I was reading an article the other day that asked a perennial question, can people be good without God? Well that depends on what you mean by “good.” Good is one of those words that is very flexible, that is, it’s meaning is determined more by the context in which it is used than a definitive denotation.
For instance, Jesus was asked, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answered, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone,” Mark 10:17-18.
In the context of this statement Jesus is making the point that God’s nature is so completely holy and consummately just that it is unapproachable by any human standard or example. Jesus could have as easily said, “No one is perfect except God alone,” because in this context good is a synonym for perfect.
The word good does not commonly mean perfect though. If we say, “She is a good woman,” we typically mean that compared to other women we know she is better in some respect in our estimation. She may possess a better character, be a better attorney, or can clean house better than other women, but we would be using the word “good” in a relative sense. We would not mean, “She is a perfect woman.”
So when we talk about being good, it is important whether or not we are talking about being good in a perfect sense or a relative sense.
So the answer would be yes, a person could be a good productive, contributing member of society and a law-abiding citizen in a relative sense without God. Society would have no right to expect that of each citizen unless we were capable of being good in this sense.
But the psalmist did not lie when he wrote, “There is no one who does good,” Psalm 14:1. None of us can say we have always done what is right in every situation all the time. All of us have sinned at some time, and more; none of us can say we are perfectly good.
It is those imperfections, that lack of perfect goodness, that makes us unfit citizens for the Kingdom of God. We may get by on our relative goodness here, but we cannot enter there unless we are perfectly good, and we cannot do that without God.
Since we were imperfect and incapable of perfecting ourselves, the Father “made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him,” 2 Corinthians 5:21.
Having been created in the image of God each of us are capable of great good, but having inherited our first parents propensity to sin we are also capable of committing great evil and often do. So you can be relatively good without God here, but will never be perfectly good enough without God to make it there.