“I don't think it matters if there is a god or not. I've met people who believe in God that are good and that are bad. And I've met people who don't believe in God that are good and that are bad. So, just be good. I'm good. Not cos I think I'll go to heaven but because when I do something bad, I feel bad. And when I do something good, I feel good.”
I read this quote, attributed to Ricky Gervais, in a meme-style photo posted to a friend's Facebook page, and couldn't stop thinking about it.
On the face of it, his first two sentences are perfectly correct. We've all met or heard about people who publicly proclaim belief in God but their lifestyle says anything but. They are very religious, maybe with positions of authority in the church, but are found to have been carrying on a double life. And we all know people who claim no belief in God but are kind and decent. There is absolutely no doubt about that.
However, my response is this: the behaviour of people who believe in God, or say that they do, is not a valid argument against the existence of God. The fact that someone says they believe in God but does things that are wrong, simply means that the person has done things that are wrong. It does not prove or disprove God's existence.
It's a bit like saying that if I decide to follow a diet, and tell all my friends that I am following it, but then cheat every day and fail to lose weight, there is something wrong with the diet. No. The problem is in my failure to adhere to the diet, not in the diet itself.
As Christians, we understand that “belief in God” is not enough. The apostle James said, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (James 2:19) This sarcastic retort comes in the middle of James' famous teaching that “faith without works is dead”. The whole book of James is dedicated to showing what “true religion” looks like, and how people who claim faith in God but act otherwise are proving that their faith is bogus.
This same theme is repeated over and over again throughout the Scriptures, from Old to New Testament. 1 John 3:6 says, “No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.”
True faith produces transformation. Someone who claims faith in God but lives otherwise is not disproving the existence of God. They are disproving the reality of their faith claim.
The second part of his statement, that there are good and bad people who don't believe in God: absolutely, on a certain level, true. We could probably all name examples.
However, this brings up another question. What is “good”? How do we understand what “good” or “bad” is, and how do we judge other people or their actions as good or bad? How do we decide that we ourselves are “good”? Where does our very understanding of good come from? The act of judging people or acts as good or bad presupposes an authoritative standard for good or bad. And where does that standard come from? (By the way, I have never met or heard of anyone who believes like this saying that they themselves are bad. Almost everyone, even criminals, thinks of him or herself as good, by their own standard).
What does “being good” mean? Does it simply mean not harming others? Doing nice things for others? Recycling? Taking public transit instead of driving? When I meet people who claim not to believe in God but to be good, this is the level of goodness they mean. A standard of non-harm. These people are very nice (mostly) to the people they like: their friends and family, coworkers and strangers who are nice to them. They don't rob houses. They don't kill people. They don't kick animals. Etc.
What I don't see is a standard of positive goodness, even to people who hate them or are unkind to them, or have nothing to offer them and in fact only take from them. Kindness, loving, and goodness even when it hurts, when you yourself may lose from it, when no one sees, when it is hard, difficult, dirty, and painful. Persistent loving, even when it bears little fruit, even when the person doesn't change. Genuine forgiveness and seeking the good of even those who have hurt you. A lifestyle of self-sacrifice and self-denial on behalf of others.
This kind of loving, to be quite honest, I have only ever seen among dedicated Christians. And why? Because Jesus tells us that the standard for “good”, the standard for love, is not simply not doing harm, and being nice to those whom you like and who are like you. It's a lot higher, and a lot more difficult, than that.
“You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)
Jesus' call is to radical love and self-sacrifice for even those who hate you.
It's a standard that blows most of our ideas of “good” out of the water. As does the rest of Jesus' teaching. And it's a standard that, I believe, is impossible to meet, humanly speaking. Jesus calls us to this, but we can't do it. I can't. I am weak and I fail regularly. I am grumpy and judgemental and self-serving and love my own comfort. I dislike and sometimes even hate people who are mean to me. I certainly don't love them.
So how do I follow this call of Jesus? One word: grace. As Christians, we understand we're not called to do this on our own. Jesus died to break the power of sin and selfishness that we're all chained to as human beings, and rose again to give us new life and the ability to follow him and love in this radical and self-denying way, the way that he himself loved us. When we receive him, he begins to change us from the inside out, as we cooperate with his grace.
That's why I do not believe it is possible to be actually and truly “good” without God. Our standards of goodness fall into the dust compared with the standards of Jesus. We are so prone to self-deceit, spiritual blindness, and pride, that we can't even see ourselves properly when we are using our own standard of “goodness” to judge.
Finally, the last two comments in the quote: as a Christian, I do not “do good” because I think I might go to heaven. I do good because that is the character of God and I want to be like him. I love him because he first loved me and has persistently loved me, even when I was at my worst. I don't deserve a mote of the goodness he's given me, particularly the gift of Jesus. I could never repay him, but I want to offer him my life.
“Heaven” is not some disconnected paradise where we float around on clouds strumming harps, or walking through beautiful parks. Heaven, in the biblical sense, is defined as the presence of God. Heaven will be heaven because he will be there with his people, and there will be nothing that separates us from him. There will be nothing that is not good (of God): no more sin, no more death, no more hatred, wars, division. I want to be in heaven because God is there. Heaven is simply a continuation and perfection of the life with God that we experience on earth.
And finally, the bit about feeling good when you do good and feeling bad when you do bad: Ricky is simply describing in current English what the Apostle Paul described this way a couple of millennia ago:
“For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 2:14-18)
In other words, God gave the Jews a written form of his standard of goodness, the law. Paul is saying that even though the Jews were given the law, every person, even Gentiles who never received it, has an innate understanding of the requirements of God and what is good or bad. When people do what is “good”, they are showing that they have this understanding. Their conscience is aware of the standard, even if they don't know where it came from, and condemns them when they do bad or approves of them when they do good. When people make judgements about good or bad, about others or about themselves, they are showing this code of God written into every human being and every society. Mr. Gervais is no exception.