The anonymous donor who now sends me anti-God magazines hopes, no doubt, to hurt the Christian in me; he really hurts the ex-Atheist. I am ashamed that my old mates… should have sunk to what they are now. (C. S. Lewis Surprised by Joy)
As I was thinking back on it the other day, I was never a very good atheist. When C. S. Lewis talked about his atheism, he talked about what he later called the “Promethean Fallacy” where he judged that the world was too cruel and too unjust for there to exist a benevolent and omnipotent spirit. The picture that one gets is of a noble intellectual struggling to believe in morality and truth but failing in despair because of the grim reality of evil and suffering. One could easily imagine the young Lewis joining Christopher Hitchens and other modern atheists in their disdain for moral weaklings who need the promise of eternal rewards in order to be “good people”. Though it is somewhat proforma for Christians to acknowledge that atheists can be good people, this was not my experience when I was an atheist.
Speaking only for myself, I was much more of a low brow, low-minded atheist. To the extent that my atheism was anything but a reaction against the religion of my father, its primary motivation was the painful rejection that I experienced at the hands of young women in high school. If one was uncharitable, one could imagine me with the back of my hand on my forehead looking up and to the side saying, “Woe is me! Beautiful cheerleaders won’t have sex with me, therefore the world is evil and God does not exist.” Though I might have justified my beliefs with a veneer of high-sounding rhetoric, the root emotional causes of my antipathy were not nearly so sophisticated.
Was I a good person? If a person who doesn’t murder anyone, pays his taxes, tries to recycle, gives the occasional dollar to the needy and votes for abortion rights qualifies as a good person then I suppose I was as good as the next guy. If the standard is any higher than that, then I am afraid that I did not qualify.
Honestly, I have to say that I don’t think our societal standards for what constitutes a “good person” are near high enough. I think we get a clue about this when we see interviews with people who knew a mass murderer in the aftermath of a tragedy. “He seemed like a really good guy. He was always friendly. Who would have known that he could just snap like that?” If a person can qualify as a good person the day before they commit horrific crimes, then we need a better understanding of evil.
The Biblical definition of a “good person” is someone who loves God and neighbour perfectly regardless of circumstances. By this definition, Jesus Christ was the only good person for “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) Did you give the finger to that person who cut you off on the freeway or call him an idiot? Then you are not a good person according to the Biblical definition. Do you lust after women and fantasize about using them to gratify your sexual desires? Then you are not a good person according to the Biblical definition. If you fail to love God or your neighbour perfectly, then you are not a good person by the Biblical definition. As human beings we hate this definition of goodness and do everything we can to think of ourselves as good people who are meeting God’s standard. Our fundamental moral inadequacy is the hardest truth for human beings to face and we go to enormous lengths to avoid facing this unpleasant reality and the shame associated with it.
Dealing with the guilt generated by moral failure is a multi-billion dollar industry. Christians deal with guilt by accepting the forgiveness offered by Jesus Christ, other religions deal with guilt by encouraging people to perform acts of atonement, some people deal with guilt using psychotherapy or antidepressants. Atheists seem to deal with their guilt by denying moral reality. Using a variety of different mechanisms, therefore, people attempt to cover up their shame as Adam did in the Garden and pretend as though there is nothing wrong. Sometimes these attempts can take the form of blasphemous doctrines.
As an example of a blasphemous doctrine caused by people unable to bear the shame of their moral inadequacy, let us consider the Gnostics. The Gnostics did not believe that Jesus came in the flesh and some even believed that he left no footprints when he walked in the sand. Why would anyone believe something so outlandish? Viewed from the perspective of the hardest truth, this is easy to understand. The Gnostics believed that the flesh was responsible for the base temptations that caused people to do evil. If Jesus came in the flesh, then he was “tempted in all ways as we were tempted yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). If he had no body, on the other hand, then he was not subject to the same temptations as we are and we could have been just as good as he was if only God had not cursed us with evil flesh. In this way, the Gnostic error is a repudiation of the idea that we need Christ and that our moral failures are our fault.
As a second example of blasphemous doctrine, let us consider the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. If Mary was sinless like Jesus Christ, then it is possible for human beings in the right circumstances to be perfect before God. Since God determines human circumstances, the belief that Mary was without sin is identical to the Gnostic belief in that it allows Catholics to blame God for their sinfulness. “If God had given me good circumstances like Mary, I would have been good like Jesus Christ.” Belief that Mary was sinless, therefore, is just another way of rejecting our need of Christ and our responsibility for our moral failures.
In numerous previous posts, I have discussed the importance of believing that Moses and Adam were not good like Jesus Christ. Why is it so important to recognize these truths? Because the hardest truth for human beings to accept is that we are completely dependent on Jesus Christ. Apart from his love, his grace, his mercy, his provision, his patience, his Spirit and his cross, we are incapable of being acceptable before God. If we do not recognize our complete dependence on Jesus Christ, do we really know him?
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. (Romans 8:37)