Atheists are fond of boasting that they can be perfectly good people without God—that is, without needing the threat of some all-powerful Being punishing them for wrong-doing. Their argument can have two purposes. One is to counter the oft-quoted sentiment: “Without God, everything is permitted.” Rather, they claim, they are morally upstanding citizens even without a belief in God. Thus, atheism does not lead to anarchy. The second point is to demonstrate their moral superiority—unlike Christians, they have the inner fortitude to control their own behavior. They do not need some external threat to keep them from stealing or killing. They do not need God to be good.
Christians who understand the gospel are actually willing to agree in one sense. Belief in God does not guarantee that a person will be morally superior to those who do not believe in God. It should not surprise Christians to find atheists, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, or people from any number of religious persuasions who are honest, hard-working, generally good people. After all, people do not become Christians by their moral effort but by their trust in God’s gracious work on their behalf.
Yet Christians should be better than they were or could be. Their trust in God may not make them better than others, but it should make them better than their old selves. When God saves someone, he makes them new. So people may be good without God, but they would be even better with Him.
There are, however, two ways in which we must answer the original question in the negative—we cannot be good without God. First, there could be no foundation for goodness without God. On what grounds do we determine whether or not something is good? Who has the authority to determine what is good or what is bad if not God?
Let’s briefly consider two possible alternatives. The first is that the sense of morality—the idea that all people have that certain things are right or wrong—is simply a result of natural selection in evolution. The thinking goes like this: those who were altruistic (unselfish and cooperative) were better equipped for survival and, thus, passed altruistic gene on to their descendents. That’s why we feel that unselfish behavior is “right.” That feeling helped us survive.
However, this theory is flawed. Altruism within your “group” may lead to greater survival, but hostility toward those outside would also lead to greater survival. But we believe that sacrificing for those outside your “group” is good and right (e.g., jumping in a river to save a stranger), whereas evolutionary theory would mean we would need to believe it was wrong. Nor does this theory explain why people display altruistic behavior when no one else will know about it. They would get no direct benefit from that behavior. Finally, this only explains why we think certain behaviors are right, but does nothing to explain whether or not our sense of morality is correct. It fails to move from is to ought. It tells us that this is how people think, but it cannot tell us whether or not we should think that way. I may think it is good to be kind to others, but is it really good? Evolution cannot explain that. Thus, we are left without a ground for goodness.
The second alternative is that morality is socially determined. It is not given by God, but is created by people in a given culture. However, this theory also fails to solve the problem of moral grounding. If there is no God, then we are simply left with subjective and arbitrary feelings. Why should these be imposed on others? If you say “The majority should get to decide what is right or wrong” then does the majority get to decide to exterminate the minority? If not, then why? Who gets to determine what the majority can or cannot do? When one child begins telling another what to do, the second child often responds with some statement like this: “Says who?” In other words, you do not have the authority to tell me how to live. You cannot serve as an adequate grounding for morality in my life. The question is, who can? No one on earth possesses the right to tell everyone else how to live. That’s because only God has the ultimate right to do that.
There has been no satisfactory answer for the grounds of objective moral values without appeal to divine authority. So people do not need to believe that God exists to be good people, but without God existing there would be no such thing as goodness.
There is another truth that forces us to state that people cannot be good without God. Even those who do not believe in God could not be good without God’s common grace. God is at work in the world restraining evil. He may often work through secondary means, like governments and positive peer pressure, but He also works through His moral law written on people’s hearts and their God-given consciences. People may not be conscious of His working, but they benefit from it. Left to ourselves, we would all be purely wicked. We get glimpses of this truth from time to time when we hear of the horrific acts that people are capable of committing, such as mass killings, brutal tortures, and extreme forms of abuse. The reason not everyone commits those horrific crimes is that God is at work to keep our depravity in check. Part of what makes hell such a horrible reality is that God will no longer restrain evil. All of our worst tendencies will be indulged completely, with no hint of goodness mixed in. We cannot really be good without God. Praise God that He works so that people will be good now!