Can I be good without God?

(Danny Doyle ) #1

Hi everyone, Can I be good without God? This is a question that I haven’t been asked yet but when I do I will not be able to answer it, because I do see a lot of of organisations out there in society doing a “good” work ie feeding the poor and helping the needy.

(SeanO) #2

@Dannyd Good question! Here are a few thoughts to get the conversation rolling. May the Lord grant you wisdom in this matter.

How do we defined goodness apart from God?

One problem with trying to be good apart from God is - what does ‘good’ mean if there is no God? People have tried a number of approaches to define good apart from God, such as:

  • it is good if it does not harm anyone else
  • it is good if it benefits society as a whole
  • it is good if it promotes others over self

But, as William Lane Craig points out in this article, it is ultimately not possible to define goodness apart from God or to truly motivate someone to follow a specific definition of goodness when being selfish is more beneficial / practical.

The Law of God is Written on the Heart

All people have an awareness, to some extent, of what is good, though they pervert it because of their corrupt desires. Romans 2 makes it clear that even those who have not been taught the law will be held accountable for the law written on their hearts.

Romans 2:14-16 - (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.) 16 This will take place on the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.

Apart from Christ, We are Slaves to Sin

Even if we know what is good - even if we have the very law of God - apart from Christ we are slaves to our sinful nature. Paul points this out very clearly in Romans 7. And in 2 Timothy he notes that those apart from Christ have been taken captive by the evil one. So, without Jesus, we may know what is good, but we do not have the power to live it out.

Romans 7:21-25 - So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

2 Timothy 2:25 - Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.

The Spirit Empowers Us to Obey

In Romans 8, Paul makes it clear that as Christians we have power to overcome sin through the Spirit who dwells in us.

Romans 8:3-4,12-13 - For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit… 12 Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. 13 For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.

(Anthony Costello ) #3


Another good question. Very briefly, I would say that one can do good apart from God, but one cannot “be” good apart from God. There are all kinds of objectively good moral actions that a person can perform, but that alone does not make one good. Perhaps we could make the following claims to clarify:

  1. Objectively good actions are not always done out of objectively good motivations.
    ex. Think of a soldier, who has been trained to make certain kinds of sacrifices on the battlefield, or who lives in a structured system of rewards and punishments. This soldier sacrifices himself to save the life of another soldier or a civilian. Is his motivation for saving the other soldier or civilian out of love, or is he thinking that if he pulls it off, he will get promoted, or win a medal? Or is it because he has just been trained to do so, and can’t really choose otherwise. The act is loving, but is the soldier loving? At best we might say, it is not known. Of course, this doesn’t mean that some soldiers don’t do heroic acts out of love, but then again there are different kinds of love.

Another example might be the celebrity playboy (think of one, there are a lot of them), who donates millions and millions of dollar to some inner city projects, or who frequently visits third world countries on relief missions. Yet, in his spare time, he engages in all kinds of activities many, not just the religious amongst us, would consider despicable (I’m sure Harvey Weinstein gave a lot of money to charity). Why is he doing all those good acts? Are his motives out of love…or is he trying to hide his guilt with regard to his other actions from the world through the good works he is doing?

Examples could be multiplied, but let me get to a second point.

  1. Even if one does act out of morally justified motivations (love, kindness, a sense of duty, etc.), it tends to be the case, because of the way the human heart is, that people who do a lot of good, and who do that good for the right reasons, begin to seem themselves as the source of goodness itself. But this is highly problematic.

Think, for example, of the Pharisees. They thought they were good because of their religious status. But, if we begin to see ourselves as good, or see ourselves as the source of our own goodness, then usually we start becoming prideful, and arrogant. Thus, the doing of virtue itself becomes a source of vice. In fact, it becomes the very same vice that both Satan and Adam experienced as the first sinful act of God.

After all, one could legitimately see all of Scripture as a grand story of man’s attempt to be good without relationship to God. This is done at the microscopic level (the individual who sees himself as good and becomes demagogic) or at the level of culture (the system or ideology that is deemed good and is said will save humanity. Think Marxism, which is often called a failed, Christian heresy.)

So, in sum, I would say that men and women can do objectively good things without God, but that the primal sin is itself the very thought that we can BE good without Him. That is exactly what we want as sinners, and it is exactly what the Devil want us to believe. Hope this helps.

(Zachary Self) #4

Great response.

(SeanO) #5

@iammrself Thanks for the kind words :slight_smile:

(Rob Lundberg) #7

Another thought here is that someone who believes they can be good without God, may have difficulty committing an unselfish, self sacrificing act of good. Most of the time, the individual operating in a “godless” paradigm for doing good is working on borrowed capital from the Christian worldview in order to say they can do or be good. Actually it is the outworking of Romans 1, and our having a knowledge of God in us prior to conversion. This is also reminds me of something that one of the Reformed writers called “common grace” working itself out in the unbeliever. My two cents.

(David Cieszynski) #8

Afternoon Danny in Luke Ch18 v18-19

A certain ruler asked him, Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus said to him, Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.

In these verses I think Jesus is telling us that no matter how we live our lives without accepting Jesus as our Lord and Saviour and live our lives as he wants us to we will never meet God’s standard of ‘good’. God is the moral law giver.

(Rob Lundberg) #9

Can one be good without God is an interesting challenge. Atheists like to pose this objection. Taking a “stab” at this objection let me answer with “yes” and “no.”

The reason I answer “yes” is the fact that each and every person is born with the blessing of common grace. This is what God has written on the heart of every individual. When a baby does something wrong there is a sense of guilt. We all believe because God has “wired us” to know that torturing babies is not good.

Atheists and skeptics though, will say that they do not need God and that they can be good. The only problem is what standard are they basing this on? Hitler’s? Hugh Hefner’s? Mother Teresa’s? There is no absolute standard of goodness apart from that of a moral Lawgiver for that is where moral altruistic (selfless) goodness begins. Apart from that, all of man’s goodness falls short of God’s goodness, and any good action falls short of selfless goodness.

(Rob Lundberg) #11

I think there is also a difference in “doing good” versus “being good.”

Can an atheist “do good” and not believe in God? I think they can, but it is not on the standard of what God sees as good. Why is this? Because there is what the Reformers call an element of common grace where God grants His graciousness on all people in all parts of the earth at all time, to where the happy pagan can DO good.

However “being” good is another show altogether. This is where the work of Christ’s redemption for us comes in. He redeems and declares us righteous so that we can BE good in the eyes of God, by positioning us in the body of Christ. Then and only then is a person able to worship and honor God.

If I muddied up the waters with any confusion, I hope this short answer clears it up.

(Rob Lundberg) #12

As I once heard Michael Ramsden say with reference to this passage, that of the fact that only God is good, our application to join the persons of the Trinity has been denied.

(David Cieszynski) #13

It was listening to Michael Ramsden being interviewed by J John on YouTube that started my journey with RZIM now I have countless books by RZIM speakers and have done their core foundation course.

(Shawn Cooper) #14

I think it helps to look at Matthew 5 in this case as well where the inverse question is confronted by Jesus in a way. He basically lays out the root of good and evil saying that even thinking adulterous thoughts is no different than actually committing the act. It is where your heart and soul are at that determine the ultimate good or evil of your actions. So the threat of punishment keeps you from ultimately committing a heinous act your heart is still in it. On the flip side if someone is not following Jesus in their Heart and with their soul, while actions may appear good on the outside since they come from a position outside of loving God they are not in fact good as that can only come from loving God.
I guess what I am trying to convey is that no action is good or evil in itself. Even taking a human life can be a morally justified and “good” act in the right circumstances but it also can be evil. Jesus himself made a whip and beat people who were misusing his Fathers house. This was a morally justified action that in many other circumstances would have not been considered thus.
Apart from the salvation of Christ there is no instance in which your heart and soul would be in the right place in any circumstance or action therefor nothing good could actually be done.