Can a person be good without god? I’m going to sacrifice cleverness for clarity and say simply that the answer is no. A person cannot be good without God.
This will come as an irritating and obnoxious answer to virtually every unbeliever I know and not a small number of believers as well. “How can you be so arrogant? How can you be so provincial? After all, I know plenty of nonbelievers who are much better people than most Christians I know!” Fine. And if a Christian were interested in competitive ethics I suppose there is a point to be made. But such a definition of goodness – rooted in the comparative virtues of men – is antithetical to the gospel that every Christian should believe in.
I frankly can’t see much value in the gospel if it is possible for a man to be good without God. The gospel isn’t a strategy to be adopted in order to become “nice, upstanding citizens.” How many parents have sent their kids to church without them for exactly this reason? “We want ‘nice’ kids, so getting a little church in them is good parenting.” It’s no wonder that so many kids walk away from such a neutered gospel. It’s also no wonder that so many people in the world roll their eyes at such a “get nice quick” scheme. I’ve heard the complaints. “I can be a nice person without having the hassle of waking up early on Sunday mornings, giving my hard earned money to a church, and believing in all sorts of bronze age myths.” Many skeptics that I know take no small amount of pride in the fact that they are actually far more righteous than most religious people. They are activists. They support causes. They are engaged in their communities while backward religious folk are worried about impressing their “invisible sky daddy.” They offer their
prayers tweets: Thank the impersonal, uncaring Universe that I’m not self-righteous like these hypocritical Christians. Thank Dawkins that my genes are more altruistic than theirs – and all without the help of silly fairy stories!
Chesterton said that original sin is the only part of Christian theology that can really be proved. Pascal said that without the doctrine of original sin we are incomprehensible to ourselves. In other words, the observable human condition can only make any sense if sin is a thing – and a pervasive thing at that. It is one of the most basic and immovable building blocks of Christian theology to affirm with Paul that all have sinned and have fallen short of God’s glory. A committed secularist may choose to obstinately reject sin as a theological concept, but he will be forced to acknowledge it as an unavoidable fact of our existence the next time he opens Twitter or turns on the news or, frankly, looks at himself honestly in the mirror.
So, what to do about it? How do we (individually or corporately) become good? How do we fix the problem of our own and others’ brokenness? One of the few things that is as unavoidably universal as sin is the human inclination to want to do something about it. It isn’t just the religious folk who want to fix the world or themselves. It isn’t just religious folk who find themselves longing for real justice and righteousness.
We can turn to government to enact just laws. We can turn to education to train in virtue and goodness. We can turn to therapy to plumb the depths of our own brokenness. We can turn to activism to atone for personal or communal shortcomings. We can hire publicists and professionals who are adept at wallpapering over depravity to give off the illusion of “good.” Or, if all else fails – and let’s be honest “all else” will inevitably fail to make us good – we can settle for an approximation of goodness (call it niceness) by making sure that we can locate a subgroup of individuals that we can be sure we are definitely “gooder” than. These strategies may make us feel a smidgen of momentary justification like the praying Pharisee in Jesus’ famous parable, but to say that they have made us good is a delusion and wishful thinking. Sin is always crouching at our door waiting for any opportunity to bolt in and leave a giant turd on the carpet.
But this is the heart of the good news. The good news of Jesus is only good because of the inescapable fact of our own inability to be good. Hebrews says of the sacrificial system that it could never cleanse our conscience. It could never make us good. (Hebrews likes the word “prefect.”) Instead, the sacrifices were only a reminder of sin (Hebrews 10:1-4). Modern man has his own sacrificial system which is only superficially different from the Old Testament sacrifices. We have created endless programs, strategies, schemes, and sacrifices to make us good, while stubbornly rejecting the only sacrifice ever needed and the only one truly effective.
So, no. You cannot be good without God. But this is also amazingly good news! Because, you know, Jesus!
But really, when most people claim that they can be good without God, what they are really claiming is that they can do good without God. And to that, I must say “to be continued…”