psychologist supporting patient during counseling indoors

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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Rick Beckman