Can We Be Good Without God?

I recently read an article by an atheist who set out to debunk the idea that without God, people cannot live morally good lives. Ultimately, he believed that the existence of God was irrelevant to the subject of morality. We do good, he argued, because the happiness and suffering of other human beings matter to us. And further, the survival of our vital social structures depends on good conduct. So, we should make it our aim to increase human happiness and decrease human suffering, all in the interests of human flourishing. His article got me thinking. Can we be good without God?

Niketh Vellanki 252581 Unsplash

The first question I would ask someone who is seeking to be good without God is this: can there even be such a thing as “good” without God?

Without God, what is good?

Use your imagination for a moment: two astronauts, in rocket-powered jet suits, are travelling through deep space. They are far from Earth, in complete darkness, with no maps, and no objects in sight. They decide that they want to go home to planet Earth, but they have a problem: how do they find their way?

Imagine the confusion as they start heading in opposite directions.

“Follow me!” One astronaut shouts, pointing in one direction. “This is the way home!”

You’re wrong!” The other says. “My way will lead us back to Earth!”

Without a fixed reference point like a planet, or a map that provides a higher perspective, the spacemen have no way of knowing the right way back to Earth. All they have is their own opinion.

We have the same problem when we try to discern and define “good” without God. When we disregard God and his unchanging moral law, we have no fixed reference point against which we can measure what is “good” or “evil”. Take the horrors of Nazi Germany, for example.

Between 1939 and 1941, the T4 Nazi euthanasia initiative systematically killed over 70,000 mentally and physically disabled patients, as well as the incurable and the elderly. The Nazis considered these to be morally justified “mercy killings". They believed that it was "good" for Germany to dispose of the weakest in their society. At the same time, the Nazis justified their policy of extermination known as the "Final Solution to the Jewish Question", believing Jews to be sub-human. They thought this was "good" for Germany.

Immediately after World War 2, at the Nuremberg trials of 1945-47, the Allied powers condemned both policies as war crimes and crimes against humanity.

So who was right? Were they good or evil?

Of course, we all know by instinct that the Holocaust was an absolute wrong, but to deny the existence of God is to reject the only basis on which we can condemn it. Without God there is no universal law-giver, no ultimate standard of right and wrong that applies to everyone, everywhere, regardless of changing times and cultures. Without God, we cannot say "the Nazis ought not to have killed the Jews", only "I don't like what they did". All we have is opinion. But that does not match with reality – we know what the Nazis did was evil. We have a moral sense and live by a moral law that atheism cannot explain.

Similarly, anyone can do good deeds. But those who deny the existence of God have no basis for calling those deeds "good". Ultimately, they are like astronauts lost in space, guided by subjective, ever changing opinions, but with no sure way of discerning, defining, or demanding what is objectively good.

Without God, how do we deal with the bad?

The second question I would ask the person seeking to be good without God is: how do you plan on getting rid of the wrong things that you have done?

It is true that an atheistic view of morality can offer some reasons for “good” behaviour. A care for the welfare and progress of humanity will lead to conduct that is beneficial to mankind. But it can never lead us to perfection, nor give us a truly “good” nature. Left to our ourselves, we have no hope of clearing the long catalogue of wrongdoing that stains our lives. Without God, how do we ever remove all the pain and guilt and shame that has resulted from pride, disrespect, injustice, lust, lies, envy, deceit, greed, theft, unfaithfulness, hate, or violence? 

And how can we be sure of the true goodness of our "good" actions? By that I mean, has our every "good" deed in life been driven by pure motives? If you are like me, you will quickly recall a hundred "good" deeds done for the praise of others, personal advantage, or pride. Without God, how can we ever hope to fix these flaws in our nature – in our character. I suggest we cannot.

With God, we can know good and become good

Jesus Christ challenged this world’s estimation of goodness when He said, “None is good, save one, that is, God” (Luke 18:19). This is the plain teaching of scripture: we are not good, nor can we become good through our own efforts. God alone is absolutely, completely, forever good (Psalm 119:68). In goodness, He made all things, creating a beautiful and beneficial world for His creatures (Genesis 1-2). In goodness, He has been patient with mankind, even though our rebellion against God has brought brokenness and suffering to His perfect world (Romans 2:4, Romans 5:12-21). And in goodness, God sustains all things, providing heat and nourishment for all (Job 38:41, Acts 17:24-28).

The point is, if only God is good, any understanding of what is good and any hope of how to become good, must start with Him.

When we recognise God as our Creator and look to Him as the ultimate source of goodness, we discover that we do have a reference point by which we can discern what is good. We also find the only certain way to deal with the bad in our life. For God has revealed a way of salvation and transformation through Jesus Christ. With God as a reality in our lives, we are like astronauts whose darkness is suddenly filled by the light of the Sun and the planets, all pointing the way home to Earth. With God, we can know the right way, and we can walk in it.

How can I know good?

God defines goodness not in relation to our ever-changing concept of “good” but in relation to His own perfect, unchanging goodness. We can turn to His word, recorded in the Bible, to understand what He says is good and what is not.

But God does not only define goodness; He also judges mankind according to His holy standard. While addressing the thinkers of Athens at Mars Hill, the apostle Paul brought this solemn reality before them: God will judge the world in righteousness (Acts 17:31).

The problem is, none of us have done what is good, all of the time. We only have to look around to see that man has not reached God’s standard of purity and perfection. And the record of the Bible unfolds our guilt – both individually and universally:

Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned (Romans 5:12)

In the beginning, God created man and declared him to be very good (Genesis 1:31) but our rebellion against God has made every one of us very guilty. In our sins, we stand condemned, with no excuse before God our Judge.

How can I become good?

In His goodness God has not left us without hope. Jesus Christ lived a life that demonstrated to the world the goodness of God, and He died a death that opened up the way for sinners to be forgiven, cleared of guilt, and declared righteous by God.

His works, which are recorded in the four Gospel accounts, were not merely good in character but great in power: He fed thousands from a few loaves, healed crowds of sick people, and raised the dead. In doing so, Jesus proved that He was who He claimed to be—the Son of God (or, to use the words of 1 Timothy 3:16, “God manifest in flesh”).

But the Lord Jesus did not come merely to show man what true goodness looks like. He came to die for sinners – bearing the wrath of a holy God against our wrongdoing. He gave His body and shed His blood to deal with the bad things we have done: that gruesome record of sin that “goodness without God" can never remove.

Forgiveness, salvation, and true, perfect righteousness are offered to the world, and to you, through Christ Jesus:

For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10)

With God, and in Christ, we can be truly good. And with hearts touched by the cost of our salvation, every believer should be forever motivated to do good for God’s glory and for the blessing of humanity.