The Problem of Good: Is Christianity Necessary?
Many are familiar with the so-called Problem of Evil. For ages, mankind has observed evil things that happen in this world—hurricanes flooding coastal cities, tornadoes destroying innocent towns, gunmen massacring schoolchildren, bombers turning heroic marathons into national tragedies—and people have asked themselves whether God is really good or if he exists at all. Christian scholars have developed clear responses to the Problem of Evil and have shown that earthly evil is not inconsistent with the concept of a good God.[i]
This essay, however, does not repeat those arguments but instead considers a parallel question, the Problem of Good. Just as people have taken the presence of evil as a reason to question the validity of Christianity, so also people have seen the presence of good as inconsistent with Christianity’s message. The skeptic asks: Why do non-Christians do good deeds? Why do they prosper, succeed, and at times act morally superior to their Christian neighbors? Is Christianity really necessary for good behavior? Similarly, many ask: Don’t all good people go to heaven? If I can be good and can go to heaven without the nuisance of attending church, praying, and paying tithes, why am I told that I must obey Christian dogma?
For the skeptic to ask these questions is reasonable, for it is undeniable that people can be good without the Christian God. We need look no further than the example given by Mahatma Gandhi, one of the most famous Hindus, who led a large, non-violent campaign for freedom and civil rights in India. Gandhi suffered persecution from the government and spent many months in prison, but he never abandoned his creed of non-violence and truthfulness. His actions brought lasting change to Indian politics and inspired many others to follow his example of peaceful protest.
Similarly, it is undeniable that professing Christians are not always as good as their neighbors and that atrocities have been committed in the name of Christianity. On the broadest scale, Christians have launched wars, crusades, and inquisitions to spread their message. On a smaller scale, churches have sparked disputes in their communities. Individual Christians at times lie, cheat, steal, act selfishly, and grow angry over petty issues.
Thus, one might come to the conclusion that people can be good without Christianity and that Christianity is a failed moral system. If the old adage, “Good people go to heaven; bad people go to hell” holds true, then the logical conclusion is that we can enter heaven without having to take on the label “Christian.” The doctrines, catechisms, dogmas, practices, and traditions of Christianity seem superfluous, and life would be much simpler if people abandoned Christianity altogether to seek an easier alternative to moral behavior and eternal life.
Christianity throughout the ages has rejected this line of thinking as a misunderstanding. Unfortunately, this misunderstood version of Christianity has become increasingly common in contemporary America with the rise of what sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton call Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. As we shall see, biblical Christianity, as opposed to its Moralistic Therapeutic Deist counterpart, is a religion whose foundation is about identity rather than thought, emotion, or action.
Christianity Affirms the Skeptic’s Initial Questions
Christianity readily affirms that non-Christians can do good works and that Christians sometimes sin egregiously. The Christian explanation of why the secular world prospers is part of the doctrine of common grace. God’s common grace is an unmerited blessing that he bestows on all people, whether Christian, Muslim, Hindu, atheist, or agnostic. This grace has three functions: it gives blessings, it restrains evil in the world, and it enables all people to do good.[ii]
In its first sense, common grace means that God gives life, joy, success, talents, and other blessings to all people. Christianity holds that God created and actively sustains the entire universe and that thus it is only natural that God bestows relationships, love, capacity for education, prosperity, and other gifts to the Christian and the non-Christian alike. As the book of Matthew says, God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”[iii] It is God who causes the rain to fall on the fields of both the Christian and the non-Christian farmer. Although specific gifts and blessings may differ in magnitude from person to person, by no means are they limited to only Christians.
Secondly, common grace restrains sin in people. In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul says that all people have a “debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.”[iv] Christians believe that God’s common grace prevents people from acting with such evil all of the time. Even if the skeptic does not believe the sinful state of human nature described by Paul, to think that people could easily be much worse than they presently are is no stretch of the imagination.
The third aspect of common grace, which is closely paired with the second, is that all people can pursue the good. If the second aspect is ‘negative’ in that God restrains evil, this third is ‘positive’ in that God enables all people to do good things. A non-Christian policeman is just as capable as a Christian policeman of giving his life to protect his city, and all children, regardless of religion, could share their lunches with a classmate who forgot hers. Goodness is not reserved for Christians alone. Common grace, then, provides the basis for the Christian understanding of why non-Christians do good deeds and prosper.
Consider next the question of why Christians sin. The Christian explanation for why believers sometimes act in unholy ways lies in the doctrines of human nature and of sanctification. As we have already seen in the book of Romans, and as the church has affirmed throughout history, human nature is broken. As St. Augustine writes in the Enchiridion, mankind before salvation is either ignorant of the Scriptures and “lives according to the flesh [i.e. a sinful life] with no restraint of reason” or is aware of the written law of God, in which state “even if he wishes to live according to the law [of God], he is vanquished—man sins knowingly and is brought under the spell and made the slave of sin.”[v] Put another way, in man’s natural state, he is non posse non peccare—not able not to sin.
After salvation, man does not instantaneously become perfect and cease sinning. The rest of his life is a long process of sanctification—of growing and maturing in faith. In St. Augustine’s words, “although there is still in man a power that fights against him—his infirmity being not yet fully healed—yet the righteous man lives by faith and lives righteously in so far as he does not yield to evil desires.”[vi] At salvation, the state of man changes such that he is posse non peccare—able not to sin. Although Christians are no longer slaves of sin living under its inescapable spell and although they are freed to pursue righteousness, they are not above the influence of sin.[vii] The Christian does not always act morally, nor is he expected to always do so. This state of man does not excuse immoral behavior, but suffices to show that Christianity does not bestow moral perfection.
Common grace and the sinful state of human nature thus validate the skeptic’s initial questions about the Problem of Good. Doing good deeds without being a Christian is possible, and becoming a Christian does not cause people to cease sinning. The skeptic might here deduce that since good people go to heaven and since we can be good without God, Christianity is not necessary.
The Skeptic’s Underlying Assumption
The flaw in the skeptic’s thinking is that he has misunderstood the purpose of Christianity. Frequently, the assumption behind the skeptic’s questions is that Christianity teaches a moral system that promotes good behavior and that this morality gains people entrance into heaven. In recent decades, this view of Christianity has pervaded American culture.
In 2005, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton published a landmark sociological study on the religious state of American adolescents. Their book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, draws upon data from 267 face-to-face interviews with teenagers in 45 states and from a five-year study conducted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.[viii] Smith and Denton show that teenagers and their parents, although professing adherence to various Protestant denominations, the Catholic Church, Judaism, Islam, Mormonism, or other religions, in practice all share the same religious belief called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). This finding revolutionized the understanding of the state of religion of America.[ix]
The five basic tenets of this “de facto dominant religion” are:
- A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
- God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
- The central life goal is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
- God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
- Good people go to heaven when they die.[x]
MTD focuses on encouraging moral behavior. Most Americans do not have a clear understanding of morality beyond the simple statement, being moral is about doing good deeds. Morality is about fulfilling potential, treating others according to the golden rule, and being generally kind, friendly, and non-disruptive to social norms.[xi] Most think that one of religion’s primary functions is helping people make good choices but that religion is not necessary for teaching that good behavior. Religion thus becomes non-essential for achieving its chief purpose.[xii] In the words of one female participant in Smith and Denton’s study:
Morals play a large part in religion. Morals are good if they’re healthy for society. Like Christianity, which is all I know, the values you get from, like, the Ten Commandments. I think every religion is important in its own respect. You know, if you’re Muslim, then Islam is the way for you. If you’re Jewish, well, that’s great too. If you’re Christian, well good for you. It’s just whatever makes you feel good about you.[xiii]
The participant’s last sentence leads us into the second aspect of MTD, its therapeutic benefits. Religion teaches morality in order to “[make] you feel good about you.”[xiv] According to Smith and Denton, religion is “about feeling good, happy, secure, at peace.”[xv] Church services are not about the corporate worship of an almighty God, but rather are about socializing with people, singing feel-good songs, and finding encouragement to continue the all-important pursuit of morality. On Sunday afternoons, churchgoers volunteer in a soup kitchen, play on the church softball team, and go home feeling satisfied that they have done their good deeds for the week.
Finally, MTD revolves around a belief in the Christian God or some other divine being. MTD is similar to eighteenth-century Deism, a movement that taught that God was a Divine Watchmaker who made the universe and set it in motion but who leaves it alone without interfering in individual affairs.[xvi] In contrast to Deism, however, MTD teaches that God does interfere in the affairs of mankind, but only to help people out when they are stuck. God is “something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.”[xvii] God helps with the job interview, the hard exam, and the sick child, but he does little else.
Although Moralistic Therapeutic Deism has become the predominant subconscious religion of many Americans who profess to be Christians, its adherents suffer from the common misconception that Christianity is a religion primarily concerned with right thinking, feeling, or doing.[xviii] Many misunderstandings of Christianity are rooted epistemologically in thinking—we must wrestle with and master a set of philosophical assertions. Others are rooted existentially in feeling—we will find ultimate happiness by conquering our emotions. Still others are rooted pragmatically in doing—we must live and act a certain way. Most misconceptions of Christianity in America are not purely about thinking, feeling, or doing but are some combination of the three.[xix]
MTD reduces Christianity to a combination of feeling and doing; right thoughts are relatively unimportant. Smith and Denton find that most Americans are incredibly inarticulate about their religious beliefs. When asked what they believed and why it mattered, most of the adolescents interviewed could not name any specific beliefs or could at most string together a few fragments of doctrines.[xx] In the 267 interviews, 13 (4.9%) mentioned obeying God or the church, 12 (4.5%) mentioned repentance, and only 6 (2.2%) mentioned salvation.[xxi]
In contrast, experiencing positive emotions was an important aspect of religion, according to those interviewed. 112 teenagers (41.9%) mentioned personally feeling, being, getting, or being made happy, and 99 teenagers (37.1%) mentioned feeling good about oneself or life. Interviews included the phrase “feel happy” well more than 2000 times.[xxii] The average use of the phrase “feel happy” was higher than the total number of times people mentioned salvation. In its therapeutic aspects, MTD is about creating proper feelings.
MTD is also about encouraging proper behavior. As we have already seen, MTD is inherently moralistic, teaching good behavior and adherence to cultural norms. The Bible is nothing more than the Ten Commandments, the church is nothing more than a community service organization, and Christianity is nothing more than a moral system.
MTD is rarely as dramatic or radical as this essay may make it sound; in reality, MTD is a worldview that operates in the background of people’s lives. People do not profess to be Moralistic Therapeutic Deists, but they subconsciously adhere to and affirm its tenets. MTD does not always evidence itself as strongly as some of the examples above, for it tends to be subtle and subconscious, but it is always a system that focuses on right feeling and right doing.
Articulating the Biblical Perspective
In contrast to the principles that MTD proclaims as Christian, the principles that orthodox Christianity has passed down for generations proclaim that Christianity is a religion that concerns being, rather than thinking, feeling, or doing. Christianity has never been about right philosophies. The Pharisees, who were the foremost religious scholars of the first-century world and who studied the Scriptures with more diligence than anyone else, received the harshest rebukes from Jesus.[xxiii] Neither is Christianity about creating good feelings. In fact, the Bible promises that Christians will face emotional hardship: “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”[xxiv] Neither is Christianity about right actions. When the rich, young ruler approached Christ to ask what he must do to enter the kingdom of heaven, boasting that he had obeyed the Ten Commandments since he was a child, Christ said that actions alone do not merit salvation.[xxv]
Christianity’s root is not in thought, emotion, or action, but in identity. When the Bible speaks of salvation and of entrance into heaven, it does so in ontological terms.[xxvi] In the book of Romans, Paul writes that we have an identity either in Adam or in Christ.[xxvii] Through Adam’s sin, all people have entered into the state described above by St. Augustine in which we are “brought under the spell and made the slave of sin.”[xxviii] In salvation, God restores our sinful natures, changing who we fundamentally are. Our identity transforms us from being in Adam to being in Christ, from having minds that are focused on earthly desires to minds that are focused on God. We are made into “a new creation,” for God says, “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”[xxix] Neither our thoughts, nor our emotions, nor our actions alone can achieve this transformation of our natures, for it requires God’s supernatural work.
As the natural consequence of this new being, the Christian pursues right thinking, feeling, and doing. In the words of St. Augustine, the Christian is no longer enslaved to sinful desires but is gradually “conquering them by his love of righteousness.”[xxx] The desires and affections of his heart are now pointed heavenwards. The process of sanctification begins, and the Christian is freed to pursue the good and to grow in holiness.
Salvation’s ontological root shapes our understanding of the skeptic’s question: Since all good people go to heaven, and I can be good without Christianity, why should I bother with it? We should bother with Christianity because it is not simply about encouraging good behavior or making us feel good. While the skeptic is right in thinking that morality is a part of Christianity, he mistakes it for being Christianity’s chief purpose. Instead, our being in Christ through God’s renewal of our natures allows us to enter heaven, and although we might pursue morality and happiness outside of Christianity, we will not find the necessary change of being through any other worldview or religion.
The adage that good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell still holds true, but the Bible’s definition of good is not the same as the skeptic’s. In Jesus’ words, “No one is good except God alone.”[xxxi] If only God is good, then the goodness of MTD is not good enough. Instead, if our identity lies in Christ, his goodness and holiness cover us and present us blameless before God. When we are new beings in Christ, God looks on us and says, “Well done, good and faithful servant…Enter into the joy of your master.”[xxxii]
[i] For one such apologetic, see Chris Hauser’s article, “Divine Attributes: Why an Imperfect God Just Won’t Do,” in the Spring 2013 issue of the Apologia.
[ii] Scott Kauffmann, “The Problem of Good,” Q, 10 June 2013, < http://www.qideas.org/essays/the-problem-of-good.aspx>.
[iii] Matthew 5:45 (ESV)
[iv] Romans 1:28-31 (ESV)
[v] St. Augustine was a Christian theologian who lived from 354-430 and whose writings remain very influential in Christian scholarship. Augustine of Hippo, Enchiridion, trans. Albert C. Outler, 10 June 2013, < http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/augustine_enchiridion_02_trans.htm>, 31.118. See also Romans 8:1-8.
[vi] Augustine, Enchiridion, 31.118.
[vii] I John 1:8.
[viii] Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 6.
[ix] Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, 162.
[x] Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, 162.
[xi] Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, 163.
[xii] Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, 155.
[xiii] Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, 163.
[xiv] Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, 163.
[xv] Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, 164.
[xvi] Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, 165.
[xvii] Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, 165.
[xviii] Michael Ramsden, “Understanding the Root of the Gospel,” bethinking, 11 June 2013, <http://www.bethinking.org/other-religions/intermediate/understanding-the-root-of-the-gospel.htm>.
[xix] Ramsden, “Root of the Gospel.”
[xx] Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, 131-3.
[xxi] Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, 168.
[xxii] Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, 168.
[xxiii] Matthew 23:1-36.
[xxiv] II Timothy 3:12 (ESV). See also Matthew 5:10.
[xxv] Mark 10:17-27.
[xxvi] Ramsden, “Root of the Gospel.”
[xxvii] Romans 5:12-21.
[xxviii] Augustine, Enchiridion, 31.118.
[xxix] II Corinthians 5:17; Ezekiel 36:26 (ESV).
[xxx] Augustine, Enchiridion, 31.118.
[xxxi] Mark 10:18 (ESV).
[xxxii] Matthew 25:23 (ESV).
Image: Detail from Soup Distribution in a Public Soup Kitchen by Vincent Van Gogh.