I once used to believe that believers go to heaven and that unbelievers go to hell. It was therefore important that unbelievers become believers so as to avoid an eternity in hell. I have abandoned this belief already a long time ago. For one, how is it possible that people arrogate themselves the right to assign other people to their eternal fate, even when it is based on an external checklist allegedly revealed by a sovereign God in heaven? People are never more odious than when they believe to be the gatekeepers of heaven. It is as if by their very act of gatekeeping they become altogether worthy of hell.Another reason I don’t believe this anymore is that I’ve come to realize that people, once they become believers, are every bit as evil as nonbelievers and, in a way, more so, because as believers they proclaim the loudest the way unto salvation while not going it themselves. Some will say that it is grace that makes the difference. Believers are simply saved by grace, they say, not because of any merit on their part. Well, if that is true, there is absolutely no reason why this grace should not be extended to nonbelievers. Isn’t that the whole point of grace: to save those unworthy of salvation?
Does God exist?
For some people, this whole believer/nonbeliever controversy has evolved into the question about believing whether God exists. Believing that God exists is then a form of faith that will enable you to believe that God saves you through Christ. Believing that God exists is not salvation itself but at least it brings you closer to it. It’s a kind of prerequisite belief.
And so efforts have been underway—and increasingly so as our Western societies have become more secular—to argue or even prove that God exists. This whole discourse is fraught with problems. From a believer’s point of view it could easily be argued, for instance, that every successful argument for God’s existence can only lead to unbelief. This is so because whatever can be proven to exist is conceptually graspable by the human mind and thus, in a way, subject to human imagination. Such a proven God is of course merely a figment of human imagination and thus not God. If God is real, God most certainly does not exist. After all, only things in the world exist and God, if God is real, is not part of the world.
But that is not where I want to take the argument. Most people in the West today have come to realize that there are good and bad people. This goodness is not an unqualified “good” but rather a “good” in the sense of people generally genuinely wanting the good for self and others in spite of the unavoidable human failure that characterizes all of us.
Interestingly, what divides good and bad people is not religion or the state of being a believer. If there is one thing we have come to realize it is that the Christian religion, after having been in power for 1200 years, has miserably failed to produce a truly Christian way of life. As a political institution it has yearned for power and wielded it with great expertise. The Church has persecuted those who thought differently, and has with it perfected the art of pharisaical hypocrisy.
Most people today indwell an ethics that philosophers and theologians have been working out over the past 200 years in which the vertical dimension of faith has been reinterpreted horizontally. If your relationship with God means anything, you need to show it in your actions. If you have faith, it will become manifested in your love. We live in a post-metaphysical era now where we are not interested in whether God in heaven exists but whether we are able to encounter manifestations of divine love in others (and perhaps exhibit them ourselves).
The question of whether God exists is mute. It is philosophically moot because it can’t be answered. And anyone who answers positively or negatively usually assumes a dogmatic position of epistemological certainty that is not available for human beings. Period. The question is ethically moot, because belief in God’s existence does not make for better people. And anyone who genuinely loves another person is not proving God’s existence, but merely expression divine love.
So I’d rather have a atheist activist in the Black Lives Matter movement struggling against racial inequality than a church going suburban whose ardent faith leads to financial contributions toward the beautification of the church building.
I’d rather have a communist who is indignant about the capitalist exploitation of the poor and the destruction of the environment than a believer who’s faith has nothing to say against the systemic structures of injustice and who rather protects his investments by supporting the status quo.
I’d rather have an atheist social worker who is involved in helping out LGBT individuals from a particular immigrant community than Christian citizens who keep themselves pure from the world.
Of course, reality is not that black and white just like you can’t divide the world up in believers and unbelievers. That’s my whole point. Similarly, the question of whether God exists is not the point. Rather, we should look to manifest that very grace of God on which we are all dependent for any good work.
Of course, when I see my atheist friend exhibiting compassion and self-giving love, I call this the manifestation of Christ. This is not co-opting my friend’s atheism for my Christian faith, but rather naming what must be named: God may or may not exist but becomes visible everywhere all the time in people of all walks of life, in spite of the fact we live in a rotten world.
This is grace. And grace is what it’s all about!