When dealing with the question “can I be good without God?” the first thing we need to ask is “how are you defining what ‘good’ is?” There are two ways of looking at it and to illustrate let us contemplate our own death.
First, when we die what will people be saying about us? They might say something like “Billy was a kind man, a generous man who would give you the shirt off his back, a forgiving man, a committed man, a family man, an honest man, in short a good man. Oh and Billy was an atheist.” Clearly if such things are what you mean by being good, then yes, from this perspective you can be good without God. I can tell you that as a pastor the vast majority of people I have buried have been good, at least according to their friends and families. And not all of them have had a discernible relationship with God.
Second, when we die what will God be saying about us? Will He say something like “O good, finally someone as good as me!”? Not likely. If you trust the Bible, as I do, then the Bible will make the answer clear:
Surely there is no one on earth so righteous as to do good without ever sinning. (Ecclesiastes 7:20 NRSV).
Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. (Mark 10:17-18 NRSV)
What then? Are we any better off? No, not at all; for we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin, as it is written: “There is no one who is righteous, not even one. (Romans 3:9-10 NRSV)
From this perspective, from the theological perspective, the answer is a clear, “no you can not be good without God.”
But suppose for a moment that we take the first perspective, that you have been good without God and that at your funeral your friends are saying all kinds of wonderful, and true, things about you. We now need to ask the question, just why are these things considered wonderful? Who set the standard? You chose in life to make such traits true about you, but you did not decide that they would be wonderful.
Where does the standard of “good’ come from? Your options are to consider some form of deity, or to believe that the standard comes from cultural norms that have evolved as humanity has evolved. Now if we chose cultural norms independent of a deity, do we realize that Christianity is still very much operating in the background of Canadian goodness?
Have you noticed the kinds of things that are admired in a person? The kinds of things that will get a mention in eulogy? Things like love, generosity, forgiveness, honesty, and commitment are seen as marks of goodness, while interestingly, at most funerals very few will lift up things like outward accomplishments or ability in amassing wealth. It so often comes back to character traits demonstrated in relationships. In fact in eulogies the most admired traits in the deceased are usually those things that would remind us of Jesus! There is a sign here that God really still is in the mix, that in supposedly “being good without God,” we are still actually looking to godliness, to God’s standards and expectations.
And so much of the ethics we enjoy as Canadians are Christian ethics. Alvin Schmidt in his book “How Christianity Changed the World” chronicles just how much influence Christianity has had on Western Society. Just reading through the table of contents gives you a sense of the scope of influence:
- People Transformed by Jesus Christ
- The Sanctification of Human Life
- Christianity Elevates Sexual Morality
- Women Receive Freedom and Dignity
- Charity and Compassion: Their Christian Connection
- Hospitals and Health Care: Their Christian Roots
- Christianity’s Imprint on Education
- Labor and Economic Freedom Dignified.
- Science: Its Christian Connections
- Liberty and Justice for All
- Slavery Abolished: A Christian Achievement
- Christianity’s Stamp on Art and Architecture
- The Sound of Music: Its Christian resonance
- Hallmarks of Literature: Their Christian Imprint
- Additional Influence: Holidays, Symbols, and Expressions.
The ethics of our nation, the sense of what makes a person good still enjoys the Christian heritage of Canada. Many people are “good” without realising that their goodness is according to the Christian heritage running in the background.
So can we be good without God? From a practical standpoint, yes if you are defining goodness as living well by cultural norms. But then all the best examples of goodness in culture point us to God, and all the best examples of goodness in people point us to Jesus. From a theological perspective no, but thankfully in Jesus and through the Holy Spirit we have been given the opportunity to be good with God!
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations. (Isaiah 61:10,11 NRSV)