In my city, a mini-controversy has recently erupted over an advertisement that an atheist group would like posted in city buses. The ad reads, “There’s probably no God, now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” (If this campaign hasn’t come to your city yet, I’m sure it will soon.)
My initial reaction to hearing about the ad was pure confusion at the non sequitur between the two phrases. Why would you be able to enjoy your life any more because you suddenly realize there’s no God? But then it occurred to me that they don’t mean there’s no God, they mean there’s no bully who lives in the sky. It isn’t natural for me to think of God as a sky-bully; in Orthodox Christian theology, God is the One who defeats the sky-bully. In that line (“now stop worrying and enjoy your life”), though, I understood why so many atheists are so angry at the God they don’t believe in. If God is seen as the punisher who lies in wait for us to commit an act he considers a sin, so He can leap out and expend His wrathful energy, I can see how that type of figure can cramp your style and engender bitterness and hatred.
That isn’t the Christian God, though; in fact, the very opposite accusation is proper to Him, since He seems uninterested in punishing anyone to an almost shocking degree. This is Jonah’s bitter complaint; God was about to destroy Nineveh (the capital of Assyria) to cut off the evil of its people, but the Ninevites repented and God relented—and Jonah just doesn’t think that’s fair.
Again, when sin and death separated man from God, He became a man and took sin and death on Himself so He could break their power (note that any Christian theology where God punishes the most innocent human being for the sins of the world is deeply flawed—God doesn’t punish the innocent man, God is that innocent man, and the cross isn’t an act of punishment, it’s an act of self-sacrifice motivated by love). God’s interest is in reconciling people to himself, not in punishing anyone.
That isn’t to say God never punishes people, either to discipline them or to protect others from their evil. Have you ever met the child of parents who didn’t believe in any punishments whatsoever? Have you ever wanted to have a second encounter with that child?
Certainly a sky-bully is someone who enjoys dealing out punishments, and all of our evidence of God is the exact opposite—someone who would undergo the most humiliating and pain-filled death Himself to save people from their sins rather than punish people because of them. Of course the preceding assumes that sin is a bad thing—again, it isn’t natural for me to think of it otherwise. But assume that’s how we resolve the non sequitur. “There is no God; therefore, there is no sin; therefore, stop worrying about right and wrong and just enjoy your life.” That’s fine for fairyland but very impractical in the real world. I think I’d enjoy my life more rather than less if I could keep money in my pocket while still getting what I want—so should I sneak onto the bus instead of paying the fare? I think I’d enjoy my life more rather than less if I could grab the iPod from the teenager sitting next to me and throw it out the window, as punishment for listening to his music too loudly. Should I do it? And what could produce more immediate joy in my life than calling in sick on a sunny day, or ending a friendship that has started to cost more than it provides, or taking more than my fair share when no one is looking? And who will tell me to do otherwise? If the Atheists Who Advertise told me to enjoy my life, who will tell me to restrain my joy? If I say that I only listen to them, and some sense of guilt forces them to pay for a new ad (“enjoy your life, Karl, but play fair and don’t hurt others so they can enjoy their lives too”) haven’t they just redefined sin? And, in fact, it’s a definition whose practice looks very similar to the one they felt was getting in the way of life’s enjoyment previously. (Probably this would cause a reactionary group to form and publish a new ad: “Atheists Who Advertise probably don’t have any authority, so stop worrying about what they say is right and wrong and just go out and enjoy your life”).
The problem with hedonism is that it doesn’t explain if you should maximize your immediate joy (easy enough to calculate in any given situation) or your long-term joy (much harder, and will most likely result in a set of guidelines, of dos and don’ts, or in other words, a moral code). If it’s the former, we can all see with the examples above that it will lead to a very unhappy life: how much joy is there in being kicked off the bus, or having your face punched, or being fired, or losing all your friends? But if the ultimate goal is long-term joy, even at the cost of restraining your immediate-gratification impulses—well, that’s what God wants for you too. Jesus didn’t say, “I’m here to make sure this world I’ve created and all its people are sad forevermore and that their lives are stunted and shallow”; he said, “I have come that you may have life, and that you may have it more abundantly.” There is a God. So enjoy your life abundantly.