Is it possible to be good without God?

Is it possible to be good without God?  Well, it depends on what you mean...

In what follows, I will identify 11 different possible meanings to the question.  I have answered them with 5 Yeses and 6 Noes.  Of the six No answers, half apply equally to religious and nonreligious folk alike, while the other half distinguish those who believe from those who do not.

At the most basic metaphysical level, a Christian might start out with the following answers:

  1. No, because God is the Creator of all things.  Apart from God, nothing would exist.  Therefore, it would be impossible for there to be any good (or bad) human beings.
  2. No, because God is the grounding of all morality.  He is Goodness itself.  All other things are good by participating in his goodness (or are bad by failing to do so in some respect).

Note, however, that although #1 and #2 are true in the real world, they are deductions from the Christian worldview.  They make sense, but are not strictly required given human existence.  Although in my view the evidence strongly supports Theism, it is not a logical contradiction to imagine that Atheism is true (in which case, the things which exist would obviously not depend on God).

Some Atheists, especially those of a scientistic bent, think it's obvious that morality is nothing more than a set of primate instinctual behaviors which have been refined by human cultures, that differences in evolution or culture could have produced quite different kinds of "ethics", and that there is no way to compare these as being better or worse in any kind of absolute way.  If so, there is no such thing as good and evil, objectively speaking.

Other Atheists may say that this doesn't do justice to our beliefs about right and wrong, and that there must exist some objectively defined notion of goodness, that Hitler must really be worse than Ghandi according to some rationally compelling measuring stick.  Such Atheists may differ in their account of what this consists of.

The first kind of Atheist might say to the second: "Wait, that's really weird!  If there's such a thing as an objective right and wrong, that's like saying that the universe cares whether you are good or bad.  But caring is the sort of thing that persons do.  So your view is suspiciously similar to Theism."  This is the Argument from Ethics, normally employed by Theists as an argument for the existence of God.  It says that if Ethics corresponds to an objectively real property in the world, then it must somehow be an aspect of the Ultimate Nature of Reality (whatever that is).  But if there is an Ultimate Reality which discriminates between good and evil, it's only a short hop-and-a-step from there to Theism.

However, this Argument from Ethics can only be a successful argument for Theism if Atheists have some valid reason to accept its premise (that ethics is objective).  So if Theists expect to deploy this argument, they are actually conceding the following point (which may superficially seem to contradict #2):

  1. Yes, in that there are reasons to believe that morality is objective, which can be known to an Atheist, prior to realizing that God exists.  Therefore an Atheist can believe in objective moral standards.

This, however, leads us to a completely different question.  Before we were asking whether Ethics depends on God actually existing.  This is completely different from asking if ethical behavior depends on some person believing in God's existence.  (In my experience, when a Theist and Atheist get into an argument about whether Ethics requires God, usually the Theist is talking about something like #2, while the Atheist often means something more like #5 below.)

Let's continue on the thread of this new question:

  1. Yes, in that God has placed in each human heart a conscience, which no one can completely ignore.  This is true for everyone, regardless of their philosophical beliefs about Ethics, and regardless of whether they know about the Bible, or have any other specific divine revelation.  This gives to all people an opportunity to do what is right.  As St. Paul says:

 God does not show favoritism.   All who sin apart from the law [i.e. pagans, who either don't know, or don't accept the "Torah" or Jewish Bible] will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law [Jews who know about God's revelation] will be judged by the law.   For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.

Indeed, when Gentiles [i.e. non-Jews], who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law.  They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.  (Romans 2:11-15)

           In this way, every kind of person can do what is good, at least sometimes.

  1. Yes, in that fear of divine punishment is not necessary to be virtuous.  Nor is it the best reason.  Many Atheists would argue that one should be ethical for its own sake, not because of fear.  And Christianity agrees.  "Perfect love casts out fear," says St. John, "because fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love" (1 John 4:18).  Perfect means complete, so the meaning is that the most ethically advanced person does good out of love for others, not out of fear of being judged (either by men, or by God).
    However, although obeying out of fear of divine judgment is a lower stage of moral development, I would argue that it still has some value.  "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Prov. 9:10, Psalm 111:10).  And of course, deep reverence and awe for God and his commands is appropriate at every stage of moral development, in light of his holiness.
    Note that hoping to be rewarded by God is not in the same category as fearing punishment.  It would be, if one were looking for an arbitrary incentive which has nothing to do with being virtuous.  But there also exists a natural reward for virtue, which is due to obtaining what one was seeking.

But can a nonreligious person be a good person in the sense of actually fulfilling their most basic moral duties?

  1. No, because according to Jesus, the first of the two most important commandments is "The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength" (Deuteronomy 6:5; Mark 12:30).  If God exists, then there is a morally prescribed right relation to him, as well as to human beings.  Although there were monotheistic pagans, clearly it is impossible for an Atheist to obey this commandment.
    Related to this, Christians regard holiness as an essential aspect of good character, but most Atheists aren't even trying to be holy.
  2. Yes, in that Atheists can obey the second commandment singled out by Jesus: "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18, Mark 12:30).  Clearly it is possible for a nonreligious person to do particular things which are consonant with loving other people.  I'm not going to belabor this point, but only because I don't think it should be controversial.
  3. No, in that Christians regard these two commandments as a unity, so that it is impossible to fully obey the one without obeying the other.  We cannot love God and hate men, nor do we understand what real love is until we know God's love.  As St. John says,

Dear friends, let us love one another, because love is from God, and everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.  The one who does not love does not know God, because God is love.  God’s love was revealed among us in this way:  God sent his One and Only Son into the world so that we might live through him.   Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation [or atonement] for our sins.  Dear friends, if God loved us in this way, we also must love one another.  No one has ever seen God.  If we love one another, God remains in us and his love is perfected in us....

If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar.  For the person who does not love his brother he has seen cannot love the God he has not seen.  And we have this command from him: The one who loves God must also love his brother.  (1 John 4:7-12, 20)

  1. No, in that all human beings are sinners, so that no one—religious or not—in fact succeeds in being ethical.  For most of us, we fall short even of the standard which we rightly expect of other people.  How much more when judged by God's perfect standard!  In Genesis, even as God promises not to wipe out the human race, he kvetches that "every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood" (Genesis 8:21).  And St. Paul, after making it clear that sin is a problem even for people who know God's law, gives us this montage of Old Testament passages about the human race:

“There is no one righteous, not even one;
     there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
 All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”
“Their throats are open graves;
their tongues practice deceit.”
“The poison of vipers is on their lips.”
     “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
ruin and misery mark their ways,
and the way of peace they do not know.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Romans 3:10-18)

I was reminded of this passage when the scandal broke about Penn State coach Joe Paterno failing to report a child molestor.  People were amazed that such a righteous-seeming person screwed up that badly.  But if they really knew how to examine their own hearts and conduct, they shouldn't have been surprised.  He wasn't a hypocrite; his virtues were real, but they also weren't enough.   That is how God views even the best of us.  And apart from God's protection, each of us would be similarly unreliable in situations of power—I don't say that we would all make the exact same mistake he did (although many of us would have!) but that we are all capable of similar treachery against our own best ideals.

Fortunately, although we are all wicked, God has provided a way for us to be forgiven, cleansed, and healed through the death of Jesus.  This is the Atonement, one of the core doctrines of Christianity.  Through Jesus, God offers his grace to all of us.  His offer is to purify us from sin, not because we deserve it, but because we need it.  (And this is why, in accordance the canonization policy of this blog, I still ought to have said Saint Joe Paterno in the previous paragraph.)

However, the offer requires that we accept it, trusting him for this forgiveness.  And this is where faith comes in:

  1. No, in that in order to receive this forgiveness from Jesus, you must put your trust in Jesus as the Savior sent by God.  Now obviously it's hard to do that if you don't believe in God at all.  For "without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists, and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him" (Hebrews 11:6).
    Leaving aside the apparent unfairness for a moment, this is just common sense—if you don't believe in God, you don't have any incentive to hand your life over to him, and so you probably won't.  Of course, it's not enough to believe in God, since you can perfectly well think he exists without deciding to trust him.  As Jesus' brother said: " You believe that there is one God. You do well.  Even the demons believe—and tremble!" (James 2:19).  So Theism isn't enough.  No, you have to believe that it's worth your while to trust him, that he "rewards those who earnestly seek him".  That requires faith.
    This isn't something completely different from the rest of life.  If you can't enter the water without panicking about drowning, you'll never learn how to swim.  If you don't trust anyone enough to say "I do", you will never be married.  It's just how things are.
    I was just at the dentist to get my teeth cleaned.  This is essential for good hygiene, because no matter how well one might think one has brushed and flossed, there are always places that one misses.  Plus, once cavities start to develop, there's no way to fill them on your own.  If you "try to be good on your own, apart from God", then your teeth will rot away and fall out.  Metaphorically speaking, that is.
    Only a tiny fraction of our mind is accessible to our conscious inspection at any one time.  And even in that small conscious part, we find that we are frequently unable to completely control our own passions, desires, and will.  We need someone else to cleanse us, someone who knows us inside and outside, and can reach into the parts of ourselves that we can't.  The good news is that God has offered to do this for us, for free, if we will trust ourselves entirely to him.  Only a fool would decline this offer—if they know about it, that is.
  2. Yes, in that God will judge the world with perfect justice: "He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity" (Psalm 98:9).  This means actual justice, not some religious-affiliation test which has nothing to do with reality.  Therefore, if an Atheist is truly seeking what is good and true, and disbelieves in God through no fault of his own, then it must necessarily be that God will not condemn him in the Final Judgment.  If.  I do not make any judgment about how common this situation is.
    Some caveats are called for here.  First, no one really does seek truth with their whole heart, see #9.  But God knows about about human nature, "for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust" (Psalm 103:14), nor has he "forgotten to be merciful" (Psalm 77:9).  If religious people cannot earn their salvation through works, then neither can the nonreligious.  Everyone who is saved is saved by God's grace, given through the Spirit by the work of Jesus.
    Secondly, no one is saved apart from a relationship with Jesus.  But it may be that certain people can welcome Jesus without explicilty knowing that this is what they are doing.  The Parable of the Sheep and Goats seems to suggest this, anyway.  Alternatively, one could imagine people coming to faith after death, as suggested by St. Peter in a highly controversial passage, which is frequently mistranslated, because most theologians don't agree with what it really says!

In any case my hope is that you, Dear Reader, will come to know the inexpressible riches of God's salvation in this life, and that he will make you holy all the way through, so that you may love others sacrificially, just as he first loved us.

About Aron Wall

I am a Lecturer in Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my postdocs at UC Santa Barbara, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Stanford. The views expressed on this blog are my own, and should not be attributed to any of these fine institutions.
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26 Responses to Is it possible to be good without God?

  1. Andrew says:

    I don't agree with the reasoning in 7 (Love your neighbour) and 8 (Love God). If 7 is a yes, then 8 is a yes too, because whoever loves knows God (somewhere in 1 John).

  2. Aron Wall says:

    Hi Andrew. Welcome to my blog. The passage in 1 John is the one I quoted, right?

    Can you clarify whether you think both 7 & 8 should be yes, or both of them should be no? Note that in 7 I said "do particular things which are consonant with loving other people" while in 8 I said "fully obey". I think this distinction is important.

    If both are no, do we really want to say that no Atheist ever loves another human being? That seems wildly contrary to the facts.

    If both are yes, what do you do about Hebrews 11:6? Would you say that every human being who loves at all is born of God and knows him? Even murderous idolaters, so long as there is anyone whom they care about? What do you think John really means by "love" here?

    By the way, 6 is Love God, 7 is Love your neighbor, and 8 is about the unity of the two commandments. The comments at the end of 11 are perhaps also related to the point you want to make...

  3. Andrew says:

    Yes, it's the passage from 1 John you quoted. I thought 7 and 8 should be yes, my understanding of the passage from 1 John being that Christianity, like physics is an "experimental" science. We don't know what anything means unless it connects to experiment or actions. Love God is meaningless, unless it translates to actions - obey his commandments. What are the commandments? Love your neighbour. So loving one's neighbour is the operationalization of loving God. I think similar ideas are found in Matthew 21:28-31 and 25:37-40. There must be more to knowing God than this, but I think it's not a bad effective theory or interpretation, like Copenhagen.

    Regarding Hebrews 11:6, I think both Christians and non-Christians are imperfect, but not left without grace, of which the ability to love is a sign. Maybe Romans 11:32 and 1 Corinthians 13:9?

  4. Andrew says:

    I think should have better said "shut up and calculate" instead of "Copenhagen" :)

  5. Aron Wall says:

    Thanks for your comments, Andrew.

    When we call a science "experimental", we mean that it is learned through experiments (my area of physics, quantum gravity, alas is not!). But it is still possible to know about the results of the experiments without participating oneself. So the theological statement John is making seems to be stronger than that.

    I am hopeful for the eventual eternal salvation of some of those who die without religion, and I agree that it is possible that some people may have a relationship with Jesus without knowing it. However, there is way too much in the New Testament about faith to say that the distinction between belief and disbelief in God is unimportant. An Atheist qua Atheist cannot fully please God, since the complete renewal of God's image requires that we consciously know that we are serving God in our neighbor. Not to know is a defect in one's sonship (what kind of son does not know their father?), and therefore a defect in one's salvation, or at least maturity of salvation. Although this may seem exclusivist, in fact it follows directly from God's universal benevolence. As St. Paul says:

    God wants all men to be saved, and to come to a knowledge of the truth. (1 Tim 2:4)

    and as Jesus says in his prayer for believers:

    Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. (John 17:3)

    Even if we imagine that the particular Atheist will be saved on the Last Day due to an unconscious relationship with Jesus (which we aren't likely to know from external observation, if they do not even know it from internal observation), they are still not fully saved in the present. They have not yet consented to being adopted by the Father, they do not know the price Jesus paid for them, they have not asked for the Holy Spirit nor received the outpouring of Pentecost.

    I also think it is important not to interpret the idea of "love means you are saved" in a way which would apply to practically every person under the sun. We are talking about a supernatural love here, not ordinary human affection. If ordinary human affection were good enough, what need is there for the scandal of the Cross?

    I can respect a Universalist who says that everyone will eventually be saved (although one can hardly extract this teaching from the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats) but not one which says that everyone or nearly everyone is already saved. That would make the Gospel no gospel at all.

  6. Andrew says:

    Yes, I think I largely agree.

  7. Larry Duncan says:

    I sat and read this question and answer several times, first being transfixed at the question itself; since I, like most Christians, I think, have out of necessity "have had the discussion." But now, unlike the other times, I see the question in written form and it strikes me somehow differently. How, I ask myself, will Aron answer to God this most important question.

    I confront myself with 1 John 4, first, to brace myself for my own self-examination but my heart leads me to 1 John 2:27. From there I resisted the urge to answer the question myself to myself--after all, I know my answer--what I don't know is if Aron's will re-affirm or take me somewhere else.

    I start to read and find myself mesmerized. It's a very comfortable feeling I'm enjoying (similar to when I read Dante or Milton or Homer or Virgil or certain works of Kierkegaard). Now I find myself finished with the analysis. There, I muse, enough said and well done at that! I myself am not so eloquent. But I sure am gratified Aron has taken the time to pose and answer the question with such thoughtfulness and grace and meekness. For myself, I cannot find a single fault with the reasoning and I felt it incumbent to try.

    On the other hand I could not understand a single word he was saying in the writing about physics (ha ha).

    I also appreciated Andrew's input.

  8. Arkenaten says:

    I am always mystified how highly intelligent people like yourself maintain a Christian worldview in the face of an ever-growing body of scientific evidence that has already refuted the Pentateuch; now generally accepted as historical fiction, and is busy dismantling the New Testament.

    May I ask how you square away such beliefs and still maintain scientific integrity?



  9. Scott Church says:

    Arkenaton, dare I ask what makes you think the Pentateuch has been "refuted" or the New Testament is being "dismantled?" What parts, and in what manner exactly? And how is it that you came to the odd belief that if parts of either turn out to be cosmogony, parable, or otherwise non-historical in literary character a Christian Worldview cannot be maintained?

    How do I square away my Christian beliefs and still maintain scientific integrity? Easily... I read science and history books and think for myself rather than believing whatever just-so stories I hear from those who don't. Perhaps you should do the same.


  10. Arkenaten says:

    The Pentateuch has been refuted as Historical Fiction for several generations.
    Surely you aware of the overwhelming scholarly and more important, archaeological view?

    My question is genuine and I am somewhat taken aback at your somewhat dismissive sounding reply.

    May I ask then , in that case, what is your view of the Pentateuch and if it differs from the norm what evidence do you have for Moses and the Exodus for example?


  11. Sarah says:

    Oh my... the blogging world is so small!

    Hello Ark! I am glad to see you.

    The fact that this discussion between you and Scott is happening has brought a smile to my face and an excitement in my mind!

    I have heard this topic discussed between 2 intelligent Christians with a few "name calling... shallow knowledge" Atheist OR between 2 intelligent Atheist with a few "name calling... close minded Fundamental" Christians.

    The fact that you both are intelligent... well educated people is what excites me. I'll be reading on from a distance as you both discuss and my hope is that it remains mutually edifying!!

  12. Sarah says:

    Oh... this is Moderate Mama by the way :-)

  13. Arkenaten says:

    Hi, Sarah

    I am extremely interested in any scholarly and archaeological evidentiary sources that Scott or anyone else is able to produce that will demonstrate the veracity of the Biblical tale of Egyptian captivity, Exodus and Canaan conquest by Joshua.

  14. Sarah says:

    I'm interested in Scott's, and anyone else who chimes in, presentation of the scholarship and archaeological evidence that back their claims AND your presentation of the scholarship and archaeological evidence that answer the questions Scott asked you!!

    "Arkenaton, dare I ask what makes you think the Pentateuch has been "refuted" or the New Testament is being "dismantled?" What parts, and in what manner exactly? And how is it that you came to the odd belief that if parts of either turn out to be cosmogony, parable, or otherwise non-historical in literary character a Christian Worldview cannot be maintained"

    I'll check back tomorrow to see if y'all have added more!!!!!! Thank you all for your time and brains!!!!

  15. Arkenaten says:

    Fair enough.

    Simply Google Israel Finkelstein or Ze'ev Herzog.

    But meantime, Wiki have a pretty good intro that covers most of what's been going down for at least a couple of generations. Simpy type Moses and the Exodus.
    Here's a snippet ....

    The historicity of the exodus continues to attract popular attention, but most histories of ancient Israel no longer consider information about it recoverable or even relevant to the story of Israel’s emergence.[4]The archaeological evidence does not support the story told in the Book of Exodus[5] and most archaeologists have therefore abandoned the investigation of Moses and the Exodus as “a fruitless pursuit”.[6] *The opinion of the overwhelming majority of modern biblical scholars is that the exodus story was shaped into its final present form in the post-Exilic period,[7]

    *My emphasis

    This rather telling quote, pretty well sums it up.

    Apart from the *well-funded (and fundamentalist) “biblical archaeologists,” we are in fact nearly all “minimalists” now.[3]
    —Philip Davies, “Beyond Labels: What Comes Next?”

    * My emphasis.

    At the risk of presuming on the host's generosity or being accused of Trolling, here is an excellent video of a Finkelstein presentation of the issue. It includes details of the Israelite's gradual shift from a pastoral lifestyle to their gradual integration into greater Canaanite society, their adoption of gods, including Yahweh, how the Exodus story was formulated, Babylonian and Syrian conquest and more.
    I must warn you, Finkelstein is no Christopher Hirchens as a speaker and his accent is quite 'thick' but the story is fascinating nonetheless. Especially if you have always believed the biblical tale, as who didn't, right?

  16. Arkenaten says:

    I suspect this point will be raised so let me briefly add:
    Finkelstein explains the history of the fictional nature of the Patriarchs as well.
    Thus refuting any genuine historicity of the Pentateuch.
    I'm outta here.
    Thanks for allowing the comments.

  17. Scott Church says:

    Ark, sorry for the late reply, and for the dismissive remark... I was in a sour mood yesterday morning. :-) Regarding the historicity of the Pentateuch and the Old Testament in general, this is a huge topic that cannot be covered properly to any degree in a few blog comments so I will only do a "fly by" here, especially since it's off-topic for this post.

    In a nutshell, it simply is not correct to say that the genuine historicity of the Pentateuch has been refuted. What is true is that its historicity is controversial with schools of scholarship lining up on both sides and differing levels of agreement regarding any particular part (not to mention the fact that ideology seems to influence both sides of the debate to a greater degree than is generally admitted). To a large degree this is due to the paucity of textual and archaeological evidence from the period. In any field of scientific inquiry, where evidence is limited speculation and disagreement with thrive.

    This isn't surprising either. The Old testament was written by the Hebrews, and as such centers on their perspective. Taken at face value one would think the 12 tribes of Israel were a juggernaut of influence around which the entire ancient world revolved. In fact, they were a tiny backwater of the period, all but lost in the glamour and empire of Babylon, Egypt, Rome (eventually) and the like. To expect a wealth of archaeological and textual evidence for this period beyond the Old Testament itself would be like scholars several millennia from now expecting prolific records of the history of Elko County, Nevada (alright I'm exaggerating a bit, but you get the idea... :-) ). That we have as much as we do is actually rather astounding, and in itself a testimony to how this tiny nation managed to influence history with the strength of its message despite its actual geopolitical stance. This is why the Wikipedia page you referred to (Wikipedia, 2015) states that "most histories of ancient Israel no longer consider information about it recoverable or even relevant to the story of Israel’s emergence."

    This also raises another point you haven't addressed. Much of the content of the Pentateuch was never intended to be historical in the first place, and what was often includes homiletic and/or allegorical elements meant to guide readers spiritually rather than report events. For instance the first chapters of Genesis were likely penned during the Babylonian exile for cosmogonic and homiletic reasons rather than historical ones (Hyer, 1984; Waltke, 1991). Furthermore, the Wikipedia article you referenced (Wikipedia, 2015) did not say the Exodus never occurred, but that it never occurred in the proportions described in the Bible. From there it goes on to discuss the narrative's use of just such homiletic motives, including the use of gematria with the unrealistically large population figures it provides. The scholarly consensus that it was shaped into its final present form in the post-Exilic period is irrelevant. The Biblical writers weren't ancient CNN reporters frantically taking down real-time events in a rush to get them onto the Evening Edition. They were guardians of tradition and narrative. The large majority of ancient writings of the type found in the Old Testament were put into written form after being passed down for generations via oral traditions. Few if any occurred at the time they were written so this point proves nothing.

    Beyond that, your arguments seem to be based mainly on the opinions of just two scholars, both of whom represent only one of the many extant schools of thought in the field (Jewish Criticism)... and which you seem to have cherry-picked out of the larger body of research. Davies' remarks about "well-funded (and fundamentalist) 'biblical archaeologists'” is nothing more than cheap ad-hominem (it's also incorrect--most biblical archaeologists are not fundamentalists). As near as I can tell, "we" being "nearly all minimalists" sounds like the words of someone who believes "consensus" is synonymous with his particular school of thought. Real science progresses by peer review, not the conclusions of any isolated study or "expert," and certainly not by grandiose opinion statements like this. If the progress of knowledge were that easy 4 out of 5 academics would be Nobel Laureates. A proper treatment of this subject requires a thorough and broadly-based approach. The breadth of thought and research involved is huge, but some pretty good overviews covering most if not all of the bases are available. You could do worse than start with Hoerth (2009), Kaiser (2001), Kitchen (2003), Wenham (1996), and Wolf (2007).

    And as for science... all I can say is that I've known many atheists in my life. Not one has ever been able or willing to show me any science whatsoever in support of their beliefs. And to a person, not one has ever even read any of the peer-reviewed research I've provided them with over the years in support of whatever religion-related topics we've discussed. Not even the abstracts. The closest any of these folks have ever gotten to even allowing science into a conversation about God was critiques of anti-evolutionary and young-earth creationist views... which I'm sure you'll agree, ain't exactly a formidable target! ;-) If that truly is the best they can do, then they're worse off than I thought.

    But all that said, the larger question I have is this: Why you think the historicity of the Pentateuch has any impact on maintaining a Christian worldview? As noted here, many of the narratives therein weren't intended to be literally historical in the first place, and none of those that do seem to be are foundational to Christian theology or doctrine in any real way. Could it be that you're staying on this turf because the real foundations of Christianity might take you into deeper waters than you've cared to venture in? So far at least, as near as I can tell you've done little more than google some YouTube videos and the summary opinions of a handful of academics who are already in your camp. I find it telling that by your own admission, sharing a YouTube video by one of your primary sources might border on trolling. You strike me as someone with a reliable conscience, and it seems to me that if you were nervous about trolling then you probably were. Following that with a sweeping generalization to "any genuine historicity of the Pentateuch" and "I'm outta here..." leaves me with the impression of someone who only came here to strafe the views of those he disagrees with and then blow out toward the horizon in full afterburner.

    For me at least, the words dialogue and objectivity don't exactly leap to mind here. It seems you me that you can do much better. You strike me as someone who is both bright, and drawn to deeper worldview questions than the average person is willing to be bothered with. I suspect you have a great deal to bring to dialogues about religion. I believe that if you do so with an open mind everyone will benefit from your contributions, including you. Your questions are noble Ark, and so is your search for a grounded worldview. They deserve the very best you have to give them.



    Hoerth, A. J. (2009). Archaeology and the Old Testament. Baker Books. ISBN-10: 0801036259; ISBN-13: 978-0801036255. Available online at Accessed May 2, 2015.

    Hyer, C. (1984). The Meaning of Creation: Genesis and Modern Science. John Knox Press; 1st edition. ISBN-10: 0804201250; ISBN-13: 978-0804201254. Available online at Accessed May 3, 2015.

    Kaiser, W. C. (2001). The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable & Relevant?. InterVarsity Press. ISBN-10: 0830819754; ISBN-13: 978-0830819751. Available online at Accessed May 2, 2015.

    Kitchen, K. A. (2003). On the reliability of the Old Testament. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. Available online at Accessed May 2, 2015.

    Waltke, B. K. (1991). The Literary Genre of Genesis, Chapter One. Crux, 27(4), 2-10. Available online at Accessed May 3, 2015.

    Wenham, G. (1996). Pentateuchal Studies Today. Themelios, Vol.22 No.1. Available online at Accessed May 2, 2015.

    Wikipedia. (2015). The Exodus. ,Wikipedia Online., Available at Accessed May 3, 2015.

    Wolf, H. (2007). An Introduction to the Old Testament Pentateuch. Moody Publishers. Available online at Accessed May 2, 2015.

  18. Scott Church says:

    Sarah, I just finished Nancy Pearcey's book and enjoyed it. I'll give you some feedback on it at the other thread soon as I have a few minutes. Also, I just started another book that I suspect you will very much want to read. It's Paul Copen's book Is God a Moral Monster? ( So far, it's proving to be a thorough and very readable overview of the topic, and one that I suspect will speak directly to your current struggles in that area! Blessings.

  19. Aron Wall says:

    I've left a rely in this post here.

    BTW, although I suppose you put your remarks in here because of the reference to the "Torah" in the Romans quote, I imagine St. Paul, being a rabbinically-trained Jew, and considering the context, was thinking of the Torah primarily as a source of commandments for how to live one's life, rather than as a set of historical statements... and the main point of his letter is that salvation does not in fact come through Torah observance, but rather through Jesus.

  20. Arkenaten says:

    You could do worse than start with Hoerth (2009), Kaiser (2001), Kitchen (2003), Wenham (1996), and Wolf (2007).

    Kitchen is an Egyptologist, has never produced a peer-reviewed piece of work regarding the topic at hand, and although he has a great many books to his credit and I am sure he is an accomplished archaeologist in many respects, he has produced nothing that furthers the biblical claims regarding the
    Egyptian Captivity,Moses, Exodus, and the Conquest of Canaan.
    Furthermore, he is an evangelical Christian. And yes, this means he has a presuppositional agenda.
    Hoerth is similar and I read a review of one of his books - where there is conflict, he puts the bible above archaeological evidence.
    I stopped looking after this, assuming that the names you listed would be of a similar predisposition.
    Apologies if I am wrong in this regard.

    Truly, for a serious discussion on this subject there is little point in referencing Christian and especially evangelicals. You might as well suggest I read Wyatt.
    Albright failed in his quest to marry the bible with archaeology. The others have fared no better in this particular area either.
    The evidence Finkelstein has uncovered - Canaanite settlement patterns etc flatly refutes the nonsense of biblical narrative and no serious archaeologist or scholar is pushing this any more.
    As Dever is quoted as saying: It is dead.

    Thanks for replying.

  21. Aron Wall says:


    Truly, for a serious discussion on this subject there is little point in referencing Christian and especially evangelicals.

    Then why are you on the blog of an evangelical Christian?

    Your posts are long on assertions and short on arguments (other than simply identifying those scholars who agree with your position, and categorically rejecting out of hand those that do not). If you aren't willing to actually engage with the arguments of those on the other side, or actually present the arguments of those on your side, I'm not sure what you hope to accomplish here with grandiose pronouncements (taken from the lips of others) that one side of the debate is "dead".

    I agree with you that there is little extra-biblical archaeological evidence for the Exodus and Conquest itself, but I don't think it implies the extreme biblical minimalist position which the scholars you cite are arguing for.

  22. Arkenaten says:

    I agree with you that there is little extra-biblical archaeological evidence for the Exodus and Conquest itself, but I don't think it implies the extreme biblical minimalist position which the scholars you cite are arguing for.

    As far as I am aware there is no extra biblical evidence for the Exodus and in fact what has been uncovered refutes it.

    I cannot understand why you would want me to engage in an argument over it, I am not an archaeologist.
    My understanding, based on what I have read, is that the minimalist position in this particular instance is the current archaeological position.

    Has Kitchen etc uncovered anything to remotely suggest otherwise? Physical evidence of any kind?
    Anything that he can present that would definitely have all the minimalists agreeing with his position?

    I believe he and every other biblical archaeologists are dead wrong. That's my view. because I hink the bible story is hokum.
    But they are the ones making the positive claim - it really happened - so if they produce evidence to refute the settlement pattern etc, then great!
    It will be simply another scientific discovery, and who the heck am I to cry 'Fraud'! We're not dealing with an arse like Ron Wyatt are we? No.
    So, have they? As far as I know they have nothing.
    Maybe I'm wrong? You tell me. Am I?

  23. Scott Church says:

    Hi Ark. I posted a few more thoughts at the followup post to this one. Regards.

  24. jerryxj says:

    too bad the initial theme of this post was allowed to go so far off track; i'm not sure how the reality of the OT affects the initial question of being good without God.

    in the absence of a supreme being there can be no such thing as good or evil; right or wrong. the simple proof is that there is nothing to break the symmetry. however, i think it goes even further than that: in the absence of a supreme being, the very concepts of good and evil cannot exist. it is analogous to the situation where if one were raised floating in outer space then the concepts of up and down wouldn't exist.

    in my (very limited) experience, atheist philosophers agree with this. as do a number of the atheists i have spoken with about it. however, here's the rub: i don't believe that any of them actually believe it. when they hear about some horrible atrocity that was committed their guts all recoil in horror just like any Christian's does. but then when the discussion turns to God they climb up into their ivory towers and prattle on about western patriarchal contemporary deconstructing no absolutes blah blah blah. they don't have the intellectual balls to follow the truth that their gut is trying to tell them. they dismiss their horrified feelings as 'cultural conditioning'. really? but aren't you smart enough to not listen to your cultural conditioning? then why do you insist on being fair, and honest, and good, and helpful, etc, in your dealings with others? but, sadly, as i have found over and over again, there is no catching someone in a logical error if their feelings are too strong against it.

    [Rescued this from the spam filter. Also, you have to put a slash in your close italics html tag (like this: </i> ) or the whole rest of your post will be in italics (fixed)---AW]

  25. Artie Whitefox says:

    No, emphatically, no. This sinful body and mind cannot do good without Christs mind being married to our mind.

  26. Richard Fox says:

    Of course the answer is No, but you don't need there to be a God to get to this answer. Presupposing the existence of a creator, and going further and making that creator to sources of all goodness and moral worth is really begging the question. If you believe that there is no moral creator, then defining what is 'good' becomes a problem. There is no objective meaning of the word 'good' - and therefore you can never, objectively, be 'good'. You might be able to do things that are more good than other things, but that is about it.

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