Atheist Memes: ‘Christian Morality Is Self-Serving; We Do Good for Goodness’ Sake’

By Tom Gilson Published on December 15, 2018

So here’s how the challenge goes: Atheists’ morality is better than Christian morality, because Christians do good for a reward. Atheists do good for goodness’ sake.

It’s not the most prominent atheistic challenge, but it fits with a favorite Christmas song, so I thought I’d take it apart during this season and see what’s inside. It’s got two major parts to it. First, Christians are good so we can get a reward it. Second, goodness for its own sake is better than goodness for a reward.

So does that make atheist ethics better than Christian ethics? Let’s see.

1. “Christians are good so we can get a reward for it.”

Sure, Christians have a reward in the back of our minds when we think of doing good. No sense denying it. Without diving into the whole theology, Christians know we’re not saved by doing good. The “threat of divine punishment” in the meme isn’t removed by doing good, but by trusting in Christ. But still there are rewards in heaven associated with well-doing.

But that’s not so bad. 

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The reward is in the back of our minds, for one thing. When I do good for someone else, what’s (usually) on my mind is that I’m doing it for them. And honestly, I’m far from the best example. I know lots of other Christians who are more other-centered than I.

Second, what’s the reward? Streets of gold forever and ever? Sorry, but on its own that sounds boring to me. What I want is eternal fellowship with God. 

Knowing the Real Reward

Sure, I read the biblical descriptions and it looks pretty good: No crying, no tears, for “the former things have passed away.” Streets of gold, yes, that, too. 

But if someone told me that heaven would be all that without Jesus Christ, I’d turn and spit. The idea is appalling. What I really want in heaven is fellowship with the ones I love, especially with the greatest One of all, Jesus Christ.

Meanwhile, here on earth, when I do the right thing, I do it because it flows out of my desire to follow Jesus Christ — just because He is worthy of following. I’m hardly unique in that. It’s really the essence of Christianity. 

2. “Goodness for its own sake is better than goodness for a reward.”

This isn’t nearly as simple as it first appears. I can show you why with a simple example. I like to wash the dishes at home when my wife is away. (Honestly. Well, sometimes.) When I do it, that’s a good thing.

But why do I do it? One reason is because I know I’ll get a smile from her when she gets home. Sara has absolutely the world’s best smile, so that’s quite a reward for me. 

Spiritual Readiness Logo - 400

But I also do this clean-up so my own home looks better and is easier to live in. That’s a reward, too, isn’t it? Is it wrong to do good for reasons like that?

Back to Sara and her smile, though: I do the work for my own benefit, but I do it more happily when it’s going to make her happy.

It’s supposed to be that way, you know. If she didn’t find that a reason to smile, something would be amiss. Which is possible — she might have had a bad day. But maybe my work around the house made her happier than she would have been. Which makes me happy. Which is a reward. Is that bad?

Of course not!  If I didn’t enjoy making her happy I’d be a monstrous husband, a total louse.

Interwoven Happiness

So doing good for her is inextricably connected with making her happy, which is completely interwoven with my own happiness. There’s nothing wrong with motivations being tied together that way. It’s the way the world is supposed to work.

There’s nothing wrong with motivations being tied together that way. It’s the way the world is supposed to work.

Similarly, my love for Christ leads me to enjoy that idea that I’m doing well in His name — that in His own way, He’s smiling, too. That’s right, too, in just the same way. It’s the way the world was meant to work.

If only I did more good for the same good reason! But that’s another discussion. One I should have with someone else. Probably Sara. And pretty often.

The Best Example of Goodness Ever

So there isn’t much at all to this “superior morality” charge.

While we’re on the topic, though, let’s not forget this whole thing is about atheism supposedly being better than Christianity. For that, there is no better place to look than at our founder, Jesus Christ, whose total life was dedicated to others. He did not come to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).

You won’t find that kind of love anywhere else. Christianity that follows that kind of example is bound to be good, self-sacrificing, loving and genuine. Look in the right places, and you’ll see it: people living out that kind of Christianity. It’s a beautiful thing. And it’s good.

Part of a series on atheist memes.


Tom Gilson is a senior editor with The Stream, and the author of A Christian Mind: Thoughts on Life and Truth in Jesus Christ. Follow him on Twitter: @TomGilsonAuthor.

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  • Patmos

    “Herein is love, not that we love God, but that he loved us.” -The Apostle John

    The reward had already been given.

    “Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace.” -The Apostle Paul

    Perhaps the best part about scripture, besides the whole salvation unto glory thing, is that it usually shuts up atheists pretty quick. The only time it doesn’t is when said atheist is either too stupid or too stubborn to understand.

  • Guеst2O15.

    Actually, atheists do NOT do goodness, period. It has been well established that religious people are much more generous in charitable giving and in volunteer work than the non-religious. The next time one of the Christian-bashers says “You only do go because you want a heavenly reward,” tell him, “I like my way of doing it better than your way of NOT doing it.”

  • The problem that atheists have is deeper still – they cannot even define what is good. When pushed, they will justify horrific things. Mao was an atheist. He justified the murder of what, 10 million Chinese? Atheism has no built-in moral ground.

    • Right. Atheism has no inherent reason to do wrong, but it also has no inherent reason to do right (it’s short on reasons altogether); and there’s nothing in it to check the sinful nature we all share.

      • davidrev1911

        Amen! Furthermore, according to the worldview of the Bible: “specially-created” rational/moral atheists’ ideas of morality in the first place, would have to proceed-forth from their respective, though vehemently rejected “imago Dei”; i.e., the moral conscience of Roman’s 2:14-15 & Ecclesiastes 3:11 – aka philosopher Gilbert Ryle’s pejoratively labeled “ghost in the machine” – of which has been both indelibly & eternally inscribed upon their inner hearts/souls, by their NON-existent Creator. Just sayin’!

  • James

    Most atheists are really Christians who have rejected the supernatural while accepting major parts of Christian morality that have been transmitted through the culture. They like having a smug sense of moral and intellectual superiority and have not thought out the philosophical implications of their atheism.

    Nor have Evangelical Christians thought out the philosophical implications of salvation through grace alone or “once saved always saved”, which is what leads atheists to see Chistians as morally deficient. Why be good if one is not saved by works?

  • Andy6M

    Has the atheist thought through the implications of the fact that only the Lord is good? So in very real terms, doing good for goodness sake is doing good for the Lord’s sake.

  • apollo

    A system of right and wrong must be constructed and empowered. Why? To preserve the safety of the nation. Is that self serving? Of course it is .

  • Trilemma

    For most Christians that I know, the issue of divine retribution or divine reward is a settled issue so they’re doing what is right without the threat of divine retribution nor the possibility of divine reward. Often, Christians do good in the hopes of proselytizing the people they’re doing good to.

    • davidrev1911

      It is written, [to the children of God]:

      “Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality.

      “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation. Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “ Vengeance is Mine , I will repay ,” says the Lord.“

      “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:9-21/NASB)

  • JP

    No one does good for goodness sake.

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