Do you know someone who is not a Christian and also a really kind and generous person? It's likely we've all met someone like that. People don't have to be Christians to be kind or generous or do good things. So yes, an atheist (someone who believes that God does not exist) CAN be a good person because everyone is capable of doing good things. We are all created by God, and He has written on our conscience what is ethically right and wrong (Romans 2:15). He has also given us the free will/ability to carry it out. However, the atheist has no reason, grounding, or foundation for why something is right or wrong because he does not believe in God.
Imagine your teacher holds up a piece of yarn and asks your class, “What's the correct length of this yarn?” Everyone calls out different answers, so how can the teacher tell who is correct? Is it the person that they like the best? Should they take a class vote? Should they trust the average answer of everyone's guesses combined?
No, to find the correct answer, you need a ruler or other standard of measurement. If ways to measure didn’t exist, then you wouldn’t have a standard to know what the correct measurement would be, and then you couldn’t say that one measurement was correct or incorrect.
In order to know what is inherently right and wrong, we also need a standard measurement. Without a standard, you cannot say that one action is right and the other is wrong. True goodness would not exist if there was no one to set the standard of good. As the Creator of all things, God has set the standard for goodness.
An atheist CAN do good actions without believing in God. But, if God did not exist, no one would know the standard of what good IS. If God did not exist, then there would be no absolute moral lawgiver, and we would have no way of knowing what is truly right and wrong.
The measure of morality and ethics would be left up to people’s opinions. But with no standard, you couldn’t really call ANY action right or wrong. There would be nothing to measure or compare the right or wrong against. Rape would be no better or worse than consensual sex within marriage. Cheating would be no better or worse than diligent study. Lying would be no better or worse than honesty. But because God is the Moral Lawgiver, he has the authority to sets the standard of what is right and wrong.
While some people do more good things than others, no one is truly a good person on their own; none of us reach God’s standard of complete goodness. Romans 3:23 tells us that "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” That means that no one can actually reach God's standard on their own. How is that possible? Let's take a look at the Olympic event of the Long Jump to help us understand this verse...
Some participants will jump farther than their competitors, others will jump shorter, and some will end up about even. But what if the goal was not to jump farther than your competitors but to reach the goal of jumping 100 feet? No matter how good a person is, no one would ever reach that goal because it is literally impossible. The world record for the long jump is just over 29 feet*, so there is no way that anyone could do 100 feet. Everyone would fall short.
In the same way, even though some people do more good things than others, no one is perfectly good or righteous because all of us fall short of God’s glorious standard of complete perfection and holiness. Well...there is ONE who has met God's standard: Jesus.
Jesus lived a perfect, sinless life because He is God (1 Peter 2:22; Hebrews 4:15). And He willingly suffered the punishment that was owed to those who do not measure up to God's standard. (That is, all of humanity.) Because of Jesus' sacrifice, God offers Jesus' perfect righteousness to stand in for us. As 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, "For our sake [God] made [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."
You will be made righteous when you receive this gift of salvation through believing in Jesus as your Savior from sin, and you'll be saved from the eternal punishment for sin (John 1:12). Once you receive this gift, God will see Christ’s righteousness in place of your sinfulness (2 Corinthians 5:21; Titus 2:14). Once you have believed in Jesus as your Savior, then you will have the Holy Spirit in your life to help you recognize what is right and good (Galatians 5:22-26).
* Guinness World Records. “Farthest Long Jump (male).” Guinness World Records, https://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/farthest-long-jump-(male). (Accessed Jan. 31, 2022.)
Yes, an atheist can do good things without believing in God. But, without God, an atheist doesn’t have any grounding/foundation for why something is right or wrong. To determine the length of a piece of string, you need a ruler to get the right measurement. The same is true about knowing what is right and wrong. We need a standard of measurement to know if one action is right and the other is wrong. If there were no God, true goodness would not exist because no one would have set the standard of good. God does exist and has set a standard of perfect goodness, but also, no one is truly good (Romans 3:23) except Jesus who is God. The only way we can be righteous is by receiving the gift of Jesus' sacrifice on our behalf. Once we receive this gift as our own, God will see Christ’s righteousness in place of our sinfulness (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Hanna loves spending time with kids and teens. She enjoys being detectives with them to investigate God's Word to discover truths to answer any questions. She is the co-author of a newly published apologetics curriculum for children and teaches one online for highschoolers-adults. To learn more about her ministry you can visit networkerstec.com. For fun, she likes to play Ultimate Frisbee, read historical fiction, and paint.