On Being Good Because God Is

If to do evil is permitted only in a world without God, it follows that to do good becomes possible only in a world where there is God.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, “The Blessed Trinity,” c. 1515
Lucas Cranach the Elder, “The Blessed Trinity,” c. 1515 (photo: EWTN)

A colleague of mine, a fellow whose loathing for faculty meetings exceeds that of any professor I have ever known, once told me that if there were no God he would most likely be in prison. 

“What for?” I asked.

“For blowing up the building where we meet,” he said.

“Lucky for me he exists!” I exclaimed, wondering what else I’d been spared thanks to God’s existence.

It is not an idle question, by the way. Dostoyevsky may not have been the first to ask it, but he certainly framed it well: “If God is not,” he predicted, “everything is permitted.” Not only would we be given a free pass to blow up buildings, but whole populations of the innocent could be incinerated as well. With full immunity from arrest, that is. Pull the plug on God and all at once you unleash the furies, whose appetite for destruction will not be appeased until everything has been leveled, reduced to a fine, undifferentiated ash. “If you will not have God,” warned T.S. Eliot on the eve of World War II, “and he is a jealous God, then you can pay your respects to Hitler and Stalin.”

In fact, Dostoyevsky may not have gone far enough. Father John Courtney Murray, in an elegant little book written years ago called The Problem of God, suggested that the assertion remains incomplete, that it needs to be amended to include: “If God is not, no one is permitted to say or even to think that he is, for this would be a monstrous deception … a pernicious illusion whose result would necessarily be the destruction of man.”

In other words, if there really were no God, then for anyone to persist is saying that there was, would be a liar, the exercise of whose liberty simply could not be tolerated in a society organized along atheist lines. But what if atheism itself were mistaken? What then? Father Murray was not shy in making the connection. “If God is,” he argued, “again one thing is not permitted. It is not permitted that any man should be ignorant of him, for this ignorance, too, would be the destruction of man. On both counts, therefore, no man may say that the problem of God is not his problem.”

The symmetry is quite perfect, you see, forcing everyone to face the question of God’s existence whether we wish to or not. Indeed, says Murray, “the problem of God is primary among the fateful human questions that, as Pascal said, ‘take us by the throat.’” It is not, in other words, the sort of question we are permitted to shirk, leaving its solution to others. Not only does it implicate us all, but the consequences that follow from each man’s willingness to face it will necessarily “touch every aspect of conduct, character, and consciousness.”

For instance, there is this question, which often times comes up in conversations among unbelievers. Must one, they ask, actually believe in God in order to be good? What possible advantage does bringing God into the moral life have to do with becoming the best possible version of myself? Why can’t everyone aspire to do great things, including atheists? Why must an acknowledgement of some Higher Power be needed before kickstarting the moral life? Surely that is to add a fifth wheel to a car that can easily hum along without putting God in the engine.

Finding ourselves at sword’s point with that position, it may be helpful to quote Christ, an obvious interested party to the discussion. Who, on coming into the world, wasted little time in giving us his opinion: “Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). He also said, in a stunning admission of divinity: “Before Abraham came to be, I AM” (John 8: 58). And the Jews, of course, who could not credit the claim of a man not yet 50 years of age to have known their great patriarch, were properly astonished. In fact, not only did Christ know Abraham, he pre-existed him from all eternity!

For me, however, the real icebreaker is the bit about the nothingness which is left without Christ. Because the plain implication, as I see it, is that in the absence of Jesus Christ, the only option we really have is, quite literally, to do nothing, which is another way of describing sin. What else does it mean to commit sin but to choose all that God is not, which is non-being, nothingness. “A deliberate stupidity,” Father Bernard Lonergan called it, shorn of all relation to reality. Lacking ontological weight, in other words, evil and sin remain but privations, the merest of shadows, their absentee status leaving no trace in the order of being. Only in a will so perversely determined, so bent upon an action bereft of being, are we thus able to locate evil and sin. Which is why Christ, in taking on sin — he who as God does not know sin — remains always innocent of it, even as it inflicts the awful price of its impacted malice upon him.

So, the answer, as I see it, is pretty clear: If to do evil is permitted only in a world without God, it follows that to do good becomes possible only in a world where there is God. A God, moreover, whose being is not only necessary, but so wonderfully true and good and beautiful at the same time that we find ourselves ineluctably drawn in that same direction. Or, as dear Augustine would say, “Love is my gravitation.”