“If God is dead,” mused Fyodor Dostoyevsky, “then everything is permitted.”
(Actually, I now find out he didn’t say that – only that Jean-Paul Sartre thought he had! But it’s a neat quote and he should have said it).
What this Russian novelist is alleged to have said is that the big problem for any atheist is how to secure a common morality to be accepted by everyone. What grounds do we have to insist our fellow humans honour right from wrong if we reject God?
I was thinking this as I read this Tuesday a fascinating article in the Guardian, What scares the new atheists.
Written by political philosopher, John Gray, this is an elegant attack on what he calls evangelical atheists. An atheist himself, Gray is under no illusion that his fellow-nonbelievers are inherently correct. The very opposite, in fact, as recent history shows.
He cites in some detail their uncritical support of eugenics, the popular pre-war movement which aimed to improve the genetic quality of the human population. But they failed to see that the logical outcome of their thinking was no less than Auschwitz.
So he observes: “The racial theories promoted by atheists in the past have been consigned to the memory hole.”
But elsewhere Gray has written that human beings are “weapon-making animals with an unquenchable fondness for killing”. So for him – and all of us – a common morality is both urgent and essential.
But as he writes in this Guardian article: “Well, anyone who wants their values secured by something beyond the capricious human world had better join an old-fashioned religion.”
He is, of course, quite correct.
For my Lent book I am using daily readings from Tom Wright’s “Reflecting the Glory.” (BRF 2015) This much-cited theologian has a remarkable ability to explain difficult Bible passages, often helping us to see familiar passages in an altogether new light.
His exposition of the apostle Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians in this Lent and Easter guide is no exception.
So this Sunday we had 2 Corinthians 5:6-10 which culminates in Paul’s declaration: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due to us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”
At first sight this passage seems unnerving, even threatening. But for the Bible writers God’s judgement is always good news, something which the whole of creation anticipates with much joy.
So the writer of Psalm 96 shares this excitement:
“Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
let the field exult, and everything in it.
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
before the Lord; for he is coming,
for he is coming to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with his truth.”
And this judgment by God is the very thing that Guardian writer Gray is longing for – to live in a moral universe where there is right and wrong, to know that justice is going to be upheld. We do not have to construct our competing moralities. When God judges, he will put all things right.
As Wright writes (rightly): “We have the assurance in the gospel that because Jesus died for us and rose again, we are completely forgiven and accepted in him.” (page 65)
This means that we do not stand before a stern and aloof judge, as if we have been hauled before our headmaster for spilling ink on library books.
The very opposite. “God is pleased when he sees his image being reproduced in his human creatures by the Spirit. The slightest steps they take towards him, the slightest movements of faith and hope, and particularly of love, give God enormous delight.” (page 64)
And Wright continues: “For Paul, if we are genuinely living in and by the Spirit of Jesus, then day by day, often without realizing it, we will have done many things that will give God pleasure – the smallest act of forgiveness, a great act of justice or mercy, a wonderful of creativity enriching God’s world.”
This is what God intends, to bring justice to his rebellious creation, and this alone gives us hope. For as Dostoevsky realized: “To live without hope is to cease to live.” It is the prospect of our Father’s loving judgment which makes all the difference.