Good Without God: a Response

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.


About Aaron Gardner

Aaron is a counselor and student of the Bible, passionate about sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. He lives in central Indiana with his wife, one-year-old son and their two dogs. View all posts by Aaron Gardner

16 responses to “Good Without God: a Response

  • Naturallawyer

    Nice post, particularly the Biblical explanation of the Natural Law. Too few Christians understand that all people have a basic human conscience to which we may appeal. It’s no coincidence that atheists put forth great effort to retain many Biblical values within a naturalistic worldview (which at bottom does not make sense).

    The only thing I would clarify in your post is that even though Christianity is not about “being good,” it is certainly about “becoming good.” That’s (hopefully) what happens after one becomes a Christian, and it is what we can expect heaven to ultimately be like: a new world of truly good people. We should start the work of heaven now.

  • Boz

    The claim on the billboard uses the definition:(virtuous/kind/generous/considerate/curteous). Using this definition, we agree that the claim is true.

    It is inappropriate for a person (you) to use a non-intended definition and then suggest that the original claim is false. It is disingenuous and deceptive.

    For example, I looked up “god” in the dictionary, and found this definition:

    2. figure or image
    a representation of a god, used as an object of worship
    • the little bronze god standing in a niche above the altar

    Using this definition, the last sentence in the OP is false. Christianity is not about relying on an image/figure/statue for salvation.

  • Naturallawyer

    Boz: I think Aaron’s point is that while one can be an atheist and “good” in a weaker sense, an atheist is not “good” in the fuller sense (even if the atheists did not intend to convey that they were). It’s more like putting up another billboard next to the “good without god” one saying, “yes, but not good enough…”

    If anything, perhaps the atheists are trading on the confusion in an attempt to convey that atheists are “good enough” without god. But I wouldn’t know their motives.

  • Aaron

    Here is a link to a rather involved comment from @BibleAlsoSays that is really not about my post, but was written in response:

    btw, if you are on Twitter we just had a very good and very lengthy discourse that you may be interested in.

  • Highland Host

    As I have said for a while now, Christianity is not morality. It includes morality. Now, one may argue that there is no consistent basis for morality without a transcendent reference point (otherwise morality is defined either personally (I decide for myself what is good) or socially(society decides what is good collectively)), but no knowledgable Christian should argue that all atheists are without morality. Sadly some miss the subtleties of the argument, and think all atheists must be without morality! I suspect the atheists are replying to the Christians who miss the point of the argument.

    Further: Many Christians, even Evangelicals, are legalists, and give the impression that Christianity is all about being good, upstanding, moral people. Thus to say to these folk that people can be good, upstanding and moral without God, is an answer of sorts. But Christianity is not morality.

  • Aaron

    I intentionally avoided talking about what “a good work in Christ” is because this post was very overtly about salvation. Far too many believe, in practice, that they can be good enough to please God and that their salvation is dependent on their good deeds. This is false doctrine, and so I intentionally avoided that here to bring distinction to this discourse.

    What you are expressing in your second comment is the dichotomy of “good” in terms of our relationship to our fellow humans and “good” in our relationship to God. I would not say that one is weaker than the other, but that we are talking about not being good enough for the vertical realationship versus still being able to be honorable in a horizontal realationship. I know it is a sticky discussion, simply because of the hermenutic, but we can indeed be good enough if all we are in this for is to please other people as humanism would dictate.

    Reread my post because that is the crux of my argument. “Good” on the billboard and “good” in the Bible does not mean the same thing, thus it is a fallacy of equivocation to suggest that they do.

    When I visited the Creation Museum in Petersburg, KY among 300 atheists I sat through a lecture there called “The Ultimate Proof of Creation” during which the speaker only argued that atheists cannot be moral people because they do not believe in God. The point here that I strongly differ on is that atheists CAN be moral without BELIEF in God. Without a belief in God doesn’t mean that God has no bearing on their lives. It is perhaps a subtlety, yet it is indeed a distinctive difference.

    All of that is well-documented here. Just to a quick search. 🙂

  • Naturallawyer

    Aaron: I understand why you were focusing on salvation in your discussion of the meaning of “good,” but I am careful not to give non-believers the impression that we think Christianity doesn’t have to change our behavior, as though we can go about doing whatever we please without concern of God’s response (just because we have salvation not by merit). This is the problem with the “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven” bumper sticker. While true, it sends the message to the world that we think we get a free pass from all responsibilities (in the sense that we will not reap what we sow). It’s important for non-believers to understand that the true Christian is necessarily undergoing a gradual transformation.

    As far as the “dichotomy” of the two meanings of good, I disagree that there is any such dichotomy. There is “good” in the sense of ability or virtue and there is “good” in the sense of “completely good” (as where Jesus says there is no one good but God). The latter incorporates the former, but in a complete way. While being “completely good” entails being good before God, that will encompass being good to man. I do not believe any atheist with a bit of sense would claim to be “completely good” even in the humanistic understanding of what “good” is. As Christians, we can tell the atheist that he is not “good enough” because he is not “completely good” and that will be intelligible to him (his conscience is already bearing witness to him, as Romans 1 says), even if he disagrees that perfection is required (the question then being, if perfection is not required, why is any quotient of “goodness” required or even valuable?).

    It is very useful to rely on an atheist’s own moral sense and violated conscience to introduce the gospel. Every person knows that he or she has committed great moral error at some point(s). I would imagine this is how the early (mostly Jewish) church reached out to gentiles. They had no Torah, but they had to have an understanding that they weren’t perfect, that they were somehow indebted to God for their violations of the perfect standard.

  • Aaron

    Again, thank you for the critique.

    What demoninational background to you come from? I looked over your blog and couldn’t decifer from what I glanced at there.

  • Highland Host

    I read the post on the creation museum experience. Cringe-making! This is what happens when someone tries to apply a transcendental critique without understanding it. The point of the transcendental critique is not that atheists are not moral, but that they have no CONSISTENT (emphasise that word) basis for morality. In fact its force relies to a very great extent on the assumption that atheists ARE moral!
    At least in my opinion.

  • Aaron

    What does Romans 2:12-16 (in context) mean to you, then? It would indicate to me that they DO have a consistent source of morality, which is indeed God. What I am arguing here is that they don’t require a BELIEF in God to still be influenced by him and to have his moral law written on their hearts.

    We all eat the same bread that Adam buttered, my friend.

  • Naturallawyer

    Atheists have a consistent source of morality, but it is inconsistent for them to invoke morality while at the same time denying that the source exists. They can’t have their cake and eat it, too. To eat the cake of atheism is to swallow the absence of all true morality (analytically speaking). But very few atheists are truly willing to go without any universal morality. Hence the inconsistency.

  • Naturallawyer

    BTW, Aaron–I grew up in Southern Baptist churches. Currently, I attend a church where the doctrine is within the “pale of orthodoxy” and the people exhibit the love of Christ. I tend to prefer discussing issues rather than denominations, just to avoid labels and confusion.

    I have a broad appreciation of Christian denominations. I affirm the Roman and Apostles’ creeds and would consider almost anyone who does a Christian (there are other common-place Christian beliefs that I would also consider essential), including Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians. Being a lawyer (and not a judge), I tend to recognize the good arguments on both sides of difficult issues and I give Christians the benefit of the doubt that they are doing the best they can and following their conscience.

    I don’t post my denomination on my site because it’s more of a forum for all Christians and for non-Christians to encounter Christian perspectives on law, politics, education, and media. I don’t want it to turn into a denominational debate.

  • RBH

    Reading the OP and comments, I’m coming to believe that there are no True Scotsmen anywhere in the world.

  • Highland Host

    To clarify. When I refer to a “source of morality”, I refer to a philosophical/theological source. That is to say, an acknowledged source. All Christians ought to agree that the only source of morality is God. The atheist explicitly denies this. He must therefore hold the source of morality to be something else, which finally is either personal or societal. Now, one of the aims of a transcendental critique is to point out that the ACTUAL source of the atheist’s morality is God, that he is “cheating” as Schaeffer puts it, using the Christian God while denying His existence.

    In other words, the atheist is moral, but on his own terms has no good reason to be. He is inconsistent. And on a purely practical level, that inconsistency is a jolly good thing!

  • Naturallawyer

    RBH: I’d like you to identify the NTS fallacy specifically, because I think you’re wrong. The NTS fallacy rests on equivocation, that is, changing the terms in the middle of the argument. But if one’s meaning is consistent throughout, there is no fallacy. If one speaking of “Christians” describes some set of people who are in a certain spiritual disposition (as oppose to merely self-identifying Christians) and doesn’t depart from this understanding, he is entitled to identify the characteristics (or “elements”) of a person who fits within that understanding.

    Where is the fallacy in the following?
    Person A: No true bald person has his own natural growing hair covering his entire head.
    Person B: I recently met a bald person whose own natural growing hair covered his entire head.
    Person A: Then you didn’t meet a bald person.

    See, Person B just didn’t understand what a bald person is. Once Person B understands the definition of the subject, he will then be in position to discuss them.

  • peter

    Why is it easier to do bad than good? Why is it easier to hate your enemies rather than to love your enemies? Why is it easier to retaliate rather than to forgive? Why is it that we chase after our own interests rather than others? And why is it easier to take rather than to give?

    At the core of our being, we are innately sinful. Or to put it another way, we are innately evil (Psalms 14:1, Mark 10:18 – gosh darn I love the truth of the bible). We aren’t good… Whether you’re a believer or unbeliever, you aren’t good. Therefore, if you aren’t good, how could you ever create what is morally good? How could you ever say that you did good things without God?

    The only reason why a non-believer would do good these days is because they are bound by law to do so, but most, if not all, of these laws are based on Christian principles. If there was no law, boundaries would be crossed and we would be living in a more corrupt world. In the same way, if God never brought the law because He never existed, we would have no reason for wanting to do good. Reasons being from my first paragraph… to put it bluntly, we only care about our own interests, we don’t care about others. It is not in our interest to care about others…

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