“I don’t believe in God,” declares the passionate lawyer who bravely defends the falsely accused. “I don’t even like Him: jealous, self-obsessed, cruel.”
“What do you believe in?” asks the Catholic but deeply corrupt lawyer.
This brief exchange, in the recent British legal drama Silk, portrays the common view of God and man. God—as often described and displayed by imperfect Christians—seems strict, mean and judgmental.
Yet when we look around the world, we see lots of people showing “decency”—doing kind and selfless things for others. That could be mothers sacrificing for their kids, fathers serving their families, people extending help to someone who’s struggling or showing kindness to someone who’s been rejected.
This seems to happen just as much among people who don’t know Christ. Many atheists and agnostics are just as decent outwardly, if not more, than churchgoing Christians.
But the reality is, there would be no decency without divinity. Human sin is so destructive that we should expect to find only selfishness on earth.
“I tell you, if the Lord Almighty had left us to our own devices,” wrote Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper, “all virtue would have turned into brutishness, all order into chaos, and all humanity would have descended into the dense smoke of hell.”
While that view doesn’t make it into many TV or movie scripts, it often is present great literature.
A book club I belong to recently read two books that show this truth well: The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis and Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Both of these books depict the end result of sin and selfishness. They allow us to see more clearly that the decency we find in the world is the work of God.
In Screwtape, Lewis shows that the demon Screwtape is utterly incapable of understanding that God’s actions are motivated by “disinterested love” because all actions in hell are motivated by an insatiable hunger. Screwtape and his fellow demons, in a follow-up article Lewis wrote in 1959, literally feast on the souls of dead sinners. And when Screwtape’s protégé Wormwood ultimately fails to fatally tempt his human target, Screwtape ends his final letter by suggesting he intends to eat Wormwood—to snuff out a life to satisfy his own desire.
Selfishness, if utterly unrestrained, murders for mere pleasure.
Murder is also the theme of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, my all-time favorite novel. The main character, Raskolnikov, deliberately murders a woman to test out his theory that truly great men aren’t bound by law. Raskolnikov thinks he could be one of those men.
But something in him rebels. Raskolnikov, who on instinct is routinely generous and kind to others, becomes delirious with fear and revulsion at the murder. He recoils at the help of his friends and family. But he refuses to admit any guilt.
Finally at the end, he falls sick and dreams of a worldwide plague that essentially has made all people think as he had. People attacked by the plague felt “so intellectual and so completely in possession of the truth” that “never had they considered their decisions, their scientific conclusions, their moral convictions so infallible.” But since each person insisted that he alone had the truth, they stopped being able to cooperate and organize themselves:
Men killed each other in a sort of senseless spite. They gathered together in armies against one another, but even on the march the armies would begin attacking each other, the ranks would be broken and the soldiers would fall on each other, stabbing and cutting, biting and devouring each other.
Raskolnikov dreams over several days, when the Russian Orthodox Church is celebrating Easter. When he finally awakes, it is as if he is resurrected. He finally is able to have relationships with those around him.
The real world reached a point similar to Raskolnikov’s dream in Gen. 6:5, when “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”
God’s response was a similar death-and-resurrection scenario. God destroyed all living things on earth but preserved humanity through Noah. After the flood and Noah’s worship of God, God made this promise: “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done” (Gen. 8:21).
The human decency we see around the world is a fulfillment of that promise. At least one of the ways God preserves humanity is by restraining our selfishness. Otherwise—as in Screwtape’s hell and Raskolnikov’s dystopian dream—we would destroy ourselves.
God upholds the world through the word of the Son of God, who is Jesus Christ (Heb. 1:3). Christ does this so He can build His church (Eph. 1:22). Without Christ’s restraint of human selfishness, no one would even have a sense of justice or desire for goodness, the things that make human decency, human society and even the church possible.
People, like the fictional lawyer in Silk, may not believe in God. They may dislike the hypocrisy they see inside Christ’s church. But even in their unbelief, they give powerful testimony that God is there, that He is good and that He is actively working to preserve the decency found in all our hearts.