My friend Edgar asked for my opinion on some questions from some of his Sunday School students. I get the same sorts of questions from adults as well. My goal is to provide some brief, concrete answers.
First, I think it is important to have a game plan with questions like this. Whether answering a skeptic or equipping a believer to answer the skeptic, my goal is always to give clear, thoughtful answers that address the question and then point to the word of God as quickly as possible. When in doubt, I’d rather someone read the Bible than listen to me. God’s word made many promises* about what it will accomplish but contains no such promises about anything I say.
I highly recommend reading Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions to learn how to navigate conversations like these (only $2.99 for the Kindle edition — you can’t afford not to buy it!). The burden isn’t all on you, and the conversations don’t have to be hostile. There are many ways to ask polite questions to get people thinking more carefully and to highlight their errors.
Here is the first question:
What do I say to an atheist friend when he says he can be good without God?
This is a classic question. Remember that we know the truth about atheists: Romans 1:18–20 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
So you can approach the conversation with the confidence that deep down they know the truth. They can’t go three sentences without making moral claims that assume an objective morality — that is, that some things are always wrong — e.g., torturing babies for fun. Side note: Sometimes atheists will rationalize that some things are acceptable for perpetuating the species (rape, abortion, etc.), but you can eliminate those arguments by adding “for fun” to the deed in question. Everyone knows those are wrong — or if they don’t, you should probably leave the room for your own safety!
One of the techniques from the Tactics book is to ask questions such as, “What do you mean by that?” So in this case you could ask the person what he means by “good.” That puts the burden on him to define the terms, and he is likely to tip his hand by pointing to some universal moral truths. After all, if there is no God, then the universe came from nothing, life came from non-life and it evolved to everything we see today. Therefore, there is no ultimate meaning or accountability in life. If you steal from or kill your neighbor that wouldn’t be immoral. Why should you care if he thinks it is immoral? He just evolved to think that way, but you obviously would have evolved differently. Sound bites about “human flourishing” or the like just assume that human flourishing is a moral good. But they have to prove that, and simply coming up with a new phrase assumes what they should be proving.
You could tell him that technically he could do some good thing without God, but he would have no grounding to say the act was truly good. If Darwinian evolution was true, then real morality is a fiction invented by these random chemical reactions in our brains. He may think something is “good” but there would be no logical grounding for it.
You can also point out that the existence of evil is proof of God’s existence, not the opposite. Remind them that all sins against an eternal and holy God will be judged perfectly and that they can pay the penalty for their sins themselves for eternity or they can trust in Jesus’ sacrifice on their behalf.
You can also remind them of how they won’t be judged based on how their best traits compare to their neighbor’s worst traits. Every one of their thoughts, words and deeds will be judged on the standard of Jesus — Romans 2:15-16 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
Remember that if people are sincere in their questions and aren’t just using them as excuses to justify their rebellion against God then it is completely legitimate to let them do some of their own homework, such as reading a book like Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. If they don’t want to do more work or read the Bible, it may be pearls-before-swine time and you should obey Jesus’ command to move on. Pray for them and perhaps God will make them spiritually alive in the future. You will have done your work as an ambassador and an apologist (defender of the faith):
2 Corinthians 5:20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.
1 Peter 3:15–16 (ESV) but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.
Summary: Can people be good without God? Technically, they can do some good things but they can’t explain how they would qualify as truly good in a godless universe. And in a more meaningful sense, they aren’t good at all. They need Jesus.
Romans 3:9 For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, 10 as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; 11 no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” 13 “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” 14 “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” 15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 in their paths are ruin and misery, 17 and the way of peace they have not known.” 18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” 19 Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
* Hebrews 4:12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
Isaiah 55:10 “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.