By Ben Love ~
We all go through periods of depression. All of us. It doesn’t matter what we believe or where we’re from. Both Nietzsche and the Buddha were correct: to live is to suffer. Lucretius said something similar, “Life is one long struggle in the dark.” We all know that. No one needs to be told. And so it will come as no shock to my readers when I relay to them that I’ve been struggling lately with some depression. Not your everyday variety, mind you. No, darker than that. The 100 proof stuff.
It will further come as no surprise that one of my Christian friends, upon learning of this, launched himself into a campaign, thinking that this depression was the window through which he could squeeze faith in God back into my life. His platitudes therefore came rolling out with marked predictability. I retained little of what he said save for one interesting statement (I’m putting my depression on the shelf for the duration of this essay, but I will revisit it at the end). What was the statement? He said, “Michael, what if Christianity is true?” Now, there is nothing notably shocking or unusual about this statement. It’s one we atheists hear often. But for whatever reason—possibly because when I am depressed I become reflective, or possibly because sometimes we just hear things differently one day than we did the previous day—this statement struck me as particularly interesting on this day. And so I began to think about it.
What if Christianity were true? If it were, then some basic facts would need to be observed before anything else. First of all, we would have to concede that there is indeed a personal God and that his nature is indeed as it is described in the pages of the Bible (a truly unsettling thought). We would further have to concede that this God incarnated himself in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, lived among we fallen humans for a time, performed miracles, and eventually died for our sins. Oh yeah, we’d also have to concede that sin exists and that its definition is, well, basically, just look in the mirror. But don’t despair, because we would also further have to concede that this same Jesus who died for our sins also rose from the dead to conquer them, ensuring that all who believe in him and his resurrection will enjoy an unearned eternity in heaven. All very interesting points from a theological point of view, whether or not they are true. And while there are some sticky issues one might raise with these salient “facts,” there is really nothing here that causes too much alarm aside from the usual problematic jargon one might expect from a world religion’s doctrines.
But what about the lesser seen, oft hid, rarely discussed underbelly of these doctrines? What about all the horrific inevitabilities that these doctrines imply when one thinks hard about them? What about all the collateral damage that would be created in reality if these things were indeed true?
“Preposterous!” says the believer. “There is nothing here but good news!”
Good news, is it? Allow me to demonstrate to my readers exactly what reality would be like if Christianity were indeed true. (And as I do, I recall the immortal words of Voltaire: “To hold a pen is to be at war.” Alas, once more unto the breech, dear friends.)
If Christianity is true, then all of life—all of it—is nothing more than a staging ground upon which this drama of faith is to be played out, the drama that determines who will believe and who won’t. Your life has no meaning aside from what you will do with this one question: “Will you believe in what you cannot see, namely that all of these aforementioned doctrines are true even though you have no reason to assume that they are?” If you say “yes” to the question, you are transported into the realm of the special people, the “set apart” ones, the “elect.” Your life is given meaning, and you are elevated above the rest of the population in that you now have access to a supernatural telephone line connected directly to the ear of God, as well as a good standing in his sight which you did not earn.
That all sounds quite nice. But the dark flipside of that is this: Those who say “no” to the question, and who may well have had what seemed to them to be very good, legitimate, justifiable reasons to say “no,” are not transported into that realm. Their lives remain meaningless. Their destinies remain, well, hellish. Quite literally. They have no access to this God, nor do they have a good standing in God’s sight. He looks upon them with disgust because their sins have not been cleansed in the blood of his son. Never mind the fact that none of these people asked to be born. Never mind the fact that, to them, God has never seemed real. They’ve never seen any miracles. They’ve never had a single good thing happen to them. And yet not only are their entire lives meaningless, their eternities are too horrific to contemplate.
Seen from this angle, Christianity is little more than a Country Club that excludes membership to those who don’t fit a certain criteria. So, yeah, if Christianity were true, then we would have to acknowledge that nothing we do really matters. We are, in essence, nothing. And we would also have to acknowledge that anyone who isn’t a member of this Country Club is instead directed to a room of perpetual torture. It’s like reality would be saying this: “Yeah, you’re life has absolutely no meaning, and you are going to be forever tormented because of that. Praise God.”
Additionally, if Christianity is true, then we all must reconcile our minds to one distressing fact: “Suffering,” “evil,” “agony,” “sorrow,” “tragedy,” and “violence,” are not only acceptable formats in which God conducts his business; they are actually part of his “plan.”
It’s as if God, when creating the Universe, said to himself, “I’m going to make being alive in this Universe the hardest, cruelest, nastiest, most agonizing experience imaginable. And then I’ll make some lifeforms and see how they handle it. I’ll fill their lives with torment while offering an invisible way out—if they are faithful enough to believe in it, that is. I’ll make it as hard as I can for them to detect me, and I’ll obscure myself so vaguely that none of them will ever really know who I am and they’ll war about it. Some of them, in their sadness and loneliness at not being able to fully detect me, will kill others or kill themselves. But this will all serve my grand scheme of finding out who the special people are. All of this is, after all, merely a test.”
With this in mind, God then goes about the business of erecting “reality.” And what is reality? We humans sometimes call it “the human condition.” It’s the persistent nature of aching and longing and detachment and isolation and bitter torments that the Buddha and Nietzsche and Lucretius and so many others have written and spoken about. You know what the human condition is. Again, you don’t need to be told. You know it very well. You experience at night, when you can’t sleep. You sometimes feel it as you go about your regular day. Sometimes it’s in the forefront of your mind, like a blaring radio. Other times it's softly sounding in the background, a terrible yet subdued white noise, a kind of barely perceptible but insistently nagging reminder that you’re not okay, you’re not whole, you’re not complete, something is missing, there’s a hole, there’s a brokenness, you’re alone, no one cares, there is no help coming, there is only you and your sorrow and no one can do anything about it.
Yeah, we all know what the human condition is. And, if Christianity is true, then this “condition” is the preferred tool by which God makes things happen. This is the expressed intent of the Universe he created and the reality in which it exists: to cripple our hearts so completely that we have no choice but to crawl to the God we can’t see and throw ourselves on the love we can’t feel. And, again, those who can’t do that or who, in their anger and pain and ever-present grief, fail to detect or feel assured that this unseen God with his unfelt love is real, are cast away into the eternal darkness of everlasting torment. They are nothing to this loving God. The New Testament likens them to chaff that is blown away by the wind, swine who are too stupid to see the “writing on the wall.” Thus, if Christianity is true, then life is just a test. And woe to those who don’t pass it. How cheap.
Now then, shall we leave the realm of theology and existentialism and get a bit scientific? Anyone who reads my writing knows that I’m a man who takes time to look at the stars, that the lights in the night sky are good friends of mine. I love to stand on the surface of my planet and send my thoughts across the great gulf of space toward those spinning balls of heat and gas that emit their energies back across that gulf to me. It haunts me in a delightfully philosophical and yet absurd way to ponder the 6 million years or 9 billion years or whatever the case may be that it took for this light to reach my eyes. In some cases, I know that I am looking at starlight that originated before there was even an Earth to receive the light...
...and yet... if Christianity is true, that great gulf of space gets shrunk down to something much, much smaller. The starlight must therefore be something else, something less inspiring, because the Cosmos spread out before me on any given night is only about 6,000 years old, give or take. If Christianity is true, the Earth, or at the very least the solar system is not only somewhere near the center of the Universe, but the goings-on upon this Earth are the most important events transpiring anywhere in existence. Why? Because it is upon this planet that God created life and it is to this planet that God apparently sent his son. The entire orientation of the Cosmos therefore gets shifted. This might seem insignificant to some, but think about what it means. It means that when we look through our telescopes, we are looking at deliberate deceptions. It means that the objects we see and the seemingly perfect mathematical means by which we measure them were put there to mislead us. It means that God created the Universe to appear one way, but then demands that we believe it to be something entirely different, something based on what he allegedly has to say about it in the Bible. It means that God is basically saying to us, “You cannot trust what you see. You must trust what you cannot see.”
Perhaps that would be okay if he didn’t also orient the entire Universe in such a way so that every other single aspect of the living of our lives depends on what we can see, or at least sense. As it is, if Christianity is true, then we have no choice but to conclude that while God set up a reality that trains us to live one way (empirically), he asks us to live another way (by faith), one that directly conflicts with the training he otherwise put into place. And someone once said that God is not the author of confusion. Bah!
Now, think about all the cultural and societal implications if Christianity is indeed true. Some of the worst people imaginable are going to spend eternity doing just fine sitting next to their God. Some of the kindest, most loving people imaginable will suffer forever. All the good you can do with your life won’t matter if you don’t believe in Jesus. All the bad you can do with your life won’t matter if you do believe in Jesus. In a sense, you can do anything you want to anyone at all, and as long as you’re in the club at the end when the curtain falls, you’re good.
Christians would say, “No, no, wait a minute. Believers have an obligation to love each other, we are definitely held accountable.” Okay, well, how about this one: Suppose there is a man who spends forty years of his adult life being a serial rapist and murderer. Suppose his victims number in the hundreds. Suppose the collateral damage he causes is incalculable (by collateral damage, I mean all the ruined lives, broken hearts, mental breakdowns, and domino effects he leaves in his wake). But suppose also that, near the end of his life, some evangelist comes along and says, “Well, sin is sin. Your sin is no worse than anyone else’s. Believe in Jesus today and you will be saved.” Now, finally, suppose that our rapist/murderer does just this. He soon dies, and is welcomed into heaven with all the other rapists and murderers. Who pays for all the damage he caused? Certainly not God. And certainly not Jesus. His death only paid for the sin. The collateral damage? That just gets written off. After all, we must remember, “suffering” is a viable and acceptable means to the desired end, as least as far as God is concerned.
If Christianity is true, then all of life—all of it—is nothing more than a staging ground...Moreover, we must also remember than any war, any crusade, any act of aggression or violence that is done in the name of Jesus is societally acceptable if Christianity is true. My Christian readers would scoff and say, “No, that is not the case! We don’t support aggression on behalf of Jesus!” Don’t you? When there is a crowd of protesters holding signs that say “God hates fags,” who do you think they are? Ask them. They’re Christians. How do they justify their behavior? Some might quote the many biblical passages that demand homosexuals be persecuted, or even executed. Other Christians would recoil at this behavior and come up with some excuse as to why certain aspects of the Bible are to be ignored while others are to be followed.
In any case, what you are left with, if Christianity is true, is a morally ambiguous book which makes certain commandments, some of which are interpreted one way by one camp of followers, and some of which are interpreted another way by another camp of followers. If all that was at stake were the academic debates of the scholars, that would be fine. But that’s not all that’s at stake. Some of the Christians making certain interpretations have harassed, tormented, and even killed those who they believe are offensive to their God. Some Christians have made war on neighboring nations on behalf of their religious differences. Christians accuse us atheists of constantly harping about the carnage committed by Christians over the centuries, but perhaps we do this because so few Christians will own the fact that it happened! History tells the story; we are left to deal with it.
The simple truth is that an immeasurable number of Christians lave left a trail of heartache and destruction in their wake as they endeavor to simply “obey God.” If Christianity is true, then we are left with only one conclusion: its presence on the planet has royally fucked the world up beyond all recognition. And this, too, is apparently acceptable to God. After all, if Jesus was right about the road to heaven being narrow and the road to hell being wide, then Spock was wrong. The good of the many does not outweigh the good of the few. In fact, if Christianity is true, the good of the select few far outweighs the good of the unselected multitudes that traverse the wide road. They’re basically fucked. (I suppose I should say “we,” not “they.” I am, after all, willfully among them.)
To bring all of this home, let me tell you a story. I never met her, but some of the people among one of the churches I used to attend in Seattle often spoken about a woman named Naomi. In fact, Naomi came up so often at this particular church that I felt hers was a constant presence within its walls, a ghost that seemed to exist only in the memories of the church members. Naomi was a young woman, the daughter of one of the church deacons. She was raised in a good home with good values by parents who loved her and provided a safe environment for her. There was absolutely no conceivable reason that Naomi should have turned out the way she did. But, as if sometimes the case, Naomi inexplicably developed severe emotional issues as she matured.
By the time she was in her early twenties, she was in therapy, on anti-depressants, and had been treated three times for attempted suicide. When asked why she wanted to kill herself, she would always say, “Because life is too bleak to be lived.” Her family and church friends would attempt to console her as Christians are wont to do: with biblical advice and reminders of God’s constant presence and love. But nothing ever worked. She recorded in her diary that though she was taught to believe in God, she nevertheless had never once felt him, sensed him, heard him, seen him, or detected any sign that he existed, let alone that he loved her and cared about her. When she was 24, Naomi could no longer stand the darkness in which she felt she was living. At the urging of her family and church leaders and to some extent at her own conviction, she renounced regular life and entered a nunnery in New England, on the other side of the country, where she intended to focus on nothing except experiencing God. She felt only this could save her, because, as she believed, without God there was no salvation.
And so, for about six months, Naomi lived at the nunnery, training to be novice, fighting to rid her mind and her emotions of all dark things, striving to grow her faith and place her attention solely on the God she believed would deliver her. Her actions were so noble to some among her former church that her story was printed in the local newspapers and eventually began to spread about the county. Naomi therefore became a symbol to certain parts of Seattle, a symbol of dedication to God and a commitment to depend upon him to deliver us all from darkness and evil. That is until the nuns opened the door to Naomi’s room one morning to find had strangled herself with her bedsheets. She left a note containing two words: “So alone.”
Now, if Christianity is true, then certain particulars of this story beg to be observed. Certain questions beg to be asked. What conceivable purpose could the Christian God have had for ignoring Naomi’s pleas? What possible reason could he have had for allowing her to feel so isolated and so alone, especially when she went to devoted lengths that few other Christians are willing to go? If Christianity is true, then God is omniscient. This means that he knew Naomi would ultimately succeed in committing suicide. It also means that God was aware that many people were watching Naomi’s story, and, through that, were watching God. Here he had a chance to demonstrate himself. Here he had an opportunity to show everyone who was watching that devoting oneself to God through faith is the only path to deliverance.
But God didn’t deliver Naomi. As far as I can see, God didn’t lift a finger to even acknowledge her plight. And, again, if Christianity is true and God is indeed omniscient, he also knew that I would one day be writing this article about his perceived negligence in this instance, an article that surely must somehow be undermining his divine plan, if he indeed is real. And yet all of this—Naomi’s darkness, her pain, her suicide, the damage it caused her family, the discouragement it caused the spectators, and the sadness it is now causing my readers—all of this was acceptable to God. No, more than that, he preferred this to the alternative, which would have been to reach out and allow Naomi to somehow sense his love and presence. As bleak as that sounds, it’s even bleaker to ponder how many stories like Naomi’s have transpired over the span of human history if, again, Christianity is indeed true.
I can’t speak for my readers, but it is actually far easier for me to believe that there is no God than to believe that there is a God such as this Christian specimen and he couldn’t spare an extra grain of love for poor Naomi. It is much easier on my sanity to suppose that Christianity is not true than to suppose that it is, because supposing that it is means accepting that reality is much worse than it already is. Where was the good news for Naomi? Where is the good news for me? For you? If Christianity is true, shouldn't you, me, the world, the Universe, and all of reality be different than it is? How do you account for reality while also accounting for your belief in the truth of Christianity? How blind could you possibly be? The sad and even scary truth is this: no one—no one—could be that blind unless he wanted to be. And while we could say much about that, I won’t say a word about it now. The truth is that I just don’t want to. I’m terrified of the element within humanity that would choose blindness on that scale.
As for my depression, well, humans sometimes get depressed. Maybe it’s the weather. Maybe it’s my pocketbook. Maybe it’s just the human condition doing what it does. Naomi knew about that all too well. Poor Naomi. I wish I could talk to her. I wish that she and I could get a cup of coffee tonight and discuss life. I feel certain that I could make her smile somehow. But she’s not here. There’s a blank empty space where her life used to be, and all she was has come to nothing. Perhaps that is what depresses me. I know that Christianity is not true, and I therefore have to let go of this silly idea of an afterlife. No afterlife means that now matters more than it ever did before. And am I wasting my “now?” Am I living fully? Am I making the most of my time? I just don’t know. But I suspect not. And that, more than anything else, is painfully depressing…