Can Atheists Be Good People?

After one of our often spirited debates, a certain relative by marriage asked me to write an article on how someone can be a good person regardless of their faith, or lack thereof. As an agnostic with atheistic leanings I believe he, like many folks today, feel that they are good people. And by the world’s standard of what is good, he is correct.

As I pondered covering such a topic, I was rather loathe to do so, having had my own heart revealed to me in the light of God’s glory. I’m fully persuaded that every person on earth is quite flawed. However, after checking with the big boss upstairs, He’s disclosed the door to enlightenment which such a discussion can present.

As humans it would be quite offensive to say, “You are not a good person”. It goes against what we believe. And of course the prospect that we are not good people is repulsive. It just down right makes us feel bad. In fact if you tell a person they are not good, their response might reveal the truth of the statement.

I don’t like to see Christians acting unwisely and unkindly towards those who disagree with them. It is necessary for me to acknowledge that atheists and agnostics can be very nice people, charitable, and have a good sense of morality. There is no denying mankind’s capacity for doing good works separate from a belief and trust in God. That is a result of an innate awareness of good and evil (God consciousness), an inherent knowledge of good and evil which mankind received in the Garden of Eden. But to me that’s never really been an issue. By my fleshly perceptions atheists can be very good people.

Christians are not better than non-Christians based on their own merit. We understand that we are in need of God’s grace like all other people. But God views those who are saved differently than those who are not. Because the righteousness of Christ covers the redeemed. Note that it’s Jesus’ righteousness that makes me good in God’s eyes. Yet God loves all people regardless of their lack of faith. Christ died for my sins before I even committed them. Faith in and obedience to the Lord has to do with the restoration of mankind’s relationship with God, not His love for mankind. God loves you very much! But He must remain true to His nature of holiness and justice, because He is the epitome of good.

I do believe that a Christian’s motivation to do what is good becomes greater because of their love for God. They receive joy by pleasing Him. Their capacity for goodness is aided by the power of God sanctifying the individual. Therefore the Christian has a distinct advantage over the non-Christian for doing good, because they are following the one who is perfectly good. I do however, feel that when a non-believer comes to faith in Christ, that their capacity for love, and ability to perform good works becomes exponentially greater than before. They would then have the capability to be a better person than they ever thought possible. This, due to the enlightenment they’d receive by contrasting their goodness with that of the pure holiness they’d see in God. But mostly by the empowerment of the Holy Spirit who would then dwell within them. We must remember, it is God’s power at work within believers that makes them different. Therefore no Christian can boast of being good and doing good. It is God who does it.

However, let’s look at the difficulty with our perceptions of goodness from an earthly viewpoint.

Though I’m only five foot eight, God has blessed me with a great deal of physical strength. Pound for pound, I felt as though I was one of the strongest men around. Back then, my schedule allowed me to hit the gym in the middle of the day on weekdays. It was the time of day when the place was sparsely populated. Then I started coming in on Saturdays too, and the place would be packed. Making some friends, I found several guys who all weighed the same as me (within about five pounds). Was I ever in for an education!

A lot of them were stronger than me—most by just a little. But Jack was extraordinary. My eyes must have been bugging out of my head when I first witnessed his strength. After each three repetition set on the bench press, he jumped up and added two more forty-five pound plates, clanging the steel disks together. On his last set, he pressed five hundred fifty pounds for eight repetitions! Back then my one rep maximum was about 300 pounds.On every exercise, including dead lifts, squats and curls, he could lift twice the amount that I could lift. And do more repetitions.

Compared to Jack I was not very strong at all, and he was the same size as me. What amazed me even more was what he said.

“I’m not very strong compared to some other guys I know. They’re about the same size as us, and they can put me to shame!”

I went home a humbled man that day.

But this story as an analogy can’t hold a candle to the vast expanse between the goodness of homo-sapiens and the perfect paradigm of God’s goodness. The best person in the world pales in contrast with God’s purity and holiness.

It’s not all that difficult to be good enough for the world. The world’s standard is much lower than God’s standard. I think we’ve all heard, “Nobody’s perfect”. There’s lots of faithless humanitarians and do-gooders out there who spend themselves for the sake of others. And they accomplish countless good things. Only an idiot would say that you have to have faith to do good things and be considered a good person by the rest of the world. But that’s only the physical or natural world, which many times cannot even perceive its own corruption. Yes deeply egregious evils we recognize, but to God, the slightest flaw is egregious, because it introduces impurity.

Though housed in a physical body we are also spiritual beings, we do not cease to exist once fleshly life ends. God will hold us up in comparison to His righteousness. If there is the slightest flaw in us, then we are not fit to be in His holy presence. That’s why we need a Savior. As a Christian, I believe God when He says to trust in Christ Jesus alone to make me fit to be in His presence.

There is not a perfect person on earth. And if we are not perfect then we won’t make the cut. All the good works in the world won’t make a shred of difference in our admittance to eternal life in God’s loving presence. The kindest, the nicest and the most loving person on earth is not good enough. There is no way to earn salvation. The only escape from God’s wrath against sin is the way He has provided for us. It is by faith in the sacrifice He has made of His Son Jesus, to pay our fine for us.

God’s law states that the penalty for sin (being less than perfect) is death. But God can legally dismiss our case because He’s paid the penalty in our behalf.

“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)

Notice the severity of God’s judgment. Directly followed by His loving provision to negate the harshness of such judgment.

The escape from being judged by the standard of His perfection is a gift. It is received by accepting His gift in faith that God will honor His word. He then imputes the righteousness of His Son Jesus to us. In a sense, we borrow Christ’s perfection to gain acceptance. When our Savior returns He shall complete and perfect us so that we may dwell with Him forever.

By God’s standard none of us are good. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” (Romans 3:23) Yet, He wants to be with us, because He is a God not only of law and justice, but also of mercy and love.

The next verse (24) completes the sentence of Romans 3:23, and reveals the other side of God’s nature.

“(23) For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, (24) and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”

He has redeemed us from the death penalty that is upon all people. And because none are perfect by God’s standard, His love demanded He provide a way to save us. Then, when Christ returns, the redeemed will receive a new spiritual body, an eternal body which is no longer prone to sin and imperfection. We will be truly good as God created us in the first place, before disobedience, or sin entered the picture. Perfect and good—God’s kind of good.

By all means, to the best of your ability, continue to be good and to do what is good. Be a nice person and a kind, charitable and loving person. But don’t depend on your own goodness to save your soul from damnation. Accept the gift.

The more a person comes to discern spiritual truth the more they realize how far off the mark they actually are. Each year, God progressively reveals more things in me that need to change, as I strive for His standard of perfection.

I’d like to say I’m a good man. But I cannot do so in good conscience, because I know God.

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.” (Mark 10:18)

 

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