“For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Genesis 3:5
Can we be good without God? So it has been asked throughout the ages, or at least for a long, long time. At least since Lucretius, and probably Epicurus before him.
Very briefly, I would say “no,” we cannot be good without God. But, that is quite brief, and to say that one cannot be good, is not to say one cannot do good without God; it is only to say one cannot be good apart from God. There are, in fact, all kinds of objectively good, moral actions that a person can perform, but that alone does not make one good, not in an ontological sense, anyway.
For to be good implies more than just action in the world, it entails everything from intentions, attitudes, dispositions, even the content of one’s thoughts and imaginations. After all, would we say that a quadriplegic who is physically incapable of harming another, yet who fantasizes about torturing innocent children day and night, is good?
Obviously not. Therefore, goodness must extend beyond good or right action; it must apply to the soul of the person. It must speak to the formation of the self; to the self’s inner dispositions and desires, as well as to the body’s actions. Being good is a question of character.
But, perhaps a few examples might help clarify why good actions alone do not make us good; why they don’t change our nature, or the what we are:
Objectively good actions are not always done out of objectively good motivations.
Example 1: Think of a soldier who has been trained to make certain kinds of sacrifices on the battlefield, or who lives under a highly structured system of rewards and punishments. This soldier sacrifices himself to save the life of another soldier, or maybe a civilian in a combat zone. Is his motivation for saving the other soldier or civilian done out of love and compassion? Or, is he thinking that if he pulls it off, he will get promoted, or win a medal, perhaps a very prestigious one? Or, is it because he has simply been trained to do so, and can’t really choose otherwise, his body just reacts a certain way to the circumstances. The act is loving, but is the soldier loving? At best we might say, it remains unclear.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that some soldiers don’t do heroic acts out of love, and that they themselves are not courageous or loving. It is just to show that not all loving or courageous acts are ones that exemplify a certain kind of moral virtue that itself is also objectively good. Most of us, unless you are a fan of Ayn Rand, would not think of self glorification as an objectively good motivation.1 Of course, I am simplifying this kind of scenario to make a larger point. A soldier in this kind of situation, or a police officer, or anyone really, can have a complex set of mixed emotions and intentions, to include, for example, a genuine desire to save someone and an equally genuine desire to win a medal, or gain personal favor. So, to become good seems to require something more than just the doing of good acts.
Example 2: Consider a celebrity playboy (think of one, there are a lot of them) who donates millions and millions of dollars to some inner city school project, or who frequently visits third world countries on relief missions, or who adopts a dozen orphaned African children. Yet, in his (or her) spare time, he engages in all kinds of activities that many, not just the religious among us, would consider despicable (e.g. I’m sure Harvey Weinstein gave a lot of money to charity).
Why is he doing all those good acts? Are his motives out of love…or is he trying to hide his guilty feelings from the world; making up for them by the good works he performs? Are his objectively good acts, also acts of self deception, and, in some sense, public deception? If they are, then we would have to say that they might be objectively good for others, but for the playboy himself, they are objectively bad. He is doing good on one hand, but only to alleviate his own guilt on the other. But, his public good works do not necessarily stop him from persisting in his private, yet wicked, intentions and acts. In fact, the good works act as aids to his persisting in that wickedness. (BTW, I did a lot of good works before I met Christ)!
Examples could be multiplied, but let me get to a second point.
Even good actions, and the right motivations, are not enough to make us good.
Even if one does act out of morally righteous motivations (love, kindness, a sense of duty, etc.), it is usually the case, because of the way the human heart is, that we who try and do morally good acts, and who even do them for the right reasons, begin to see ourselves as the source of our own goodness. But this is highly problematic, because the desire to do good, and the actualization of that virtue, often leads to the development of certain moral vices; like pride, or arrogance, or judgmentalism.
Example 1: The Pharisees. They thought they were good because of their religious status, their adherence to the law, and their moral virtue. They followed God’s commandments, and followed them to a “T.” They even followed more commandments than were required (see Mark 7)! In doing so, however, they developed certain vices, like religious pride.
Because of the way sin works, it seems that if we begin to see ourselves as good, we start becoming prideful and arrogant. If we become prideful and arrogant we tend to want to dominate others, to demean them, to shame them. Thus, the doing of virtue itself often becomes a source of vice, and can even lead to our hurting others in the process. We can actually undermine our own desire to be good. We can try and earn it ourselves. The Pharisees, in doing this, came up with a name for people who failed to do it; they called them “sinners.” The older brother did this to his younger, prodigal brother, and in both cases, the end result was a loss of the capacity to forgive.
Example 2: Satan and Adam’s desire to be good apart from God were the very first sinful acts against God. In fact, I think one could legitimately see all of Scripture as a grand story of man’s attempt to be good without relationship to God. This is done at the micro level (the individual who sees himself as “the Good one” and becomes haughty), or at the level of culture (the political system or ideology that is anointed as good, and is said will save humanity. Think Marxism, perhaps, which has oft been called a failed, Christian heresy.)
If Satan and Adam wanted to be good without relationship to God, and in doing so fell from His grace, then to think we can be good without God is like reenacting the original sin. It is eating from the tree; again, and again, and again.
3. But, what is the solution to this whole mess? What about being good?
From a historical Christian perspective, being morally good is not really the main purpose of human existence anyway; even if it is a byproduct of coming to grasp, and to live in that main purpose. What is that purpose? Well, it is our own happiness. Yes, that’s right; our own happiness. To understand and accept this is to follow in the footsteps of Augustine, not Pelagius; to follow Aquinas, not Socinus, and to realize what Luther realized during his study of Romans.
Or, for example, one could take this statement from The Westminster Shorter Catechism, in response to the question “What is the chief end of man?” Answer, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” So, actually, our ultimate goal is to enjoy God, not to act morally. Yep, enjoy Him, not be Him. But, once we start enjoying Him, an amazing thing begins to happen, we start becoming more like Him. We start becoming good, because of our joy in Christ.
Therefore, if enjoying God is the ultimate goal, then being good for that reason is what ultimately shapes us and make us good. When we have the right goal set in our hearts, then we can actually become what we desire to be: good.
In sum, I would say that men and women can do objectively good things without God, but that the primal sin is itself the very idea that we can be good without Him. That is exactly what we want as sinners, and it is exactly what the Devil want us to believe. So, no, we should never think we could be good without God, even if we are doing good things all the while.