In ultimate terms, no one can be classified as absolutely good. Even Jesus, who was absolutely good, in his humility, said, “Why do you call me good? There is none good but God” (Matthew 19:17). As the writer of Ecclesiastes observed, “There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins” (Ecclesiastes 7:20).
We are not speaking in ultimate terms here, but in relative ones. It is possible to be relatively good, as opposed to utterly evil.
Enter the Child
A baby is born morally neutral. It is neither good nor evil. Evil is as evil does. To be evil, one has to do evil. To be good, one has to do good. A newborn baby has done nothing. Yet at some point, a child grows up and can be described as “evil” or “good.” Jesus himself used this terminology when he said, “He [God] causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45b). There is a parallelism here: good = righteous, evil = unrighteous.
Somewhere between birth and becoming good or evil, a person makes decisions, based on acquired values, which way he or she will go. He or she then establishes a track record of behaviors that result in one becoming one or the other.
Of course many people are neither wholly good nor utterly evil, but a mixture of both.
Ultimately, what a person becomes in God’s estimation is based upon the values adopted throughout life. If we pull our values from the prevailing culture, we may end up valuing art more than morality, accomplishment more than goodness.
I once knew a woman who valued intelligence more than goodness. Her highest compliment to a person was, “You’re so smart!” Eventually she found a smart, wealthy man whom she seduced away from his wife, thus alienating his children from two previous marriages from him and from her. She eventually moved in with him, sharing in his wealth, and basking in his “smartness.” In her wake, she had left a trail of tears and heartbreak. She had no conscience problems with that, because she had been true to her value system: intelligence trumped goodness.
The ancient Greeks valued beauty more than goodness. If a child was born deformed, ugly or sick, they often abandoned it on a hilltop to die. They wanted only beautiful children.
Dennis Prager writes, “One of the Holocaust’s most important lessons is that the most cultured nation in Europe produced the death camps and the gas chambers. People often ask how the nation that produced Goethe, Schiller, and Beethoven could produce Auschwitz. But the question betrays the questioner’s belief in art as a generator of morality. A nation that produces great artists is no less likely to commit atrocities than one that produces great athletes” (Think a Second Time, p. 215).
Prager then describes the fact that Auschwitz had a resident orchestra and a commandant who was an accomplished pianist “who would spend his nights playing Schubert after having supervised the torture and gassing of thousands of people during the day” (ibid.).
Art is not character. Intelligence and achievement are not goodness. I would rather be married to a good woman (I am), than a woman of great accomplishment. I value goodness more than achievement. I know that people who value beauty, art, accomplishment and intelligence above goodness can easily turn their talent to evil, as did the Greeks, as did the Germans. It really does come down to values.
Dennis Prager also writes: “The most fundamental teaching of ethical monotheism is that any value, no matter how meaningful or beautiful, when divorced from goodness and God, can easily lead to evil. Put in theological terms, any value that becomes an end in itself can easily become a false god” (Prager, p. 214, emphasis his).
Forming Values in the Next Generations
If my wife and I had young children today, we would raise them to value values more than achievement. We would teach them that one good deed—a single act of kindness—trumps winning a baseball pennant, a soccer game, or earning a trophy in a spelling B.
We would explain that a man who sacrifices his life to save the lives of others is a greater man than one who wins a Nobel or Pulitzer Prize, or an Oscar. A Mother Theresa, who lived amidst the heat, flies, sickness, poverty and squalor of India to minister to people whom to her were religious “strangers,” is nobler than a person whose highest value is merely making money or accumulating political power for their own sake.
We would tell our children of a woman named Dorcas (Tabitha) whom God raised from the dead that she might continue her good works—deeds of kindness in which she provided clothing for those who needed it (cf. Acts 9:36-42, Matthew 25:36 – 40).
Achievement with Goodness
If one’s highest value is goodness, then all that one achieves will be turned to good in the world. If one’s highest values are smartness, accomplishment, beauty, power, wealth, honor and awards, then goodness can be lost in the shuffle and the door to evil thrown wide open, as it was in Nazi Germany.
It is possible to be moved to tears by great art, soaring music, and wonderful acting. But emotional gratification and uplift through art can result in moral desensitization. It can result in detachment from the real world, with its sufferings and needs. What begins as a momentary escape can grow into a consuming, diverting obsession.
Once goodness ceases to be a person’s most important concern, the categories of good and evil are downgraded into practical oblivion. If goodness is maintained as one’s primary value, then all one achieves will colored by that reality.
In the world of natural man, many things are valued above goodness: art for art’s sake, intelligence, achievement, ideology, politics, power, wealth, honor, recognition, education etc. etc. But as Dennis Prager writes, “It is one of life’s ironies that once a person dies, most of these accomplishments mean little to others. Every eulogy I have ever heard emphasized, when possible, the goodness of the deceased far more than professional achievements. It’s sad that it usually takes death to clarify what is most important in life” (Think a Second Time, p. 231).