Can you live a moral life without Jesus?
Give it a second. No need to fire off a quick, easy answer. Hold the question before the mind. Look it over - is there anything you want to know before offering your answer?
There is for me. I need some clarification. “Live a moral life” is not extremely clear and would carry different philosophical freight depending on the mind that is entertaining the idea. Without descending into a debate over normative ethics, let’s help ourselves to some intuitive notions of morality. Good actions are better than bad actions. Being a good person is better than being a bad person. Let’s even go out on a limb and suggest that “goodness” involves the classic, time-honored virtues of courage, humility, thankfulness, charity, love, patience, etc… and “badness” involves the notorious vices of cowardice, greed, lust, pride, sloth, etc…
Let’s also say that a moral life is one where these virtues are manifested more than the vices. After all, the question wasn’t “live a perfect life” where you might demand a life of only virtue and no vice. We also probably aren’t too praiseworthy of lives that are only 51% virtuous and 49% vicious, so we can bump up the threshold of “moral life” to, I don’t know, 80-85% virtue?
Can we agree to pencil in this idea of “moral life” to assess our question: “Can one live a moral life without Jesus”? Okay, let’s do it.
Now, perhaps you think that human beings can’t or don’t live moral lives by that definition - we are too screwed up for that high of a bar. Maybe so. In which case, the addendum “without Jesus” doesn’t add any complexity - we are dead in the water morally regardless of whether Jesus is in the picture or not.
But let’s say it is possible for human beings to live a moral life for the sake of argument. Then, we might wonder whether this possibility is only unlocked by Jesus-involvement.
Segue to our other ambiguity problem: what does “without Jesus” mean in the question? If Jesus didn’t exist? Or if Jesus wasn’t doing something, or in particular doing something to actively help you?
Of course, the agnostic and atheist aren’t convinced that Jesus is risen, alive, and active in the world today, so I would suppose the answer would be an obvious “no” from them.
And yet, the theist might argue, and most do, that God grounds morality in some way; that objective moral values only exist because they are founded in God’s perfect character. And insofar as Jesus is God, then morality itself depends on Jesus. In which case, theists and atheists alike couldn’t possibly live a moral life without Jesus - because morality itself wouldn’t exist without him!
But leaving the metaphysics of morality aside for a moment, I take the heart of the question to be inquiring about the capacity of human beings to live good lives apart from the active influence of a relationship with the living Christ Jesus.
Suppose an adult, upon hearing about the great need in Africa for additional bed nets to help prevent people from contracting malaria from infested mosquitos, decides to give 30% of his income to this cause. In doing so, none of his responsibilities to community, family, self, and friends are neglected and he instead sacrifices the more self-focused pleasures like extra new video games or clothes. Has he done something of moral value?
It seems so. And yet, I did not feel the need to include Jesus in my telling of the story.
Now, this is but a single act. The question was about a moral life, not a solitary deed. Surely, individual morally praiseworthy deeds are accomplishable without assistance from Jesus. (Unless one is committed to a hyper-reformed perspective where all actions are “filthy rags” morally prior to regeneration).
And if lives are large collections of individual deeds (and of course, thoughts and character traits), then we might run the same calculation and Jesus-less story-telling for each of the acts that make up a life.
Here’s my take: Yes, you could live a moral life without Jesus. But, who wants to settle for just moral? There’s more to life than just doing the right thing, avoiding the wrong thing, or even going above and beyond the call of morality. There are great goods that constitute a flourishing life. I want the best. I want to experience the best possible life. The summum bonum - the greatest good.
Do we need Jesus for that?
Now you have my attention.
In this week’s episode, we explore some views of the atonement in Christian theology, that is, whether Jesus had to die and what was accomplished by his death on the cross. One view called the moral influence view or moral exemplar view, might be of particular interest to the above discussion. You can watch it on Youtube or listen on your favorite podcatcher.