Can’t We Just Be Good Without God?

Excerpted From
10 Questions Every Teen Should Ask (and Answer) About Christianity
By Rebecca McLaughlin

In a comic scene in the film Wreck-It Ralph, Ralph attends a support group for bad characters. Ralph is a gentle giant, who plays the villain in the Fix-It Felix video game. For years, the villains from the other arcade games have been inviting Ralph to join their group. But Ralph hasn’t joined. Unlike them, he doesn’t want to be a bad guy. He wants to be good. But he’s stuck with the bad-guy role in his game. At the end of the support group meeting, the villains stand up, join hands, and chant “the bad guy affirmation”:

I’m bad, and that’s good.
I will never be good, and that’s not bad.
There’s no one I’d rather be than me.

The chant is funny because it’s ridiculous! But it also raises some important questions: What is the difference between good and evil? Who gets to decide? Is there even such a thing as good and evil, or do we all just get to decide for ourselves?

Wait a minute! You might say. Surely everyone knows the difference between good and evil. Whether we are Christian or Muslim or Hindu or atheist, we can all agree on the basics. Good is treating everyone as equal, caring for the people who are suffering, loving people who are different from us, and not hurting anyone. Bad is things like racism, bullying, starting wars, and killing babies. Easy!

We think all this is obvious. But if we rewind time to when Jesus was born, we find that it’s not so simple.

Back to Ancient Rome

When Jesus was born, there were no movie theaters. Instead, there were amphitheaters—massive, open-air buildings, like football stadiums, where thousands of people went to watch shows. Some of the most popular shows involved gladiators fighting each other. The audience loved watching, just like people love watching football games or action movies today. But in the gladiatorial contest, people actually died.

Imagine how you’d feel if you went to a football game and someone actually died? Officials would stop the game at once. You might never want to see a football game again. But in Jesus’s time, people went to shows like this because they wanted to see people die. They thought it was fun. The people who died were usually slaves or prisoners of war, so no one cared enough about them to feel sad. At that time, people didn’t think that all human lives were precious. People cared about their family and friends and those like them. But slaves or prisoners or people of other nationalities weren’t their people, so they could enjoy watching them die, like you might enjoy watching a battle in an action film.

At that time too, people generally agreed that men were more important than women, that slavery was just fine, and that children and babies were property rather than precious people. If you had a baby you didn’t want—especially if the baby was a girl or had a disability—it was okay just to leave the baby outside somewhere to die. No one would think you were a bad person for doing that. Someone else might find the baby and bring her up as a slave, or else the baby would just die. There were no laws against such practices. Babies were property, so you could throw them out if you liked.

It wasn’t that people at that time didn’t care about good and evil. The ancient Romans had moral rules. For example, they valued honor, bravery in battle, and loyalty to Rome. But their rules were different from ours because their beliefs were different. If you look at the history of how we came to believe that it’s not okay to enjoy watching innocent people getting killed, or that men and women are equally valuable, or that poor people should be cared for, or that it’s not okay to leave a baby outside to die, the answer is one person: Jesus.

Jesus Made All Lives Count

When parents brought babies and little kids to Jesus, his disciples told them to go away. They thought Jesus was too important to bother with babies. But Jesus told his disciples off. He took the babies in his arms and blessed them. In fact, he said that if any- one didn’t have faith like a little child, they couldn’t enter God’s kingdom (Matthew 19:13–15; Mark 10:13–16; Luke 18:15–17). Babies and children mattered to Jesus.

In Jesus’s day, people who had a disease called leprosy were forced to live away from everyone else because it was a terrible sickness and was thought to be highly contagious. You’d never touch someone with leprosy, because you might get sick yourself. But Jesus touched people with leprosy and healed them (Matthew 8:1–4). Sick people and outcasts mattered to Jesus.

Jesus was Jewish, and Jewish people in Jesus’s day hated Samaritans. But Jesus shocked his hearers by telling a story where a Samaritan was the moral hero (Luke 10:25–37) and Jesus made friends with a Samaritan woman, who ended up telling all her Samaritan friends about him (John 4:1–42). People of different races and cultures mattered to Jesus.

Time and again, Jesus looked out for the people no one else bothered with: sick people, poor people, people of different races, women, children, people others thought were too sinful to be loved by God. He cared for them and welcomed them. And he taught his followers to do the same. This is why Christians were the first people to invent hospitals, where poor people who got sick could be cared for. This is why Christians started picking up the babies other people had abandoned and taking care of them. This is why Christians started looking after not only other Christians who were poor, but also poor people who were not Christians. The fourth century Roman emperor Julian wrote a letter complaining about this, because it was making the people who followed the Roman gods look bad! But the gods in Roman religious stories didn’t care about the poor, so it wasn’t surprising if their followers didn’t either.

Even today, the reason we think it’s wrong to kill babies or hate people from other racial backgrounds or fail to take care of sick people and poor people is not because it’s obvious. It’s because of Jesus. Our ideas of good and bad have been deeply shaped by his teaching. And if we cut Jesus out of the picture, we stop having proper reasons to believe these things.

In a book called Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, British historian Tom Holland shows from history that our beliefs about right and wrong and the equal value of all humans came to us from Christianity. But Holland is not the only non-Christian historian to make this point. In 2014, a historian called Yuval Noah Harari published a best selling book called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. In it, he says that the idea that human beings are equally morally valuable and that there are such things as “human rights”—basic protections that every human being is entitled to—is just a fiction made up by Christianity. Speaking as someone who doesn’t believe in God, Harari says human beings have “no natural rights, just as spiders, hyenas, and chimpanzees have no natural rights.”

If Christianity isn’t true and there isn’t a God who made us in his image and told us to love our neighbors as ourselves, then Harari is correct: we have no basis for believing that all humans are equally precious and that we should protect their human rights. We have no basis for saying racism is wrong. We have no basis for saying babies shouldn’t be left outside to die. If there is no God, these things are just our preferences and opinions. They’re not universal truths to which everyone must agree.

You may have watched cartoons when you were younger, where a character runs off a cliff so fast that he keeps on running even though there isn’t any ground beneath his feet. Then, suddenly, he realizes the ground is gone. You see the look of panic on his face and then he falls. That’s a bit like what we’re doing if we still believe in human rights without believing in Jesus. The ground has gone from underneath our feet.

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