Can Unbelievers Be Moral?

By Elias Ayala (MDiv & M.A.T.)
A Spiritually Sensitive ApologeticYes, I believe that unbelievers can be moral people. We need to make a distinction however, between the idea of morality as understood by people, and morality as understood as behavior that is in line with what God deems to be moral. The Bible teaches that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). The Bible also teaches that “there is none who is good” (Romans 3:10-12).

Yet, the Bible does give examples of evil men doing good (Matthew 7:11); so what gives? Well, I would make the distinction between horizontal goods and vertical goods. Horizontal goods are goods as seen from a human perspective. For example, it’s good for an atheist to give to charity. It’s good for an atheist to share his lunch. It’s good for an atheist to walk an old woman across the street. However, because the Bible also says that anything that is not of faith is sin (Romans 14:23), such actions done independently of faith (i.e. within the context of pleasing God), are not themselves spiritually pleasing to God. One could conform to the law of God externally, but one does not truly conform to the law of God unless the external conformity is joined with the internal conformity.

The Bible teaches that in that vertical sense, no man is good, or at least those who do not know Christ, do not perform moral acts in the vertical sense, that is to say in the sense that it is pleasing to God. I think that’s a very important distinction to make, because I’m not saying that unbelievers cannot be moral from a human perspective; indeed, in this sense I believe they can and often are to the extent that some unbelievers put many believers to shame.

What about this idea of the possibility of being moral without “belief” in God? Can an unbeliever be moral without “belief” in God. Yes, they can. But, belief in God is not the issue for something to be objectively moral. Rather, it is the “existence” of God. If God does not exist, there is no ultimate standard of morality. But if someone does not believe in God, their belief or disbelief has no bearing as to whether God actually exists. And if God actually exists, then there is an objective moral standard regardless if the person chooses to adhere to that standard or acknowledge the God in whom those standards are based.

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