There are only three basic and ultimate options to choose from in this life.
Or, the meaningless life. Believe, contrary to your best inclinations, that there is no ultimate meaning in this life. You have heard and even been tempted to believe in God. But you want nothing to do with this idea. The whole thing annoys you. All religions are just made up by the feeble minds of other human beings – an exemplification of talk that signifies nothing at all. The origin of all things is inexplicable. Life is an absurdity. We came from nothing and we will come to nothing – from dust we came and to dust we go.
You have heard of the optimistic atheists who write New York Times Bestsellers. The whole thing annoys you even more. What optimism is there to hold in a godless universe? How can a finite speck like earth produce anything meaningful when it is enveloped by a universe of chance? There is no use in striving after a so-called human utopia. A secular redemption cannot exist for the simple reason that death comes to all. Any attempt to pursue an ideal is debated by other men with a different understanding of what the ideal is. You wish that these atheists would just be more consistent. They need to pushed to embrace the entailment of their position. You would point to them to those moments of silence at night when the crowd finally goes away – that moment of fear that there really is nothing truly meaningful in this life. You remind them of those times where they try to push those thoughts away by means of engaging in social media or trivial games.
The nihilist pushes on. If God does not exist then all our talk is nothing more than the vocalization of chemical movements in our brains. There is no metaphysical basis, even, to believe that the language with which we speak has anything to do with the reality outside of perception. Life is about 80 years of work, sweat, and meaningless bubbles of pleasure that will amount to nothing. Why work? All of our achievements, you know, will amount to nothing at all. We will die, and memories of us will soon die along with those who used to remember us. Significance is wishful thinking at its best, and delusional at its worst. The perceived beauty in this life, you know, is itself inexplicable because there is no ultimate standard of beauty in a chance universe. All is void. All is despair. Human beings are put here against their will by a universe that is indifferent to their existence. Such is the only logical conclusion from the basic atheistic starting point. Anything less is inconsistent false hope. Agnosticism is irresponsible. Optimistic atheists are happily inconsistent.
Perhaps, though, there is a God. So there is a standard. There is an ultimate end. Perhaps there is meaning to be achieved in this world. Perhaps eternity is itself possible and that this longing deep within our souls for immortality was implanted within us because we were meant to live forever. But who is this God? He stands above us with a certain character. Now this moralist position can be sub-divided into two more categories
2a: The spiritualist: The spiritualist believes in God, and that God is love. But how does he know this? He says ‘just look around you… the greatest thing in this universe, at least from my experience, is that human beings can love and are capable of feeling happiness. God wants that. God is that.” The god that he believes is someone who approves of everybody else. He won’t judge. What kind of God, after all, judges? That’s such an old fashioned idea tethered to an ancient past that is totally alien to the modern man. In the past, he believes, people did believe that. But they were wrong. The real god, he thinks, is the god that which the modern man conceives him to be.
But how does he know that the real god is the one that he is in fact describing? Well, he just believes it. It turns out that the god he claims to worship is nothing else but a figment of his own imagination, and a reflection of his own character. His god is but a deified projection of his own preferences. He likes this fuzzy feeling called ‘love’ so, he thinks, god must be that. He likes never being judged, so, he thinks, god must never judge.
This god is a product of the modern culture in which he lives. In reality the spiritualist has no basis on which to ground the belief that the true god is very much like himself – why does he think that he has any reason to believe that the real god would conform to his perceived definitions of love, or happiness? He has none. His theology is based on speculation, not revelation. Again the spiritualist, it turns out, is just worshipping himself, and lives in a world of wishful thinking. In his desire that all people should never judge he in fact judges others for judging him. He seems, most of the time, totally oblivious to this basic inconsistency. He, along with the nihilist, would both judge those who claim to be righteous.
2b: The ‘righteous’: Now let’s turn to these religious men and women. They represent almost all the religions of the world. They believe that God is good. In fact, they would criticize the spiritualist for trying to define God on their own terms, apart from what He has said about Himself. These righteous ones point to a Holy Book in which they perceive the revealed law of God. They know that God is holy, and that He is perfect. A Perfect God demands absolute righteousness, they proclaim. So they worship daily, fast, and seek good works. They want to establish themselves as righteous in front of this holy God.
But how could they? Their conscience, in reality, torments them. For every good deed they do they doubt the purity and quality of that deed. Will God deem them to be good? Did I really do my best? For every good deed they attempt to do, they know their own thoughts. Their thoughts conjure up evil, lust, hate, envy, anger, and malice. God is omnipresent, they know, and he sees every thought. He sees every inkling of the heart. Penance after penance to make up for their transgressions could never seem to be enough. They realize more and more that they fall short of their own standards, how much more do they fall short of the standards of a perfect God?
No judge, indeed, will let those in the wrong, go. A judge who merely lets go of a criminal is not a judge worthy of the title. He must hold to the letter of the law. But who can stand before the righteous judgment of a holy God? No one is perfect. But that’s a problem when a perfect God is the one who stands before them. The moralist, for a moment, may think himself to be righteous. But now he looks down and realizes that his attempts at righteousness was but in vain. He cannot do it. He knows that he is a hypocrite. He now realizes that his attempts to grasp at a righteousness of his own is, once again, an exemplification of optimistic wishful thinking. He wants to get up to God. But God remains over and above Him, and there seems to be no way we can climb up a ladder made up of his own ‘good’ works to get to this God. All religions can be summed up in this basic attempt to be good so that God would accept the person.
Perhaps, then, there is a third way.
3. Christianity – to live by grace
In my desperate attempts at piling up my own good works, I continue to fail. So the pursuit of God, on my own, would be totally pointless. But God did not leave us to our own wickedness. It is indeed true that we cannot reach Him. It is indeed true that He is a perfect judge, and that He demands absolute perfection if we are to have fellowship with Him. He will not sweep sin under the rug. But he desires to have fellowship with His creatures such that he sent a substitute in our place, who would obey on our behalf the righteous demands of God. He would supply for us the righteousness that we need.
This substitute would not only provide for us positive merit, he would also take away from us our demerit from God. In our sin we have brought upon ourselves the penal sanctions of God’s righteous law. We have disobeyed God and the penalty for such disobedience is nothing short of death. This substitute would die on our behalf. And indeed He did. Christ himself, the Son of God, who is God himself, came down to die on the cross, and to be raised again from the dead. He took the punishment that we deserved, and provided for us the life that would be pleasing to God – a life we could never have reached for ourselves. He bids me to trust in his work – to leave behind all of my dead attempts, and to my filthy righteousness, and thus to leave aside all boasting. Salvation, I realize now, is of grace, and of grace alone, not of works.