Good? Heavens!

I came across a blog post yesterday with the title:

You Cannot Be A Good Person If You Do Not Believe In Heaven

I am in plenty of conversations with people who do not believe in heaven, or believe in something other than the Christian version of heaven, and they seem like pretty good people.

Yet I also understand (and experience) the biblical view that humanity is broken, flawed, sinful.  How do we balance that with imago dei — the idea that we are also created in the image of God?

The blog post went on to say: “The Bible teaches that you cannot live a good life if you do not believe in God’s promises.”  Anyone care to support that?

A re-current theme at our Pub Theology gatherings  is ethics:  How do we know what the good is?  How do we live good lives?  What is the grounding for our morality?  Is God the source of all good?  Are things good because God commands them?  Or does God command them because they are good?

Some would say you can be perfectly ‘good without God’.  They’ve even written books about it.  They would say that we can live good and moral lives without supernaturalism.  Given the friends I have who eschew faith in a divine being, I’m inclined to agree.

Most people of faith would say that without God we have no grounding to say anything is good.  We must have an ‘objective standard’ upon which to measure our ethics.  This also makes a certain amount of sense.

Still others would say that even if there were such a standard, none of us has objective access to it.

Get all that?

What do you think?  Can we be ‘good without God’?


10 thoughts on “Good? Heavens!

  1. Interesting stuff. I’d say… in order to be accurate, you can just shorten the title to: “You Cannot Be a Good Person.” Because that is the essential truth here. We’re flawed. We’re evil. We’re disgraced. ONLY through God can we find any semblance of holiness, and even then it will not be fully realized until we get to heaven. So… maybe we should focus less on “being good” (impossible!) and focus more on “knowing God” (our purpose in life). I often struggle with this balance, too…


  2. I have a question in response to Schildan10’s comment: They must know that everyone will be rewarded for good, and punished for evil. Otherwise they will be tempted to do the things they think they can get away with. That’s just human nature.

    Are the precepts of the Bible based on HUMAN nature? Shouldn’t we look more to psychology and sociology for our arguments? Meaning, I feel the statement Schildan10 made is a generalization. I think individual human moral convictions lie on a spectrum and to assume that the motivation of every human would sway toward doing harm or evil when they can “get away with it” is not only pessimistic, but an arbitrary belief. Some people have good behavior, regardless of who is watching and punishment does not always dissuade bad behavior. Look at the stats on capital punishment. There is no proof that “rewarded for good, and punished for evil” is effective at all. So, is the Christian model of imposing a moral framework through a threat of punishment effective?


  3. Hi, Peter.

    I think your question is a bit different from the one asked by the blogger Bryan cites, but I don’t think Bryan will mind if I follow up on your question.

    There are a few different types of questions people tend to run together when discussing morality: epistemological (how can we know whether some act or person is good?), metaphysical (what kind of thing is the property of goodness? does it supervene on others?), and semantic/conceptual (what does ‘good’ mean? what concepts make up the concept of goodness?). What you say here suggests you’re most interested in the last type, so I’ll respond to that. Let me know if I’m wrong.

    It’s worth nothing that most Christian philosophers do not endorse or believe to be true a semantic theory of ‘good’ that analyses it in terms of God’s commands/will/approval. That’s because they recognize that such a theory has notorious logical problems revealed by a slight modification of Socrates’ arguments about piety in Plato’s “Euthyphro.”

    There’s a lot to say about this, but here’s the problem in a nutshell. If goodness is defined by God’s will, then we can ask a question about conceptually explanatory priority: are things good because God wills them (i.e., wills that they be done), or does God will certain things because those things are good? If it’s the latter, then goodness is defined independently of God’s will. So, grasping and successfully employing the concept doesn’t require any belief in God.

    If it’s the former, then we have to deal with some counterintuitive consequences. The most morally repugnant things we can imagine could turn out to be morally right. (I’ll leave examples to your vivid imagination.) If God were to will some such intuitively immoral action, then it would actually be morally right to do that thing. But most people (including most Christians) have a hard time actually endorsing the implications of that position. (That’s why Christians rightly struggle so much with the divinely commanded genocides in Joshua, for example, or with charismatic political or religious leaders who claim God told them to do awful thing X.) There are other counterintuitive implications, but I’ll leave it there for now. The bottom line is that intuitively false consequences of this horn of the dilemma lead most Christian philosophers to conclude (rightly, I think) that it too is false.

    In sum: if God wills certain actions because they are good, then God is in effect appealing to a non-theist theory of goodness. On the other hand, actions can’t be good solely in virtue of God’s willing them, since God could will immoral actions. Thus, the divine command theory is false.

    (There are, of course, several standard responses to this argument, and good criticisms of them, if you’re interested.)

    That leads us to believe that ‘good’ must mean something else. The four most popular theories, among professional ethicists, are some versions of utilitarianism, deontology, contractarianism, and virtue ethics. I’d gladly explain any of those in more detail if you’re interested, but the point is that none of them require the existence of or belief in God (even though some of their proponents were theists).



  4. I would be interested to know the basis of “good” for atheists who speak of it. If there is no ground of reality outside the natural order what measure is there of goodness? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say “beneficial” or “what I prefer”, so as to reference something material?

    When I think of this question I think of Agent Smith in the film “The Matrix”. He reclassifies humans as a virus since mammals find equilibrium with their environment. Humans just consume and spread. In a strictly materialist view of the world, what response is there to this logic? Can a virus be good or bad? I guess this is why E.O. Wilson has recently said the earth would flourish if humans disappeared. Would that be good? The departure of insects would catastrophic. That sounds bad.

    From a biblical view, Jesus says (and the entire Old Testament demonstrates) no one is good but God alone. His goodness is imputed to us through his sacrifice.


    1. Hi Peter-
      Thanks for jumping in. The question of the ‘ground’ or ‘measure’ of any basis for good is an interesting one, and, as mentioned, one that comes up quite a bit on Thursday evenings. Last night was no exception (at Etcetera).

      The claim to have a ‘transcendent’ measure or source of good is certainly something one can and should make as a believer. The challenge though, is that it isn’t always clear what this measure is. Is it the Ten Commandments? Is it the God of the OT? (who occasionally orders the wholesale slaughter of peoples) Is it a new ethic grounded in the NT? Is it the Sermon on the Mount? And even if we can all agree to which of these is the standard, we end up disagreeing quite a bit over its interpretation and application. Last night at Etcetera one person asserted that the Ten Commandments are the starting point for this divine ethic. Yet many who agree to this totally disagree on issues like war and abortion, despite the command: ‘do not kill’. We are creatures, and none of us is in the position of the Creator, which makes the question of grounding not a simple one (“We have it and you don’t.”). Because even “we who have” can’t agree as to what it is, or what it is saying, or how to apply it.

      As for your last point, I wonder if perhaps it is an apples and oranges sort of thing. I might prefer to think of what is imputed to us as Jesus’ righteousness, or standing before God. Which makes us blameless because of his blameless life. But this does not mean that now believers are instantly “good” or perfect examples of Jesus in how they actually live their lives. I think the discussion above is about how people actually live their lives. So in a sense there is a material, or human, level of the discussion – how do I treat my spouse, my co-workers, strangers, the planet, etc? And a spiritual level – what is my standing before God?

      It turns out that on the human level, Christians are by no means the examplars, though they can be. But we all know Christians who, at least professedly, have “Christ’s goodness” (again, I prefer righteousness), but who neither live nor look anything like Christ. And we also probably all know some people of other faiths or of no faith, who actually look quite a bit more like Jesus.

      So on one level, I agree with you (and Jesus) – no one is good but God alone. And there is great hope that my standing before God is not dependent on my efforts, but on Christ. But in my standing before people, in a pluralistic society, I will probably be measured less on my faith claims and more on how I live my life (as others can experience and measure it). It is not clearly evident to me that Christians are automatically ‘better’. (though we might wish it were so!)


  5. My husband and I were just having this very conversation earlier today! Ahh. I love synchronicity! After much talking and thinking and referencing we came to the conclusion that…. we don’t know. LOL. For the most part, though, we both agreed that the Bible talks a great deal about God = love so people that show love in their lives must have some connection to God. And also, the Bible talks of “good fruit” being peace, patience, kindness… etc. And certainly it’s possible for non-believers to exhibit those qualities. So I guess he and I are inclined to agree with you that you can be good and not believe in Heaven. However, schildand10 has a point too, with Hebrews 11:6. So…. I guess I’m no help at all! hahahaha


  6. First of all, I want to say that I appreciate that your article is concise and to the point, the way that a good blog post should be.

    Now, to defend my statement that “you cannot live a good life if you do not believe in God’s promises.”

    The reason I would say such a thing is that I believe that a person cannot behave appropriately unless they believe in the One True God’s correct application of Cosmic Justice. They must know that everyone will be rewarded for good, and punished for evil. Otherwise they will be tempted to do the things they think they can get away with. That’s just human nature.

    You can believe in a false God and still think that you are rewarded for good/punished for evil, but this is not good enough. Your definition of good and evil will be wrong because you believe in a man-made deity.

    The Bible puts it this way:

    “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6 NIV)

    Anyway, that’s my side. I don’t expect you to agree with it, but that’s just what I believe.


  7. thank you so much, i’ll recommend it to my best friend immediately, he always talks to me and says that heaven is unreal, and we have an interesting bet that when we are dead if we can see heaven, i’m the winner. again thank you for this post.


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