This is a question that has often been raised by those who are opponents to the Christian worldview. When answering this question there are many factors to consider and many different viewpoints from which we must look. The answer is not easy, but still we must wrestle with this and other questions of morality from a delicate place. My initial response would be that according the Bible there is no one, regardless of religion, race, creed, etc. that inherently is “good” (Romans 3:9-23). The prophet Isaiah reminds us that even if we do something “good,” the measure of our goodness or righteousness before Almighty God is still not up to His standards (Isaiah 64:6).
This states clearly from the Christian worldview that each and every person has hardwired within them a bent toward sin over righteousness or goodness, and even if something good does come from us, it is still by all intents and purposes not really good. Yet the question remains, does this mean that no morality can exist apart from God? Are atheists incapable of being moral? The simply answer is no, and it reminds us that even the Christian or religious person can also be immoral at times.* In fact any Christian who insists they have no sin problem is a liar according the Bible (1 John 1:8-9). I would argue that man in fact apart from God (whether again religious or irreligious) may attempt good deeds, but without Him and His purpose in mind even those things are only extensions of self-righteousness.
So the better question to ask in my opinion is: what defines morality and why is it important?
You see, everyone at their core understands that some things are morally right and others are wrong, but where did this come from? My argument is that only the Christian worldview provides enough ground and evidence to satisfy an answer to this question. No reasonable person, regardless of religious or nonreligious persuasion can rightfully say that all morality is subjective. In other words, there are things that all can agree are absolutely right or absolutely wrong. For instance, no rational human being would say that the Holocaust was ok or good. But from where did this idea of right and wrong stem?
The Christian worldview answers this question in what is known as the Moral Argument for God. It states:
Premise 1: If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.
Premise 2: Objective moral values and duties do exist.
Conclusion: Therefore, God exists. *
What this position is arguing is that all moral absolutes depend on an absolute moral law giver, and only the God of the Bible and of Christian theism meets this criteria. Relativism is simply not possible. If one is a relativist then they will either say that all truth is relative and therefore no absolutes exist (which of course is an absolute statement) or morality is relative and what may be right for you may in fact be wrong for me and visa versa. The problem with this view of course is that if I wrong you, you still get angry or sad or hurt, but why? Because morality cannot be merely relative.
In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic, The Brothers Karamazov, there is a fascinating piece of conversation that states, “You mean everything is permitted? Everything is permitted, is that right, is it?”* This line of thinking would lead to destruction and outrage. If all things are relative and anything is permitted then nothing would be truly evil or good, but again, we know that there are things that are good and evil inherently so the argument of relativism is defeated. To put it another way:
Biblical Christianity not only articulates the common ethical standards that transcend culture, it also explains the origins of mankind’s moral awareness. It “helps make sense out of how [our] moral faculties could have come about in the first place,” notes Christian philosopher J.P. Moreland. “How is it that humans can have intuitional insight into the nature of morality? God has created us to know moral values.”*
The reason we have a concept of a moral law built within each of us is because the God of the Bible created us with this moral law hardwired within each person. Without the Law Giver, the law itself would be rendered useless and empty (Romans 2:15). So can man be good without God? The answer must be obtained by the definition of morality. Only the Christian worldview satisfactorily answers the question of where our moral values originated.
* “Can Atheists Be Moral? That’s the Wrong Question,” ReasonableTheology.org, June 05, 2015, , accessed March 14, 2018, https://reasonabletheology.org/can-atheists-be-moral-thats-the-wrong-question/.
*”Moral Argument,” AllAboutPhilosophy.org, , accessed March 14, 2018, https://www.allaboutphilosophy.org/moral-argument.htm.
*FYODOR DOSTOYEVSKY, BROTHERS KARAMAZOV (S.l.: SC ACTIVE BUSINESS DEVELO, 2017), 263.
*Nathan Busenitz, Reasons We Believe: 50 Lines of Evidence that Confirm the Christian Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008), 53.