Moral atheists remind us that Christians don’t have a monopoly on good deeds—and that’s okay.
Portlanders generally see themselves as good people. And I would not disagree. Portlanders go out of their way to do all the good they can.
Recently I was driving down a street and saw one of those Oregon Adopt-a-Highway signs. They’re everywhere here; the state budget issues have forced the state to let lots of their highways get adopted. At the bottom, the Adopt-a-Highway signs often mention some church or youth group or Cub Scout group that takes the time to clean up a given stretch of beautiful Oregon highway a couple hours once a month. That’s the one place in Oregon the state advertises religion. But sometimes it’s not just religious folks.
The sign I saw yesterday said that Multnomah County Atheists had cleaned up that stretch of highway—it was the cleanest stretch of highway I’ve ever seen. Maybe it’s because there are lots of atheists in Multnomah County, or maybe it’s that atheists are really tidy. I’m not sure. And I guess, in hindsight, I’m not all that sure why that little sign caught me off guard like it did. Maybe there’s this really ignorant part of my heart that still seems to think that Christians, of all the peoples in the world, are the only ones doing any good. But that sign proves to me that it isn’t true—you can do good and not believe in God. An atheist can care about a dirty highway just like a youth group can.
Christians in Portland have to answer a really tough question: Why are so many non-Christians doing so much good?
One of the challenges of being a Christian in Portland is that if we are honest, many non-Christians do more good than Christians often do. Christians in Portland have to answer a really tough question: Why are so many non-Christians doing so much good?
The church in Portland has had to learn that Christians are not the only ones in the world doing good. The old-school argument that there are no atheists feeding the poor is just simply not true. One does not do good only because of belief in God. People of all kinds of belief do good. And the church has had to recognize this. The church does not have a monopoly on doing good. But the truth of the matter is that doing good is not the thing that defines the church—the worship of the living God is what defines the church.
C.S. Lewis was once asked why so many atheists are such good people who do so much good. Lewis responded as only Lewis could: “Well, they have to be good, don’t they? If you don’t believe in a God who forgives, you are damned to unrelenting goodness.” When you don’t believe in God, Lewis is saying, you are not bound to doing wrong. You are often bound to doing “unrelenting goodness.” You are bound to doing good because there is nothing else. Good becomes your god. But good isn’t a god. Only God is God.
In fact, we must remember that belief in God—even perfect belief—isn’t something that will assure that one is either doing good or actually worshiping God. It may seem odd to say, but Satan has a better orthodoxy than Christians do. Satan believes in the Trinity. Satan believes Jesus is Lord. Satan acknowledges the power of the Bible—we know that because he kept quoting it to Jesus. Satan has right belief. But he didn’t worship God as God.
Right belief does not ensure that one is worshiping God, and right action, doing good, does not ensure one is worshiping either. That is why, in the end, Christianity isn’t merely about altruism. Doing good is simply not our moral imperative. In fact, it is entirely possible to desire to do good and be entirely outside the will of God. I am reminded that at times Jesus didn’t do a miracle or a feeding. I am reminded that Paul didn’t go to Bithynia in the book of Acts—a land ready for the good news of Jesus. And even when that woman sought to pour the most expensive nard on the head of Jesus, the disciples complained that it was a waste, for the money could have been given “to the poor” (Matt. 26:9). Their good intentions were wrong. Sometimes doing something that is good in our eyes is not the will of God.
I am reminded that Jesus, in the desert, was not necessarily tempted by doing bad. Rather, he was tempted to do that which, in his time, would have looked good. Satan tempted Jesus with good, admirable things. That is the nature of temptation. We can be tempted by good, or we can be tempted by evil. We can be tempted by anything. Our hearts are messed up. We long to find love in all the wrong places.
We have done a great job of replacing God with altruism. In Portland, people volunteer, run nonprofits, and fight for justice—our city has more nonprofit organizations per capita than any other city in the world. But we need to recognize that we can turn even something good like altruism or justice into an idol that replaces God. We aren’t called to worship doing good or seeking justice—rather, we are called to worship God above all. One can even worship justice over the God of justice. One can worship doing good over the God who is good. That is incredibly interesting to think about, isn’t it?
We aren’t called to worship doing good or seeking justice—rather, we are called to worship God above all.
Now I’m not suggesting that doing good deeds doesn’t matter. After all when Jesus was on earth he went around healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and loving outcasts. And, as his followers, when we see non-believers doing more good than we do, it should prompt us to examine how well we’re living out our faith. But doing good isn’t everything.
In fact I have come to find that the idol of perceived goodness is one of the most challenging ones to overcome in sharing the good news of Jesus. Like the rich young ruler who comes to Jesus thinking he has done everything right and perfect, confessing he believes he “lacks” nothing. It is in thinking we “lack” nothing that we lack everything. But people’s perception of their own inherent “goodness” is going to be a problem if they are interested in Christianity, because Christianity doesn’t dance around the concept of “sin.”
I would even suggest that our own ideas about how “healthy” we may be become the very “sickness” that we are blind to. Jesus said he came for the sick, not the healthy (Luke 5:31). That doesn’t mean that Jesus believed there were sick people and healthy people—rather, it means there are the sick and the terminally sick who buy into the lie that they’re actually healthy.
If this is true—that we all worship something—then everyone is a believer . . . in something. In reality, atheists are some of the most religious people in the world. Madeleine L’Engle, the literary genius, hits the nail on the head:
It has often struck me with awe that some of the most religious people I know have been, on the surface, atheists. Atheism is a particular state of mind; you cannot deny the existence of that which does not exist. I cannot say, ‘That chair is not there,’ if there is no chair there to say it about.
L’Engle’s point was that atheism is faith based, not reason based. I think there is something to be said about that. Everyone believes in something or someone—the whole world is a faith community, not just the people who go to church.
This article is adapted from The Dusty Ones: Why Wandering Deepens Your Faith by A.J. Swoboda, (Baker Books, 2016). Used by permission.