Can people be good without God?
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 Sanders 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.
Lita Sanders, CMI-US, responds:
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.