Here are some of the biggest, bottom-line questions Christians, atheists, agnostics, and thinkers of all religions ask one another when confronted with the differences that separate them:
- Can’t people live moral lives, whether or not they believe in God?
- Can’t people find meaning in life without religion?
- For those who are religious, isn’t it presumptuous to believe that your religion is better than everyone else’s?
- And aren’t Christians especially guilty of this presumption?
Science writer Fred Heeren is in a position to know the arguments for his position from his seven-year search for evidence both for and against God’s existence, a quest that involved picking the brains of today’s great discoverers in science: Nobel prize-winning astronomers, NASA team leaders, and today’s leading theoretical physicists. His search continued in a study of history and the world’s major religions. He wrote the book <i>Show Me God and founded the Day Star Network to provide the best information possible to aid others who wish to make this quest.
As a physicist and columnist for Skeptic magazine, Dr. Bernard Leikind is in a position to know the arguments for his position. He received training in plasma physics and fusion energy at Cornell University and the University of Maryland, and his work has involved laser, particle accelerator, and nuclear energy projects. He has become known for his investigations into the paranormal—and for his debunking of them—while appearing as a guest on such popular venues as The Tonight Show.
Here is what Fred Heeren had to say on the “yes” side.
The truth of my thesis may not be politically correct. But common sense and the facts in this article should lead open-minded readers to see why my conclusion is justified:Both science and religion fall short in the reasons they offer us to live moral and meaningful lives, while Christ himself gives us the ultimate reason to live morally and meaningfully.
Let’s say that an advanced population from Altair’s star system pays a visit to Earth. The product of millions of years of civilization compared to our thousands, the Altairians are as superior to us as we are to goldfish. Now let’s say they decide to use us as pets for their children—or to feed us to their pets. On what scientific basis could we say there would be anything wrong with that?
Or for that matter, on what religious basis could we protest if the Altairians came peacefully and told us that all our human religions are not only backward but immoral? Their own moral system, the result of millions of years of deep, Altairian thought, is obviously superior. In such a situation, scientists like Paul Davies and Robert Jastrow tell us that the world’s religions would not survive.
We’ll return to our Altairian crisis. But first, let’s examine the ability of science and religion to handle more down-to-earth moral questions.
Science—and those viewpoints that depend heavily upon it, like atheism and secular humanism—can’t make us moral or even tell us what morality is. Though I have devoted a good portion of my life to scientific studies, and though I find science extremely useful to my understanding and my lifestyle, I also find it useless in matters like the arts, love, humor—and morality. To say that these important parts of the human experience don’t exist simply because we can’t apply the scientific method to them would be absurd.
Most scientists recognize that reality is broader than what science can explore. Arno Penzias, co-winner of the Nobel prize in physics for his discovery of the cosmic background radiation, told me: “We ought to make sure that, since scientists can only speak in physical terms, that they don’t take that as being the entire world.”
But this is precisely the mistake made by those who think they must be materialists to be scientific. Many have been falsely taught that science requires them to believe that the material universe is all there is. So the question arises: Where do materialists, secular humanists, atheists, etc., get their moral values?
My materialist friends tell me that they can have moral values apart from God. Right and wrong, many say, are determined subjectively by each individual. But think what this means. One person’s right may be another person’s wrong. To slaughter six million Jews may be terribly wrong to most but right and consistent with the worldview of Adolf Eichmann. If right and wrong are determined subjectively, who’s to say that any action is actually wrong? No matter how we are swindled or plundered, none of us would ever have any business in saying that we had been treated unfairly, since the word “fair” implies an objective standard for judgment.
Even a secular humanist like ethicist Theodore Schick concludes that “as ethical theories go, subjectivism is about as bad as they come.” In his essay “Is Morality a Matter of Taste?” (in the Fall 1998 issue of Free Inquiry), he reasons that subjectivism “fails to meet the criteria of adequacy for ethical theories: it sanctions obviously immoral actions, it implies that people are morally infallible, and it denies that there are any substantive moral disputes.”
Others say that right and wrong are not determined by the individual, but by society. But society has at times upheld some pretty horrendous practices: infant sacrifice, slavery, the extermination of a race. If the materialist says that these cultures were obviously wrong in those cases, we must ask: Wrong relative to what? Wittingly or unwittingly, by using the word <i>wrong, the materialist acknowledges that there must be a higher standard by which to judge.
Thus modern ethicists reject cultural relativism for implying that no higher standard exists and that cultures can do no wrong. Theodore Schick writes:
“If cultures were morally infallible, however, it would be impossible to disagree with one’s culture and be right. Social reformers couldn’t claim that a socially approved practice is wrong, because if society approves of it, it must be right. If society approves of slavery, for example, then slavery is right.”
The upshot is that, as politically incorrect as the concept may be, correct reasoning inevitably leads ethicists to consider the concept of objective, universal moral standards. Schick demonstrates that we can speak of the abolition of slavery as moral progress “only if there are fixed moral standards against which we can judge our actions and policies.” He concludes that “there are universal moral standards.”
But again, where does the materialist go to find these universal moral standards? Schick says these standards are simply self-evident. This still begs the question of what to do when a moral judgment that is “self-evident” to one party is not so self-evident to another. It may be self-evident to us that humans should not be enslaved or slaughtered for food while it’s self-evident to those superior Altairians that lowly animals like us are good for little else.
If we had the power to travel throughout the universe, looking for final answers or truly universal moral standards among the oldest and most “advanced” cultures, we should soon conclude that no answer from within the universe can be an objective answer. Nothing within the cosmos can step outside the cosmos to view it objectively. The materialist finds himself in the awkward position of seeking a transcendent answer in a material world.
The admitted existence of universal moral standards inevitably leads to the need for a transcendent, objective, righteous judge of right and wrong, a law-giving entity that views the universal scene from outside of it all.
One might immediately suspect that this in turn leads us to religion, systematized human thought about God, morality, and other such things that science can’t touch. Unfortunately, religion, defined here as the human attempt to reach or understand God and His ways, suffers from the same limitations as secular thought. Even at its most “advanced,” its beliefs about the correct moral system for the entire universe can be no more objective than any particular culture or group of cultures within it.
Most Eastern religions make no bones about the fact that the Supreme Being is not outside the universe. Pantheism tells us that God is one with the cosmos and with us; there is no entity separate from the universe to determine objective moral laws. There is no one to whom we can appeal for justice in the face of evils like child abuse or murder. In fact, evil is simply an illusion stemming from our mistaken notion that there are distinctions between things like truth and falsehood, or between good and evil. Ultimately, there is no difference between the way Mother Theresa treated the poor—feeding them and treating them medically—and the way the Thugs treated them—by strangling them and offering them as sacrifices to Kali, the destroyer goddess.
Siddhartha, the founder of Buddhism, said: “The world is not imperfect or slowly evolving along a long path to perfection. No, it is perfect every moment; … it seems to me that everything that exists is good—death as well as life, sin as well as holiness, wisdom as well as folly.”
Such thinking quickly becomes impractical in everyday life. It’s also difficult to reconcile with the law of karma, the principle that good deeds bring back to the doer good effects (progress in the next incarnation) and bad actions bring bad effects. Implicit in the concept of good and bad karma is an ultimate, objective standard by which deeds can be judged good or bad. Again, we’re left looking for the source of this objective standard; yet we’re stuck in a cosmos where all is one, where nothing from the outside can provide an objective viewpoint.
Western religions fair no better—perhaps worse, when one considers how widely the standards vary from one religious culture to another (leaving many to wonder which one to follow), and when one further considers how impossible it is for adherents to fully comply with all but the most liberal and highly rationalized systems.
Fortunately, most people do not have to make personal choices about all these standards at the same time. Should a woman cover her face in public? Should a married couple use birth control? Often the moral laws for one religious system are not even at issue for another. Even within each sect and denomination, the code varies from region to region, from culture to culture. Clearly, each adherent is listening to the voice of the culture in which he finds himself to determine the rightness or wrongness of drinking, dancing, and playing cards—and to some degree, for weightier matters like premarital sex, homosexual acts, and abortion.
But each religious system has enough rules of its own to make its adherents feel inadequate to the task of full compliance. Moreover, experience teaches us that human nature is in conflict with precisely those standards that all religions have in common. Who can keep himself free from all deception, promise-breaking, cheating, coveting, blame-passing, selfish behavior, or adulterous action/thought? We all fail to practice the behavior we expect from other people. We all love to apply “The Law” to others and hate to be bound to it ourselves.
Again, universal moral standards make their appearance, but only to teach us that we are powerless to comply with them. The advantages of belief in a transcendent God seem to be offset by obligations that doom adherents to certain failure.
To the extent that Christianity, Judaism and Islam are religious efforts to reach God—and to the extent that these belief systems are cultural phenomena originating within the universe—Western religion, no less than Eastern religion, is subject to being bested by the first “superior” culture to come along with more time and effort behind it.
The answer to the morality question
To succeed where science and religion fail, the ideal moral system must set itself apart in a number of substantial ways.
First, the ideal moral system must exist outside the cosmos to view the cosmos objectively. It must be completely independent of the universe’s varied cultures, in no way tainted by them. Since all cultures depend upon a higher, universal standard, the universal standard must not depend in any way upon the creature cultures that depend on it. It must be set apart from them.
Here, finally, we begin to see why the gospel of Jesus Christ must be distinguished from religious effort to reach God. Unlike the religions, Christ does not tell us how we finite creatures can try to reach the infinite God, but, more sensibly, how the infinite God reaches us. Christ claims to be God, who, in the ancient Hebrew view, was acknowledged to be outside the universe. As I have already shown in some detail in this debate series, ancient Hebrew revelation uniquely proclaimed a non-physical God who is outside of time (Psalm 90:4, 2 Peter 3:8) and outside of space (Deut. 4:15-16, 1 Kings 8:27).*
|*In Bernard’s previous article, he tried to find an ancient extrabiblical writing that lines up with modern cosmology as well as the Bible does. The best he could come up with were two Hindu selections that distinguish themselves point by point from modern cosmology—and from the Bible—while making the same three errors as most creation myths:
(1) Unlike the biblical doctrine of creation from nothing, Bernard’s first Hindu sample teaches that “at first there was only darkness wrapped in darkness” (which sounds good so far), but that “all this was only unillumined water.” Unillumined water may not be much, but it’s still something, not nothing, and sounds like the other creation myths, which routinely teach there was an amorphous, watery substance that preceded everything else.
(2) While the Bible consistently teaches that God is Spirit, beyond the physical, and has no body (so that no images were to be made of Him), Bernard’s other selection specifically speaks of God as having a “body.”
(3) Bernard’s Upanishad selection specifically mentions the typical mythic creation order (universe first, then the gods), which is opposite to the Bible, and opposite to common sense applied to modern cosmology. Like the myths, the Hindu passage tells us, “The gods themselves are later than creation.” Genesis makes it clear, from the first verse, that God preceded His creation. Like the other myths, Bernard’s selection describes even the first god, the progenitor of the other gods, as having a beginning: “That One which came to be, enclosed in nothing, arose at last, born of the power of heat.” In contrast, the Bible never says that God was “born” of some prior power or that He “arose” or “came to be,” but consistently describes God as being “from everlasting to everlasting” (Palm 90:2; 103:17; 106:48; 1 Chron. 29:10; Hab. 1:12).
Perhaps more importantly, I searched through several volumes about ancient world religions and myths by Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell, and others, and although I couldn’t find Bernard’s selections, I did find, in case after case, the standard mythic picture of a universe that precedes the gods, which is antithetical to big bang cosmology and biblical teaching.
My argument does not depend on there being no exceptions. My book Show Me God mentions the evidence from Ebla for an understanding of a transcendent God that was already well-developed by the 24th century B.C. Evidently there was a prehistoric understanding of this sort of God that turns popular ideas of religious evolution upside down, since, according to theory, animism was supposed to lead to polytheism, which was finally supposed to lead to monotheism.
This exceptional, early belief in a transcendent God is precisely what we would expect to find if God actually interacted with the earliest generations of humans. A casual look at early religions, however, should convince anyone that this tradition was almost lost. The concept of a Creator who clearly preceded His physical universe was truly unusual by the first millennium B.C.
**The Old Testament (which introduced this transcendent God and foretold Christ’s coming) and the New Testament are superior to all other ancient bodies of writings in fulfilling the four standard criteria that measure textual authenticity. No other ancient texts are represented today by manuscript copies that (1) were composed so close to the time of the original, (2) are so great in number, (3) are so widely scattered geographically, and (4) are so alike in content. Other evidences that set the Bible apart from other religious writings, like its fulfilled prophecies and the evidence for its historicity, are subjects for another debate.
Jesus claimed prerogatives known by the Jews to belong to God alone: He forgave people for their sins against God. He accepted worship. He claimed to be the way, the truth, and the life. He claimed to have been sent into the world, from outside it, in order to save it. The religious leaders tried to stone him and finally had him crucified, because his claims, if he were a mere man, were blasphemous, even for the greatest of prophets.
When Jesus said, “Before Abraham was born, I am!” (John 8:58), he was at once claiming to be the only man ever to come into the world from a timeless realm and to be the I AM, the transcendent Creator of the universe. Both this “I AM” God and His judgments were proclaimed from ancient times to be holy, literally meaning “set apart.”
C. S. Lewis, an eminent Oxford don and atheist-turned-Christian, observed that the popular notion of Christ as a great moral teacher who came to establish a better social order does not in fact make Christianity anything special. He wrote:
“If we did all that Plato or Aristotle or Confucius told us, we should get on a great deal better than we do…. If Christianity only means one more bit of good advice, then Christianity is of no importance. There has been no lack of good advice for the last four thousand years …. But as soon as you look at any real Christian writings, you find that they are talking about something quite different from this popular religion.”
The difference, according to the most straightforward reading of the New Testament, is that God did not send into the world a better moral code, but He sent Himself in the form of a human. And he did so to save those who trust Him from the deadly results of their substandard, worldly morality. Christ’s gospel was not another road map to help us find our way to the kingdom of God, but the good news that the kingdom of God has come to us (Matt. 12:28).
Jesus drew a sharp distinction between human teachings and God’s universal standards. According to Jesus, even the people who belonged to the strictest, holiest, most God-inspired culture on Earth had fallen short. Quoting from Isaiah, Jesus said, “Their teachings are but rules taught by men,” and he added, “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men” (Mark 7:7b-8).
Only in Christianity does the messenger transcend the message. No other religious founder—Moses, Buddha, Confucius, Muhammad—has ever claimed to be the one eternal, transcendent God, the I AM,” as Jesus did. And only in the Bible do we have so much evidence for the unworldly source of its message, when we consider its claims and the uniqueness of its accurate manuscript transmission through the ages.**
If one were to search through history and the world’s religions for some sign that the holy, transcendent Being that is the source of all morality has ever communicated itself to humans, one is drawn inescapably to ancient Hebrew revelation. No other book is as insistent in claiming divine inspiration. The Bible is filled with statements like: “Thus says the LORD,” “The Word of the LORD,” etc.—over 2,000 times within its pages. Most of the world’s major religions are founded upon writings that make little or no claim of divine inspiration. If God ever spoke, this is it.
Our only hope for finding objective, universal moral standards is if an objective, outside Lawgiver deigns to reveal them to us, as the transcendent, Biblical God has done. And our only hope of fulfilling such high standards is through the promised Messiah, who came from out of this world, as we will see, expressly to “justify many” (Isaiah 53:11).
Second, the ideal moral system must be able to explain why it is or is not moral for those superior Altairians to use humans for pet food. Unlike science, it should tell us clearly what morality is. Unlike religion, it should apply to all conceivable cognizant beings and transcend the standards of any mere creature culture.
The Bible tells us clearly why it is not moral for that Altairian civilization to use us for pet food: we have been created “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27). We are like God in a way that animals are not. As a mirror image represents us, so we were intended to represent God on Earth. Unlike all the other religions, this one allowed no images to be made of God—not only because He has no physical shape, but because we are His only image. Thus to kill a human is, to say the least, an insult to God. Human life is truly sacred. Murder is wrong, we are later told, precisely because people were created “in the image of God” (Genesis 9:6).
No matter how high any culture in the universe may have risen, none can rise to a place higher than God, and thus all would have to give an “accounting for the lives” of any fellow creatures made in His image (Genesis 9:4-6).
Creation in God’s image is a distinct dignity described by no other religious writing on Earth. As Semitic language scholar Gleason Archer points out, this ancient doctrine, when clearly presented, continues to alter whole societies even in modern times:
“Not until the more exalted concept of man and his innate dignity as a person created in the image of God had permeated the world as a product of Bible teaching did a strong sentiment arise in Christendom in criticism of slavery and a questioning of its right to exist. No equivalent movement toward abolition is discernible in any non-Christian civilization of which we have any knowledge.”
The life and death of Jesus put flesh on the message that people are of eternal worth. The Hebrew Bible taught it. Jesus demonstrated it. In giving up his life for us, Jesus showed us, in the most dramatic way possible, how valuable we are to God.
The New Testament teaches that we were on God’s mind “before the beginning of time” (2 Timothy 1:9). Jesus’ parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son all emphasize God’s extreme concern for each of us as an individual. Jesus made it clear that humans are more valuable than animals (Matt. 10:31) and that those people society looks down upon may be most precious in God’s sight (Matt. 18:10). How different this is from the Hindu caste system, and how unlike the Eastern doctrine of nirvana, the belief that the individual is eventually snuffed out.
In contrast, Jesus taught that each person, being eternal, has a value that is greater than that of the entire cosmos (Mark 8:36-37). After becoming a Christian, C. S. Lewis turned from believing that individuals, as mortals, have limited value, to a conviction that each person’s value is infinite. He observed:
“If individuals live only seventy years, then a state, or a nation, or a civilization, which may last for a thousand years, is more important than an individual. But if Christianity is true, then the individual is not only more important but incomparably more important, for he is everlasting and the life of a state or civilization, compared with his, is only a moment.”
Third, the ideal moral system must be the standard against which all other systems are measured. It must show itself to be the higher standard by which we judge certain actions to be wrong, and by which we measure moral progress. It should be the ideal to which every conscience responds, the “law within me” that so impressed philosopher Immanuel Kant, providing his best evidence for a God who is not only powerful, but good.
The Bible is the first book to so emphatically proclaim a God who is the source of all goodness, justice, purity, holiness and righteousness. For thousands of years, no other claimed revelation made such a point of characterizing God as the universe’s holy (set apart) Lawgiver and final Judge. Though the Hebrew language is normally severely limited in its selection of abstract nouns, it suddenly gushes out subtly differentiated words when called upon to describe God’s perfect judgments. Psalm 119 finds 173 different ways to describe God’s righteous laws, statutes, precepts, commandments, ordinances, and decrees.
While science offers no help with moral standards, and while Eastern religion actually teaches that good and evil are the same—and while all religions place the working out of karmic merit or moral standards squarely and hopelessly on the adherent’s back—only Christ offers to take the sins of the world upon Himself. Yet He in no way compromises the righteous standards of the Old Testament God, demanding nothing less than moral perfection (Matt. 5:48).
Jesus said, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). In fact, Jesus went so far as to say that it was impossible for anyone to enter God’s kingdom on the basis of human merit, but that what is impossible for humans is possible for God (Mark 10:24-27).
Jesus announced that he didn’t come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. And then, as if to show just how impossible it would be for anyone else to fulfill the law, He taught that it’s not only unlawful to murder, it’s unlawful to hate. It’s not only wrong to commit adultery, it’s wrong to lust in one’s heart. He taught that we should not only love our friends, but we should love our enemies; we should pray for those who mistreat us; we should see them, with all their faults, as people valued by God.
Jesus wanted us to go much further than religion’s outward observances. He wanted us to be motivated from the heart, by the principles themselves. He told us to seek first God’s righteousness (Matt. 6:33). By focusing on the difference between God’s law and human traditions, between outward observances and matters of the heart, he forced people to compare their hearts with those higher standards that all religions have in common (Mark 7:5-23).
Moral philosopher Lawrence Kohlberg recognizes this internal, principle-oriented motivation as the highest form of morality. Kohlberg classifies all people into three levels of moral development. At Level 1, people are motivated strictly by rewards and punishments. Adults who stay at this level are interested in others—including God—only for what others can give them. People who can’t do anything for them are, sometimes literally, disposable. And if God can’t provide them with anything tangible, then they aren’t interested in Him either.
At Level 2, people are motivated by rules; they depend upon the law itself (whether the law of religion or of their society) to find security and order for their lives.
In contrast, people at Level 3 are motivated by the source of these things, the greater principle. In this light, we see how the patriarch Job was accused of being at Level 1, of loving God only because of the riches, health, and family blessings God had given him. “Sure, God,” said the accuser, “who wouldn’t love You when You pamper him with such success? But give him a taste of the worst life has to offer and you’ll see what kind of new words he picks up for You.” When Job continued to praise God’s name after all was taken from him, he proved himself to be at Level 3, appreciating God for Who He is, not just for what God gave him. Such a person cannot be intimidated—or bought off.
No one, of course, better exemplified this highest level than Jesus, who taught that the whole law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets depend upon just one principle: love. We could fulfill all the law if we could just love God and love our neighbor (Matt. 22:35-40). Of course, this extremely principled position put him into constant conflict with the scribes and Pharisees, prime examples of Level 2 rule-keepers. Their concern about eating food that was ceremonially unclean was met by Jesus’ teaching that it’s not what goes into a person that makes him unclean, but what comes out, from the heart.
The religions of the world, for the most part, are satisfied to motivate people by rules (Level 2) or by a sort of point system to earn rewards/punishments (Level 1). Jesus fulfills the Old Testament prediction that there would be a new, everlasting covenant in which God would write His law, not on stone, but on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:31-33).
Moreover, Christ gives us the best possible reason for heartfelt motivation: He doesn’t just tell us how we can earn our salvation—He himself redeems us (that is, as our original owner, He pays the price to buy us back). He doesn’t just give us seven pointers on how to be righteous—He is our righteousness. Some of God’s Old Testament names take on their complete meaning only when seen in light of such a relationship between God and man: “Redeemer” (Isaiah 63:16), “Savior (Isaiah 43:3), “The LORD Our Righteousness” (Jeremiah 23:6).
Only Christ offers to take away the burden of having to depend upon our own work to satisfy the universal moral standards. Rather than ending our lives with the question, “How can I ever be sure I’ve done enough?”, we can depend upon his finished work on the cross. Only those who put their trust in him are free to do good deeds out of love, not out of a desperate need to score points with God. The good news of a God-provided Law fulfillment frees us to serve Him out of gratitude, not out of compulsion or fear of being condemned (Romans 8:1).
Fourth, the ideal moral system must not deny the reality of evil, but must confront it. It must not merely negotiate with evil, but must destroy it.
Albert Einstein recognized that the world’s greatest problem stemmed from the human heart, and that a solution would have to address human nature in a way that science never could. Concerned about nuclear self-destruction, he wrote: “Science has brought forth this danger, but the real problem is in the minds and hearts of men.”
Society and religion try to contain evil with Law—as they should. But neither succeeds in changing the heart or creating a new nature for humankind. Thus neither has the power to address the root problem of our alienation from the universal moral standards implanted within our own hearts.
The Bible explains why we experience an inward recognition of this higher standard: we’re made in God’s image. And it explains at the same time our dread of this righteous standard: we have a broken relationship with God. We have perverted His image. The result of this broken relationship is a broken world.
The point of this point, however, is that a good God would do something about the evil and suffering in our world. While science is powerless to heal human nature and religion can only show us the gap between high standards and human abilities, the message of Christ is that God has actually done something about the problem of evil. In fact, He’s done the most drastic thing imaginable.
According to the Old Testament, a ruler would be born in Bethlehem whose origins are from the days of eternity (Micah 5:2); a son would be given to us called Immanuel(meaning “God with us”), and He would establish justice and righteousness forever (Isaiah 6:14; 9:6-7). Specifically, Isaiah predicted that he would be “pierced for our transgressions,” he would heal us “by his wounds,” and the LORD would lay “on him the iniquity of us all.” And so this Messiah “will justify many” (see Isaiah 53).
The Old Testament system of sacrifices, which became impossible when the Romans destroyed the temple in A.D. 70, turned out to be a mere foreshadowing of Christ’s once-for-all atonement. For the Jews, the Law became impossible to perform. For all of us, a ruined human nature prevented us from obeying the inward Law anyway:
“For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man …” (Romans 8:3).
“… now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26).
God did away with sin, not by forcing anyone to stop or by wiping out all offenders, but by entering our world and performing a rescue mission on behalf of sinners. Jesus alone lived according to God’s universal moral standards. As the unblemished “Lamb of God,” he then offered himself as the perfect sacrifice to end all sacrifices, showing mercy on humanity even while God meted out punishment according to the Law. In Christ, the Law was fulfilled. God’s plan was that the one human being who followed the inward law should have his righteousness credited to all sinners who would simply trust Him:
“But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Romans 3:21-22).
Why might an all-powerful, holy Creator choose this means of dealing with our evil? If the Creator of the universe wanted to communicate to us (moderns and ancients alike) what He and His standards are actually like, how could He show us more clearly than by becoming one of us (Hebrews 1:1-3)? If He wanted to communicate to us the seriousness of breaking His moral law, how could He show us more forcefully than by demanding that the most valuable thing in the universe be forfeited as a penalty (Romans 3:25-26)? And if He wanted to tell us how much He loves us, how could He do so more dramatically than by dying for us (Romans 5:8)? Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). The cross has become a word picture for all the world to see, telling even those who can’t read of God’s justice and love.
But some protest, “What is just about one person paying the penalty for another?” That’s the point: God’s attributes are not limited to justice. If we had to pay for our own sins with no way out, that would indeed be just—but there would be no mercy, no grace. The giving of oneself for another is the highest form of mercy, and would never be possible on the basis of justice alone. Yet justice is satisfied, and as the offended party, God has the right to do it in this gracious way.
As predicted, Christ not only laid down His life but took it up again, the first to rise with a new life. The practical result for the self-acknowledged lawbreaker who humbly accepts this forgiveness is “a new life,” “a new creation,” “a new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (Colossians 3:10).
Besides the freedom of being “released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code” (Romans 7:6), there is the other-worldly result of immediately having a right standing with God, resulting in eternal life (Romans 6:22). The future becomes an adventure where those who yield to Him will find out what life was meant to be. By freeing the human heart from its slavery to evil, God destroys evil at its root and restores the relationship that gives our livesmeaning.
What’s the meaning of this?
Looking back at the reasons Christ offers to live a moral life, we have found ultimate reasons to live a meaningful life as well. Being created in God’s image not only makes the Altairian slaughter of humans immoral—it shows why human life has value and meaning. Our Creator thought our lives so valuable that He became one of us and died for us.
The way Christ motivates us to do good deeds out of love instead of from compulsion makes those deeds more meaningful, not just more moral. Society or religion may motivate us to be moral with their rules, rewards, and punishments, but ultimately our outward conformity to a moral system is pointless without the inward motivation Christ gives, the hunger for righteousness itself and the godly principles behind the rules.
Revelation from a Source outside our universe gives us, not only the best possible moral direction, but meaning for our lives as well. If the superior Altairians came to us with a religion so advanced that all Earthly religions immediately became obsolete, then all our present ritual and deed-doing would indeed seem rather pointless. But if instead we are devoting ourselves, not merely to a tradition or an ethical system, but to the Source of all goodness, to the Creator and ultimate Judge of those Altairians as well as ourselves, then we have a faith that is beyond being threatened by its first brush with an alien culture. Our faith in Christ remains meaningful, because He transcends all possible cultures everywhere.
I will be very interested to see what kind of positive reasons my friend Bernard comes up with to show why we should live moral or meaningful lives, from his atheistic viewpoint, and how these compare with the reasons Christ offers.
Meaning from science?
“Science cannot give our lives meaning” is not a difficult statement to defend and is probably self-evident even to non-theists. What can science, with all its best explanations about how the universe works and how our species came to be, tell us about the meaning of any of it? What can science tell us about the significance or value of human life?
From a scientific perspective, what makes us more valuable than apes, or for that matter, than mosquitoes? Is it our intelligence? If so, mightn’t one make a good case for euthanizing all humans with IQs below a certain level, based on their relatively low productivity in society? What would be wrong with that?
As we’ve seen, science can’t tell us why it would be wrong for Altairians to hunt us for sport. Nor can science give us reason to avoid the worst nightmares of science fiction, such as the use of certain segments of society for lethal medical experiments (as once practiced in Nazi Germany), or even the production of human clones to create a class of slave laborers. Most scientists today would not participate in such activities, but it is not science that would stop them.
The source of all value
Any credible answer to the question of meaning in life must offer a good reason to show why human life has value. Ideally this value should go beyond the subjective value each of us obviously places on our own lives, since this can be explained as a mere survival instinct.
What we need to find is a reason why human life has objective value. Strictly speaking, this is the only kind of value there is. All valuable things have their value only because of their relation to something else, outside of themselves. Even diamonds are just pieces of compressed carbon and would be worthless, no matter how rare, if they remained by themselves and never had a relationship with anything besides one another. Gold needs something other than gold to give it value. Gem stones have no value—until we bring people into the picture to value them.
Webster’s dictionary defines “value” as “relative worth or importance.” Our very lives cannot be valued apart from relationships. Some people find their value in their relationship to things—money, houses, cars. Some find their value in their relationship to people—family, friends, audiences. But what if we outlive our money or our family—does that mean our lives have lost all value? The problem with people or things is that they don’t last. Only something that lasts can give our lives lasting value.
Many SETI enthusiasts, sensing that our world doesn’t offer enough meaning all by itself, believe that it would be awful to discover that we’re absolutely alone in the universe. What most don’t understand is that we won’t be made any more valuable if we do discover extraterrestrial civilizations. Arguably, our value would be lessened by the fact that others would be far advanced over us. If we want to find purpose and value in our lives, then we need to raise our sights higher.
But this brings us beyond the limits of science, beyond the limits of society and even of extraterrestrial societies. If we limit ourselves to these and restrict ourselves from considering anything outside the universe, we cut ourselves off from our only hope for an objective appraiser, a “valuer” of all we know. If our universe came into being without point or plan, without an entity beyond its spacetime to value it and give it meaning, then our universe must remain without meaning. The universe can’t generate its own meaning or value any more than a rare rock sitting on an uninhabited planet can ever have value sitting there all by itself.
We need something outside the cosmos to give the cosmos value. No matter how hard we try to be somebodies or to create meaning for ourselves, our lives cannot have lasting value or meaning in a material universe where this is all there is.
Meaning from religion?
Once again, many assume that religion can succeed where science or society fail. They turn to religion in hopes that it will give their lives some significance beyond their cycle of “work-so-you-can-eat-and-sleep-under-a-roof-so-you-can-work-so-you-can eat-and-sleep-under-a-roof.” Unfortunately, religion tends to simply become part of the routine. Rather than putting people in touch with a Higher Power, it merely increases the busywork.
The higher meaning people seek is only available in a very special form of relationship, one which religions of both Eastern and Western variety appear inept at providing. If our universe were not the sort where cosmologists routinely had to use the word “purpose” to describe its laws and constants, we would have to face the fact that nothing can provide the relationship we seek. In that case, it would appear that humans have evolved a need for which there is no fulfillment (a difficult state of affairs to explain by natural selection). Instead, we free-willed beings find ourselves in a universe that began with a creation event, one that was finely tuned against incredible odds so that we could exist.
The purpose of life
Why would a Creator who has shown such purpose in fine-tuning the universe want to end up with free-willed beings, especially in light of the fact that they would be free to choose a substandard morality that would break the harmony of a perfectly good universe? Could it have something to do with the fact that only free-willed persons are capable of the highest form of relationship?
Philosopher of religion Vincent Brümmer identifies three fundamental types of relationships: manipulative, agreements of rights and duties, and fellowship.
1. Manipulative relationship. The first is exemplified by the slave/master relationship. Only one of the parties even needs to be a person, since a robot will do as well for the object of manipulation.
The Creator could have set up the world in such a way that trouble-makers were exterminated as soon as they caused suffering for others. Or He could have meted out immediate punishments or given rewards in various levels according to our deeds. This would certainly encourage better behavior, but it’s manipulative; it doesn’t encourage much of a relationship.
2. Contractual relationship. An “agreement of rights and duties” is a relationship in which each party agrees to the deal in order to get something from the other, as when an employer gets a service performed and an employee gets a wage. When people settle for a religion that takes the form of an agreement of rights and duties, the result is a meaningless performance of obligations.
It’s apparent that free-willed persons were not made to find fulfillment in either of these lower forms of relationship—though insecure religious leaders have routinely used force or obligation to gain adherents, just as insecure “lovers” have found ways to manipulate their partners or place them under obligation to return their love. Such people—and such religious adherents—experience loneliness even in the midst of relationship. True love is lost.
The “Christian religion” is as subject to this pointlessness as any other religion. Many who call themselves Christians have been taught to think of having a relationship with God in the same way that they have a relationship with the Internal Revenue Service. There’s a relationship there, but it’s mainly a matter of trying to stay out of trouble by meeting the minimal requirements; the goal may actually be to stay as far away from the other as possible.
3. The highest relationship. If it’s self-evident that people were not created for these lower relationships, then it’s apparent that the Highest Being would not be satisfied with them either. It’s more reasonable to think that the Highest Being would want the highest form of relationship. Religion offers people the lowest.
The highest form of relationship is mutual fellowship, or love. Unlike an agreement of rights and duties, where each person enters the relationship to serve his own interests, true love means that each serves the interests of the other; each treats the other’s interests as his own. Unlike a manipulative relationship, in which one seeks to control the other, this relationship is characterized by persons who each give of themselves and give up their autonomy over the relationship, giving up their independence while depending upon the faithfulness of the other.
This, of course, is the very definition of love in the New Testament, where 1 Corinthians 13 tells us that love “is not self-seeking … keeps no record of wrongs … always trusts, always hopes….” And of course, the ideal, selfless, sacrificial love is nowhere better demonstrated than in the life and death of Jesus Christ.
There is no shortage of religions that claim to offer a better way to God. But none offer such a personal love relationship with Him. Only in the person of Jesus Christ do we find so much reason to believe that God Himself has stepped into our world, offering Himself to make possible the personal relationship for which we have been created. Only in relationship with this loving, transcendent God can we find a purpose that will outlast the universe.
We’re appalled when a parent brings a baby into the world only to let the child starve, or to let the family car roll into the lake and watch her children drown. We feel compassion for these helpless ones, and when their own parents show no compassion, it makes the evening news. Shouldn’t we be just as appalled if the Father of us all should bring us into the world and then watch us suffer without pity, without any action?
If we searched through the world’s history books and through the world’s sacred literature for some sign that God had shown compassion for us, and we found nothing, we could say that life, in the long run, is meaningless, and we should learn to be satisfied with whatever meaning we can conjure up for the moment.
If this universe is all there is, then love between two persons within it may be the most meaningful thing there is. Human love, such as between the late Carl Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan would (by her own account) make for the ultimate human experience. Of course, this kind of relationship cannot last, because people don’t last.
The bittersweet is then the ideal, and even the ideal must be embraced with an existential sense, according to Sartre, of nausea and anxiety. Or if we’re less philosophically inclined, the best counsel we can give ourselves in the face of a momentary, doomed happiness is to “grin and bear it,” to understand that “that’s life,” and “you’ll always have the memory”—until we ourselves have taken our place in the fossil strata and whatever meaning we once found in the experience no longer exists, even in someone’s memory.
But in reality, when we search through the world’s history books and sacred literature for some sign of God’s compassion, bells and whistles suddenly sound when we come to the page in history when Jesus Christ appears. There is no page in sacred literature like this one, shining like a beacon to draw us to a God of love.
Here the religions are turned upside down. The religions tell us how we finite beings might try to reach the infinite God. Christ makes the more reasonable claim that the infinite God has reached us. Only Jesus said he came, not to call the righteous, but sinners (Mark 2:17). He said that the kingdom of God is not earned, but received, and anyone who would not receive it the way a little child receives a gift will never enter it (Mark 10:15).
Jesus didn’t merely offer a new teaching. He offered himself. The Apostles’ Creed says nothing about the teaching or example of Jesus. It leaps from his birthday to his death day. While Buddha, Muhammad, Zoroaster, Confucius, Lao Tsu, and the Vedic composers all said, “Here is the way,” only Jesus said, “I am the way.” Only Jesus came to offer a relationship, not just a religion.
What we can do about it
If our universe has any meaning, it is only because the transcendent Creator values it. If our own lives are to have lasting meaning, it is only because this Creator values us,as He has demonstrated through the death and resurrection of Jesus. To be free of the feeling that we must constantly strive to establish our own worth is a freedom we’ll never know without Christ.
Readers who have not understood before that our Creator desires to have a personal relationship with each of us can enter this relationship today. Jesus only asked that we “Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15).
Why repent? How many ways are there to restore a relationship we have broken through offending someone? Confessing our guilt and asking forgiveness is the only way. Then we can thank God, in our own words, for sending Jesus to make forgiveness possible. From that point on, we continue our relationship by daily trusting Christ to lead us and be Lord of our lives, not just of our religion.
As we have seen, ultimate moral standards are found only in an objectively just, set-apart God. Meaning in life is found only in relationship with a God of love. Both are supremely found together in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on our behalf.
Author: Fred Heeren