Do You Need God to Be Good?

During my time as a Christian, it wasn’t uncommon to come across the argument that God must be real because apart from God as a transcendent and absolute source of moral truth, the only alternative is nihilism — nothing truly matters because all will fade away to death and entropy. Various apologists I was familiar with considered this argument of morality to be the best argument for God’s existence. And… fair enough.

But what does that imply?

Would Christians who believed that argument become murderous rapists in the absence of their belief in God?

Well, no. At least I didn’t, and I bought into that argument pretty thoroughly for a good chunk of my Christian days.

Morals and “goodness” will always be something that is argued over. We tend to allow those things to be defined by what suits society best, which of course can have unfortunate consequences — at one point, after all, slavery suited society well enough to continue for several generations.

History will always judge our morality, and as well they should, but it falls to every generation to figure out what works best for them. Yes, that means morality is subjective, which I get is an uncomfortable thought if you find solace in the moral absolutes of the Bible.

Yet… Were biblical morals absolute? One has to wonder, in light of things like Matthew 5:38–39, in which Jesus quotes the Old Testament “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” and then advocates for instead turning the other cheek. Is that not a morality changing? The “absolute” of the law’s “eye for an eye” changed by a subjective “but I say to you…”?

And how often have the morals of the churches changed over time? Indeed, how varying are they among the churches that exist today, among the Amish, the Baptists, the Catholics, the Lutherans, the so many others.

One could also consider the standards for goodness that Jesus set forth in the last several verses of Matthew 25, that of providing for the needs of those who need it most.

It doesn’t take a scholar to notice the abundance of churches in America and the consequently inexplicable numbers of unhoused, malnourished, or otherwise destitute people existing concurrently to them.

If we were to take the Bible seriously, none of us are good — and the number of problems so many people across the whole world face would seem to track with that! — but I think one of the cornerstones of goodness ought to be taking care of, standing up for, and otherwise supporting those who need it.

The refugees who feel unsafe in their homeland.

The sick who face a new, little understood disease.

The transgender teenagers struggling with the most basic question of their identity.

The Black people who know that “to serve and protect” comes with an asterisk.

And so many others.

I do not believe that we need God to be good to our fellow humans.

However, I will never stop believing that those who call themselves by God’s name have an unprecedented amount of collective power to radically transform this world for good. The amount of money and power churches wield could solve so many of the world’s problems. That those problems continue to exist despite the holy coffers, despite Matthew 25, means that even with God, the “good” seems illusive.

Decades ago, over a meal with Dad, he told me that there was a time he recalled where he was in a public space and saw an older lady fall down, but he didn’t help. He called that a sin. I didn’t appreciate that at the time. In fact, I argued against it — after all, there was no stated law in the Bible about helping those who fall down, and sin is transgression of the law. “It may have been a sin against her, but it wasn’t against God,” I said.

How little did I understand Jesus’ instructions back then.

“Such as I have give I thee…” said Peter, having no money to give, but helping nonetheless (Acts 3:6). Jesus framed “sin” and what people will be judged for by how they treat others.

How often do we drive by the beggar, averting our gaze?

How many people die alone in hospitals and nursing homes?

How many people sleep on our streets? How often do we turn a blind eye when politicians and businesses are aggressive to the unhoused, removing benches or spiking flat areas so that there is no place for them to sleep?

And you can scale this up: How much do we turn a blind eye when corporations and politicians mismanage our environment, which will inevitably lead to more droughts, more food shortages, more suffering, more war?

Believe in God. Or don’t. But suffering is all around us. It doesn’t have to be.

Go, and sin no more.

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