Nobody’s Good Without God

Good without God?

"millions are good without god" billboard by in Moscow Idaho

I found a picture of a billboard put out by the American Humanist Society that says, “Millions are good without God.”  We tend to think that one of the main reasons to believe in God is because God guides us. He makes us good people. Specifically in Christianity, we deal with the concept of sin. We affirm that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We proclaim Christ as the remedy for sin. Without belief in those things, what are we left with? Is it possible for people to be good and to do good in the world apart from divine revelation?

Unbelievers, of course, would say, “You don’t need this belief system to be a good person. You can just be good. You can just do good.”  In researching this section of John, I came across a book entitled Good without God. In it, the author, Greg Epstein, says that humanists don’t just disbelieve in God, they believe in a better world. They don’t believe in an invisible being in the sky or a creator, but they do have values. Everyone can hold these values in common and so we can be good without God. Where does that leave belief in general for the humanists? They would say, “On the scrap heap.”

This question has a lot to do with what John is trying to tell us in his gospel. But before we really get into the book of John, I want to lay a little bit of background. 

The intellectual context of John’s Gospel

The gospel of John didn’t come into a world of credulity as we might assume. It came into a thought world that included skepticism and included even humanism.  There’s this guy named Heraclitus who lived 600 years before Christ. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says of him, “We might well think of him as the first humanist were it not for the fact that he does not seem to like humanity very well.”

Now, I would contend that anybody who sets out to be a humanist either just hasn’t met very many humans or hasn’t been around them long enough to come to dislike them as Heraclitus did. People are difficult.

But Heraclitus’ writings dealt a lot with the human condition. How should we live in this world and learn from this world?  So, he is a humanist in that the things he taught had to do with human behavior and what it means to be a human.

One of the major concepts that he innovated was the idea of the “logos,” which is often translated as “the Word” in English. He wrote, “Of this Word’s being forever do men prove to be uncomprehending both before they hear, and once they have heard it. For, although all things happen according to this Word, they are like the unexperienced experiencing words and deeds such as I explain when I distinguish each thing, according to its nature and show how it is.”

Heraclitus believed and taught that nature and experience are proclaiming a message. This word, “logos,” more accurately means a message or a discourse. For Heraclitus, underneath the way of things is a message about how to behave as humans.

Heraclitus not only spoke about the logos, but he also demonstrated it in his style of writing. He intentionally obscured his meaning behind his syntax. For instance, the previous quote from him, “Of this word’s being forever, do men prove uncomprehending.”

Now Aristotle, the genius, was one of those people who didn’t get Heraclitus. Aristotle read this section and thought Heraclitus must not have been very smart. He thought that since Heraclitus’ Greek was ambiguous his reasoning mustn’t have been very clear. Surely somebody who is a clear thinker could express themselves more clearly. Aristotle didn’t recognize that Heraclitus meant to be ambiguous to make a point.

This wording could be understood in one of two ways. First, it could be understood, “Of this Word’s being forever do men prove uncomprehending.” Meaning, of the eternal nature of the Word, of its transcendent existence, do men prove to be uncomprehending. But it could also be taken, “Of the existence of the Word, people are always uncomprehending.” If asked whether he meant one or the other, Heraclitus would have simply answered, “Yes.”  He structured his language to demonstrate that reality comes to us as a puzzle.  And that it is through solving the puzzle that we unlock life’s meaning.

Consider another Heraclitan saying, “ethos anthropoi daimon,” in Greek means, “The character of man is his luck.” In the Greek “character” and “luck” bracket “man.”  By placing “man” in the middle, he draws our focus to man as the actor. He’s saying that through good character a person makes his own luck.  He’s not just making a statement that if you do good, good things will happen to you in some karmic fashion. He’s saying that humans and their actions determine the outcome. Man forges his own character and in so doing makes his own luck.

So, Heraclitus used word puzzles to call people to wrestle with his teaching. The two grammatical devices we’ve seen so far are double entendre as with his statement about the people not comprehending the Word. The other device here we might call, strategic ordering.  I bring all this up because we’re going to see that John does the same kinds of things and uses many of these same devices. To unlock John, we must understand the thought world that he is writing into – a world that was influenced by Heraclitus.

With that context in place, I invite your attention to John 1:1-9. The theme of this section which I will unpack here is:

“Everything came from a relationship revealed through a person who shines through the darkness as the purest of light.”

“Everything came from a relationship…”

John chapter one verse one begins, “In the beginning was the Word.”

I had an atheist Western Civ professor in college who was diligent to point out that John plagiarized Heraclitus. I think he wanted us to see it that way. He obviously had his agenda. This conclusion fails to understand both John and Heraclitus. John didn’t start with “the word,” but with “In the beginning.” Heraclitus on the other hand taught that the universe had no beginning. He thought of existence as cyclical. That things were always coming into existence and being destroyed. John isn’t just borrowing from Heraclitus, but he is fusing together the Jewish revelation with Greco-Roman philosophy. “In the beginning was the Word,” is a brand-new concept. It’s a brand-new idea that is a bringing together of opposites. “In the beginning,” Jewish. “Was the Word,” Gentile.  He’s not borrowing from Heraclitus; he is owning Heraclitus.

Not only does John appropriate some Heraclitan ideas, but he also employs the philosopher’s literary devices. John 1:1 contains three statements about the logos. It says:

In the beginning was the Word.

And the Word was with God.

And the Word was God.

Notice the repetition. John’s language here seems superfluous. He could have said the same thing in one simple sentence like, “The Word, who is God, was in the beginning with God.” I’ve yet to find wasted words in the Bible, so I reject the explanation that John didn’t write well. John means to teach not only through straightforward statements but through the very structure of his words. He’s emulating Heraclitus.[1]

You remember how Heraclitus had placed the word “man” in the middle of “character” and “luck” and how that order shaped his meaning. Just as the philosopher used the order of three words to communicate two points, John here offers three statements about the Word to make two main points. He wants us to understand that these three statements each stand alone and work together. As with Heraclitus’ “man” in the middle, so John’s, “the Word was with God” is the central concept. The peripheral statements about the Word, then pair in turn with it. John wants his readers to know first and foremost that before anything else existed, there was a relationship. God has never been alone. He didn’t need to create to find companionship. He is the eternal partnership. His implicit preposition has always been, “with.” The Word was with God.

John wants us to know this point, but the rest of his prologue will only unpack two concepts. These two concepts emerge from a fusion of the outer statements in this trio with the one in the middle. So, point one can be stated, “In the beginning the Word was with God.” That’s what I’ll unpack in this exposition of John 1:2-9. In the next chapter, I’ll show how John 1:10-18 explains John’s second point from vs. 1, “The Word was God with God.” If I’m right about all of this, we should expect him to take up the idea of creation accomplished in partnership in the very next verses. Let’s look:

He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.

(John 1:2-3 NIV)

Creation is the result of a relationship. God didn’t create to find companionship, but creation has spun out of this eternal “with-ness.” This divine relationship, then, is the very basis of everything else that we experience or know. 

Like every relationship, this eternal one has a unique character. Here we find unique roles and a division of labor. The Word is the means whereby God created. There is also equality in that he says, “without him, nothing was made that has been made.” Both partners participated and both were essential. This statement suggests that the Word was uncreated.  If everything, absolutely everything, that has been made was made with him, that means he’s eternal and self-existent.  This is the relationship that is at the basis of nature and of our experience in the world.

“…revealed through a person…”

All of creation reflects the character of the divine relationship and Jesus is that character. Since the Word was the means of creation, he is the contact point between it and the Partnership. He is its representative. That means creation darkly reflects the Word. Notice John 1:4,

“In him was life. And that life was the light of all mankind.”


Heraclitus saw natural phenomena pointing to a transcendent message. He wasn’t wrong. He just didn’t look far enough. He didn’t recognize the personality behind that message. The interplay between light and life teaches us that you need one to have the other. This interdependence further teaches us about the nature of Christ and our need for him as his creatures. The Word contains life, and that life is light.

We get that life needs light, but how could life be light? How can the life force be a visible phenomenon? 1 John 1:2 says,

The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.


Apparently, (see what I did there?) life is something we can see just like light. We know that light is essential to physical life on this planet. By looking at nature, we can deduce a connection between the two. But there is a higher truth to learn. According to this verse life that can be seen is the eternal life. It’s something that was before creation. It’s something that is infused into creation, and it will continue forever. What is this life that is light?

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. 

(Ephesians 5:8-11 NIV)

What is moral/spiritual light? It is what is done in the physical light. Paul says that the disobedient do their dark deeds at night. They do it outside of the visible light.  This interconnection that physical light has to moral light exists because physical light came into existence through the relationship characterized by goodness, righteousness, and truth. Actions that harmonize with the eternal character belong in the full light of day. They please the Lord because they resonate with his own eternal nature which is light.

“…who shines through the darkness…”

We find glimmers of Christ’s light in creation, but this creation is fallen so it also obscures the divine light. We only see a light that is shining in a dark place.

Light shines in the darkness and dark and the darkness has not overcome it.

(John 1:5 NIV)

John in this verse employs Heraclitus’ double entendre. Compare the NIV rendering above with the King James Translation:   

And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

(John 1:5 KJV)

Besides the “eth’s” what other difference do you see? Did you notice that the NIV says the darkness didn’t overcome the light and the KJV says it didn’t comprehend the light? Unlike the archaic English, that’s a significant difference in the meaning don’t you think? Why would two sets of Greek scholars render this word so differently? Maybe it will help to appeal to a third party to settle the debate. Look at this translation:

And the light shines on in the darkness, but the darkness has not mastered it.

(John 1:5 New English Translation [NET])

The NET Bible retains the nuance of the original Greek word which could both refer to conquering someone or to understanding a subject. Translators must make tough decisions all the time especially when a word in the source language could mean many things in the target language. Both the NIV and KJV translate this verse accurately. Like Aristotle did with Heraclitus, the translators underestimated the sophistication of John’s language. The beloved disciple frequently uses ambiguous wording to convey two truths at once.[2]

That John means to use double entendre in this verse is borne out by the paradoxical nature of John’s straightforward statement, “The light shines on in the darkness.” The truth of this statement requires paradoxical conditions – it must be dark and there must be light. If the dark should have overcome the light, then it would no longer shine. If the dark should comprehend the light, then darkness would be dispelled. Both possible meanings of this Greek word must be retained for the verse to be true.

As we continue through John’s prologue (vs. 1-18) we’ll consider each meaning in turn. In the remainder of this section, we’ll consider the inability of the dark to extinguish the eternal light which has pierced it since the fall. In the next discussion on vs. 10-18, we’ll marvel with John at the mystery of unbelief in the face of him who is light.

Christians often make the mistake of thinking that every belief system until Christ was false. The earliest proclaimers of the gospel didn’t share that assessment. They understood that the light of God shone from a multitude of little lamps in every place and time through the human experience. One of God’s lanterns was John the Baptist.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.

(John 1:6 NIV)

God has been keeping the light on throughout the dark centuries by sending messengers. In the Hebrew tradition, they were called “prophets.” John the Baptist was the last of the prophets of the old era. I think for the writer of this gospel, John the Baptist embodied and represented all who’d held the prophetic office.

About the prophetic scriptures we find in the Old Testament, Peter wrote,

We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it.  As to a light shining in a dark place.

(2 Peter 1:19a NIV)

The best that scripture can be for us is a lantern or a lamp in the middle of the night.  It can’t dispel the darkness, but it can be “a lamp for my feet and a light on my path.”[i] The light shines in the darkness and the darkness hasn’t overcome it.

But surely God didn’t withhold light from everyone but the Jews for all the long ages. Could I suggest that John’s employment of Heraclitus’ ideas and methods are meant to include him among God’s little lamps? What’s more, John’s not the only apostle to refer to Heraclitus.

 Two verses down in 2 Peter 1 we find these words:

Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of scripture came about by a prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though humans, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

(2 Peter 1:21 NIV)

When Peter used the phrase that no prophecy of scripture is “of private interpretation,” he is using an idea that was first expressed by Heraclitus who wrote, “But although the logos is common, most people live as if they had their own private interpretation.”

Peter’s reference to Heraclitus suggests that he found value in the philosopher’s writing. Just like Psalm 19 says “the heavens declare the glory of God,” so John and other writers of the New Testament would agree that even though pagan peoples around the world, didn’t have their scriptures, they still had access to light. And that light, which is the logos, has been shining in the darkness. And it’s shown through people like Heraclitus.

The social light

Because John and Heraclitus were little lanterns in the middle of a dark place, we can’t expect perfect revelation. We’re only looking for glimmers of light despite the darkness. John 1:7 says,

He (John the Baptist) came as a witness to testify concerning that light. So that through him all might believe.


John did more than teach about the light; he testified. John’s Gospel is replete with courtroom imagery, and I think there’s a reason for that. John treats civil law as another example of the light shining in a dark place.

The Baptist doesn’t expect his audience to reach a verdict on hearsay but solemnly testifies to something he has seen. One of the great strengths of the Christian system is that it’s based on a claim of something having happened. The gospel is an event attested in the courtroom that is this world.  Consequently, Christianity affirms the value of testimony, legal systems, courts, magistrates, and rulers. Though fallen, they all reflect the eternal light which is the Word.

Colossians 1:15-16 says:

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.


Authorities and powers were created through Christ and for him. When we encounter them, we get a glint of the eternal light shining in the darkness. Generally, all around the world, rulers and laws are there to preserve justice and goodness.

To the Romans, Paul wrote of the civil authorities,

…they are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

(Romans 13:4b-5 NIV)

Paul agrees with John that civil laws are an expression of divine light. So, we should acknowledge that and submit to them for Christ’s sake.

Not coincidentally, Heraclitus taught that human legal systems were part of the logos. He wrote, “For all human laws are nourished by the one divine law. For it prevails as far as it will. And it suffices for all and is super abundant.”

Could I suggest that human law and even the Old Testament law, are attempts to codify the divine character? Law is a light shining in the darkness because it keeps evil at bay even though it can’t dispense with evil.

Here’s an example of law and its ability to keep the light shining in darkness:

For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married.  For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”  So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to,  because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him.

(Mark 6:17-20 NIV)

Herod Antipas wasn’t a great guy. Jesus called him a fox because he got his power through intrigue and trickery. Not very complimentary. Now for John, the law superintends over and presides over even rulers. And that’s necessary because there’s darkness and rulers become corrupt. John the Baptist holds Herodias accountable to the law.

So “Herodias, nursed a grudge against John.”

Some people hate the light. They have no use for it, especially when it indicts their actions. Her murderous hatred of John the Baptist was darkness intent on covering the darkness of her incest.

But that darkness couldn’t easily snuff out the light. Even her husband was affected by the light coming from John. Herod both protected John and enjoyed listening to him. Even a conniving, corrupt politician longed for the warming rays coming from the Word through his little lamp.

But John’s light wasn’t sufficient to dispel the darkness. This brings me to the fourth point of our main statement, “Everything came from a relationship revealed through a person who shines through the darkness and as the purest of light.”

“…the purest of light.”

Some say that God is too big for any one religion. They compare the differences between religions to blind men encountering an elephant. One of them feeling a leg might say, “An elephant is like a tree.”  Another feeling the tusk might think the whole animal is like a sword. Yet another might feel the trunk and say, “It’s like a snake.”

Before we as Christians dismiss that imagery, I want us to grasp that the blind guys are all right to some degree. They all are experiencing the elephant, but they are experiencing him in the dark.  John in his gospel recognized the light that has been, but he means to announce the end of darkness for those who comprehend the Word.

So, he writes of John, the Baptist, “He himself was not the light. He came only as a witness to the light.” (John 1:8 NIV)

John couldn’t dispel all the darkness around because he was affected by it. 

According to Matthew 11:2-3:

When John who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one to come or should we expect someone else?”


John, for all his wonderful service to God and his faith, had his weaknesses. And here his faith is beginning to crumble at the prospect of being imprisoned for life or being executed.

Heraclitus for all the things that he shared with humankind was also wrong about much. He finally faltered in his mission.  We’re told by a biographer that, “Finally he became a hater of his kind and wandered the mountains, making his diet of grass and herbs.”

He sounds a lot like John the Baptist.

But before we indict John too much, we must consider what Jesus said about him. Just after John’s messengers depart, Jesus turns to the crowd and he says, “Truly, I tell you among those born of women, there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist…” (Matthew 11:11a NIV)

But then Jesus says, “…yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Matthew 11:11b NIV)

With the coming of Christ, a new day has dawned – a new chapter in human history. Where everyone had glimmers of light now, as John 1:9 says, “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.” (NIV)

All those perceptions of that elephant are correct but incomplete. Christ is the whole elephant. Every positive message, every just law, every kind deed, or pleasant experience that we’ve ever had has always been just a reflection of the great and true light that is at the basis of all reality.

And he came into the world as an infant. This message was first given just before Christmas but has relevance to us all year long. Christ has become one of us to bring the fullness of pure light to us.

Nobody can be good without God.

Back to that billboard that said, “Millions are good without God.” Could this be true? Yes and no. I don’t disagree that there are millions of kind and compassionate people who don’t believe in a God. I think there are atheists who care about their neighbors, who love their families, who give to charity and work to improve the human condition. None of that means they are good without God. Just because they don’t acknowledge him doesn’t mean that the goodness that they long for and that they express doesn’t come from him.

All that is good and right in every society regardless of their religion reflects the light of God which is the Word. Nobody is good without God. They may try to deny him. They may reject him and disbelieve in him, but they are not good without him. Because he is the source of good.

Humanism can’t save the world. All it can do is try to undermine a fruitful worldview and salvage what’s left.

But we as believers, what should we do? We shouldn’t treat unbelievers as our enemies. We shouldn’t engage in works of darkness to resist unbelief. I have a picture here of that exact same billboard. Someone has spray-painted over the word “without.” I assume these were believers who vandalized someone else’s property. Maybe they thought they were defending God, but he doesn’t need them. At what time of day do you think these vandals did their work? Do you think it might have been under the cover of night? Do you think the civil authorities will reward these folks for their ”heroism”? This was a deed of darkness and those who claim to be in the light must do better.

"millions are good without god" billboard vandalized

Here are a few suggestions on how to celebrate the incarnation:

We should seek peace with everyone because that’s light. We should live unashamed. Not just choosing not to feel ashamed, but to make decisions that are honorable and open.

We should look for the positive and call out the negative. If we find ourselves in a conversation with unbelievers, we should point out the good that they do. We should celebrate and encourage them. It doesn’t mean that we’re somehow relinquishing our position or conceding the point. It just means that we recognize light when we see it.

We should read the Bible because it is a light in the darkness.

And then finally we should rejoice that Christ, the true light, has come.

[1] Even though Heraclitus had lived nearly 600 years before John, he’d had a major impact on Greco-Roman philosophy. We can’t be sure of the full extent because most of his works have been lost to antiquity, but we can know that he was quoted (and rebutted) by many influential philosophers over the intervening centuries before Christ.[1] In preaching the gospel to a pagan audience, John needed to account for Heraclitus’ influence. This was especially so since John’s works were most likely to have been written while he was ministering in Asia Minor and Heraclitus was from Miletus, a town in that region.

[2] This is especially so in John’s epistles.

[i] Psalm 119:103