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Can the Godless Do Good?

The Virtue of Our Non-Christian Neighbors

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Professor, Bethlehem College & Seminary

ABSTRACT: The apparent goodness of non-Christians can sometimes confuse Christians. Is this apparent goodness actual goodness — and if so, how does it fit with the Bible’s teaching that, apart from God, “no one does good”? Pastor-theologian Jonathan Edwards provides the categories for making sense of non-Christian virtue. According to Edwards, the apparent goodness of non-Christians is not merely apparent, but nor is it “true virtue.” Rather, it is limited virtue, which, though similar to true virtue from the outside, falls short of participating in the triune goodness of God.

Imagine you have a neighbor named Jim. You’ve lived near Jim long enough to know that he is generally kind and thoughtful. You know he spends quite a bit of time with his family, and he seems like a good husband and father. In addition, you know that Jim volunteers for several local nonprofit groups, including a soup kitchen and a homeless shelter. He also gives of his time to a refugee community near the neighborhood. For all you can see, Jim seems like a virtuous man.

But you also know that Jim is not a Christian. In fact, Jim has made it clear to you that he does not like to “talk about religion.” He doesn’t seem exactly antagonistic toward Christianity, but it’s clear that he is not a believer, and he seems (at least at this point) to have no desire to hear the gospel. So, how are we to think about the apparent goodness of Jim? The Bible attests that he is an unrepentant sinner still guilty before our righteous Lord (Romans 2:5; 3:10; 5:12; Colossians 3:25). Thus, can we accurately describe Jim, and other seemingly good non-Christians, as “virtuous” or “good”? Is there such a thing as “sinful goodness” — a seeming goodness that is, as far as we can see, not motivated or connected to the gospel of Jesus Christ? And more generally, what involvement, if any, should Christians have in “sinful goodness,” whether it is working with Jim or any sort of involvement in non-Christian organizations or efforts? In the following, I hope to suggest some answers to these questions.

“God’s essential triune being is the source of all moral goodness and love.”

One Christian thinker who has greatly helped me in thinking about such issues has been the great pastor-theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758). In the following, I will attempt to explain some of Edwards’s ideas concerning virtue (i.e., moral good).1 Though Edwards’s approach is not the only way to understand virtue, I think his deeply theological conceptions on the subject can provide us with some fruitful ways to think about the possibility of “sinful goodness,” and whether Christians should be involved with it in any way.

Fountain of Virtue and Love

Edwards rightly believed that God is the ultimate source of virtue and also of love. He affirms in Concerning the End for Which God Created the World, “The Creator is infinite, and has all possible existence, perfection, and excellence. . . . He is every way the first and supreme, and as his excellency is in all respects the supreme beauty and glory, the original good, and fountain of all good; so he must have in all respects the supreme regard” (8:424, emphasis mine).2 Edwards also saw God as the very “fountain of love, as the sun is the fountain of light.” And since “God is love” (1 John 4:8), and “an infinite Being,” Edwards further concluded that “God is an infinite fountain of love” (8:369). So Edwards held that all goodness and love are originally and essentially to be found within God’s divine being, and thus God is the ultimate ground for all that is virtuous and loving in all other (i.e., created) things.

In addition, Edwards believed that the love of God is most clearly displayed, at least in this world, in the love exemplified by Christ’s body — that is, by Christians (Ephesians 4:1–6; 1 Corinthians 12:12–20). But this was true, he believed, only because of God’s love within his own triune being. Edwards may explain this best in his sermon “Heaven Is a World of Love”:

Divine love . . . flows out in the first place [i.e., necessarily] and infinitely towards his only begotten Son. . . . He is not only the infinite object of the Father’s love, but he also infinitely loves the Father. The infinite essential love of God is, as it were, an infinite and eternal mutual holy energy between the Father and the Son, a pure, holy act whereby the Deity becomes nothing but an infinite and unchangeable act of love, which proceeds from both the Father and the Son. . . . [This] love of God flows out towards Christ the Head, and through him to all his members. (8:373)

Edwards saw individual Christian lives, when exemplified by virtuous love in obedience to God and service to others, as participating in the very outflowing and overflowing of God’s triune love and life.3 Edwards highlights this reality elsewhere in his work Religious Affections, noting that Christians are “being made partakers of God’s holiness (Hebrews 12:10), having Christ’s love dwelling in them (John 17:26)” (2:203). So Edwards believed that God’s essential triune being is the source of all moral goodness and love, and through the saving work of the Son and the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, God’s moral goodness and love can be seen in Christians’ virtuous character (i.e., growth in holiness) and obedient, loving action.

However, by emphasizing that only Christians participate in the loving and virtuous life of God, Edwards leads us to question whether non-Christians can ever truly possess love or ever truly have moral goodness. And regardless of what Edwards thought, if we focus on the clear biblical doctrine of human depravity (e.g., Romans 5:12–19; Psalm 51:1–4; Jeremiah 17:9), many Christians are doubtful, or at least suspicious, of any supposed true love or virtue within the life and activities of non-Christians. But as we’ll see, though Edwards affirms the original and natural sinfulness of unregenerate people,4 I believe he also shows real genius in thinking about the question of possible good or virtue within non-Christians. Let’s dig a little more into Edwards’s thought to see this.

Two Sorts of Beauty

Many have noted how Edwards’s theology makes the concept of beauty central.5 But since Edwards also closely ties the notion of virtue to beauty, it follows that virtue is also central to his theology. This idea appears in the very first sentence of his work The Nature of True Virtue: “Whatever controversies and variety of opinions there are about the nature of virtue, yet all . . . mean by it something beautiful, or rather some kind of beauty or excellency” (8:539). Edwards observes here that virtue, or moral goodness, is often equated with a certain kind of beauty.

But he goes on to clarify, “’Tis not all beauty that is called virtue” (8:539). This makes sense, for it would be strange, for example, to call a beautiful sunset a virtuous or morally good sunset. And clearly, a visually beautiful person is not necessarily virtuous or morally good simply for being visually beautiful. As the Bible warns, “even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14). This is why Edwards clarifies that virtuous beauty relates only to the “qualities and exercises of the heart, or those actions which proceed from them” (8:539).

We can summarize that Edwards believed virtuous beauty could be exemplified only in certain character qualities of personhood or the actions that proceed from such persons. For Edwards rightly recognized that the notions of moral praiseworthiness or blameworthiness seem to be applicable only for people and many of the actions they do.6

“Is there such a thing as ‘sinful goodness’ — a seeming goodness that is not connected to the gospel of Jesus Christ?”

Edwards builds upon this understanding of virtuous beauty by noting that there are people who “are truly virtuous, and others which only seem to be virtuous.” But interestingly, Edwards adds that those who seem to be virtuous can sometimes still rightfully be called virtuous,7 though only “through a partial and imperfect view of things; that some actions and dispositions appear beautiful, if considered partially and superficially . . . which would appear otherwise in a more extensive and comprehensive view” (8:539–40). Edwards goes on to explain what he means here by distinguishing between two sorts of beauty:

There is a general and a particular beauty. By a “particular” beauty I mean that by which a thing appears beautiful when considered only with regard to its connection with, and tendency to some particular things within a limited and, as it were, a private sphere. And a “general” beauty is that by which a thing appears beautiful when viewed most perfectly, comprehensively, and universally, with regard to all its tendencies, and its connections with everything it stands related to. The former may be without and against the latter. (8:540)

If this sounds a little abstract or confusing, he offers the following helpful illustration:

As a few notes in a tune, taken only by themselves, and in their relation to one another, may be harmonious; which, when considered with respect to all the notes in the tune, or the entire series of sounds they are connected with, may be very discordant and disagreeable. (8:540)

Edwards asks us to imagine a small part of a song that sounds beautiful by itself. However, as he highlights, it may turn out that once we hear the whole song (i.e., the general beauty), the small part (i.e., a particular beauty) might then be seen as actually discordant or inharmonious in relation to it. Edwards’s insightful point — which I want to highlight here and return to later — is not that the smaller part is therefore not beautiful, but rather that it is beautiful only in a limited or epistemologically constricted sense.8

Limited Virtue and True Virtue

But what do these two sorts of beauty have to do with what is morally good or virtuous? Edwards clarifies that “what I mean by true virtue . . . is [something] beautiful by a general beauty, or beautiful in a comprehensive view, as it is in itself, and as related to every thing with which it stands connected” (8:540). Edwards is thus claiming that some act, or some aspect of a person’s character, may appear virtuously beautiful when seen from a limited perspective. But when it is seen comprehensively, when that action or person’s character is seen in light of all the desires, intentions, persons, and outcomes that are all related to it (i.e., as seen from God’s omniscient perspective), it might be that it is not of the nature of true virtue after all.

In other words, some sinfulness may be mixed or connected with some examples of virtue or moral beauty. As with Edwards’s musical example, that does not mean that the particular action or aspect of the person is not virtuous or beautiful (i.e., particularly beautiful), but rather that the action or characteristic in question is not of the nature of true virtue (i.e., it is not generally beautiful).

But since only God knows whether a person’s character or actions are beautiful in this comprehensive way, how can we ever detect true virtue, even within our own selves? Since we’re not God, we can never have a fully perfect view of whether something truly contributes to general beauty in Edwards’s sense, even in our own selves. So this conception, though interesting, may seem only theoretical. But it’s important to see how Edwards fills out his notion of true virtue. He famously claims, “True virtue most essentially consists in benevolence to Being in general” (8:540). What does that mean? This phrase, also often expressed by Edwards as “consent to Being in general,” sounds more than a bit mystifying. But, though a strange-sounding phrase, Edwards gives us a fairly clear picture of how it relates to true virtue or general beauty.

As we’ve seen, Edwards thought being loving (or being benevolent) is central to virtue.9 He writes, “It is abundantly plain by the Holy Scriptures . . . that virtue most essentially consists in love” (8:541). But Edwards also thought that to be truly virtuous one has to love all beings, or as he put it, “Being in general.”10 So, according to Edwards, a person or action that is of the nature of true virtue is one that loves all beings — though he qualifies later that each being must be loved in its proper way.11

“Jim’s seemingly good actions and character are indeed morally good, but only in a limited way.”

Edwards thus did not believe that virtuous love should be distributed equally among all existing beings. As Michael McClymond and Gerald McDermott explain, for Edwards, “God is not merely one being among others but the source and ground of all being”; thus, “true virtue will always love God above all.”12 Or, as Edwards puts it, compared to God, “all the rest are nothing either as to beauty or existence” (8:544).13 In practice, Edwards’s approach to true virtue, or general beauty, can be recognized (to the extent we can) in any life lived, or action done, for the ultimate purpose of loving or glorifying God and loving others accordingly (i.e., properly).

In sum, then, a person’s actions or character are benevolent toward “Being in general,” or of the nature of true virtue, or contribute to general beauty, only when they show love to all other human beings properly, and love to God above all. No Christian does this perfectly, but for Edwards, no non-Christian can do this at all.

What to Think of ‘Sinful Goodness’

Edwards was a deep and intricate theologian, and so the above may all still seem fairly abstract. But I believe Edwards’s understanding of virtue and beauty can be very useful to us in thinking about Jim’s “sinful goodness.” There are many implications to draw from Edwards’s thoughts here, but given our initial questions, I’ll focus on just two.

First, Edwards helps us to explain how Christians can affirm that the virtue and love they correctly recognize among non-Christians, like our neighbor Jim, is indeed good and virtuous, though only in a limited way. With Edwards, the Bible attests that a non-Christian like Jim never pursues or exemplifies anything with the goal of glorifying God (Romans 3:10–12; Matthew 22:37). But Edwards suggests that we reject the tempting inference that all of Jim’s seemingly good actions and character are never good or beautiful in any sense. Rather, Jim’s seemingly good actions and character are indeed morally good, but only in a limited way — that is, they are short of being done or lived for the glory of God.

Edwards’s distinction between general and particular beauty can also explain why some might be tempted in the other direction to say that Christian and non-Christian examples of virtue are both equally good. Paul Ramsey notes that, for Edwards, non-Christian morality “both in its nature and effects greatly ‘resembles’ and is ‘agreeable’ to true virtue and readily mistaken for it.”14 For example, Edwards notes that one “reason why these inferior affections, especially some of them, are accounted virtuous is that there are affections of the same denomination [i.e., same name] which are truly virtuous” (8:616). For Edwards, virtue should be called virtue wherever it is genuinely exemplified, regardless of whether it is by Christians or by non-Christians.15

But Edwards’s conception of beauty and virtue pushes us to carefully distinguish the difference. For example, Edwards comments that many non-Christians have “something of the appearance of love to persons” and they perform many actions that “have a truly sort of benevolence to them,” but he is quick to add, “though it be a private benevolence” (8:609, emphasis mine) or particular beauty. In other words, though Jim sometimes displays love to family and neighbor, he does so only in a limited way.

If it seems that I am belaboring this point, it is because Edwards does so as well. He spends a significant portion of The Nature of True Virtue attempting to explain how non-Christians like Jim are virtuous without participating in the good and loving life of God.16 Edwards seems to feel the dual burden of acknowledging non-Christian morality while at the same time contending for the biblical truth that, apart from salvation in Christ, there can be no true love or virtue. Edwards’s conception of particular and general beauty instructively explains this seeming overlap of good as well as the theological gulf of difference between them.

Thus, following Edwards, Ramsey suggests we should cease speaking of two moralities (one Christian, the other non-Christian) and rather understand morality as being one reality, though having two radically different sources.17 This way of thinking about virtue should inform our topic at hand as well. Rather than thinking of Jim’s goodness as “sinful goodness,” it may be better to think of it as “limited goodness,” or, following Edwards, “a particular beauty,” a beauty that does not intentionally seek to contribute to God’s glory, but is beauty or good nonetheless. When our lost neighbor Jim is a loving father and husband, this is indeed good. And when Jim helps out at the local soup kitchen, that is indeed a beautiful thing. Thus, Edwards helps us to affirm that our non-Christian neighbors, to the degree that they are loving and good, can indeed rightly be called virtuous and good, though understood in a more limited or particular way — not intentionally for God’s glory.

A second point we can draw from Edwards here is that since we can recognize that particular beauty or limited virtue is sometimes exemplified in non-Christians, it follows that those non-Christian organizations or efforts that display love or accomplish some moral goodness, to whatever degree, are ventures we can correctly call good as well. I’m thinking especially of secular nonprofit groups and certain political organizations or affiliations. I believe Edwards helps us to see that Christians, by means of prayerful wisdom and prudence, can sometimes support such efforts with their time, money, or votes, though we should always understand that any good achieved by such efforts is only of a limited nature.

Instruments of True Virtue

This is a subject that deserves much more attention than I can give here. But let me offer one illustration by way of Edwards’s edited work The Life of David Brainerd, the posthumous diary of American missionary David Brainerd (1718–1747). Most of this inspirational book gives us insight into the prayerful heart of Brainerd, who greatly desired that the gospel of Christ would change the hearts of the Native Americans to whom he preached. At one point in his journal, Brainerd shares the following story:

The Indians [i.e., Native Americans] in these parts having in times past run themselves in debt by their excessive drinking; and some having taken the advantage of them, and put them to trouble and charge by arresting sundry of them, whereby ’twas supposed a great body of their hunting lands were much endangered and might speedily be taken from them; and I being sensible that they could not subsist together in these parts in order to their being a Christian congregation, if these lands should drop out of their hands, which was thought very likely; thought it my duty to use my utmost endeavors to prevent so unhappy an event. And having acquainted the gentlemen concerned with this mission of this affair, according to the best information I could get of it, they thought it proper to expend the money they had been and still were collecting for the religious interests of the Indians (at least a part of it) for the discharging of their debts and securing of these lands, that there might be no entanglement lying upon them to hinder the settlement and hopeful enlargement of a Christian Congregation of Indians in these parts. (7:358)

“All that is truly good and beautiful testifies to the reality of the Good and the Beautiful.”

Brainerd wisely understood that some efforts that were not directly related to gospel ministry (e.g., helping to belay others’ financial debts) could nonetheless have possible importance for gospel ministry. Or, using Edwards’s language, we might say that Brainerd understood that some particular beauties might prove helpful in contributing to general beauty — that some limited goods might serve, instrumentally, in contributing to the general beauty of seeking God’s glory.

However, even when limited goods have no clear relation to gospel ministry, that still does not mean they are not beautiful or moral goods, nor does it necessarily mean that Christians should not support them. I agree with Edwards that if the intentions of one’s actions are central to true virtue, then any particular beauty or limited good, done for the glory of God, has the potential to contribute to — or at least reflect — the primary beauty of God’s glory.

Edwards notes, “It pleased God to observe analogy in his works . . . especially to establish inferior things in analogy to superior. . . . And so he has constituted the external world in an analogy to things in the spiritual world” (8:564). As the apostle James writes, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” (James 2:15–16). The Bible tells us here that failing to provide clothing or food to those in need (both limited goods) is not good, which implies that attempting to provide such is good.

And many efforts, even if primarily sponsored or organized by non-Christians like Jim, can help to promote such goods, and thus Christians can and should support such efforts in good conscience. Of course, Christians must always wisely and prayerfully approach any non-Christian organization or cause. But this is true even when considering any explicitly Christian organization or cause that a Christian might support.

Pointers to the Good and Beautiful

There is much in the world around us that is done in the name of good but, according to God’s word, is not necessarily so (1 Samuel 16:7; Isaiah 5:20). But there are also examples of non-Christian efforts and people, such as Jim, that are morally good and beautiful, even though mixed. This can be confusing to Christians. But Edwards helps us to see that such people and efforts can still rightly be called good, and that supporting such limited goods with our time, money, or votes can indeed contribute to, or at least reflect, the general beauty or true virtue that can be found only in God.

So, let us affirm what is good and beautiful in the world as we Christians are primarily about the business of seeking the true virtue and primary beauty of glorifying God. But let us also prayerfully consider what sorts of non-Christian efforts we might support as well. For all that is truly good and beautiful testifies to the reality of the Good and the Beautiful.18

  1. Modern ethicists normally use the word virtue as particularly referencing certain moral qualities or certain dispositions to moral behavior. E.g., Louis P. Pojman and James Fieser, Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong, 7th ed. (Boston: Wadsworth, 2006), 146–47. However, here I will be using the word virtue the way Edwards and other eighteenth-century thinkers used the term, which meant something more like our general conception of moral goodness. Thus, by this proposed use, a moral action, as well as a moral personal characteristic, can accurately be described as virtuous. 

  2. Throughout this essay, Edwards’s writings will be referenced by using the volume and page numbers from The Works of Jonathan Edwards, ed. Harry S. Stout, 26 vols. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977–2009). 

  3. Edwards implies here that when Christians sin they are not at such times exemplifying the triune love or virtue of God. Edwards clearly believed that Christians can and do sin. The main theological point he is emphasizing here is that when Christians do exemplify virtue and love, they do so only as the result of a participation in the very triune love of God. 

  4. Edwards wrote an entire book explaining his understanding of this doctrine: Original Sin (WJE vol. 3). 

  5. Several important works that address the centrality of beauty in Edwards’s theology include Roland Delattre, Beauty and Sensibility in the Thought of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1968); Yin Kip Louie, The Beauty of the Triune God: The Theological Aesthetics of Jonathan Edwards (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2013); and Michael J. McClymond and Gerald R. McDermott, The Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 93–101. 

  6. More precisely, Edwards held that any creature with perception and will (what he calls heart) is capable of, or was originally capable of, exemplifying virtue to some degree. This would include angelic and demonic beings, and most essentially God himself. For simplicity’s sake, I am focusing only on human beings here. 

  7. On this particular point, Edwards is not thinking of hypocrisy — that is, someone who only appears virtuous but in reality is not. Rather, he is referring to someone who is virtuous, but only in a limited sort of way (which will be explained further). 

  8. A corollary of Edwards’s conception is also the possibility that a small part of an artistic work may appear to be less than beautiful taken by itself, but when seen in light of the whole work, it may turn out that it contributes to the overall beauty. Thus, the smaller part would be correctly seen as less than beautiful only in a more limited sense. This has massive implications, I believe, for thinking about the old so-called problem of evil, which I unfortunately don’t have the space to address here. 

  9. Similar to other eighteenth-century thinkers, Edwards makes a distinction between two kinds of love: complacence and benevolence. Complacence has its place in Edwards’s thought, but it is not, as far as I can see, central to his understanding of virtue. Therefore, I don’t address Edwards’s understanding of complacence here. 

  10. He clarifies this in The End for Which God Created the World: “being in general . . . the sum total of the universal existence, both Creator and creature” (8:423). I want to express deep appreciation to Walter Schultz for pointing me to this quotation. 

  11. I don’t have the space to address the details here, but Edwards believed that every being had its proper obligatory value due to each being’s ontological level of being in conjunction with its moral value level of being. One helpful way I’ve found to understand the “consent to” or “benevolence to Being in general” is that it is Edwards’s philosophical way of summing up the two greatest commandments (Matthew 22:34–40). A full understanding of this strange wording relates to Edwards’s interaction with the thought of Scottish thinker Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746), which I don’t have space to address here. See Delattre, Beauty and Sensibility, 194–96, or McClymond and McDermott, Theology of Jonathan Edwards, 215–16, 522–23, for further details. 

  12. McClymond and McDermott, Theology of Jonathan Edwards, 535. 

  13. Edwards’s comment here is not that everything other than God is completely valueless. Rather, he is emphasizing that everything other than God is practically valueless in comparison to God

  14. Paul Ramsey, “Introduction,” WJE 8:33. 

  15. Technically, Edwards seems to think that both Christians and non-Christians can practice only certain virtues that share the same name, like pity and gratitude. I’m not exactly sure why Edwards delimits the naming of shared virtues, but it seems to me that his conception can generalize to most any virtue. For a discussion of this, see McClymond and McDermott, Theology of Jonathan Edwards, 541–45. 

  16. Though a bit of an exaggeration, I note that most of the eight chapters (II–VIII) in The Nature of True Virtue primarily deal with the subject of how non-Christians can be moral. Some parts of these chapters deal specifically with Christian morality as well, but this imperfect observation makes my point. 

  17. Ramsey, “Introduction,” WJE 8:54. 

  18. Jonathan Edwards’s understanding of virtue is much richer, and overall much less philosophical, than what I’ve presented here. For those who may think that Edwards is far too philosophical here, see his collection of sermons on 1 Corinthians 13, entitled Charity and Its Fruits (in WJE vol. 8), which addresses these same issues but in a much less philosophical way. 

is assistant professor of philosophy and theology at Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis, Minnesota. James completed his PhD in philosophy at The Ohio State University and his MDiv at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Cindy, have been married for 25 years and serve together in ministering to college students.