Ligon Duncan on the Non-Negotiables of the Gospel

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  • Tuesday, October 20, 2009

    Good Without God??? (Christian Response to New York City Atheist Advertising Campaign)

    Most have heard of the advertising campaign "Good Without God" associated with the Coalition of Reason and the new book by William Morrow to be released on Oct. 27 by William Morrow; but let's consider the Question: "Are a Million New Yorkers Good Without God" and "Are You?"

    1. Claims of "Goodness Without God" must depend on some definition and standard of goodness. The question is: What is that definition and upon what standard is it based?

    If goodness is defined and the standard is dependent simply upon social norms and expectations, then perhaps some people can be "Good Without God". Several factors could contribute to this goodness including (a) the fact that if man determines the standard, then man can simply lower the requirements and marginalize goodness(b) goodness could be achieved through relative comparison, (c) or goodness could be attained based on subjective evaluation or limited scope of evaluation.

    However, if goodness is not relative or subjective but in keeping with moral absolutes which transcend individuals, societies and generations, and involve scrutiny which extends beyond the surface and superficial and includes distinctions in regard to such things as motive, objective evaluation, and moral uprightness and consistency in all things and at all times in all circumstances, etc., then I suppose the assertion that "one Million New Yorkers are good without God" might be more of a stretch if not delusion.

    For more reading and evaluation, read the requirements of the Second Table of the Ten Commandments in the Westminster Larger Catechism (Q's 122-149) and then ask yourself again whether one million New Yorkers - or whether you yourself - are good without God.

    2. Claims of "Goodness without God" deny the inherent nature. Are we to suppose that man has more than one nature or that man (through evolution, mind control, etc.) can overcome his nature himself? If man is found to do things such as lie, cheat, steal, etc., then where does such things originate from if not a sinful nature? If man possessess a sinful nature, then isn't it a little overinflated or misguided to believe that man can be good without God?

    3. Claims of "Goodness without God" also deny man's ability. Proof is found in the multitude of testimonies of those who attempt to perfectly keep the law of God and yet admit they cannot do so (even the requirements found in the second table of the law which the majority of unbelievers would agree upon). I find that claims of "Goodness without God" often would include giving people a "pass" on many things under the rubric that "we are not perfect and everyone makes mistakes" (something which in itself refutes the premise) and yet the ones who make such claims may not be as lenient if and when they find themselves to be the objects of not just the lack of goodness but intended and outright lawlessness and evil perpetrated by others.

    4. Finally, claims of "Goodness without God" deny the very foundations and obligations that result in the meaning and requirement of goodness. For example, if man is the determiner of goodness, then cannot man violate the principle set forth by humanity? Even if one claims the majority determines morality, who is to say the majority is right or that the majority's authority is right? What happens when the majority flipflops on what it deems right? What then? And if one argues that morality is innate within human beings, then where did that morality come from? Are we to believe that morality originated by chance, or by matter, etc.?

    I thank the New York Atheists for raising this issue, for their doing so not only shows their lack of thought into such things and lack of foundations in such matters, but provides a great opportunity for communicating the truth of the gospel, that even the testimony of all men (including atheists) points to the fact that goodness and righteousness is a legitimate requirement upon our lives that we all acknowledge. The ultimate question though is how does man attain it? Is it by lowering the standard, making it relative, denying the absolute nature of the law, covering up our failures, limiting evaluation to just surface issues, etc., or do we look outside of ourselves to God's offer of both pardon and provision which comes through Christ's atoning sacrifice and the renewal and empowerment that comes through the Holy Spirit? Experience shows that those who look to their own goodness and righteousness will never be satisfied (especially under the light, for the closer one gets to the light, the greater the dirtiness is discovered to be); however, those who rest in the Lord's goodness and gift and are filled with the living waters of his Spirit which both fill and overflow are raised to both newness of life and not only live according to the truth but participate in the graces and goodness of God himself.


    swordbearer said...

    A friend sent me this post from J.C. Philpot today which goes along with the post and will be edifying for readers.

    "Growth is the sure mark of life. We see this in vegetation, in the animal creation, in the growth of our own bodies, and of every other thing in which there is life. Where, then, there is the life of God in the soul, there will be a growth in that life. Paul says to the Thessalonian Church--"We are bound to thank God always for you, brethren, as it is fit, because your faith grows exceedingly" (2 Thess. 1:3); and Peter says, "But grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." There is "an increasing in the knowledge of God" (Col. 1:10), and "a coming in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Eph. 4:13). It was for this increasing knowledge of the Son of God that Paul stretched every desire of his soul when he followed after, if that he might apprehend that for which also he was apprehended of Christ Jesus; and thus reaching forth unto those things which were before, he pressed toward the mark, for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:12-14).
    This is not what is called 'progressive sanctification', as if the flesh got holier and holier, for that is still ever "the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts;" but this is a growth of that "new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness." After this growth in grace, this closer conformity to the image of Christ, should we ever be striving with all the powers of our soul; not satisfied with a low and lean state before God, but with unceasing prayer and supplication, begging of the Lord that we might be "filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding, that we might walk worthy of the Lord, unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God" (Colossians 1:9, 10)."

    Skeptimal said...

    I think it's safe to say that you're not the target audience for the atheist billboards. The fact of the matter is that there are millions of Americans who feel that they are alone because they don't believe in gods. The signs are intended to let them know there are others like them.

    All people (but sociopaths) love, laugh, show generosity and compassion, and empathize with the suffering of others. You don't have to believe in gods to share those "good" things.

    Don't mistake me: I know that you believe that any goodness apart from the saving grace of Jesus is either fleeting or an illusion. I'm just saying that (not all of) the atheist billboards are meant as an attack on religion.

    Now, I'll just sit back and see how you twist what I've said into something sinister.

    swordbearer said...


    I agree with you (as I've read) that a portion of the intent of the billboards is to reach out to those who do not believe in gods and let them know they are not alone (and perhaps even to draw them out, embolden them, etc.)

    At the same time, the message they chose to use was not free of truth claims (i.e., they didn't just say: Hey, you're not alone if you don't believe in gods... instead they chose to use statements which challenge and oppose historically accepted cultural belief which not only is equated with but espoused by Christianity.) By publicly taking a position and addressing such claims, they open themselves to critique, and from our position it is wise to provide such critique and not allow such views to go unaddressed.

    Skeptimal said...

    "By publicly taking a position and addressing such claims, they open themselves to critique, and from our position it is wise to provide such critique and not allow such views to go unaddressed."


    I appreciate the tone of your response. Like you, I think it's a good thing that these ads are out there, but of course, we differ as to why.

    One point of the ads is that unbelief has been demonized, literally and figuratively, by all religions. The ads confront the usual lies about non-theists with a positive statement that does not attack people of faith. The fact is, and I hope that you can admit, non-theists love their children, contribute to their communities, fight in our wars, and do good deeds just like everyone else.

    What you're addressing is a different definition of good that is purely theological. Your definition of "good" effectively excludes anyone who doesn't accept certain doctrines (even though I realize you don't think the acceptance of the doctrines themselves makes someone good). For that reason, your theological definition of "good" will always exclude those who disagree with your religion. And that's fine when it comes to the practice of your religion and the freedom of your conscience.

    In the practice of building and maintaining a civilization, however, we have traditionally been more successful when we have acknowledged the good, even among those with whom we strenuously disagree.

    wsforten said...

    I have personally submitted a response to this ad to more than fifty members of the Big Apple CoR. It can be viewed online at my website:

    swordbearer said...


    I freely admit that (by God's grace) as you say "non-theists love their children, contribute to their communities, fight in our wars, and do good deeds just like everyone else." However, the following must be taken into account:

    1. While one does not have to " believe in gods" to do these things, that's different from whether one does these things (and is good) "without God" (i.e., God's grace to the depraved, God's common grace, etc.).
    2. While these deeds may be classified as "good" on one level, that does not mean those who participate in them meet the requirements of God's righteousness & are therefore "good" by divine standards ... as if to suggest God is not needed in a person's life and the the law of morality and ethics can be met apart from God. In this way, the msg on the billboards could have the effect of deceiving people into thinking they don't need the gospel, that is if God were not sovereign in the salvation of all the elect.
    3. Participation in some "good" acts does not nullify the "bad" (i.e., just because a person is a great pianist even though he practices homosexuality doesn't mean he should be accepted as a "good" person simply on his musical skills. If one does not keep the whole law but violates it at one point he becomes a lawbreaker.
    4. One must not deny the positive effect that belief in God has toward righteous thought and behavior (along with the opposing corrolary principle as well). While this does not suggest that all that unbelievers do are total opposite to complete righteousness (though anything apart from faith is sin) or deny that unbelievers participate in "good" things (such as serving in the military, conducting service projects, etc.), at the same time the truth must be acknowledged that even though nontheists participate in activities as you suggest that unbelief and rebellion against still serves to increase one's tendency and propensity toward sin.
    5. It may be true on one level and in cases that unbelievers have been demonized (and the details should be examined); however that doesn't change the fact that they possess different foundations, different worldviews, different ultimate ends, and that on the deeper levels unity cannot exist, for what do darkness and light have in common?

    As far as civilization, humanists have freedom here to advertise as they will, and I stand by that freedom though I oppose their position and this particular message. At the same time that I acknowledge the good, even among those with whom I strenuously disagree, I am still called to be salt and light in the world and to speak and persuade on those issues where I disagree.

    swordbearer said...


    I commend you for speaking out, for the emphasis you draw especially in taking the readers to the truths of Scripture, and for pointing to Christ!

    Skeptimal said...

    "As far as civilization, humanists have freedom here to advertise as they will, and I stand by that freedom though I oppose their position and this particular message."

    Well said. I respect that a great deal.

    "At the same time that I acknowledge the good, even among those with whom I strenuously disagree, I am still called to be salt and light in the world and to speak and persuade on those issues where I disagree."

    I wouldn't expect otherwise. I don't think you need to worry that an occasional recognition that nonChristians can be humane is going to distract from your overall message about the wages of sin. It's still comforting to know you recognize there are commonalities you share, even with us heathen.

    swordbearer said...


    I like you heathens (I just don't like you being heathens)!