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.