“How can people be good without knowing God?” It’s a surprisingly common apologetic gambit, but I think it’s time that we put that canard to rest.
It sounds like a theological question, but I don’t think it is. If it were a theological question, it could be dealt with in theological terms: in fact, there’s an answer right there in the Bible. How can people be good without knowing God? “For whenever the Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature the things required by the law, these who do not have the law are a law to themselves. They show that the work of the law is written in their hearts, as their conscience bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or else defend them.” Next question.
But it’s not a theological question. It’s a statement phrased as a question—I can’t think of a way that people can be good if they don’t know God—and that’s more of a statement about worldview than it is about theology. Specifically, it’s an admission of a failure to understand how non-Christians tick.
You won’t hear this question in places where Christians are a small minority. This is because in those places, Christians know enough non-Christians, meet them and interact with them on a daily basis, to know full well that non-Christians are capable of doing good without God. They work with them. They live with them. They marry them. They’re perfectly aware that non-Christians are not all horrendous evildoers who would be killing and raping if they knew they could get away with it. Here in Japan, let’s face it, the majority of people are nice, kind, considerate and honest. How can people be good without knowing God? Who cares—they are, so your argument is invalid.
So it’s really only in those situations where Christians have enough critical mass to form a self-contained echo chamber that such questions arise. People form their Christian communities, spend most of their time with Christian friends, eventually lose contact with the non-Christian worldview. At this point they fail to understand how people work, and so need to invent just-so stories to explain other people’s behavior from inside their own worldview.
In other words, what looks like an apologetic argument is actually the result of failing to interact evangelistically on a meaningful basis. Pretty ironic, huh?
And it’s not just about morality. There are a whole bunch of falsehoods that Christians tell each other about non-Christians.
One of the best sessions that I went to at a New Wine conference many years ago was run by an evangelist working within universities. I can’t remember who it was, because it was a long time ago now, but there are a lot of advantages to being an evangelist; you get to spend the majority of your time with non-Christians, who can often be more considerate and more pleasant to be around than many Christians can.
And because you spend the majority of time with non-Christians, you can’t so easy make sloppy assumptions about their worldview. The conference session ran through a few of the things that Christians think: that non-Christians are plagued by feelings of guilt, emptiness and incompleteness; that they are continually aware of their own sin and subconsciously seeking a solution to it; that they feel a “God-shaped hole” in their life; that if they appear to be happy, it’s only at a surface level in which they’ve managed to shut out their deeper feelings; and so on.
For any non-Christians reading, this is pretty common currency within the Evangelical world, because that’s what that worldview implies. But it’s clearly not true—and, you can argue, rather insulting too—and the evangelist patiently explained to us that it’s not true, and you are unlikely to make any headway in evangelism if you start with untrue assumptions about the feelings of the person you’re talking to. So these falsehoods may make us feel better about our own salvation, but they’re actively harmful when it comes to interacting with the rest of the world.
And yet, of course, it’s not just us. Any group which prefers its own company, preferences its own discourse and worldview over everyone else’s, and ends up only talking to itself about the rest of the world tends to make sloppy assumptions about how the rest of that world works. So if you ever hear a bunch of atheists complaining that all Christians just uncritically accept whatever they’re taught about their own personal Sky Fairy, you can say, yeah, I’ve seen that line of argument before.Subject tags: theologyevangelicalism