to be good without God. Well, actually they are right because they do not have to believe in God to be morally good, but even so they cannot be good.
To unpack this a little, first is the definition of the term good. When the Bible talks about being good, the implication is complete perfection. In Genesis chapter 1 God says good in the sense that as a perfect being he can only act perfectly. So when surveying creation God declares that it is good, he says that it is flawless.
Another excellent passage for examination is Romans 3. In verse 12 the Apostle Paul uses the term good in must the same way as the first chapter of Genesis:
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.
It is inappropriate to think that Paul, quoting here from Psalm 14, is speaking using hyperbole. In fact within the context of the book of Romans, Psalm 14, and the Bible as a whole it is very apparent that when the word good is used it means nothing less than moral perfection. To take a step further, it is not only moral perfection in deed, but also in thought and motive.
The equivocation comes when we add in the idea that many mean when using the word good without its biblical context. When the general public talks about being good moral people, it means simply that we are doing the right thing. It means abiding by the law, using common sense, and not violating the rights of others in the process of getting what we want. People are applauded when they give millions of dollars to a charity, even if they do so to gain respect or to cover up a tarnished image. We prize people who volunteer their time to worthy causes, but forgive them for doing so to pad their resumés.
Morality Without God
Can a person who does not believe in God be an upstanding moral person? YES! In fact, it may be that atheists and humanists are more moral and ethical than those of us who do believe in God. The key here is this: even without a belief in God, each and every person on the planet does have an imprint of God in and on them. Imago Dei is the concept that speaks to how each human being bears the image of God, however tarnished it may be. This is what brings us our worth and value, setting us apart from the animals. Ironically, it is imago dei which gives humanism its drive.
In Romans 2:12-16, Paul explains that when people keep the moral law they demonstrate that God has indeed imprinted his image of each person, which in part means that they have a moral law, from God, written on their heart. So it is that simply being a human being means that each of us does in fact have the law of God in us, and when we do moral things we demonstrate that there is a God. Anyone can be good without believing in God, even though they are bound to his law and witness to God’s existence by every good deed.
After All, Christianity Isn’t About Being Good Anyway
I know, I know. How can I say that Christianity is not about being good and doing the right things? After all, heaven is for all the good people to relax and get pampered by angels for all eternity, right?
As was pointed out by an atheist who knew Christian theology better than many Christians do, all good people do not go to heaven. Being an upstanding moral person is not what the religion is all about, in fact the Bible teaches the opposite. Going back to Romans, in chapter 7 it is abundantly clear that even for the Christian the effort to become a good person (in the biblical sense) is completely futile. We set out to do good and all we end up doing is the evil we intended not to do.
To put it another way, if being a moral person was what Christianity was about then the atheists would be right. No belief in God is required to do right by your neighbor, to be generous with your time and money, or to avoid murdering someone who you despise. Having an undying love for humanity is all that is required, and even that may not be entirely necessary.
What the Bible teaches is that contrary to popular logic and opinion, there is nothing that we can do to become good people. There is nothing that we can do to earn God’s favor and no amount of penance can win any reward. Each of us is fully and completely incapable of saving ourselves. The only hope we have is in Christ and his work on the cross in which he replaced us, took our penalty, and became sin in our place. This is what Christianity is about: fully relying on God for our salvation and knowing that when we respond to his call in faith that we will be saved, from our sin and from ourselves.