Can we be good without God?

Chuck Colson
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Posted: Apr 26, 2003 12:00 AM
"Why can’t we be good without God?" J. Budziszewski, professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas, says that his students ask this question frequently. They’re okay with rules like "Thou shalt not steal," but they’re uncomfortable with rules like "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." They want to be good by their own power and according to their own definitions of goodness—not by God’s grace or according to His definition of goodness.

Needless to say, students aren’t the only people who think this way. The attitude is deeply ingrained in almost all of our society’s opinion-forming institutions—universities, the media, courts, and the professions. In his fascinating new book, What We Can’t Not Know, J. Budziszewski explains why we cannot be good without God—why godless morality always fails.

One reason is that the first thing a person sees in the moral law is how far short he falls. We can’t escape the awareness of a debt we owe that exceeds anything we can pay. Now Christians know that on the cross, the debt has been paid. But in a secular worldview, there is no divine payment of the debt. What’s the result? People try not to think about their debt. And to avoid thinking about it, they refuse to look at the moral law; instead they make up their own, less demanding standards. It is called self-rationalization, something I know all about from my life before my conversion.

Godless morality is futile for another reason: Have you ever heard the saying, "Do the right thing, and let God take care of the consequences"? Christians can say this because we know that God is sovereign. But without faith in God, the saying makes no sense. Without God, we try to make up for adverse consequences ourselves, and we will end up, more often than not, "doing evil, so that good will result." This is the root from which the utilitarianism of Peter Singer and others springs.

Yet another reason morality needs God is that apart from Him, morality itself loses meaning. In yesterday’s BreakPoint I explained that we can learn about how to live from the way that God designed us. But without God, we can’t think of ourselves as designed at all. In fact, the evolutionist says that "man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have us in mind." If this process had gone a bit differently, we would have had a different nature. With that nature, perhaps instead of caring for our children, we might be disposed to eat them the way guppies do. Why not? If morality is an accident of evolution, who can say that this would be wrong? Without God, we have no reason to take any morality seriously.

So the answer is, no. We can’t be good without God. Oh, sure, you can do good things, but not consistently. The fact is that we cannot even define what goodness is without God. J. Budziszewski’s new book, What We Can’t Not Know, is an excellent resource for understanding the situation we are in and the Christian arguments for a morality rooted in faith. It’s a study that will strengthen your Christian worldview and help you to explain the basis of morality and the need for God to your neighbors.


For further reading:

George Gaylord Simpson, The Meaning of Evolution, rev. ed. (Yale University Press, 1967), 344-45.

J. Budziszewski, What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide (Spence, 2003).

J. Budziszewski, "‘Little Platoons’: God’s Design for Our Relationships," BreakPoint WorldView magazine, March 2003.

Read Dr. Budziszewski’s columns at Boundless.

Marcia Segelstein, "Tolerating Obedience: Doing Right for the Right Reasons," BreakPoint Online, April 10, 2003.

Roberto Rivera, "Levity: Holy Week Reflections on Forgiveness and Grace," BreakPoint Online, April 16, 2003.

BreakPoint Commentary No. 030424, "It’s All in the Design: The Creational Pattern for Human Life."

BreakPoint Commentary No. 021001, "‘In the Beginning Were the Particles’: The Unacknowledged Creation Story."

BreakPoint Commentary No. 020401, "Faith Seeks to Understand: Theology and Worldview."

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