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Can people be good without God?

Published: 15 July 2017 (GMT+10)

Catherine K., Canada, writes:


I am always searching for ways to get through to my skeptical kids. They are in university and have a lot of non Christian friends. One day as my son was at a Bible study, the leader (a pastor) told the group that no one who is not a Christian was capable of goodness. My son protested that he had non-Christian friends who were capable of goodness--and gave some examples. The pastor countered with this statement: "Well, there must have had a wrong motive in the "good" action." This caused my son to leave the Faith in exasperation. He just did not understand this reasoning. And I do not either. I just read an article by Lita Cosner titled "The Goodness of God". She says, "One consequence of this [sanctification] is that we become capable of good works." This does not make sense. We have a lot of Christians and non Christians around us. I can name many instances of non-Christians showing selfless love, and Christians failing to show goodness!
Would appreciate a response.
istockPhoto people

Lita Cosner, CMI-US, responds:

Dear Catherine,

Thanks for writing in and giving me an occasion to expand on this idea. My article was written for publication in Creation magazine, and sometimes word limits mean that it is impossible to explain some statements fully.

Ever since Adam sinned, humans have been sinful. We’re not sinful because we sin, we sin because we’re born sinful. David said, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). In other words, David understood the reason he sinned with Bathsheba (the occasion for that particular psalm was his repentance). To understand the importance of this, consider that Christ never sinned because He was righteous. He didn’t overcome sin a certain number of times and then become righteous—He was righteous from conception (as only the incarnate Son of God could be) and thus never succumbed to temptation. Conversely, we commit sins because we are sinful—the underlying nature determines the actions.

When we have this conception of sin, we can understand what Scripture means when it says that there is none who does good, not one. Isaiah says that even our righteous deeds are like polluted garments (Isaiah 64:6). Paul said all the things that made him a ‘Hebrew of Hebrews’ he counted as dung (Philippians 3:8). Even the things that we would count as good deeds from a human level are repulsive when compared to the standard of divine perfection. This is because while an atheist can mow his elderly neighbor’s lawn, and from a human level that’s a good deed, he’s doing that while he’s breaking the most important commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5, also 10:12, 11:13, 13:3 30:6; Joshua 22:5, 23:11, Matthew 22:37; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27). You can’t pull out a single deed and evaluate it on its own apart from a life that’s fundamentally aligned against the God who is the source of every good thing, and even our standard for good and evil!

Every unbeliever is separated from God, and is thus incapable of doing anything that God will consider good, because everything they do is in the context of a life that is in rebellion against Him. No one thinks Hitler’s environmentalism is a mitigating factor in what an evil person he was. “Well, at least he was a vegetarian!” We’re rightly horrified at even the thought of that sort of moral ‘reasoning’, but the ‘good atheist’ is a difference only in degree, not kind.

This is why we can’t do anything to save ourselves. No good deed can make up for our sinfulness, even if we could perform deeds that God would consider good, and we can’t even do that, because we’re separated from God, who is the source of all goodness! This is precisely why God had to take the initiative to save people.

As I mentioned above, because Jesus is the Incarnate Son of God, He was able to live a perfectly sinless, righteous life. He was actually able to keep every commandment, and willingly died on the cross for our sins, and was raised on the third day. When we trust in Jesus for salvation, God reconciles us to Himself. One consequence of this is we become able to do good deeds, because God, the source of all goodness, enables us. Yet we remain completely dependent on Him: Jesus says, “apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

So yes, atheists can do what we would consider to be good deeds, but from a standard of divine perfection, none of us can measure up. Christians are only capable of doing deeds God considers good because of our status “in Christ” which means Christ’s goodness is credited to us and He enables us to do good deeds.

I must say, however, that if this issue caused your son to leave the faith, there was probably some other underlying issue, because when people with a healthy faith encounter challenges or things they do not understand, they struggle through it until they understand, instead of ‘leaving the faith’ after hearing one answer they disagree with.

I hope this is helpful.

Helpful Resources

Readers’ comments

Phil K.
@Stephan: judgementalism isn't always in the deliverer, it can be in the receiver. If I were living dangerously abusing drugs and alcohol, and a friend warned me that my lifestyle was destructive and would one day kill me, would that friend be judgemental or would I have received it as judgemental because I didn't want to hear it?

Regarding the issue of atheists doing good works and Christians behaving badly, I have observed over my years that human beings can be either a consumer or a producer (and various gradations between). A producer is a giver. He mows his elderly neighbor's yard. You want to be around a producer. An atheist can be a producer, but that doesn't make him good in God's eyes. But it does make him good in man's eyes.

A consumer is a taker. He makes you feel worse. A consumer can be a Christian but still behave poorly. While forgiven, he has a long we to go personally. Only a change in character or nature can help a consumer become a producer.
Graeme M.
'Good works', as considered by our own behavioural patterns alone, is a glorification of ones 'selfworth' and is therefore viewed by God as our only reward, it has no value to the Kingdom, nor can it earn any entitlements to salvation.
Regards, Graeme.
Jean P.
Perhaps it would be easier to understand if we loo,ed at the source of the good deed, not the action itself. Before we are born again of the Spirit, all that we do is done in the energy of the human will, ( flesh in Biblical terns). Once we are made alive in our spirits then those deeds do e u der the direction of and energised by the Holy Spirit, are deemed 'good' by God. 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 makes this clear. When we do things in our own strenth it is not eternal and won,t survive judgement. It isn,t the action but whether it is done by the Holy Spirit through us. Jesus said, "Without Me you can do nothing" John 15:5. . I believe He meant that we could not live spiritual lives unless He lived tne life through us.
John A.
A very well worded response Lita. It makes it clear, from our Christian viewpoint, where we stand as fallen humanity. Thankyou.
Ian B.
When I was just 6 weeks old in the Lord, I was sleeping in the Christian Women's Convention tent at the Tamworth show - to be caretaker. About 11 pm the local service clubs would arrive to clean up ready for the next day. This was obviously a sacrificial service rendered by volunteers working at night in an in-glamorous capacity to serve their community. I was amazed to hear them drinking and smoking and swearing outside the tent. The very first thing the Lord had dealt with in me was swearing - on my first day as a Christian. I had been raised on the land and had been a shearer for 6 years, and my language was very "colourful". I learned a big lesson at that time - that many good, loving, and selfless acts can come from the unrighteous.
Kirk H.
I'm beginning to see that repentance and forgiveness are works and deeds, and that Christ in His preaching focused more on those than anything else. Without repentance we are unrepentant, and any other "good works" are like "filthy rags". That was the position of the scribes and Pharisees, unrepentant and unforgiving. We get hung up on our concept of works and deeds. We love to judge right from wrong, good from bad, and isn't that part of our original problem? To the question submitted, all are able to do good things for others, but for a non-Christian to be truly repentant and forgiving seems impossible.
Don D.
I have often heard people say something to the effect of "She was such a good person. If anyone will be in heaven, surely she will." And obviously, at a funeral/during a time of grief after the loss of a loved one, I did not stop to try and correct this. But the truth of the matter is as Lita has expressed it. Jesus replied to the young ruler who had called him "Good teacher" "Why do you call me good? No one is good--except God alone." I note that Jesus does not say that he (Jesus) is not good, but that only God is good. He leaves the ruler (and us) to figure out that Jesus is God and therefore is truly good too!

I have to commend Lita for her astute handling of this issue. Human goodness is always relative, and that big point of the relationship of our actions to God himself always brings us back to that most troubling passage in Isaiah 64/6. "Our righteousness is as filthy rags!" Our best without God is always tainted with rebellion, with the attitude of "I will be as God"...with the emphasis on the "I" and the "will".
Stephan B.
I'm sorry to say that while you obviously have good biblical knowledge, to me, you also come across as condescending and judgemental. Many no doubt do some "good deeds" with a bad intention but no doubt also that there are some who do "good" simply out of kindness. After all, aren't we all created in God's image whether or not our current human life is aligned with God?? To do good or evil has nothing to do with salvation because salvation isn't based on that.
You say that every unbeliever is incapable of doing anything that God will consider good. Isn't presumptuous to make such a statement? My neighbor's life as a whole may not be aligned with God's standards but who's to say how God sees him personally when he shows compassion to the homeless and give his time, food and money to help them? Yes, no matter if someone does some "good deeds", if that someone also does much evil in the sight of God and rejects Him, he won't be saved... but this isn't the issue here. You judge as a whole instead of seeing each thing individually and IMO, this is wrong.
One day, i bought flowers to my girlfriend carefully choosing those she liked. Once received, she asked me where i bought them and because it was at the food store (they had a flower section) instead of the florist shop, she complained. She just couldn't see & appreciate the action by itself. No doubt you must be that type of person too!
To finish, many may be seen as "leaving the faith" when in fact, it's the christian church and the traditional religious system in place that they leave behind... not God. When there are way too many judgemental christians who think they know it all and have all the answers, who can blame them? Not me for sure.
I will no longer read any of your articles. I suggest you love more & judge less.
Lita Cosner
Stephan, you leveled this charge against me on a previous occasion, and I asked you to substantiate what I said that was judgmental. You did not reply, which I took as an admission that I was actually not being condescending and judgmental. If you can quote something that's judgmental, then fine. But if you can't, I suggest that you try reading more charitably, as we can impose tone that the author did not intend sometimes.
Hugh O.
Great article. We, mankind, looks at what is done, God knows our motivation. Also every person has a little of born in the image of God and is why every one knows certain things are inherently wrong, svn when they go ahead and do them. It why so many were first done in secret. What is horrifying is that now many are losing this knowledge of right and wrong. This must be similar to the conditions before the flood. Hugh
Tom H.
Thanks for the great article. So many people who say they are Christians(God knows) still have the concept of "we are all sinners". If one can ever grasp that in Christ Jesus God declares us "righteous", not "sinner", then we understand that our goodness is not of us but of Him Who lives through us. The "old self" was crucified with Christ and now "it is He Who is in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure."(Phil.2:13) Jesus, through the Holy Spirit makes us to have right standing (righteous) with The God of the universe. Thanks for your great articles. God bless you.
Geoff C W.
'... everything that does not come from faith is sin' Romans 14:23. It probably comes down to a definition of what we mean by doing good.
Steve H.
Jesus summarised all the law and the prophets into 2 commandments (Mt 22:34-40). He said (v37-38), “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.” In this, we are to love the creator above ourselves and above all created things. He also said (v39), “And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’” If I love anything or anybody more than I love God, then I commit the sin of idolatry: the person or thing that stands in God’s rightful place has become for me an idol. I bring honour and glory to God only when I obey him: when I love him above all else, and when I love my neighbour as myself. However, If I do not love God above all else, but do good deeds for my neighbour, then I either bring glory to myself (pride), or I love my neighbour more than God (an idol). Either way, I sin. Whether deeds are good or not depends not on the deeds themselves but upon my motive for doing them. If my purpose is to bring glory to God, then they’re good, if not, they’re sin in God’s eyes. A person who does not love God in all that they do, sins in all that they do, even if what they do seems good to that person or to other people. Only God sees the heart (1 Ch 28:9). Of course, loving God this way is humanly impossible: pride or idolatry continually pulling us from the narrow way. Only through faith in the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of our sins can our puny efforts be made acceptable to our perfect God.
Sue T.
Lita, you've dealt with this issue so clearly and succinctly; l've got it straight in my head now! Thank you!
Eileen T.
As an ex- atheist I can testify that -yes, my sense of what is morally right [derived I believe from our 'christian' culture] caused me to live a life of doing good to others etc. It was only when Christ saved me, that my eyes were opened to my true state and self-righteousness.
It's good that we all try to live as good a life as we can in this world, for the sake of order and not chaos - that is God's grace and mercy - but it is only the Christian believer that sees and understands the true situation [again by God's grace].
Bill P.
I can only speak for myself. Being raised in the Catholic church as a little boy at times I would do good, BUT at the same time I would do what I knew was not good. Even confession didn't help because I still did those things behind everyone's back. The guilt never left me. After high school I joined the navy and visited over 2 dozen countries. I was your typical sailor, but at the same time I always set time aside to see if the cultures i visited had answers as to what life was about. Nothing helped & I began to live as though this was all there was so do what you want until you die. Years later without even looking someone I worked with told me about Jesus Christ, His Life Death and being raised from the dead. I had never heard this before but I knew I found the truth. Now 36 yrs. later I've learned That The Living God seeks those to worship Him in Spirit and in Truth. I learned that it was our spirit that died in that garden and eventually our bodies followed in death. I've learned that Christ came to restore what was destroyed in the garden. He alone justified me before The Father in heaven, something my works no matter how good could not do. I am a mere man and can not reach into heaven, but Him being God reached down to me, and today even though I'm still in the flesh His Holy Spirit witnesses to my reborn spirit, and that same Spirit that raised Him from the dead will one day soon make me like Him and then I will and I will see Him as He is. This is something I could not do, in my flesh no matter how good i might have been, because the evil in my heart was always there. I could write a book about the Things The Lord has done in my life and I am in awe of Him. The Creator of heaven and earth full of Grace didn't destroy me but adopted me and made me His son.
Basil B.
Thank you Lita for a plain and very easy-to-understand response to Katherine's question; none of us "older dogs" are ever too old to learn (smiley). Without a literal "very good" Adam, nothing that Lita wrote above, would make any sense.
Tom G.
Our idea of good is often not God's idea of good. This was brought home to me when someone said he was worse than the disciples before he was a christian. I was thinking, actually no-one could be worse than the apostle Paul, when the Holy Spirit directed me to consider the lives of the disciples, in particular Peter, the one who got the revelation - Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. "Good" old Peter was actually assigned the name of the most evil being in the universe by Jesus for doing something "good". He was simply looking out for his Master and friend. But if you take the consequences of his actions to their logical conclusion, in a scenario where Jesus had submitted to his advice, we would still all be in our sins. Peter would have achieved something that not even Satan could have achieved!
Don N.
I am a strong supporter of CMI however I doubt if going into a theological type answer is a good way to approach this subject. When our Lord was asked by the lawyer "Who is my neighbour?" in Luke 10 His reply was very pertinent to this subject. He did not say if the Samaritan was one of His followers or not. The Samaritan however was an example of how one should love a neighbour with the injured man being the example of who a neighbour could be. In our present day understanding of "good works" non Christians can often outdo us but of course these do not save us whether done by Christians or non. The book of James explains this very well. I suggest that a theological answer to the word "good" should be left to another context.
Lita Cosner
I struggle to comprehend how a non-theological answer to "Can people be good without God?" is possible.
Winston M.
Dear Lita, its such a blessing reading your articles, especially your response to the above letter. I agree we are disqualified on the basis of our inherited nature through Adam. you mentioned Christ was born Righteous, i always struggled with that concept knowing He was born of Mary. my children have the same characters of their mother. [and father] however if Christ was born of God; without the influence of Mary at conception, in other words she was the "surrogate" mother of Christ then according to the head of Genetics of Auckland uni. He would be shielded from the influence of Mary's heritage by the placenta, thus we would have a sinless Christ born of God. A second Adam; Created by God, all of God. PS I was always told; the sinful nature of mankind is only passed on through the male not the female.[saying therefore Christ would be sinless] having had been married for 48 yrs that didn't ring too true in living reality. [my thoughts only]
loving regards to you all at CMI Winston
Lita Cosner
Hi Winston,

Indeed, Mary was a sinner in need of a Saviour. But it was the Holy Spirit overshadowing Mary in the virginal conception that caused Jesus to be conceived sinlessly while actually being Mary's genetic offspring. Jesus had to actually be Mary's son because it's through her that He is the descendant of David.

I have also heard of the idea that sinfulness is passed through the male. While it is true that Adam's sin, not Eve's, introduced sin and death to the human race, Scripture does not teach that it is the father, not the mother, who passes on the sin nature.
Hans B.
Lita, very well written. Humans have their definition of what 'good' means in this fallen world but fall short of considering what 'good' means to the creator, which is the ultimate definition of 'good'. Jesus remarked on this too when he was talking to one of his desciples differentiating between human 'good' and God the Father 'good'.
[11] If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? or if he ask a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent?
[12] Or if he shall ask an egg, will he offer him a scorpion?
[13] If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?

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