Can We Be Good without God?

| |
Jesus shows us that God desires us. This is made possible through a far greater and divine goodness that sets judgment aside and propels Christ into the world with outrageous forgiveness.

As a Christian at a public university, I am most often asked: “Can we be good without God?” People naturally assume they’re pretty good. The psychologically healthy have a humble recognition of the good in themselves. The world is filled with good parents, good kids, good employees, good students, good friends. Many are good nurses, good teachers, good bankers, and good architects—regardless of whether they’re Christians, Muslims, Hindus, or atheists (on the ground, these labels don’t map onto goodness very well). Otherwise, the world would be in even worse shape.

Jesus knows that ordinary people can be ordinarily good (Matt. 5-7 and Luke 6). I don’t find it helpful to try and take this away from people when evangelizing them. I use it as a stepping stone to something beyond ordinary goodness that’s possible through the gospel.

Jesus faced this same question from a thoughtful Jewish lawyer (Matt. 19:16; Mark 10:17). In reply, Jesus points to two different ways to think about goodness: horizontally or vertically. Are we good relative to others (horizontal) or relative to the highest possible ideal (vertical)? The ultimate possible goodness we could call God.

This explains why God is often pictured as a judge. The ultimate ideal, no matter what it is, always functions as unwavering, demanding perfection. And because I am far from perfect in comparison, I cower in fear before it. The ideal always shows the imperfection of the actual. Compared to the ideal, our goodness always falls short at some point (Rom. 3:23).

But Jesus reveals something surprising about who God is. Even though perfect and ideally good, God is not fundamentally about judgment. Instead, Jesus reveals to us that God is fundamentally forgiving and reconciling love (1 John 4:8). In Jesus, we encounter goodness not just as a theory or a philosophical concept, but as a person. Not even our failures are an obstacle to fellowship with this God, because this God wants a relationship with us (who we are as persons), not our performance relative to an abstract ideal.

Being a Christian isn’t about being good—or “better” than our non-Christian neighbor—in our roles as parent or citizen or person. And it’s not about telling non-Christians their ordinary good isn’t really good. When we think or behave this way, we perpetuate the false idea that what God wants is our performance. That leads to self-righteousness—the very thing Jesus condemned so forcefully because it blocks the flow of God’s healing grace in the world.

Jesus shows us that God desires us. This is made possible through a far greater and divine goodness that sets judgment aside and propels Christ into the world with outrageous forgiveness. This unexpected forgiveness is what leads us to repentance. And when we experience this loving reconciliation with God, we discover a humility growing in us so that, like Paul, we come to know deep down that we’re the worst of sinners and more in need of God’s forgiveness than anyone else. But deeper yet, what outshines the darkness of our failures is the brightness of this loving union with God’s very self. It is this marvelous union with God that works a transformation within us. Over time, we become good like God is good, which is far beyond merely performing perfectly.

Yes, you can be good without God—up to a point. But in Christ you can come into loving and transformative union with God. And this is the highest good possible in the world.

About the Author

Mike Wagenman is the Christian Reformed campus minister and professor of theology at Western University in London, Ont., and part-time New Testament instructor at Redeemer University College. He attends Forest City Community Church.

See comments (8)


I'd suggest that the author of this read the book, "How Good Is Good Enough" by Andy Stanley.

Thanks, Mike, for a thoughtful article.  We all recognize that we both sin and do good. That leaves most people wondering where they stand with God.  Of course we think of God as the ideal.  And yes, measured against him we all fall short.  Humans were not created as Gods but as people.  Common sense tells us that humans were never meant to measure up to God’s goodness.  As Romans 3 points out, “There is none righteous, no not one...” or “All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory.”  According to the Bible all people come into the world carrying the burden of Adam’s sin, as well as his sinful nature, which naturally leans people toward sin.  So, of course we are not perfect, that’s an impossibility.  And God doesn’t expect such perfection of human beings.  But at the same time, we recognize the good we do in life, as you point out, Mike.  Does the good outweigh the bad?  Reason would tell us that God isn’t measuring.  I think you may have hit the nail on the head when you point out that fundamentally God is not about judgement but is an accepting and loving God.  Where non Christians get frustrated with Christian thinking, is the necessity of someone to pay for sin (namely Jesus).  Somehow in Christian thinking, Jesus can make us equal to God in goodness; his goodness is credited to the believer.  But forgiveness does not require a payment, as Christians think.  As we forgive others so God forgives us, irregardless of religion or no religion.  It seems very possible that heaven will include all kinds of people, people of every religion and of no religion.  Why?  Because, in spite of what people believe, God is a loving and forgiving God.  People have no reason to live in fear of God. Such fear is simply a matter of superstition.  Thanks, Mike, for a challenging article.

This is a great question that I get lot, too. Most people focus on The Morality Question (How good do I really have to be...?). Evangelism is radically personal, but I’d love to hear how your conversations go when you connect the outrageous forgiveness of God to the judgment of sin poured out on Jesus. A couple of reasons: a) opinions and attitudes on the justice of God are diverse and personal, and 2) I think this is where a lot of people get hung up in evangelism. Knowing how you navigate these responses might help me and others. Thanks.

Roger, I’m not sure I followed your post correctly. Are you speculating that people who do not believe the gospel will be forgiven of their sin? I apologize if I misread your post; just looking for clarification.

       Hi Michael.  I’m not sure if your comment is in response to the original article or to the comment just prior to yours.  But I will take a stab at answering your question.  I’m not sure that the question most people ask is, how good do I have to be?  I doubt that God has a grading scale that he works with.  In choosing a king for Israel, the God of the Jewish religion told Solomon that he doesn’t look at the outward appearance of a person but rather looks at the heart.  And even though David (the one God chose) was a flagrant sinner, God called him a man after his own heart.  So I doubt that God is counting sins and keeping a tally.  I think Mike, in his article, is right by suggesting that God is not about judgement but rather is a God of love.  That’s just a common sense understanding of God, as seen in the creator God.
       You are right, Michael, to say that opinions about God vary greatly.  That is in part due to the variety of religions which are all based on their own special revelations of God.  Whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Jehovah Witness, all have their own God inspired Scriptures, which its adherents claim is absolutely true. Of course, Christians make the same claim. 
       When doing evangelism, you are most likely referring to the Bible as your source of authority. But to the non Christian, the Bible carries no more authority than the Koran, Jewish Scriptures, the Book of Mormon or whatever source you might compare it to.  To the non Christian, the Bible, like other Scriptures are just the opinions of people.  So such an appeal (to the Bible) makes little sense to the non Christian.  To compare God’s love to some kind of judgement poured out on Jesus is talking nonsense to them.
        Most people see God in creation, and see him as an awesome God, a God worthy of love and respect.  Even as David of the Old Testament saw God’s greatness and love in creation, as did also Job, so most people stand in awe of a good creator God.  After all that is God’s own revelation.  It would seem that all people have such a connection (see Romans 1) to God.  So begin by honoring our creator God and thinking less of him as a judgmental God.  That’s the gospel as seen in creation, God's own revelation.

Thanks for your response, Roger. Coming from an atheist family, I wasn’t exposed (much) to the Bible, and certainly not as an authoritative text! However, I thank God that people I know did just that – they read the very plain text of the Bible and authoritatively passed that on to me: that God is a God of both love and justice, and that those meet in Jesus. You’re right – it was difficult for me to understand. I rejected that gospel for a long time – until the Spirit decided to meet me in that gospel of love and justice. I am eternally grateful to know that Jesus became a sin offering – an offering of atonement for me – so that I may become in Christ the righteousness of God.

I do understand that people respond to articles on the The Banner come from a non-Christian viewpoint, as you do. However, I used to believe certain things about the Bible that God later showed me were simply not true. He also showed me things I thought were not there that actually are. I will say to you what was shared with me: Jesus, the Son of God, bore the wrath of God for your sin – and he will bear those scars in his resurrected body forever – so that you may be forgiven. I am praying that you come to believe the certain grace of God in the atonement of Christ, Roger.

Thanks, Michael, for your further response.  I respect your decision to become a Christian and that you find meaning in your faith.  I come from the opposite kind of background, having been raised in a Christian home and now having been a professing member of the CRC for well over forty years.  Let me just point out, that those who have left the Christian faith (or any religion) find a great liberation and freedom from the superstitions of organized religions.  To believe in a good creator God and to sense his acceptance is truly liberating.  Blessings to you, Michael.

Thank you Renee, Roger, and Michael, for your thoughtful engagement! I tried to do two main things in this piece. First, I wanted to wrestle with a very real tension we experience as Christians living in a religiously diverse world: there are many different forms of "good" out there. One of my personal struggles has been the attempt by some Christians to use their understanding of theology to tell others that the good they do isn't really good unless they do it from a starting point of Christian faith. I feel that this is too combative in relating to other people who actually do contribute good things to our world even though they're not Christians. The second thing I wanted to at least name is the tendency among some Christians to think that all God wants is for us to get our act together and shape up. This runs the risk, in my mind, of turning Christian discipleship into mere external behaviour control. The end result, as I see it, is a proud perfectionism that loses sight of a dynamic and living encounter with the risen and reigning Christ. 

So, I wanted to try and engage this question somewhat detached from the typical approach to evangelism that sees our main problem as disobediance resulting in guilt that Jesus atones for by substituting himself in our place. This is quite valid but not the only way of approaching it. And in today's cultural climate I far more frequently encounter people who are burdened by a lack of meaning and significance in life rather than guilt and shame. So I'm trying to think through how to introduce someone to Christ who brings life to the full rather than just an escape from punishment. Jesus offers us far more than fire insurance or a get out of jail free card. He offers us himself. I don't want to avoid that in witnessing to Christ with others.