I recently encountered a letter on social media from a woman who offered the rather innovative proposal of trying parents as criminals for bringing children involuntarily into the world—that is, into such a hellish and awful place, especially now that (as she would maintain) Donald Trump is president. Politics aside, this woman is clearly not an optimist and does not believe in God or anything of the sort. That, I would contend, is unfortunate. However, and coming from her perspective, she may have a point.
Imagine being thrust into existence. (This includes all of us, by the way. Yes, hi. Hello!) This is either the worst hell and torment any person could imagine, if God does not exist, or the greatest gift if he does. For what is life, generally observed, if not an unduly obnoxious parade of problems, one where whatever progress we encounter appears, upon sufficient reflection, to be merely the replacing of one absurd fiasco for another? We buy an electric lawnmower, thinking we are finally ahead of our ever-so-progressive neighbor Steve—at least with respect to environmentalism, anyway—only to learn, as Steve tells us, those batteries are charged primarily by the burning of fossil fuels in some nearby, river-polluting power plant. Thanks, Steeeve. Or, we finally make that bold move in our career—finally work up the muster to take on that position in Zurich—and then, what do you know? Bone cancer. Here, ultimately, the question of God, of who God is and his relationship to us, controls everything, determines everything. There is no getting around this, no way of not thinking about it. Even with respect to the purchase of electric lawnmowers, we must consider our final destiny.
Can I be blunt? If God does not exist, then we have been brought into what can only be described as an existential nightmare (or freak show; take your pick). We are—as the atheists would maintain, or at least those who are consistent from their premises—the mere result of a rather eccentric concatenation of chance physical events, emerging slowly and extemporaneously from an electrified pool of chemical consommé. Nobody planned for us to be here; nobody wanted us to be here. We simply arrived, including Steve. Humanity, therefore, is not special in any theologically significant way, and eventually life as we know it will cease to exist on all fronts. If what the cosmologists predict is accurate (and we have good reason to think that it is), then all living organisms, and even all the physical particulars from which they’re constituted, will eventually disintegrate; such that whatever progress we imagine we’re making—cancer cures, the gradual alleviation of poverty, pain-free wart remover—it’ll all be as if somebody forgot to hit the save button before the universe is unplugged and everything goes blank, forever. It is this stark and haunting realization that, once matter collapses, and the universe continues to expand eternally, and lifelessly, into the void; that all human endeavors—all that “hustle and grind,” as it were—are seemingly for naught. And however far out that event may be, the consensus among the physical sciences is that such an event is bound to occur. There is nothing any of us can do about it. There is no escape. We are hurling toward oblivion.
Unless, of course, the universe is not all there is. And perhaps the universe is not all there is. Maybe God does exist. And maybe, just maybe, all the order we experience in life—from the undeniable beauty of the precious newborn infant’s face, all the way down to the elegant symmetries of particle physics—did not arise from disorder, but intelligence. And perhaps all existence is not simply one layer of causes and conditions upon another, ad infinitum, which seems fundamentally absurd, but rather rests upon a supreme, self-sufficient, uncaused, and eternal—not to mention, conscious—foundation. Perhaps mind didn’t come from matter alone; perhaps mind precedes all of it—and all of us. And maybe the moral obligations we perceive throughout life are not mere illusions fobbed off from the process of natural selection working upon random genetic variation, but instead, as we assume most of our other faculties to be, objective discoveries about the world in which we live, however we came about discerning them—evolution or otherwise. Perhaps, in other words, we perceive a moral law because there really is a moral lawgiver. Perhaps, perhaps. Certainly, one is encouraged to take such an investigation seriously; how could one not? But put all that aside for now and let us simply ask the question of: So what? Even if God exists, what difference does God make?
Well, personally, if you’re asking me, I think God makes all the difference in the world.
Return to Scenario A, or that of atheism: Here we are born lamentably under the false impression that we are somehow significant, or special, but must ultimately reckon with the fact that we’re accidental, unintentional, and loved and known by no one greater. Nevertheless, along the way we come to know our fellow cosmic wanderers and love them (or at least some of them, anyway). (Though, since things are deterministic on atheism, we don’t really love anyone; all folly, my dear, because there is no authentic choice in the matter.) But still, we are illusioned into love and destined to death, and never again will we reunite with those we seemed to care about and would do anything to return to. All we accomplished will eventually be rotted out, forgotten. Everybody we knew reduced to rags and particles. Furthermore, justice will never be had for those who were wronged in life or to those who committed such egregious evils and got away with them. The rape victim? Strangled and executed, her parents incessantly in anguish. The perpetrator? On a beach, sunning himself, relatively unnerved. And that, it would appear, is essentially the end of the story for so many unfortunate souls—that is, if they even had a soul (all folly, my dear). There is no ultimate reconciliation to be had, no great peace or harmony to be restored. That is atheism in the raw; and that is the difference God makes.
But now let us turn to the opposite—and far more plausible—possibility: that God exists.
For if we are instead born into a reality where our perfect happiness is promised from the start—as the Catholic Christian view would maintain—so long as we make a sincere effort to know and love God and others as oneself, then being thrust into existence is not a curse, and not something to be resentful about, but a supreme and holy gift. If God made us for the singular purpose of enjoying an eternal friendship with him and all those we have known and loved on earth, in heaven—where, as Christ tells us, all tears will be cleared from our soppy, battle-worn faces, all sorrows and pains extinguished (including diverticulitis) and death eradicated forever—then, hallelujah, hallelujah. Because, boy, does that put a new perspective on things.
If God exists, we can be confidently assured of reunification and reconciliation and justice and peace. (How exactly all that will happen, we’ll just have to wait and see. But we can have confidence that it will, in fact, occur.) We can rely on eternal rest. We can also love—freely and completely—by virtue of our own God-given ability to choose. We are not caught up in a mere illusion. We are not electrified bags of fermenting meat. We are souls possessed of a body, destined for a world beyond, and offered ample opportunities to grow in virtue and love throughout this troublesome—but purposeful—transitory phase. These distinctions could not be more different, the outcomes no more qualitatively distinct, than what’s been laid before us. One is the worst of all possible worlds, where “everything means nothing” and adults ought to be drawn and quartered for bringing unwanted life into it; the other its complete and splendid opposite, where “everything means everything,” the option whereby parents can concurrently confer the greatest gift of all: the gift of coming to be. Thus, it is not just that God makes a difference. God makes all the difference. There are no other ways of evaluating reality. God would not allow it.