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Despair, Optimism, and Rebellion


[This is a revised version of a paper originally presented to the American Philosophical Association Central Division Meeting in Chicago, Illinois, on April 28, 2005, as part of a symposium on God, Death, and the Meaning of Life.]

I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you my name ‘the LORD’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But … you cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live.

                       Exodus 33:19-20, RSV

When I was a lad of 13, I had a sudden insight that solved for me the puzzle of religious belief. The answer I had found to my question was: fear of death. People accept religious teachings because it assuages their fear of dying. I shared that insight with my friend Tom, who wrote a paper advocating this idea for his English class. The teacher, a deeply religious man, took offense and gave Tom an undeservedly bad grade.

I eventually abandoned necrophobia as the explanation of religious belief, in part because I learned that there are a great many religions in which there is no belief in an afterlife—or at least not in any afterlife[1] worth writing home about.[2] For the millions of devout followers of these religions, there is simply life—and they get on with it. These are thoroughly sane people who lead thoroughly sane, often satisfying lives. I mention them at the outset to point out that they represent an important alternative to the three attitudes mentioned in my title.

For the Western world, dominated as it has been by Christian ideas, matters are not so straightforward. Christianity takes some pride in historically having offered humankind the hope of a robust life after death. Christians have, in fact, offered a variety of conceptions of the afterlife, not just one. When they first came to hold such views, and how the notion evolved, are difficult to determine. This is not our present topic, but I shall have occasion to make brief mention of the question.

Because we human beings are able to think about our future, have long memories, and form deep bonds of affection with our comrades and family members, facing the fact of death is more difficult than for any other animal species. Nearly all of us fear death. But because our culture is permeated by a religiously grounded belief in an afterlife, loss of faith in God raises the question of death in a different and more anxious way than would be the case if religion had never offered the hope of eternal survival. It is this context that sharpens the connection, for Western believers and unbelievers, between the existence of God, the significance of death, and the very meaning of our lives. It is our religious history that has shaped the three responses to loss of faith mentioned in my title.[3]

I devote the body of this paper to examining these three responses. But first, it is necessary to say something about the problematic phrase, ‘the meaning of life.’ What is it supposed to mean? As a rough first attempt, we might say that a life is (or is not) meaningful if it is worth living. But worthwhile for, or to, whom? Is worth a matter of subjective appreciation, of being valued, by some person or persons? Or might the question whether a life is worthwhile have an objective answer, quite apart from what anyone thinks about the matter?

There are innumerable Christians to whom the Christian story of salvation gives a defining sense of purpose and place in the cosmos. There are also innumerable Buddhists for whom the Buddhist understanding of life is equally central and self-defining. Much the same can be said, for populations of varying size, of Islam, Hinduism, Jainism, Taoism, secular humanism, Communism, and literally hundreds of disparate religious traditions and cultures.

These are all large ideologies, each offering a grand vision in both theory and practice. Surely the gift of meaning can present itself in more humble guise. There are some who live for chess. For some, stamp collecting is a passion without which life would be a dull, miserable affair. Others are equally passionate about antique cars and—God help us—there are grown men whose lives are consumed by the challenge of computer games or by NASCAR races.

This last case will serve to remind us of the fact that, while any passion can give purpose and satisfaction to a life, not all passions are equal. We judge the worth of a way of pursuing one’s life, not just in terms of the amount and intensity of the subjective sense of satisfaction it generates, but by other, nonsubjective standards as well. Some obsessions are unhealthy, even though a man might live and die in happy pursuit of them.

It is trivial, then, that a life might be made meaningful, in the strictly subjective sense, in any number of ways. The limits and boundaries that may constrain the range of such ways is a matter for empirical psychology, not for philosophy. Here I take it we are grappling rather with the question, can some sense be attached to the notion that a life is or is not meaningful in some objective way or respect.[4] That a person’s life is subjectively meaningful to him or her might, of course, be an important, possibly essential, all-things-considered component of objective worth. Conceivably, it is the only component. But this is by no means trivial; it would have to be shown. Here I shall assert, but not argue for, the view that subjective value—satisfaction, if you will—is indeed a component of the objective value of a life, but by no means the only component.

I am also going to assume, without argument, the ancient view that the best, most worthwhile kind of life involves pursuing the joint tasks of understanding oneself and of understanding one’s place within the universe. One difference between stamp collecting and participation in a religious tradition or an ideological community such as, say, secular humanism, is that the latter, but not the former, involves by its very nature such reflective confrontation with the nature of human existence. Further, such traditions recognize, and struggle to help us find ways to come to terms with, those aspects of human existence that threaten to rob us of a sense of the ultimate rightness of things.

One might wonder whether there are features that all these life-affirming traditions have, more or less, in common. If there are such features, features that play a discernable role in the way those traditions provide a sense of fulfillment and worth to human lives, then perhaps they can teach us something general about the conditions human beings require to flourish and lead satisfying lives suffused with some higher—or anyway objective—sense of purpose. This, then, is an important larger question that wondering about the meaning of life can lead us to ask.

But there are also at least two other larger questions that should be distinguished from this one:

(1) Does the very existence of human (or intelligent) life have significance, apart from what anybody might think about the matter?
(2) Are there facts about the universe that obtain independently of what any human being knows or believes that can give purpose to or create meaning for human life?

I propose these larger questions as a partial explication of what might be meant by the suggestion that there are objective facts that give value to human life.

The questions need some explication. By ‘significance’ in (1) I mean: either as evidence for something that is intrinsically valuable, or as something that is itself instrumentally or intrinsically valuable. It is not clear to me whether, for example, a theist would want to allow that human life has intrinsic value, apart from the existence of God and God’s valuing of human beings. Unbelievers, on the other hand—at least the optimists and rebels—can and typically do affirm the intrinsic value of human life. Theists will typically answer (2) in the affirmative, for they think that the existence of God, and of certain features of the created order, provide such purposes—though the fulfillment of those purposes may require that humanity be informed of these facts. In fact, many theists go further: they assert that the existence of God, and of His providence, are necessary conditions for the meaningfulness of human life.

In what follows, I shall be exploring answers to questions (1) and (2). I will begin by considering why a theist might believe that human life would be somehow meaningless should there be no God or divine providence. Here it will be useful to distinguish between what I shall call temporal meaning and ultimate meaning. No theist will deny that life can offer a variety of satisfactions and fulfillments that supply part—a temporal or provisional part—of what it is to lead a fully worthwhile life. But the theist also believes, I think, that when the last and rarest stamp has been collected, when the dictatorship of the proletariat has been superseded by a classless utopia, there remains still a yawning gap between what we have achieved and the fulfillment of our true good, the good without which life cannot have ultimate meaning. Not only will life lack objectively a certain value, but our subjective nature will feel unfulfilled, empty, sadly lacking in something essential.

The most obvious thing that will be lacking, for most Christian theists at least, is eternal existence, or the assurance of an eternal existence, in the presence of God. The importance of this assurance, and of the conviction that it is provided by Scripture, was vividly brought home to me by Billy Warfel, who had been a high school classmate of mine. I ran into Billy again in my 17th summer, at a local tent revival that I went to out of curiosity. Billy was the leader, it turned out, of the local Youth for Christ movement, and our discussion turned to Darwin. After I left that night, it occurred to me that I could prove species evolution if the Bible specified the dimensions of Noah’s Ark. It did; and I made a quick calculation that showed the Ark to be not nearly capacious enough to hold all the living species of land animals. Returning the next evening, I put my case before Billy. Billy’s response, which made an indelible impression on me, was to look me in the eye and to say, quietly: “I don’t see any mistake in your argument. But if I were to accept that there are any errors in the Bible, my life would not be worth living at all.”

Billy’s sincerity was unmistakable. I let the matter drop. Other remarks he made indicated to me that it was the hope of personal salvation that stood uppermost in Billy’s mind. But there is another concern that clearly moves many reflective Christians. It is the concern for justice. As the aphorism has it, the good die young. The good also often endure lives of enormous suffering, while the evil and the indifferent eat, drink, and make merry with ill-gotten gains. How can our deep passion for justice be reconciled with such enduring and pervasive inequities? An answer—I shall presently be examining its moral adequacy—is provided by the Christian story of salvation. (I say “the” Christian story. There are actually several Christian stories, but for the moment I shall simplify.) Setting aside a myriad of complications, the central thought is that the good receive a heavenly reward that amply recompenses their mortal suffering, while the evil receive appropriate punishment.

There is an intimate connection, I believe, between the thought that only in this way can justice be realized for human beings, and the thought that only if Christian soteriology, or some near neighbor, is true, can human life be objectively meaningful.[5] A necessary—though no doubt not sufficient—condition on a world, if it is to provide an arena in which the requirements of a meaningful human existence can be met, is that it is a just world. Why might this be so? I suggest—but will not argue for—two reasons. One is that justice is so fundamental to our conception of morality and of human well-being that a human existence in which the demands of justice are irredeemably unsatisfied appears to be a fundamentally defective, poor kind of existence. The other is that we think of justice as an objective demand, a demand that transcends the self-serving interests of partisans. Hence, we are satisfied with nothing less than that the universe be ordered in such a way that the principles of justice are woven into its very fabric. To believe that there is a God who sees to it that these principles are upheld is to believe that our deepest moral intuitions are upheld by, are in harmony with, the very foundations of the created order. Not only is the universe morally satisfactory; it is a universe in which we can feel welcome. The universe becomes a home to us. The appropriate emotion is joy.

A third conception of what it is for each of our lives—or the existence of humanity as a whole—to have objective meaning is that meaning requires our existence to be not merely accidental: it requires that our existence fulfills some purposes that are not merely our own purposes. I shall not comment on this idea, except to note that I think it informs some Christian views of what makes life meaningful.

What, then, of the atheist who finds belief in God and in an afterlife to be intellectually unsustainable? An atheist might, I think, consider it hubris to regard life as meaningful only if we can enjoy the prospect of life eternal. An atheist may also plausibly regard it a conceit for us to imagine that our lives can have meaning only if we play some central or important part in the purposes of a master of the universe. But the atheist cannot so easily dismiss the concern for ultimate justice. If there is no just God, then there is no assurance that the manifold wrongs of this world will ultimately be set right, and indeed abundant evidence that many of them will not be. How are we to be reconciled to this fact?

An atheist who feels deeply the sting of injustice cannot be happily reconciled to the world; she cannot take whole-hearted joy in the world or feel fully at home in it. For her, the natural response to the problem of unrectified evil will be to feel alienated and forlorn. One response to a godless world is therefore what I shall call despair. It will involve a sense of loss, perhaps a longing desire for there to be, or to have been, a God.

I mean the notion of despair in this context to cover a variety of attitudes that mark understandable and defensible responses to a godless, often unjust world. We encounter the stolid, unflinching endurance of Sisyphus in Camus’ essay, a determination that gives dignity even as it abandons hope. We might be reminded, too, of Russell’s grave observation:

That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.[6]

On the darker side, we find alienation and moral nihilism, as in Camus’ stranger:

It was as if that great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and, gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe. To feel it so like myself, indeed, so brotherly, made me realize that I’d been happy, and that I was happy still.[7]

Happy—but bereft of hope. Bereft, too, and perhaps more frighteningly, of any connection to his fellow human beings, or to the possibility of a moral order.

On the other end of the spectrum, we find despair in a far more sympathetic guise—in, for example, the tragic figure of the priest in Miguel de Unamuno’s haunting tale, Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr.[8] (Indeed, as de Unamuno does not shrink from reminding us, what of Jesus himself: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”)

What all these figures share is the courage of their convictions and a firm, unyielding commitment to confronting the truth, as they understand it, with honesty. It is this that requires of us, whether we agree with their convictions or not, that we take them seriously. In various ways, each reflects the view that human existence is fundamentally tragic, because the universe is indifferent. Nevertheless, Sisyphus, Russell, and Emmanuel all affirm human dignity, so they are not moral nihilists.

A radically different attitude is possible—the hopeful attitude of the Enlightenment. Religion is not merely a fairy tale, but is allied with the forces of darkness and superstition. To free ourselves from the bondage of religious belief is to unchain the real potential of human reason, heretofore enslaved by theology, and to liberate the human potential to realize those goods that will most truly fulfill the natural and proper ends of humanity. Religion is not merely a hindrance to this great project, but a force that appeals to the most primitive, ignoble of human predilections, and, under the guise of faith, is a stake driven through the heart of reason. Once freed of this scourge, humanity can, with the aid of science and of good will, march forward toward a correct understanding of our universe and toward a moral social order.

This view—which I shall call optimism—commonly combines two attitudes. On the negative side, it commonly considers religious belief to be, not only false and even irrational, but also to be morally harmful. On the positive side, it celebrates and reposes confidence in the ability of human reason, human moral instincts, and human affective capacities to achieve those human goods that confer upon our lives all the objective meaning that we can rationally want. There are many exemplars of this optimism. Here, tinged with caution, is a paradigm expression of this view, from the penultimate paragraph of James Frazer’s magisterial The Golden Bough:

[W]e may illustrate the course which thought has hitherto run by likening it to a web woven of three different threads—the black thread of magic, the red thread of religion, and the white thread of science…. [C]arry your eye farther along the fabric and you will remark that, while the black and white chequer still runs through it, there rests on the middle portion of the web, where religion has entered most deeply into its texture, a dark crimson stain…. Will the great movement which for centuries has been slowly altering the complexion of thought be continued in the future? or will a reaction set in which may arrest progress and even undo much that has been done?

For the moment, I want to discuss an aspect of the positive attitude of optimism. We shall in due course have to deal with the correlative negative thesis.

Optimism, often flying the banner of secular humanism, sees humanity as the master of its own fate. Often, it also sees humanity as the author of the moral law. This no doubt adds color to the charge, so often laid at humanism’s feet, that it cannot explain or justify the objectivity of moral values. Now it is a mistake to think that morality is a matter of mere human invention or convention; but it is equally a mistake to think that morality can have no objective basis apart from the will of God.

That God plays no essential role in most objectivist theories of ethics is hardly news. The theory I favor is a form of naturalism. All complexities aside, there are certain moral truths that apply universally in virtue of certain universal facts about human beings: about our fundamental needs, desires, abilities, and natural ends. We are fundamentally social beings. Many of our personal ends can best be achieved, or can only be achieved, through cooperation with others. These facts, though some of them concern our mental states, are quite objective facts about human nature. They determine, in many respects, how it is rational for human beings to treat one another; and, because we are among other things rational beings, these reasons become reasons for us.[9]

The most substantial metaphysical claim that the ethical naturalist makes is, perhaps, the claim that there are objective teleological truths about human beings. That there are such truths is not, it seems to me, something that can seriously be disputed. Indeed, not only conscious beings have natural ends. There are, for example, conditions that are naturally good or harmful to plants. Some theists—Alvin Plantinga, for example—have claimed that the naturalist cannot make good sense of the existence of such telic facts.[10] Well, I am not convinced that naturalists have yet made sufficient sense of them; but I consider it far from settled whether this is impossible. In fact—in part because all of the evidence from evolutionary biology points in this direction—I put my money on the view that teleological facts about us have naturalistic explanations.[11]

It is important to recognize the bearing of human origins upon the question of the metaphysical status of human ends. If it were true that human beings were designed by a supreme being to have by nature certain ends, then it would be true that, in giving us those ends, God would indirectly have determined the principles of action that properly guide human social behavior. However, it would remain the case that the basis of morality is to be found in facts about human nature. It is a genetic fallacy of sorts to suppose that objective moral truths cannot be justified except by appeal to a divine will, even if the ultimate cause of the relevant natural facts is such a will.

The optimistic atheist is not, then, bereft of intellectually reasonable ways of understanding the moral dimensions of human existence as placing objective constraints upon action while respecting—indeed promoting—the human good.[12] But what are the endeavors and rewards that contribute most fundamentally to the kind of meaningful existence an optimist can hope for? Here I suppose the answer is fairly evident. Devotion to family and friends, and to the well-being of all humanity, happy pursuit of one’s calling, delight in the beauties of nature and art, commitment to moral ideals and courage in their defense: these are enough to fill a life with worthy goals and satisfactions. They certainly appear to be enough for many of the millions of people who, as I earlier noted, live their lives as nontheists.

Optimism is not without its discouragements. Perhaps the greatest of these, to my mind, derives from the evidence that our moral nature is not well adapted to the construction of equitable, peaceful social arrangements in the large-scale societies and communities of nations that our intellectual adaptations have produced. The theist can perhaps find reassurance that, however great the abundance of evil, God will set things right in the end. From an atheist’s perspective, this assurance can actually prove dangerous, since it can, and often does, produce complacency, or worse.[13] Atheism, for its part, can induce a kind of fatalism instead of optimism.

Historically, optimism has often been associated with a confidence in the fundamental goodness of human beings. But because the evidence suggests quite clearly that human nature is a mixed bag, we are better served by realism combined with dedication to making the best of what nature has made us.[14] Because the atheist renounces belief in God and in an afterlife, he cannot look to God to restore the good, either in human history or outside it, in the hereafter. But that, in the optimist’s view, makes life infinitely more precious, and the obligation to pursue the good while we can an infinitely deeper obligation.

I have said a few words about what the source for objective moral norms can be for the optimistic atheist. How do matters look on the other side—that is, for a theistic ethics? In particular, how do matters stand for theists who look to the Bible for definitive information on God’s moral character and His will respecting human ethical behavior?[15]

Here we must face a familiar, if painful, story. The God that Christians and Jews worship, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is understood to have inspired the canonical works that comprise the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. We cannot set aside the manifold difficulties that attend the task of interpreting these ancient texts. As there is no possibility of doing justice to those issues here, I shall confine myself to the observation that many passages appear, at least, to contain straightforward assertions (whatever additional levels of meaning they may possess)—to report historical events, for example, or to convey the will of God. If they cannot be so read, then we must acknowledge that many, indeed probably most, earnestly seeking Christians and Jews have been seriously misled on matters of faith. Let us, then, proceed cautiously but straightforwardly.

It is not difficult to find in the books of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament passages that commend or prescribe praiseworthy, even heroic, moral ideals. Christians, in particular, are commanded, for example, not to pray in public (Matthew 6:1-6), to sell all their possessions and give the money to the poor (Matthew 6:19-34, Mark 10:17-31, Luke 12:33 et passim), to be long-suffering and patient (1 Corinthians 13:4-7), and to love and benefit their enemies (Matthew 5:38-47)—injunctions that are, I fear, observed more often in the breach than in faithful adherence.[16]

This coin has, unfortunately, another side. For we are told that Yahweh is a severe god. He is a god who accepts child sacrifice (Judges 11). He is a god who himself sacrifices infants and adults alike upon the altar of the sins of their fathers and rulers (e.g., 2 Samuel 12:13-24; 24:1-17), who hardens hearts with horrific consequences (Pharaoh’s refusal to free the Israelites), who through His prophet Moses commands the enslavement and forced concubinage of young virgins who have just witnessed the slaughter of their families at the hands of their captors (Numbers 31:1-20).[17]

Confronted with this grim catalogue of crimes against humanity, how are we to respond? It’s no good saying that many of these records are probably ahistorical. That may be; but it does not diminish the horror of the claims the stories make concerning God’s character. Apologetics are really out of order here; better that people of faith should in silence cover their heads with ashes. The apologist otherwise runs the risk of losing his moral bearings altogether. More than one Christian has explained to me that, when God ordered the slaughter of even the children of the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15:3ff), it was because, though innocent, they would grow into sinful adults—a reasoning that echoes all too closely the argument made by an opponent of the Wagner-Rogers bill, introduced during World War II, to provide temporary haven in the U.S. for 20,000 Jewish children from Europe: “twenty thousand children would soon grow into twenty thousand ugly adults.” The bill was defeated in Congress.

But some Christians take consolation in the thought that the God of the New Testament is a kinder, gentler god. And, indeed, with a few exceptions (such as the murder of Ananias and Sapphira for withholding money promised to the Church and then lying about it), there are fewer special acts of divine retribution that scandalize our moral sensibilities. There are, to be sure, some injunctions that surprise and disturb, such as Jesus’ strident demand that one hate one’s family (Luke 14:26, Matthew 8:21-22, Matthew 10:34-36, et passim).[18] More worrisome is the blanket condemnation of those who do not accept the lordship of Jesus or the Holy Spirit, which consigns to eternal suffering a great mass of humankind (Matthew 12:30-32, 25:14-46). Beside this holocaust, the depredations inflicted by Israel upon its neighbors pale in comparison, even if the goats are unerringly separated from the sheep.[19]

These are, however, familiar criticisms that are perhaps too facile. It would be interesting to pursue more deeply such questions as why Jesus might have had such a deep animus toward family solidarity, but that would take me too far afield. Instead, I want to raise another problem that lies at the heart of Christian soteriology. For it is not easy to make moral sense of the doctrine of vicarious atonement. The question is not merely whether it is only through the voluntary death of Jesus on the cross that human beings can be brought into a right relationship with God[20], but whether this sacrifice can have any salvific force at all. This is, moreover, a moral question, as it is a question of restoring allegedly fallen human beings to a condition morally proper for communion with God.

Our task is made more complex by the fact that Christians themselves have been perplexed by the notion of vicarious atonement, and have been unable to decide upon a single account of it. Some atonement theories, for example, emphasize the doctrine of original sin, others do not. But let’s first consider that doctrine, which, I take it, is akin to doctrines of collective responsibility. Collective guilt is intelligible in a situation where human beings act as a group, where the responsibility of individuals cannot effectively be identified or disentangled from that of others, and where individuals have voluntarily joined the group and accepted joint responsibility for collective action. Collective responsibility for a group’s action can sometimes intelligibly be assigned even to individuals who are not voluntarily members of the group or partisans to its action, but it is hard to see how moral guilt can properly be assigned to such individuals. Thus, I am unable to make moral sense of the doctrine of original sin.

Some theories of atonement—e.g., Substitution and Sacrifice theories—have historically been propounded on the basis of legal theories. For example, Substitution theories hold that Christ’s sacrifice pays off an infinite debt that each of us owes to God by virtue of having disobeyed Him. The debt is infinite, even for peccadillos, because the debt is proportional to the insult, which is proportional to the (infinite, in this case) difference in status of creature and creator. Now to be sure, there may be a sense in which we owe God more respect than we owe our fellow creatures, but it is not easy to see in what sense we owe Him infinite respect, or how disobedience insults the Divine Honor infinitely.

Indeed, this idea, defended most notably by St. Anselm, runs counter to a principle several times attested in the Bible (Deuteronomy 10:17; Job 32:21, Job 34:19; Proverbs 24:23; Matthew 22:16 et passim): that God “does not regard the position of men.” Though this phrasing is a bit odd, the meaning is clear: all are equal before God; it makes no difference whether one’s station is high or low. That surely conflicts with Anselm’s suggestion that the same offense is more grievous committed against a lord than against a peasant. But perhaps an offense committed against God is more grievous, because God’s station is infinitely higher than the lord’s. But that doesn’t seem right: if station makes no difference when it comes to human persons, why should it for God? Indeed, insofar as a sin is an offense against God, it is a victimless crime; for mere humans cannot harm God.

Richard Swinburne is a contemporary defender of a Sacrifice theory. Here I shall take note of just two features of Swinburne’s defense of the theory. First, Swinburne suggests that the gravamen of the offenses each of us has committed against God is so serious that nothing less than (and possibly something more than) being hung on the cross would be our just deserts.[21] That seems frankly preposterous. No doubt the suffering of the cross would make a suitable punishment for a Hitler or a Stalin, but how many of us would consider justice done if our neighbor were to suffer such a fate?

My second objection concerns the economics of sacrifice. As Swinburne sees it, none of us has the resource—a pure unblemished life—to offer to God as a suitable sacrifice that can satisfy the penance and reparations we owe to God. There’s nothing for it, then, if reparation is to be paid, but that God supply each of us with a worthy sacrifice to offer up to him: the sinless life of Jesus. To be sure, there’s nothing stopping God from simply forgiving each of us our sins. Swinburne acknowledges this. What he does not recognize is that this is plainly what a good God should do. Not only would the terrible suffering of an innocent have been spared, not only would God’s mercy have shone more brightly, but the business of offering us a sacrifice we then return to God would be unnecessary. Swinburne offers an analogy in explanation. A child breaks a window, and has no money with which to make restitution to the parent. But the parent steps in; his solicitude for the child impels him to give the child the funds with which to satisfy the debt. It is hard to see this as other than a charade, a mock restitution that does not respect either the child or the significance of the offense. Very few parents, I am sure, would have recourse to such a handling of the situation. It is far more satisfactory to explain to a child the nature of what he has done, to invite remorse, and then to forgive.

It is even harder to see how a sacrifice, however high its value, can make God whole again with respect to our insult. After all, it is our moral orientation that God presumably cares about. Sacrifice theories do not respect the autonomy of agents. If my tree falls on your house in a storm, I can make restitution to you, and that’s the end of it, precisely because there is no question of the tree itself having to be restored to a proper moral relationship with you. But we are not straying trees. I may be thankful that the burden of punishment has been lifted off my shoulders, but how can I be happy that someone else has—even voluntarily—unjustly suffered my just desserts?

Substitution theories have an even harder task of squaring atonement with our understanding of moral guilt. These theories, as I understand them, propose that Christ literally takes upon himself our sins, without thereby becoming sinful, and expiates them by suffering on the cross. But this is morally unintelligible. You can no more bear my guilt than you can author my acts. It is also morally repugnant that another should suffer, even voluntarily, to absolve me of wrongdoing. Moreover, it teaches us that we are morally helpless in the face of a depravity that our own efforts cannot control or master.[22] In addition, both Substitution and Sacrifice theories presuppose God’s commandments to be so clearly and unambiguously published, and the Divine nature to be so unimpeachable, that deviation is culpable. But this will not withstand examination.

Moral Exemplar theories of atonement avoid some of the shortcomings of Substitution and Sacrifice theories, but they have moral difficulties of their own. Robin Collins and Marilyn Adams have proposed versions of this view that emphasize the role of Jesus’ life and suffering death in enabling finite human beings to achieve union with God.[23] In Collins’ case, God had to become manifest in a finite, yet perfectly loving, human being, in order for us to be able to participate in the life of God. Adams believes that by suffering horrendous evil Himself, in the Passion of Jesus, God is able to convey His solidarity with us in a way that can make meaningful, in the end, humanity’s own participation in horrendous evil.

I cannot do justice to these theories here, but I want to indicate why I find both of them baffling. Neither theory can show, to begin with, why it is necessary for salvation that God have made Himself manifest in the unique person of Jesus. After all, any number of stories might have the power to bring one or another of us close to God. Second, and more seriously, I do not see how these theories explain the necessity of the cross and the Resurrection. The fact that someone is willing to die on my behalf is, certainly, a powerfully meaningful testimony to love—if I can make sense of how his death works on my behalf. Solidarity itself can give life meaning. But if I lose my hand in an accident, I do not wish that my best friend cut off his own hand in solidarity. The Dani tribespeople of Papua New Guinea practice low-level warfare. When a man is killed, close female relatives amputate one of their fingers. Though I find a certain poignancy in this, I do not think it a good rule of thumb.

In Moral Exemplar theories, Jesus’ life does not wash away the stain of sins past, but leads us toward reformation of our character. This is a congenial thought. It would carry greater weight were there evidence within Christendom of greater moral purity and courage than we find in the general run of humanity.[24] Because there is not, as nearly as I can judge, I think we should be skeptical that the example of Jesus’ life has been as effective as might be hoped.

These are some of the reasons to doubt the moral acceptability of the notion of vicarious atonement. But what of the Resurrection? Does it not hold out the promise of ultimate justice?[25] Supposing that Jesus’ passion could somehow pave the path to heaven for the faithful, will the moral balance of the universe have been fully preserved? I cannot see this. Even if hell could provide just punishment, and heaven abundant reward, how do those rewards wipe away injustice once done with divine acquiescence?

Ivan Karamazov tells the story of the serf boy who, before his mother’s eyes, is torn to pieces by the master’s hounds because he accidentally hurt one of them. Ivan insists that the little boy’s mother dare not forgive the master on behalf of the boy. Can the boy, in heaven, forgive the master? Indeed he can; and let us suppose that restores community between boy and man. Can it, however, undo the injustice, make things as if it had not happened?[26]

Suppose a man has discovered a promising cure for some serious and widely occurring disease. To prove it out, he must perform an experiment upon a human subject. There is a substantial risk that, even if the experiment is successful, the subject will lose his hearing. The scientist can find no suitable volunteer; in desperation, he kidnaps someone and forcibly performs the experiment. It is successful, but the subject loses his hearing. To make it up to the subject, the scientist (who has a large grant), gives the subject his fondest wish: the chance to enjoy the rest of his life in comfort on Bermuda. The subject, in retrospect, regards the reward to have been worth the price. Shall we say that the scientist acted justly?

Consider Job. When Job calls upon the Lord to explain his suffering, God’s response is startling. He blusters and swaggers, demeaning Job, deriding Job’s paltry understanding, and magnifying His own. What he does not do is to summon the moral courage to tell Job about the diabolical wager that is the real cause of his suffering. But, in the end, he restores to Job health, wealth, and children. And what of the children Job has lost? Is Job happy? I cannot improve upon Elie Wiesel:

Therefore we know that in spite of or perhaps because of appearances, Job continued to interrogate God. By repenting sins he did not commit, by justifying a sorrow he did not deserve, he communicates to us that he did not believe in his own confessions; they were nothing but decoys. Job personified man’s eternal quest for justice and truth—he did not choose resignation. Thus he did not suffer in vain; thanks to him, we know that it is given to man to transform divine injustice into human justice and compassion.[27]

One of the most profound differences in religious sensibility between Judaism and Christianity—if I may be permitted to speak in such general terms—is the way in which the relationship between human beings and God is conceived. Wiesel can write a play in which three Purimspieler put God on trial.[28] Marilyn Adams, in contrast, sounds a recurrent Christian note:

The metaphysical gap between God and creatures means that however mature adult human agency may seem in relation to other human beings, it never gets beyond (up to?) the infantile stage in relation to the Divine.[29]

Is Adams suggesting, then, that, in the face of horrendous and inscrutable evils, in the face of a Bible that seems to mock our most fundamental moral convictions, in the face, above all, of our “infantile” inability to make moral sense of either, we are to remain in silent, indeed loving, submission to an incomprehensible deity?[30]

The infantilization of humankind in relation to God is one of the most disturbing features of Christian religious sensibility, especially in the context of moral judgment. It is asked of us to accept, or construct an apology for, moral horrors that Scripture attributes to God. In an essay on faith and reason, Locke rightly observes that accepting as true revelation doctrines that contradict sense and reason would be to overthrow the very faculties that anchor belief in truth. Locke’s point can be extended to doctrines that overthrow our deepest moral intuitions, as J. S. Mill pointed out.[31] Jesus tells us (Matthew 11:30) that his yoke is easy. But this yoke is not easy; indeed, I do not understand how it is possible to bear.[32]

For her part, the self-respecting unbeliever asks for nothing more—and nothing less—than the right and the responsibility to atone for her own failings, as best she can. Many of us, perhaps, have much to answer for. I certainly include myself. There is nothing for it but to make the best amends we can, and to resolve not to err again. We are not creatures so flawed that this is too much to expect from ourselves. It ill serves moral courage to so exaggerate our depravity and discount our capacity for self-correction as to make that task appear futile.

Those who essay to judge God face a thankless task. They are naturally accused of the sin of pride. When it is moral sanity that hangs in the balance, this is perhaps a sin one could be proud of. But it is not a matter of pride. It is a matter of defending human decency, at the price of revolt if necessary. Whether it is nobler to “return the ticket” to heaven, as Ivan does, to try with Oedipus to outwit the Fates, or, like defiant Captain Ahab, to take arms against a sea of troubles, I shall not judge; but what gives dignity to all of these is rebellion against a divine order both inhuman and inhumane.[33]

Rebellion requires belief that there be someone against whom to rebel. So it is not a cogent attitude for an atheist. But an atheist may still consider some of the attitudes of revolt to be appropriate, either as a way of expressing alienation from the indifference of the cosmos to human anguish, or as a counterpoint to religious belief, or conditionally, as the attitude that would be appropriate, if the God of Scripture were to exist.[34]

Whether unbelief yields an attitude of despair (or even resignation), of optimism, or of rebellion depends in part, as noted, upon whether one lacks belief that there is a god, or, believing that there is, lacks belief in that god. Many unbelievers, I am sure, find themselves drawn to more than one of these possibilities.[35] I myself feel strongly the tug of all three. But, if there is a God, and that God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus, then I affirm that there is one stance that is legitimate and justified. It is rebellion.

Some apologists tell us that God remains hidden from us so as not to coerce our worship. But God is not hiding out of solicitude for our freedom. We have not forgotten Job: therefore we understand that God is hiding out of cowardice. God is in hiding because He has too much to hide. We do not seek burning bushes or a pillar of smoke. No: we wish to see God. Can God stand before us; can God see the face of suffering humanity—and live? J’accuse.


[1] And, in part, because I came to discern the profound dimensions of Christian faith that stand apart from its doctrine of postmortem salvation.

[2] N. T. Wright makes the case for classical Hellenic religion and ancient Judaism in The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003). A similar case can be made for many tribal religions, in spite of talk of “ancestor spirits” and the like, not to mention Confucianism. It is less clear what to say about Hindu and Buddhist doctrines of reincarnation. See also Alan F. Segal, Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion (New York: Doubleday, 2004). Segal takes the evidence to show that nearly every human culture enshrines one of often several visions of an afterlife. But, as noted, many of these promise a kind of existence hardly worth risking one’s life for.

[3] I should be clear here that I do not pretend that these three responses exhaust the possibilities.

[4] Those who are subjectivists about value will judge that my reflections are, in various ways, misdirected. An atheist who is a subjectivist about values will, I suppose, find life meaningful just in case, or to the extent that, the things he or she values are brought into being.

[5] In his Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion (New York: Doubleday, 2004), pp. 488-9, Alan F. Segal argues that the problem of justice—especially the punishment of the wicked, e.g., the Romans—constituted a primary motivation for the development by the ante-Nicene Fathers of the idea of a disembodied postmortem existence of the soul in Heaven or Hell, in the face of the evident failure of the urgently awaited and immanently expected arrival of the Eschaton.

[6] Bertrand Russell, “A Free Man’s Worship,” reprinted in Russell, Mysticism and Logic (Totowa, NJ: Barnes and Noble, 1981), p. 41.

[7] Albert Camus, The Stranger, transl. by Gilbert Stuart (New York: Knopf, 1981), p. 154.

[8] So de Unamuno’s saint, the priest Don Emmanuel: “The other [kingdom] is here. Two kingdoms exist in this world. Or rather, in the other world… Ah, I don’t really know what I’m saying… Let men think and act as they will, let them console themselves for having been born, let them live as happily as possible in the illusion that all this has a purpose.” (Abel Sanchez and Other Stories, South Bend, IN: Regnery-Gateway, 1956, pp. 246-7), and “Like Moses, I have seen the face of God—our supreme dream—face to face, and as you already know and as the Scripture says, he who sees God’s face, he who sees the eyes of the dream, the eyes with which He looks at us, will die inexorably and forever. And herefore, do not let our people, so long as they live, look into the face of God. Once dead, it will no longer matter, for then they will see nothing…” (p. 253). One may hear echoes here of Dostoyevsky’s Inquisitor. But so to read de Unamuno is, I think, a grave error.

[9] Larry Arnhart develops a version of this view—though one with which I am not entirely in agreement—in his Darwinian Natural Right: The Biological Ethics of Human Nature (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1998).

[10] Plantinga, Warrant and Proper Function (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), Chapter 11.

[11] Theists quite commonly assert that natural selection is incapable of producing altruistic behaviors and adherence to moral principles, where these confer a selective advantage upon others at the expense of the actor. The problem has, of course, attracted the attention of biologists, and is the subject of current research. For a review of some interesting recent work, see Jonathan Haidt, “The New Synthesis in Moral Psychology,” Science 316 (May 18, 2007): 998-1002.

[12] For a recent, more extended discussion, see Eric Wielenberg, Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe (Cambridge University Press, 2005).

[13] For a frightening example, see .

[14]I have too gloomy an estimate of human nature to indulge in the utopian dreams of some humanists, to say nothing of the fantastic hopes of millenarian Christians. But that sober reflection diminishes neither the satisfactions that life can offer nor the dignity of efforts to improve the human condition.

[15] In what follows, I will be holding Jews and Christians to account for biblical morality, and ignoring the long, rich history of subsequent theological reflection on these matters. But this seems fair enough, to the extent that a Jew or Christian sees Scripture as being at the heart of his or her faith.

[16] So that here insult is added to injury, and irony to malfeasance. For there is no sin against which Jesus railed more than against the sin of hypocrisy. The Pharisees, a prominent target of Jesus’ anger, were not as bad as the Gospels portray them. Sadly Christendom, measured by its own standard, surely is.

[17] Thus ill-repaying the hospitality of Jethro, the priest of Midian, who was his father in law. Nor had the Midianites committed any act of aggression against Israel.

[18] But compare Matthew 19:19. The usual apologetic—that Jesus is merely insisting that we get our priorities straight and put loyalty to God first—ignores the sense of the texts. The current political rhetoric of the evangelical right lends to these passages an especially ironic flavor. Equally morally baffling is Luke 16.

[19] Mark 4:11-12 even suggests that God does not want all sinners to have a change of heart and to be forgiven. A decidedly bracing response to these difficulties invokes the divine command theory of moral obligation. The divine command theory faces its own problems. The familiar one is the Euthyphro dilemma. Here, however, the maneuver is precisely to stare down the moral horrors of the Bible by accepting one horn of the dilemma. Whatever God wills is, solely in virtue of being divinely willed, righteous—even genocide, child sacrifice, and the like.

But there is another, less familiar, problem for divine command theories: why (morally) ought we to obey God’s commands? It’s no use saying: because God commands us to obey them. For that is just another command, and it begs the question to be told that we have an obligation to obey it because it comes from God. It follows, then, that there is at least one source of moral obligation—indeed a fundamental one—that cannot be grounded in a divine command. We make no progress by observing that our obligation to obey God is grounded in His having created us. So He may have, but that obliges us to obedience only if there is a moral principle that enjoins obedience to one’s creator; and what obliges us to that principle?

The divine command theorist has one recourse. Suppose, as appears to be the case (e.g., Leviticus 20, 26:14-39), God’s commandments take the form: Do C or else. Well, that gives us reason to obey God. But it also reduces the moral ‘ought’ to a prudential ‘ought’—a result most theists will hardly welcome.

[20] A dramatic expression of this idea is given by Hebrews 9:22.

[21] Swinburne, Responsibility and Atonement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 154.

[22] I have serious doubt that this is what Paul himself has in mind in Romans. (See, e.g., Alan F. Segal, Paul the Convert (New Haven, CT: Yale, 1990), and Evan Fales, “The Road to Damascus,” Faith and Philosophy 22 (2005): 442-459. The doctrine and practice of substitutionary sacrifice has, of course, a long history within Judaism, and the early Church would have been entirely at home in it. The connection between Jesus and the Paschal lamb (and hence with the akedah) is patent, and there is a hint that the Gospel writers went further and incorporated into the Passion narratives the sacrificial practice of the scapegoat (which carries the sins of the people into the desert; cf. Leviticus 16:5f): some ancient manuscripts give the name of the man released by Pilate as Jesus Barabbas, i.e., Jesus the Son of the Father. These doctrines do make sense to me, but that is another story.

[23] Robin Collins, “Understanding Atonement: A New and Orthodox Theory,” http://home.messiah.edu/~rcollins/Atone.htm, and Marilyn McCord Adams, Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999).

[24] I do not mean to suggest that their faith does not strengthen Christians in their efforts to lead good lives. But many things can strengthen such a resolve, and atheists, in my experience, are able to draw upon resources that, judged by their fruits, are at least as effective.

[25] There is, to be sure, the antecedent question whether Jesus was indeed raised. But there is, even prior to this, the question whether the Passion narratives should be understood to assert such a thing (and were so understood by the early Church). I believe there is reason to think not: see Fales, “Taming the Tehom: the Sign of Jonah in Matthew,” in Robert Price and Jeffrey Lowder, eds., The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 2005): 307-348.

[26] And if the boy forgive, will the celestial harmony be restored? Will Iustitia reascend her throne? Will the angelic host cease their weeping and raise once more their voices in hymns of praise? So Ivan: “It’s not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for. They must be atoned for, or there can be no harmony. But how? How are you going to atone for them? Is it possible? By their being avenged? But what do I care for avenging them? What do I care for a hell for oppressors? What good can hell do, since those children have already been tortured? And what becomes of harmony, if there is hell? I want to forgive. I want to embrace. I don’t want more suffering. And if the sufferings of the children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay the price for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price. I don’t want the mother to embrace the oppressor who threw her son to the dogs! She dare not forgive him! Let her forgive him for herself, if she will, let her forgive the torturer for the immeasurable suffering of her mother’s heart. But the sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to forgive; she dare not forgive the torturer, even if the child were to forgive him! And if that is so, if they dare not forgive, what becomes of harmony? Is there in the whole world a being who would have the right to forgive and could forgive?” The Brothers Karamazov, Constance Garnett, transl. (New York: Random House, 1950), pp. 290-91.

[27] Wiesel, “Job: Our Contemporary,” in Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends, Marion Wiesel, transl. (New York: Summit Books, 1976), p. 235.

[28] Elie Wiesel, The Trial of God (as it was held on February 25, 1649, in Shamgorod) (New York: Random House, 1979); also Souls on Fire (New York: Random House, 1972), p. 107 f.

[29] Adams, loc. cit., p. 104.

[30] Adams, in fact, concedes that, in moral terms, beatitude does not make up for horrendous evils suffered in this life. Rather, God insures that through intimacy with the divine, a person will be able to incorporate her suffering into a life that, taken as a whole, is meaningful and precious. I do not understand how this is to be done by God, and neither, perhaps, does Adams herself.

[31] John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Bk. IV, Ch. XVIII, and J. S. Mill, “Mr. Mansell on the Limits of Religious Thought,” reprinted in Nelson Pike, ed., God and Evil (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1964).

[32] Kierkegaard understood the religious to transcend the ethical, and, to his credit, he is honest about it. To his shame, he accepts it.

[33] And yet even the atheist cannot forget that Ivan and Alyosha are brothers. And we too wish to claim Alyosha as an imaginary brother of our hearts, whom we love.

[34] Thus dialectically, an atheist may, for the sake of argument, concede to (Jewish and Christian) theists the existence of God and the veridicality of Scripture, and employ the arguments adduced above to draw out the consequences. In effect, this paper then offers a reductio of (Judeo-Christian) theism.

[35] We find all three expressed, for example, by Camus—e.g., in Letters to a German Friend, Fourth letter:

For a long time we both thought that this world had no ultimate meaning and that consequently we were cheated. I still think so in a way. But I came to different conclusions from the ones which you talk about…. You never believed in the meaning of this world, and you therefore deduced the idea that everything was equivalent and that good and evil could be defined according to one’s wishes. You supposed that in the absence of any human or divine code the only values were those of the animal world—in other words, violence and cunning. Hence you concluded that man was negligible and that his soul could be killed…. And, to tell the truth, I, believing I thought as you did, saw no valid argument to answer you except a fierce love of justice which, after all, seemed to me as unreasonable as the most sudden passion.

Where lay the difference? Simply that you readily accepted despair and I never yielded to it. Simply that you saw the injustice of our condition to the point of being willing to add to it, whereas it seemed to me that man must exalt justice in order to fight against eternal injustice, create happiness in order to protest against the universe of unhappiness. Because you turned despair into intoxication … you were willing to destroy man’s works…. Meanwhile, refusing to accept despair and that tortured world, I merely wanted men to rediscover their solidarity in order to wage war against their revolting fate.

In Camus, Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, Justin O’Brien, transl. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961), pp. 27-28.

Copyright ©2007 by Evan Fales. The electronic version is copyright ©2007 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Evan Fales. All rights reserved.