Founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan and best-selling author Timothy Keller retells a story of a student, during one of his post-service Q&A sessions, who stated she was offended at the idea that the Christian God would hold people accountable and even punish them for their sin. In response, Keller asked, “Are you offended also at God’s decision to forgive?” To which she replied, “No.”
Keller goes on to say that the idea that God should be a God of mercy and forgiveness and not judgment is primarily a construct of Western civilization that has dominated most of Europe and North America, not a universal truth or idea.
Beyond Our Window
Many cultures in the world, for example, would answer in exact contradiction to the student: They would have no problem with a God who holds humanity accountable for their actions, but would be offended at the idea of forgiveness — for forgiveness means injustice goes unpunished. They readily embrace the idea that humanity should be held accountable for their actions.
As Keller points out, we civilized and well-educated products of Western society have acquired a distaste not only for absolute truth but also for truth based on the idea of a Divinity that holds us accountable. The cause for this is not some self-evident truth that has bubbled up to the surface because of civilization or education, but ironically in large part because of our Christian history.
What Gives You The Right?
Our ideas concerning human rights are a good example. Most think the idea that each human being on the planet has inherent equal worth and is entitled to undeniable rights is just obvious. Granted, even the founders of our nation thought so when they penned the famous words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” The truth, however, is that such thought was shaped by philosophical trends of the era in which our founders lived, birthed within the context of a predominantly Christian culture.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying these timeless words do not reflect a universal reality. But there is a difference between what is universally true and what is self-evident. Our founders embraced the concept of human equality and dignity as a result of centuries of Christian civilization.
The Science of Human Dignity
Of course, one could argue that this is all hogwash (I have been wanting to use that word for a while!), that the concept of human rights arose spontaneously and naturally from our progress as a civilization, or perhaps through education. As people became more educated, the idea goes, they naturally acquired the concept that all people should be treated fairly and equally, and are endowed with certain rights.
But honestly, it is difficult to make that case. It is difficult to see, for example, how science has led to the belief in the inherent goodness of people, or even the value of people at all. One could easily argue quite the opposite, that since (according to current scientific thought) we are all cosmic evolutionary accidents in a purely material universe, than none of us has value, and survival and self-interest is the only true moral code.
But as Keller points out, science has indeed given rise to something: The idea that we are not accountable to anything. C.S. Lewis points out in The Abolition of Man that science has much more in common with magic than we might realize, in that both represent an impulse in the human spirit to control and dominate the world around us, rather than see ourselves as a part of that world, with an obligation to conform to its principles and values.
The Scientific Christian Fusion
Today this scientific impulse has combined with ideas about human rights and human dignity to create a collective philosophy that states, “We all have an inherent basic human right not to be told that we are accountable to anything.” It has become a crime to suggest that anything someone is doing might be wrong, or have any moral implications. And in such a world, God Himself is the greatest human rights violator.
Of course, a God who has no right to punish us for our sins also has no way of forgiving us of our sins. But we might be accepting of this tragic loss of mercy, so long as we retain our right to live as we please.
The problem, however, is that such a philosophy starts to become quite indistinguishable from another Christian concept: Lawlessness.