Can A Human Be “Good”? Understanding Jesus’ Words in Mark 10:18

Here’s the passage that so many take as a concrete rule that cannot be broken, from the words of Jesus himself:

Mark 10:18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. (ESV)

Many will read this and take it as a clear statement of irrefutable doctrine—that humans simply cannot be good.  Now, the Greek word for “good” here is agathos (ἀγαθός).  You can read all about it here. But I’d like to start this article right away by giving you a reason to pause before continuing on in the traditional understanding of this saying of Jesus.  That is, I think some more thinking is in order to determine just what he meant to convey here.  And why is that?  It’s because agathos is used many times in the New Testament to speak of humans (other than Jesus)—so it appears that the authors of these passages did not seem to be working under the doctrine assumed by so many who read Jesus’ statement today.  Let’s take a look.

Matthew 5:45b  …For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good (agathos), and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
What sense would it make to speak of the evil and the good if there were no good humans?

Matthew 12:35 The good (agathos) person out of his good (agathos) treasure brings forth good (agathos), and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil.
Why say this at all if it were impossible that there could be a good human?

Matthew 22:9 Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.’ 10 And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good (agathos). So the wedding hall was filled with guests.
Why include good people in the parable if Jesus knew that good people do not exist?

Matthew 25:21 His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good (agathos) and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.
The servant in this parable is both good and faithful.  Why would Jesus include such a character in a parable if such a character were impossible in the real world?

Luke 8:7 And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it. And some fell into good (agathos) soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.” As he said these things, he called out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
This is from the parable of the sower, and we know that the “soils” here represent humans.  Why would Jesus tell a parable about some bad and some good humans if he knew that no humans are good?

All these examples are from the mouth of none other than Jesus.  So if it is truly the case that it is impossible for a human to be good, then it would seem quite clumsy of Jesus to give the exact opposite impression on so many occasions!

But it doesn’t stop with Jesus.  It continued with his authorized apostles and prophets, who seem also to have believed that it is possible for a human to be good:

Luke 22:50 Now there was a man named Joseph, from the Jewish town of Arimathea. He was a member of the council, a good (agathos)and righteous man, 51 who had not consented to their decision and action; and he was looking for the kingdom of God.
Luke wrote this–the same Luke who recorded another report of the statement of Jesus that started this whole discussion.  (See Luke 18:19.)  Yet Luke comes right out here and calls Joseph of Arimathea a good man.  Are we to believe that Luke felt some cognitive dissonance as he wrote this, knowing full well that Jesus himself had declared it impossible that Joseph could have been good?  Or could it be that Luke did not take Jesus’ previous words as so many today take them?

Acts 11:22 The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, 24 for he was a good(agathos) man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.
Again, this is Luke, and here he calls Barnabas “good”.

Romans 5:7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good(agathos) person one would dare even to die—
Why would Paul write about someone daring to die for a good person if he believed that it were impossible that a good person could exist?

Titus 2:4 …admonish the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, homemakers, good (agathos) , obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be blasphemed. (NKJV)
Paul commands that the young women were to be taught to be good.  How cruel would it be to teach them this if it were impossible for them to accomplish?
(Interestingly, although agathos is used here quite typically as an adjective–and not in any unusual way–many translations refuse to render it as “good”, as they do in so many other instances of the word.  This is intriguing, and ought to be investigated.)

Again, if these passages are to be taken into account before we develop an opinion on the subject, it would seem that the New Testament writers not only believed that humans could be good, but called them to do exactly that!

Further, we can find many passages both calling them to and expecting them to do good (agathos) works.  Similarly, there are many passages that seem to speak plainly of how it was the normal business of Christians to have and to keep a good (agathos) conscience before God.  We could investigate all this, of course, looking to find some way in which it is all a misunderstanding, and in which it would turn out that the popular view of Jesus’ “God alone” passage is the right view, but the evidence is just too great that he did not mean by those words what so many think he meant.

Is this not clear at this point–with all these other passages to the contrary in view?  And if he did not mean what so many assume that he meant, then this raises yet another question:  What did he mean?  Why would he utter those words to that “rich young ruler”?  Well, if you want to be certain about that, you’re going to have ask Jesus, since we are nowhere told why he said it.

I will say this, though.  If we’re going to take him as giving some concrete doctrine that no one but God can be good, then his words immediately raise the problem of “But what about Jesus?”  Immediately, we have to understand him as having said these words in one of two ways:

  1. He was saying that he (Jesus) was not good.  Or,
  2. He was implying without coming right out and saying it, that he was himself God in the flesh, and that the man was right to call him good.

Some may favor the first explanation, but I find it highly objectionable, for it would have Jesus lying about his own nature.  This would be blasphemous for one who was the very embodiment of God himself.  And if I’m right about that—if this would have been an impossible thing for a righteous Jesus to intend to convey—then the right answer must be the second answer, or some third alternative that has not come to my mind yet.

This saying of Jesus, however, has that unfortunate-for-us feature by which it purports at first blush to be an ordinary statement of fact.  What shall we do when our wider study of Jesus’ teachings makes it plain that he himself did not believe that may seem to be a matter-of-fact statement that came from his own lips?

Well, that puts us in a quandary, doesn’t it?  Could it have been a manner of speaking that was common in their culture, yet foreign to ours?  Could it have been that Jesus was reciting a common-but-erroneous saying “No one is good except God alone”—a saying that this rich young ruler would have found quite familiar?  Indeed, he does ask the man “Why do you call me good?”  So he’s technically questioning the man’s choice of words, and not the fact of his own goodness.  Or could it be that something in Jesus’ vocal inflection when he said this would have given us further clues as to his meaning?

Who knows?  But all this goes to show something that I have said and written again and again:  The Bible is not a complete record of everything that was said, done, taught, and believed.  It does not contain all the information required to answer every question that naturally arises from the reading of what it does contain.  That is simply not the nature of this set of documents, and this passage is a prime example of that.

But it’s just such a convenient passage if you are of the sort who really likes the idea that it is impossible for humans to be good.  Indeed, that erroneous model of understanding is championed by many teachers and preachers in this last few centuries—and may well have been championed by some in Jesus’ day as well, as far as we know.  I find that idea, however, to be contrary to the body of language of Jesus and his apostles and prophets.

So what did he mean?  Well, I’m still working on that myself.  If he meant by it, however, to contradict the rest of his teachings on the subject, as well as the teachings of his apostles and prophets, then we have a really serious problem regarding his authenticity as the messianic authority.  Surely Jesus would know the truth as to whether humans can be good or not.  If he were confused on the question, therefore, the whole claim of divinity falls seriously into question.

I could go on and on about speculations as to his meaning, but perhaps its best to leave this topic for now with an “I don’t know for sure.”  That way, perhaps it can sink in a bit that just because a saying might seem to make perfect sense within our model of understanding, doesn’t mean that that’s what the author or speaker meant by it.

So for those who have grown up being taught that it is impossible for humans to be good, all these other passages seem to suggest that you need to rethink that position, as well as other related positions that may be dependent upon it.