Can Man be Good without God?
Maybe they knew each other, or at least knew about each other. True, they lived quite a distance apart. But they were related: distant relatives, but still related. Probably both of them had at one time met their common ancestor. Adam was his name; he lived to be nine hundred and thirty years old. These distant cousins were likely estranged from each other. But both had heard from Adam himself of God's good creation that had plunged into misery because of sin. No, they were not friends. That would be difficult. The one had gone the way of Cain, and the other the way of Seth. Yet they did not lose sight of each other completely. After all, they both had received the name “Lamech.”
All who knew them were immediately aware of the main difference between the two. The first Lamech did what Adam had done in his worst moment. He trusted in himself. But the second Lamech did not do so. He trusted in the Lord. How did they both fare? The first Lamech thrived. Certainly he sinned tremendously. He introduced polygamy and he was cruel. But his sons were successful. They became the inventors of musical instruments, farm implements and who knows what besides. And the other Lamech? He had difficulty with the weeds that kept reappearing, with the work that continually was ruined at the outset. “Poor thing,” the first Lamech probably thought about the second Lamech.
But in the end? In the end both (as old men) were confronted with the ark. For the Lord was still there. And God repented that He had made man on earth. It caused Him sorrow. He would punish everyone with death, except for that one family, that of Noah, the son of the Lamech who had not trusted in himself. And the other Lamech? He died before the swirling water swallowed up everyone. But he must have laughed, with his successful sons, Jabal, Jubal and Tubal-cain, at the sight of such a gigantic ship, when there was no water to be seen for miles around.
Is this just an isolated story? Not quite. Later the theme returns in all earnestness. Christ says,
He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it.Matthew 10:39
That message holds for us.
Why this introduction? Because this Bible history provides the answer to Dostoevsky's classic question in The Brothers Karamazov: “Can man be good without God?” This question is related to the question: can God's hand be shown in history? Yes, insofar as the Bible reveals it. It is not all the same to the Lord whether man lives out of faith or out of unbelief. It is not all the same to God whether we seek our salvation at the Cross or in ourselves. There are consequences attached to what we do! And these consequences are obvious.
In this regard, let's look at the example of the United States. Over the course of the past thirty years, certain powers have made an aggressive attempt to put their humanistic stamp on society. Their efforts are working. In 1965, 65 per cent of Americans believed that the Bible contained the Truth. Today only 32 per cent do so. Fifty per cent say that “they are afraid of fundamentalist Christians.” According to the Washington Post, it is not unjust to suppose that “as a rule 'evangelicals' are poor, they are poorly educated and easy to order around.”
How strong are these powers of secularization? Here are a few examples. Not long ago a rabbi prayed at the opening of a secondary school in Rhode Island. Later the American Supreme Court judged that by so doing the rabbi had violated the constitutional rights of a 15 year-old. In another case the Supreme Court ruled that a certain city, located somewhere in the central U.S., must remove all visible signs of Christian beliefs from its buildings. They were in conflict with the first amendment of the constitution, the separation of church and state.
Those who argue that politics and the judiciary must be neutral persistently choose to follow a course of unbelief. Public school teachers may hand out condoms, but they may not post the Ten Commandments on the bulletin board. Students may do all kinds of things in the school complex, but they may not pray. God is being pushed out of public life.
As Kant said, “God does exist, but for us He is of no importance at all.”
Does this seem so distant from us? But why then is there so much talk about the “obscuration of God”?
And how does this American “city of man” fare? What happens to a country in which verdicts concerning good and evil are becoming more subjective (individual), withdrawn from what God has to say? The experts agree that violence and crime are spreading epidemically. The United States has more prisoners in confinement than any other country. During the last seven years the number of murders has increased by 120 per cent. The building of new jails cannot keep up with the need for still more new cells.
Of course people have started to search for the root of this evil. Initially the criminologist James Q. Wilson thought that poverty and pauperism were the foremost reasons. He was sure that a spectacular increase in crime would have occurred in the period of the great industrial revolution (the second half of the 19th century). Instead he discovered that there had been a decrease in criminal activity. Next he delved into the crime rates during the “Great Depression” of the 1920s. But once again he found that there had been a considerable decline! He continued to search in this way for a common denominator, until at last he found it: the Christian faith! Revivals, church attendance and spiritual growth slowed down the rate of crime.
Knowing this, we can pass judgment upon much political optimism. Feel free to be skeptical about it. “We shall win the war against drugs, against crime, against … we shall win, because we shall educate, and we shall appoint more policemen and judges, and build more prisons.” Don't believe it. In the end, man is not good without God.
What do we place over against this? The warning that we may not go out of this world means that we must show concern for unbelieving people. How? We could attempt to convince them. Does that help? Often God brings restraining forces into society, preventing all evil from breaking loose. This counterforce is such that even people without God do not seek self-destruction; the longing for something of paradise still remains with them too. We could therefore tell them that letting go of the law of God is not in the least in their interest. God's commandments fit the structures of creation and have been given to men for their salvation.
True? The ten-day workweek of the French Revolution failed because of reality. The easy divorce of Leninist Russia disrupted society. Or, as President Reagan once said,
The American government now distributes billions to fight against drugs, alcohol and the resulting sicknesses. How much couldn't we save and how much better wouldn't Americans be if we all would strive to keep the Ten Commandments and the great commandment.
Indeed, the Christian faith is far from a “stupid” religion. Even intellectually we have a message for the world.
At the same time, C.S. Lewis once wrote that the principal (or, one might say, the deepest) difference between Christ, Socrates, Confucius and Buddha does not lie in the area of ethics, but in His Person and His office. Indeed, many unbelieving philosophers, like Christians, do not approve of murders, stealing, lying, and adultery.
After the fall into sin there is left in man, some light of nature, whereby he retains some notions … about the difference between what is honourable and shameful.Chapter III, Article 4, Canons of Dort
The power and wisdom of the law also press upon unbelievers.
But the law sets no one ablaze. The law teaches us our true nature (“I, wretched man”), but does not convert us to God. When the Bible says that in the end it shall be “as in the days of Noah,” then it does not even mention all kinds of special sins. We read that the people will eat, drink and marry. What can be said against that? Nothing at all. But their sin lies in putting their trust in all these things: in prosperity and technology, in expertise and fine arts, in the ability to take matters into their own hands. That was the original sin of Adam. It was also the core of Christ's temptation in the wilderness: come, be in command yourself! But the Son did not want to do anything without the Father (John 5:19).
That's what our Christian life is all about. Isn't it remarkable? Why was Lot saved and not his wife? His wife looked back! She looked back because her heart was still in Sodom. Why, in the end, will “one be taken and the other left?” Read Luke 17; the stragglers' heart is not with Christ, but with their possessions “goods in the house,” their work “the field” or whatever else it may be. Ultimately they didn't want to lose their own lives. They didn't want to deny themselves and take up their cross to follow Him (Mark 8:39). The stragglers did not want to empty themselves, to become humble, open and weak, so that God could fill them with His Spirit. They chose to remain standing upright.
No, the law does not bring men to repentance. The Cross does that.
As Paul says, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” 1 Corinthians 2:2
Our lives must be a sermon proclaiming that message. And who knows … who knows how many then won't be saved in the ark.