Good Without God?
Can you be “good” without needing a God? Think again.
by Ellsworth Johnson, Guest Blogger
It’s Christmas Day morning. A young boy bursts into the living room of his spacious suburban home, where a beautifully-decorated tree dominates its surroundings by the window. Under the tree are numerous presents bearing, among others, the child’s name. The parents who put up the tree and supplied the gifts are still comfortably asleep in bed, after spending all night preparing this wondrous setting.
The child runs to the tree and immediately begins opening his presents, ripping off wrapping paper and casting it aside. A race car! The latest video game! And finally… his own CELL PHONE!
They are good gifts. And he was a good boy all year, so of course he deserves them! After all, he wasn’t like Johnny Booker, shooting his neighbor’s dog with a BB gun and blinding it in one eye, or those older kids who regularly stole stuff from stores down at the mall.
He plays with the race car and begins to set up his phone. Nowhere in his thoughts of the moment are the parents who gave him the gifts, or that they chose to give them to him despite his ongoing tendencies to “talk back” to them, and not do his chores…
In the last decade there has been a push in the humanist/atheist community to establish a belief system where the value of morality is recognized and affirmed without having to attribute it, or anything else, to a divine Creator.
A manifesto for this way of thinking is a 2009 book by Greg Epstein, Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe. In the book, Epstein does not seek to destroy traditional religion, but instead supplant it, positing that what is “good” about humanity does not depend on faith in a divine being.
In fact, the author is a great proponent of secular humanism, the principle that humanity is capable of morality and self-fulfillment without belief in God. It specifically rejects religious dogma and supernaturalism as means of morality and decision making.
An entire ecosystem has been built to bolster this viewpoint. Like-minded authors have come alongside Epstein with supporting works of their own. A Web site, Kids Without God, seeks to steer the younger crowd away from the need to rely on anything outside of themselves.
There is even the Council for Secular Humanism, “North America’s leading organization for non-religious people” to “advocate and defend a nonreligious lifestance rooted in science, naturalistic philosophy, and humanist ethics and to serve and support adherents of that lifestance.”
The race car, given a good strong push, zips along its merry way along a flat surface. Soon, however, it comes to an incline and slows… and in fact rolls back down the way it came, almost back to where it started.
The attempt to claim life is “good without God” is similar to the above illustration with the toy car. You WILL occasionally and randomly get good pushes and zoom along for a while, but soon you’ll run out of your own power and stop, or hit a hill and roll back down. Worse, with no one all-seeing at the steering wheel, the car could easily hit a wall or go over a cliff.
Things may seem “good” for a while, in fits and starts, but that’s a pretty low standard compared to what’s available. How much better are the gifts that God gives — wisdom, discernment, comfort and guidance in times of trouble, and a peace which passes all understanding — than the perishable things we receive from this world?
Maybe it should be called “life has been OK so far, and doesn’t hurt too badly for me to complain, without God.” And if that’s good enough for you, enjoy that life for all it’s worth, because what comes afterward is guaranteed to be decidedly less pleasant.
The difference is that, with God, you are not limited to your own power, or the fickle vagaries of those in your sphere, but instead can depend on the inexhaustible resources of the Creator of the universe. Through Him, you keep getting pushed along by that mighty hand when you run low on momentum:
“But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.”
Now, in your own travels through this world, you’ll have to trust Him to take the wheel of your car and drive where you need (but not always want) to go, often not an easy thing for many of us to do. You will encounter some rough roads, sometimes travel by night and occasionally take some long detours, but the ultimate end of the journey is guaranteed to make that leap of faith worthwhile.
How much better than the “OK without God” life, then, would it be, instead of rolling back downhill, or getting out and pushing the car yourself, to instead glide over the summit and down the other side with someone driving who knows where He is going, and move along as needed just fine without energy or effort from you?
Unbeknownst to the young boy, the parents in fact are awake in their bedroom, aroused by the playful noises emanating from the front of the house. Dad is angry because the boy did not wait until the entire family was up before opening the gifts, as has traditionally been done in their household.
“Not even a ‘thank you’ from that ungrateful little snot!” he mutters. He wants to get out his belt and “teach that boy some manners”, but the mother’s patience permits cooler heads to prevail.
“Let’s go talk to him,” she advises. “Give him the chance to realize the error of his ways. We’ll think of a suitable penalty later, like no playing with the new stuff for a week.”
Dad huffs, his momentary wrath subsided. He really wants to confront his son about the boy’s impatience and lack of appreciation for the gifts provided, but realizes that the message will be lost unless delivered when the time is right…
Justice and mercy are two sides of the same coin in God’s economy. The father would be justified in giving the boy a good tanning with the belt, but relents when the mother suggests a different approach, which could have more-desirable long-term effects.
In the first chapter of the book of Romans, Paul lays out God’s unimpeachable indictment against humanity in the starkest terms: man failed to acknowledge God for who He is and the good things He provided, earning us His divine wrath. He gave man over to a Godless existence, mired in his own lusts and devices, the first steps on the road to an eternity in Hell.
The only “off-ramp” from that road is found in Jesus Christ, whose death on the cross opened man’s only way back to God, by appropriating Christ’s righteousness for ourselves and, in the process, turning aside God’s well-deserved anger directed at us “while we were yet sinners”.
Just like the boy enjoying his presents, we are many times blissfully oblivious to the justifiable fury kindling elsewhere against us.
Finally, the last member of the family was awake.
“Dude!” the boy’s older sister exclaimed as she entered the living room. “You’re making enough noise to wake the dead!” Her protest landed on deaf ears as playtime continued unabated.
“I see that you couldn’t wait to open your presents,” she said sharply, rolling her eyes. She plopped down in a plush armchair near the Christmas tree and sat back, folding her legs underneath her body.
“Aren’t they incredible? I really hit the jackpot with Mom and Dad this year!”
“I’m sure they are nice, but I’m just as sure they would have loved to see your excitement as you opened your gifts.”
The comment registered for an instant, evidenced by a pause in pushing the race car around the floor, and a brief cessation of engine noises from the boy’s mouth.
“They’ll get over it,” shrugged the boy. He resumed pushing the car and making engine noises. The moment had passed.
Time to shift gears.
“You sure seem to take a lot for granted, especially on this day that we are to appreciate the things we have.”
“Oh yeah? Like what?” He did not look up when asking the question.
“Well, what about the fact that we have a nice big house? We could have a smaller one, like the Carluccis next door…”
“… or have that mansion on the hill, like Scott Hendel’s family has,” countered her brother.
“Or be living in a cardboard box on the street.” The reversal itself had been reversed, and her brother’s naked covetousness irritated her, yet something in her heart spurred her on.
“My friend Jenny, she and her family decided to forego giving each other gifts this year, and instead use the money to get stuff for other people in their lives. She decided to buy presents for her teachers at school. Her parents got stuff for their co-workers, and I think her brother surprised his basketball team with … whatever it is that basketball players like.”
The boy pondered that thought for a moment. “That was pretty nice of them. I’ll bet all those people were pretty happy to get all that stuff.”
“They were. And it made Jenny and her family feel even better to give it.”
The girl sighed. Another attempt to take flight had been allowed to fall back to earth. She had been awoken that morning not by the noise in the living room, but the need to bring her brother’s ongoing selfish behavior under repentance. So far, all her efforts had failed.
Then, finally, enduring inspiration struck.
“Remember when you tried to steal that candy down at Walmart?”
The boy hesitated for a moment. He had stopped playing with the race car and had started to configure the phone. “Yeah. That was probably wrong…”
“‘Probably’? The store clerk who caught you was pretty sure when she told Mom.”
“I could not go outside and play after school for a week,” he recalled. Then he smiled. “But that was OK: I stayed inside and played Halo on my Xbox. Even got a high score!” The boy was proud of himself.
His triumph, however, was short-lived.
“What about the second time, with Dad?”
The boy was stunned, enough so that he put down the cell phone.
“Aha!” the sister declared triumphantly. “You didn’t know I KNEW about that one, did you??? Mom told me what happened, as well as what Dad did about it.”
This was a less-sanguine memory. The boy had been with his father at a hardware store when he decided on a whim to steal a box of Junior Mints at the checkout stand. The store manager happened to be on the floor at the time and confronted the boy, who, at the manager’s behest, led him to the father. Dad was clearly embarrassed, and, the boy could tell, more than a little angry. Dad apologized to the manager, and made the boy say that he, too, was sorry.
Memories of the ride home, and the later beating, gave the boy chills. Dad didn’t say much beyond muttered threats, letting the dread of anticipation build. When they got home, Mom wasn’t there to shield him from the punishment; out came the belt and the boy got a thorough whipping.
“I had to write a letter to the manager, and deliver it in person,” recalled the boy, decidedly downcast. “I had to say that stealing is wrong, and I was sorry. It was quite embarrassing.”
“Sorry that you did it? Or sorry you got caught?”
“That I did it.” And then, in a flash, the boy became quite defensive.
“Just because you are thirteen doesn’t make you somehow better than me!”
“True, ” the girl replied pensively. “It does not. But it DOES make me ask questions, and think about things nine-year-old boys don’t.”
Embarrassed, the boy went back to playing with his car, but now in silence and with a lot less joy.
It’s true: the deep dark sins we commit in secret will all eventually come out. In fact, Jesus Himself declared this much in Luke’s gospel:
But there is nothing covered up that will not be revealed, and hidden that will not be known. Accordingly, whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in the inner rooms will be proclaimed upon the housetops.
God, of course, already knows all about our transgressions: He knew about them before they took place, and had a front-row seat when they actually occurred. It is also possible that others, unbeknownst to you, already know about them as well, tainting those relationships and coloring the judgments they make toward you, all without your knowledge.
The boy’s remorse over opening his presents early had become oppressive. What should have been a morning of delight and celebration had instead for him become burdensome and guilt-ridden. He continued tinkering with the cell phone, but his heart and mind were elsewhere.
There was no “un-ringing the bell” here: what’s done was done, and the only question worth addressing was what to do next.
“If it were me,” the sister offered, “I’d go in and throw myself on Dad’s mercy.” By now she had settled into the armchair and slung her legs over one arm, sitting sideways. “That always worked for me: admit you made a mistake, promise that you won’t do it again and that you’ll do better in the future.”
“Well, yeah, but there’s one catch.”
“I KNEW it!” he declared triumphantly. “I knew there’d be one. That sounds WAY too easy! So, what is it?” A smirk had appeared on his face, as if he had uncovered a secret hidden truth.
“You have to mean it.”
The boy snorted his disbelief.
“It’s true,” his sister continued. “He knows when you’re just saying the words. Believe me, I tried just going through the motions a couple times. I still got lashed with the belt.”
“YOU? Miss Goody-Goody got a beating?” He found this even more incredible, that his apparently angelic sister had ever done anything meriting punishment.
“Yep. That was a long time ago, before I learned that is was good to be honest when you mess up, but even better to not do bad things in the first place. Believe me, I am not perfect, by any stretch, but I do try to be better every day.”
Now the boy contemplated his own situation: if he waited for Dad to come out of the bedroom into the living room, chances were he’d be carrying a strap of leather, and not for decoration, either. On the other hand, a heartfelt pre-emptive apology just might turn aside his father’s wrath.
“Maybe I should try that. It sounds a lot less painful that Dad’s belt.”
“Yes, it does work out better most of the time. But remember, you can’t just mouth the words. When I did that, it didn’t just make him a little angrier, but also very sad. The belt hurt, to be sure, but what I remember most is the look of disappointment on his face. That stung more than the belt did.”
Tears started to well up in the boy’s eyes. “I don’t want Daddy and Mommy to be disappointed in me!”
“I’m sure they don’t want that, either. But you need to tell them the truth about what happened, that you got too excited and forgot to wait for everyone else to get up before opening your presents. They deserve a sincere apology — remember, you gotta mean it. Think you can do that?”
The boy nodded in silence.
“Come on. Let’s go wish Mom and Dad a Merry Christmas.”
With that, they set out for the master bedroom. With a knock on the closed door met by a shouted “Come in!” the children burst into the room and leaped on the bed, squeezing and snuggling in the space between their parents, just as they used to do long ago. Their bodies may now be bigger, but, inside, a part of each was still the small child who felt safe, loved and secure when curling up with Mommy and Daddy.
The business of opening the gifts without the family present was handled gracefully. Heartfelt phrases were exchanged: “Thank you.” “I’m sorry.” “We forgive you.” The parents decided upon a fair nonphysical punishment.
With that out of the way, there was nothing left to do but to enjoy the moment on the bed, together, as a family.
What It All Means
The story is an allegory developed around the situation we as Christians face when confronted with an adherent of the “Good Without God” philosophy.
The brother is the obvious (and oblivious!) sinner who thinks he’s already pretty good, at least compared to other people, and does not need additional boundaries on his behavior. The parents represent the dual nature of God, with the father holding honest indignation over his wayward child’s “me first” rush to playtime, along with the desire to inflict punishment, and the mother tempering that judgment with patience.
Stuck in the middle of all this is the sister, who is clearly somehow enlightened to there being more to life than the self-centered focus her brother has, and is trying to get him to put their situation into a larger context. Twice she fails, but does not give up, finally finding an “in” when confronting him about how his actions probably made his parents feel. In the end, she leads him into the parents’ bedroom, where he honestly confess his “sin” and asks for forgiveness, which is immediately and lovingly granted.
In short… she evangelizes him!
In the ideal, our earthly parents mirror and model God’s love for us, but also His judgment and righteous anger when warranted. In the end, it is far more preferable to “come clean” and admit our transgressions to a God who made us, already knows our weaknesses and mistakes, and stands ready to forgive us in His Son’s name.
Have you given your life over to Jesus Christ? If you have, were you genuinely sorry for the sins you committed, or did you simply make a vain confession devoid of feeling? If you have not, there is still an opportunity to turn aside the eminently justifiable anger a holy God has against you, and exchange it for forgiveness and a place in His kingdom forever.
The Rest of the Story
At that moment, in a realm far away, the Creator was, in fact, looking in on this family. He smiled, as things were progressing exactly how He had intended.
“This is how I roll!” He smiled to Himself, in ways far beyond our understanding.
Two more miracles were needed to tear the lid off this family’s godless paradigm once and for all, in a way which none of them could deny. The groundwork for each had already been laid, here and elsewhere, and in the fullness of time those happenings will point to the Source of All Things.
The Creator already knew whether and how each member of the family would eventually respond, for it had been ordained since the beginning of time.
The only thing left to do… was wait.
What is God waiting for each of us to do? Reach out to someone? Respond to Him in some way? Are there people around us who believe they are “good without God?”
Whatever it may be, we should be honored that we have been appointed to be part of His eternal plan to bring rightful glory to Himself, and share His love for His beloved children the world over.
Father, let those who believe life is “good” without You be awakened from their slumber to all which is possible with You. Open their eyes, Lord, and their hearts to You and Your endless grace, and show them unmistakably that life is indeed “better WITH God”. You have a storehouse for each of us, filled with Your gifts and mercies, only a small fraction of which is ever claimed during our lifetimes. Help us receive what You have already set aside for us. I ask in the holy and precious name of your Son Jesus. Amen.
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
” The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good.”
“The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.”
“Without Me, you can do nothing.”
“Whatever is good and perfect comes down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens. He never changes or casts a shifting shadow.”
— James 1:17 (NLT)
“I say to the LORD, ‘You are my Lord; apart from you I have no good thing.’”
Bible verses are from the New International Version (NIV) unless stated otherwise.