This is Part 3 of my series on Doubt. You can access the whole series here.
If God is real, God is really important. Enough said there.
If God's not real, then a lot of ideas that spiritual people hold aren't true. Some of these ideas are part of the core identity of any believer. Think about ideas like good triumphs over evil, eternal life, and a plan for every person's life. If you've believed any of these for any for any amount of time, life without them looks bleak.
That sort of existential angst is a major cause for the depression associated with changing religious beliefs. Changing your beliefs about God takes time, contemplation, and study. People experience God most powerfully as a feeling or experience, not as an idea (see Chapter 5 of How God Changes Your Brain by Andrew Newberg, or Tanya Luhrmann's When God Talks Back for more).
Human feelings are much slower to change than our thoughts, and most of us are resistant to changing our ideas as well. Even for someone who wants to experience God, the process can take time. So, let's play a game of What If to frame our discussion while we continue to ponder the existence of God over the coming weeks.
What if there is no God?
This is a hard question for believers to contemplate, but I ask anyone reading this to do their best. Imagine for a moment that there really is no God at all. What would that mean?
For starters, it would mean humanity has no ordained purpose, that we're here by a quirk of the Cosmos. Without God, the whole Universe is completely indifferent to our existence. It would mean we are a population of intelligent apes thriving in a very thin film of air and water stuck to the surface of a tiny rock that orbits a small star in a perfectly ordinary galaxy–one galaxy of billions out there in space.
That can make you feel very small and insignificant.
It would also mean that there is no heaven or hell waiting for us when we die. Our entire experience would be completely limited to the years we are alive on Earth.
If there is no God, there is no external salvation for mankind. If we destroy our environment, or launch a bunch of nukes and wipe out civilization, that's it. We had our shot.
Wow, that's pretty depressing.
If there is no God, and no eternal life, and no plan for humanity, then it is we, humans, who make our own purpose and destiny. There is no sin, and no eternal consequences.
All that matters is how you live, now, and the way that you help or hurt others. It's up to you to figure out to live your life.
If there is no God, then life is an incredible and rare gift. If there is no God, we are here against remarkable odds, and every second is worth cherishing. If we are a product of cold, indifferent nature, then we have the power to help others, and to create ideas that survive in culture after we are gone. The lessons we leave behind for others can save or sacrifice many lives.
If God isn't there, religious people have lost nothing serving him unless their beliefs caused them to harm others or miss out on positive life experiences.
What about death? If God isn't real, death represents the same state of unconscious peace you experienced (or more accurately, did not experience) before you were born. I haven't heard many people complain about the experience they had before their own conception.
That doesn't sound so bad. Without God, you live a life following a calling you choose, blessed by nature with awareness and experience. What matters most, and what is left behind when you die, is how you treat others. That's hardly a cause for panic.
What if God is real?
Now, let's start with an assumption that will challenge the skeptical among us. Imagine that God is out there, aware of us, and with unimaginable power. Make the assumption that the entity that created you is out there, watching. Not only watching, but actively sustaining the entire Universe through divine power. What would that mean?
What would that God think of your doubts? Would a being capable of devising astrophysics, quantum physics, DNA, and weather understand why you doubt? I bet such a God would understand your position quite well. This is the God that made you. This God would probably be patient, watching as you discover and follow the purpose of your life. Such a God would understand that you are working to learn about truth, and having made truth, I suspect this God would be proud.
This is a God who would reach back as you reach out.
If this God is real, it's vital to make the most of each day. After all, life is a powerful gift offered to us via God's greatness. For whatever reason, this God chose not to make his existence and plans obvious to us. Even if this God wrote the Bible, that work has not been successful in convincing all people that God is real.
Think about that: a God powerful enough to make the Universe, but not powerful enough to make a convincing book. What sense does that make?
If that God is there, then this search for God must be planned and expected. For whatever reason, part of our journey in life is to discover God and the plan for our lives.
If God is watching, how we treat others is vitally important. After all, we're talking about special creations of a living God. Even more amazing, God gave us the power and agency to make an impact on this world even beyond our physical deaths. We honor God by doing good in the world.
Finally, if God is real, there is no reason to fear death, for it is in death we are reunited with him.
Of course, there are a lot of people who will tell you that if you don't believe in their particular God, you will suffer in Hell for all eternity. Most Christian denominations say this, even about each other. Most Muslims will say the same. In our game of What If, how can we say which one of these Gods is the real one?
I have to imagine that if God is real, then God understands this position, and will reach out to any who seek to know. Your desire to know and serve God will be honored, and God will make it clear to you have you may be saved, if salvation is necessary at all.
Life Well Lived
You may have noticed some common themes in both our "What If" scenarios. The following themes are true in either case:
- Life is a precious gift to be enjoyed.
- How we treat other people is essential.
- We must act to discover the purpose and calling of our lives.
- We do not need to fear death.
I would encourage you to consider these four points as we continue to explore doubt. You can live a good life today, even as you search for insight about God's existence. There is room for hope, now, in this moment.
We'll dig into why people believe it's irrational to believe in God in my next post.
A note from the author:
I know a great many believers would like me to add something about the Jesus, the sinner's prayer, John 3:16, or another resource encouraging people to give their lives over to Christ here. Here's the problem: anyone who questions God's existence sees the Bible and Jesus as ancient mythology. Remember, I became an atheist even knowing all those things. We'll get to the Bible and Jesus eventually. This is all going somewhere.
Also. for the apologists and atheists who've commented that my posts so far lack substance: you're right. I've gotten a half dozen messages to that effect, but over 300 messages from people who find encouragement in these first posts. We have to deal with feelings and emotional trauma before we can work on facts, data, and evidence. That's why this is a series.