Can an Atheist Love Anyone? Is Anyone Who Loves a Good Person?

02 Nov

Seriously Sirius?: “We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.”


This was a question from a student:

The Bible says that God is love. Does that mean that anyone who loves is a good person? Can an atheist love anyone?”

And is this doable?


I will get to an answer below. First, however, we must focus on some preliminaries, on “the spirit of the age”.

In one sense, there is much truth in what this man says… :

There is no doubt that an element of the truly righteous life, or good life, is that it is characterized by real love and compassion which does not think about rewards, comes spontaneously comes from the heart, and shares the love of God with all people (see, e.g., Deut. 11).

That said, here is the answer you will be hearing from some who carry Martin Luther’s name–and from some quarters of the American evangelical churches–more and more:

The truly righteous life, or good life, is always about compassion (acts perceived as compassionate!) which never thinks about rewards, always comes spontaneously from the heart, and never fails to indiscriminately share the love of God with other full human beings in equal measure.

See what I did there?


And, importantly, you will also hear (no doubt!) the following:

We are all broken people, with good and evil inside of us, and what really matters is that you do your best to live a righteous life.

If you at least struggle in your soul to overcome this evil in yourself…. If you really just want to live the kind of honest and righteous life Nadia Bolz-Weber speaks of, you are on the way, on the side of the angels…

After all, you might hear “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God…”


And Biblically speaking, this message–while certainly having the capacity to appeal to many persons from all tongues, tribes, and political preferences–is massively messed up. It confuses what we might call “civil righteousness” with the righteousness that avails before God, and it even, leaving no room for passages like I Tim. 5:8, Gal. 6:10, Eph. 5:22, and I Cor. 6:9-10 for example, throws real civil righteousness under the bus.

And–importantly!–note that as Pastor Todd Wilken puts it, here “the Simul,” which is how some Lutherans have come to describe Paul’s description of a Christian continuing to struggle with sin (see Romans 7), now “applies to everyone, believers and unbelievers alike. It is truly a different gospel.”

When it comes to what Bolz-Weber is striving to achieve though, we must acknowledge the utter brilliance of what she is doing here.

First of all, she is correct in pointing out that the early church fathers do not always seem to see the pleasure of sex as a gift from God, which it clearly is (see the Song of Solomon and many of the Proverbs).

Second, even before the most recent issues regarding the Roman Catholic churches scandals, many have been rightly calling into question Rome’s insistence on mandatory celibacy for priests–and with this, of course, the necessary rejection of Paul’s apostolic advice in I Cor. 7:1-7 (see this post for the best analysis I have seen on this issue).

The symbolism rejected, the substance? Not so much.


Third–and most unexpectedly–because even among some of the most theologically conservative Christians most of them believe that in Romans 7 the Apostle Paul is speaking about his life before becoming a Christian… Even the the Reformed camp (i.e. derving from Calvin, Zwingli and co.), seemingly sharing the “Protestant Reformation” with the Lutherans, are very much divided on this text.

All this said, what Bolz-Weber is saying is truly is a different Gospel, and sadly, as Pastor Wilken has seen more clearly than most, there are many on this train fixated on “the Simul,” even if they do not intend to undermine biblical truth.

And note “1517. and Christ Hold Fast are the same thing” — Dan Emery Price, Christ Hold Fast founder.


How different are today’s “conservative” Lutherans–who sometimes, for example, carelessly double down on things on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation–from the Great Reformer himself! (just see the introduction to my paper recently published in Concordia Theological Quarterly here).

As the Reformation progressed, Luther–to say the very least!–grew more and more cautious when it came to downplaying the role of God’s law, confirmed in the Scriptures, in the life of the believer.

Note Carl Trueman’s words on the White Horse Inn blog:

In the early years of the Reformation, Martin Luther was so carried away by his recovery of the doctrine of justification by grace through faith that he believed that little positive moral teaching was necessary in the church: believers would simply spontaneously respond to God’s grace by performing works of love. Luther assumed that Christians would know what such works were, but by the late 1520s, it was clear to him that this was not the case—the church required careful and precise moral guidance; the rhetoric of ‘just do works of love’ was a dictum into which Christians could pour any content and none, as the fancy took them. (This was the primary concern which lay behind his composition of his Small and Large Catechisms.)

While I think it is largely inaccurate to say that the “earlier Luther” thought believers would just spontaneously respond to God’s grace by performing works of love,” (just see 1520-1528 here and “tolle lege”) this quote is significant for what it is correct about: we “require[] careful and precise moral guidance”.

What can be done about the great problems we face today? Even relatively good secular men like Jordan Peterson have absolutely nothing to offer vs. Bolz-Weber’s teaching, but can only go along with it while urging caution and mild pushback, at the most saying something like this:

“In the long term, more extreme forms of what she proposes, in all likelihood, won’t work…”

“The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” — Jeremiah 17:9


Why is this all that can be said? Because the “knowledge” among even “conservative” elites of influence is no longer something like “justified true belief,” but rather “conceivable, useful trust”: a lethal cocktail usually consisting of thoughts cobbled together from modern men like Charles Darwin, Georg Hegel, Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, and William James.

Not Jesus Christ!

Thomas Lemke: “Be careful how you speak…”


What to do?

What should we say to a man, for example, who feels his relationships are healthy and strong and who is sure he trusts in Jesus Christ, but does not seem to call “sin” what Scripture calls sin?

“Being a human is a paradox. There is no purity to be had here…”


What if he is content “killing his old Adam”–keeping his flesh down–only by engaging in the good deeds he is “passionate” about and is convinced are helpful to his neighbor (perhaps to him, the ethics of Aristotle, Kant, or even Nadia Bolz-Weber, for example, are more or less synonymous with “God’s Law,” or, scratch that, “God’s [evolving] will”)?

What do we do if such a person insists that they have no need of warning or correction?

What do we do when, for example, even seemingly devout Lutheran Christians who are clearly brilliant are also clearly laying the groundwork for the erosion of God’s law among the faithful in the name of love? Or can’t see what is directly in front of their faces? What do we say to persons who insist on using pious-sounding phrases like

  • “God’s law is not a window through which we inspect other people’s sins, but a mirror to reveal our own,” or
  • “You may use your conscience to guide your behavior. You may not use your conscience to guide my behavior,” (more here) or
  • For Luther, the Old and New Adam, or Eve, are clearly bound in a life and death struggle within each person.

Or, maybe they even insist that, while they believe in the inerrancy of the Scriptures, there is much that the Apostles got wrong….

“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” — Hebrews 4:12 (also see Isaiah 30:8)


With all this on the table for our consideration, we are now ready–finally!–to give a biblical answer to the student’s question:

First, we should be very careful about how we address this question. What should we say about the two non-Christians who fall in love? Or even the worldly caddy who really does care, at some level, about the golfer he makes big money from?

When I John says that the one who does not love does not know God, it does not mean that the one who shows love in just any way knows God the way one needs to know God….

After all, do we not all live and move and have our being in God? When the popular writer Frederick Buechner blogs “To love God is to be saved. To love anybody is a significant step along the way…” what should be our response? Does Paul not say God fills the hearts of even pagans with joy (Acts 14)? So, if this is the case, what could be wrong, or incomplete, about such love?

God’s child, Richard Dawkins (Acts 17:29), expressing true joy from the Lord (Acts 14:15).


Here, we are in part talking about a “first article” [of the Apostle’s Creed, which deals with God as Creator] kind of love – i.e. love that is a residue or continual fallout from creation itself, by the Creator who is love.

This kind of love for neighbor, although something you certainly would like to have in a neighbor (as opposed to the alternatives!), is severely deficient because:

  • a) It is not bolstered and informed by an underlying love for the Triune God, and hence its ultimate hope and expression is not the salvation of the whole world – i.e. people’s rescue from sin, death, and the devil and growth in eternal life, that is, knowing God through His Son, Jesus Christ (John 17:3), and
  • b) A lack of godly purity or holiness in fulfilling this love – which of course is supposed to flow through us unhindered from God and for our neighbor, devoid of any false motive or desire

“The law is spiritual.” — Romans 7:14


The believer in Christ, on the other hand, lacks the love they should have in the sense of b) above (not a). But–critically!–they also know God as He reveals Himself to us in Christ, that is, as the friend of sinners who do not love as they ought.

We need to talk in a certain way about these things. The best way is the way of the first Lutheran Reformers, who contra what many say today, never rejected the best of classical philosophy:

“…our relationship with God is based upon the essential righteousness of Christ, sacrificed for us. Within that relationship, God would make us, by His Holy Spirit, also essentially righteous [where we reflect the love of Christ (God)]. This work He begins in our baptisms and brings to a completion in the resurrection.” — my pastor

Again–it mattes not whether someone like Pastor Cooper nails the exact specifics here–this love of God, this “essential righteousness” in line with God’s Ten Commandments, is very different than the world’s “love”.

To take just one jarring example, as I noted in a previous post, “Nancy Pearcy, in her fantastic recent book Love Thy Body, has many important tidbits to share–tidbits that show Christianity as a constant that moves the world, not vice versa…:

  • “We should never defend Christianity by saying it is traditional. From the beginning, it has stood against the traditions of its day” (70).
  • “Beginning in the fifth century, Christian leaders finally began to wield enough political influence to pass laws against sexual slavery…The most reliable index of how deeply Christianity had permeated a society was whether it outlawed sexual slavery” (72).
  • “[In ancient Greece and Rome] brothels specializing in sex slaves, including children, were a legal and thriving businesses… Jesus shocked his contemporaries by treating children not as contemptible but as valuable…” (104-105).
  • “Scripture offers a stunningly high view of physical union as a union of whole persons across all dimensions” (138).
  • “The communion of male and female is meant to mirror the communion of divine persons within the Trinity” (139).

Um, no: “[Christ’s] gift is an F-You to the Law that would forbid your entry into paradise.”

  • “Some of the early martyrs were slaves who proclaimed their freedom in Christ by refusing to [sexually] service their masters – and were executed for it” (143).
  • “Christianity, we might say, invented consensual sex when it developed a sex ethic that assumed that God empowers individuals with freedom” (143).
  • “When we make sexual decisions, we are not just deciding whether to follow a few rules. We are expressing our view of the cosmos and human nature” (156).”

Um, no: “Do you renounce the lie that Queerness is anything other than beauty?” And the youths dutifully chanted back: “I renounce them.” (from here).


I went on to build on what Pearcey had to say:

“We are expressing our view of the cosmos and human nature” not only as regards sexual decisions but about politics as well. After all, most political action — that is the governance of human beings in the world — happens organically with marriage, i.e. at the level of the family the one flesh union creates. It should therefore be no mystery why marriage is the ultimate icon of Christ and His Bride, who is the Church — the mother of the children of God who guides them to their Shepherd-King.

Renew true love in your Church O Lord! Do not let our love grow cold!

“Christians love. So do those people. But a Christian would not want them to perish.” — Martin Luther


And when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?

Have mercy Lord.

Be gracious Lord…




Posted by on November 2, 2018 in Uncategorized


7 responses to “Can an Atheist Love Anyone? Is Anyone Who Loves a Good Person?

  1. Chris

    November 2, 2018 at 1:00 pm

    That is a great question from your student too. There is a lot of deep philosophy and theology at play.

    I would say that all of our actions participate in what is good in various degrees.

    In Thomistic philosophy, it is claimed that humans always do what they think is good. In fact, it is impossible not to. Unfortunately, sinful humans often act towards what is only perceived goods and not what is truly good. This would be the case when a drug addict takes more drugs. Here someone is doing something that is inherently bad because, on some level, they actually believe it is doing them some kind of good.

    Humans can also do acts that are inherently good, but without God as the ultimate end towards your acts being ordered, it is only partially good. This is why someone who doesn’t believe in God at all can still do good. They can of course also love as love is the ultimate expression of what is good.

    I think you are spot on Nathan in your section talking about the first article of the creed. Jesus said the two greatest commandments are to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. We all fail at both in various degrees. The love for God must be primary as God is the source of love and goodness itself. As an atheist flatly rejects the first greatest commandment, they can only participate in the love of neighbors in a partial way. The fullness of love is only achieved in acts ordered towards our creator. Christians, too, often fail to love God and our neighbors as completely as we should. But, there is certainly a sense in which the Christian in participating more fully with God’s love.

    And, of course, participating in this fullness love is only possible because God is working it through us. He is the one that gives us faith.

    If you love me, you will keep my commandments.

    God’s peace,

    • Nathan A. Rinne

      November 2, 2018 at 4:08 pm


      A lot of good stuff there. I did not approach this post from the perspective of Thomistic philosophy, but I certainly think there is a level of compatibility here (how can there not be, insofar as an essential natural law is asserted?).

      “In Thomistic philosophy, it is claimed that humans always do what they think is good.”

      Sounds like that comes from Socrates. But even pagans know they don’t do this, seeking, for example, fleeting pleasures, when they know better… This is the whole Augustinian point about them having “first and second order desires”. First order desires are things that we desire. Second order desires are desires about other desires: this often means desires deployed to counter other desires (as there is a conflict here – perhaps we recognize that our first order desires are wrong or harmful).


  2. Chris

    November 2, 2018 at 1:03 pm

    My original comment didn’t post the first time, so I am trying it here again. Sorry if it ends up as a duplicate, Nathan!

    To speak of the simul as Nadia does above is to completely misunderstand what good is. Nadia appears to be saying that because we are saint and sinner in this life, that what is bad (sexual impurity) is actually good. Surprise, surprise, yet again I would argue this is a glaring indication of what happens when the modern world rejects (or doesn’t know) the metaphysics of classical theism. This is only possible when you don’t see the teleology that is in all of God’s creation.

    It is sad because Nadia even makes a bit of reference to a teleological concept when she is speaking of the design of the clitoris. What she is saying here is absolutely true. This is teleological talk. But it is a wild turn of logic to say that because sex is pleasurable, one should be able to “sexually forage”. And also, “we have inherited ideas about family, about marriage, about property, about gender, from a time in which it was the way it kind of had to function. That is not how it has to function now.”

    We can’t just pick and choose when we are going to use the realities of being to make our case for what is good. The reality of sex is that is unitive (brings couples together through intimacy and pleasure) and procreative (makes babies). The teleology of the sexual act is that it is ordered towards making kids and making families. The denial of this is to confuse bad with good.

    The simul is not freedom to do bad. It is a description of the fact that even Christians continue to do bad. Whenever we do, what marks a Christain as such is we realize our sin and we repent. If you do not repent of your sin, you are rejecting the gospel. This is what mortal sin is. The gospel is not freedom to live a life of mortal sin.

    • Nathan A. Rinne

      November 2, 2018 at 4:13 pm


      Being simultaneously saint and sinner is something unique to the redeemed. We might think that natural man has some kind of an approximation of this (the devil and angel on the shoulder), but it is not really there in the Christian sense at all.

      “This is only possible when you don’t see the teleology that is in all of God’s creation.”

      Chris, my friend… Surely you know that “Christ has set us free from the teleological life, the life that aims at some kind of ideal” (Steve Paulson, quoted on 324 in The Necessary Distinction).


      • Jon Alan Schmidt

        November 2, 2018 at 5:27 pm

        Nathan, guessing sarcasm here; you really should flag it when you use it so that people do not get the wrong idea.

      • Folly of the Cross

        November 2, 2018 at 6:11 pm

        “Being simultaneously saint and sinner is something unique to the redeemed.“

        Just in case there was any confusion caused my part, I completely agree. I really like Joel Biermann’s 3 kinds of righteousness framework. It shows that all people are capable of doing good in some capacity in the civil realm, believers and nonbelievers alike. This is righteousness corum mundo. Only Christians are capable of doing that type of good work resulting from being regenerated as a Christian. This would be the category of people that are saint and sinner. Of course, the only righteousness that counts towards salvation (corum deo) is Christ’s alien righteousness that is given to us as a gift and we passively receive through faith.

        This all said, a nonbeliever is still able to participate in good works to some degree. This gets back to the idea that what makes something good is how much it is acting in accord with its telos/nature. This is a teleological view of ethics/morality. The regenerate Christian who is saint and sinner is on the path of sanctification and more fully participating in their telos. They, hopefully, are doing more good works because it is what we were made for (Ephesians 2:10). The unregenerate can still participate in good works to some degree, but they are not on the path of sanctification resulting from being justified. Without God as the basis for their works they are only good in a lesser degree compared to works done through faith for the love of God. For either group, though, none of these works merit our justification before God.

  3. Nathan A. Rinne

    November 3, 2018 at 8:38 am


    Thanks for your concern. You’re right. I probably should not assume as much about my audience as I do.



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