Inscribed on the grand facade of the main building of my university was this quote:
YE SHALL KNOW THE TRUTH AND THE TRUTH SHALL MAKE YOU FREE
I looked up at it at least once a day as I walked between classes. I didn’t know where they got that little saying, but I liked it. Something sounded right about it, though I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. How does the truth make you free? I could see how the truth could make you more knowledgeable or educated…but free? What on earth does understanding that e = mc² or knowing the molecular weight of benzene have to do with freedom?
Meanwhile, in what I thought was a totally unrelated line of thinking, I continued to be baffled by the whole religion thing. Even if people did need to tell themselves stories about angels or an afterlife or whatever to make themselves feel better, why mess around with all the rules? Look at me, after all: I was a good person without buying into religious superstition with all its oppressive dogmas.
That last part was a fundamental part of my worldview: the idea that there were “good people” and “bad people, ” and that (whew!) I was one of the good people. Of course I knew that sometimes good people do bad things and vice versa, but I was confident that there was a certain level of evil that only a “bad person” could commit, that there was some invisible line that only someone fundamentally different from me could cross. When I would hear about heinous events on the news or read about the atrocities of history, I was hearing of acts committed by people who were entirely “other” — they were the bad people, the people who did really evil things, and it would be impossible for good people like me and the nice folks I knew to understand the how’s and why’s behind their actions.
Probably one of the biggest paradigm shifts I’ve ever experienced in my life came after I started exploring Christianity and I realized: there is no such thing as “good people” and “bad people.” Not in the way I thought of it, anyway.
As I studied Christianity, I found that this religion claimed to offer objective truth about life and the world, including matters of what is right and what is wrong. I had to admit, even early on, that its articulation of that mysterious moral code that’s inscribed into the human heart that we’re all aware of yet can’t be derived from the material world alone resonated deeply. I eventually became convinced of its claim that it got this information from Something outside of humanity, that it was communicating truths about the world from the One who created it.
As I wrote about in this post, this understanding that there is objective truth in the moral realm led me to understand the reason that the devil is called the Father of Lies: almost nobody ever says, “I’m going to do something evil today, and I’m OK with that.” The only way any of us ever do anything bad is by telling ourselves a story to justify it. All of us are “good people” in that we’re repulsed by evil…so the only way evil can ever operate is to redefine itself as something not evil at all. As soon as I learned this, I immediately saw it at work even in my daily life: I wasn’t gossiping, I was passing on relevant information; I wasn’t being lazy, I didn’t have time to clean up the house; I wasn’t being mean and uncharitable, I was just responding to that rude person the way she deserved to be responded to. And so on.
I was reminded of all this this morning when I came across this short must-see video about a staff photo album from Auschwitz (you can see all the pictures here). The picture above is one of the many that are from an on-site retreat for camp employees. In the other photos you can see them smiling, laughing, and relaxing in lounge chairs. There’s one shot of a jubilant group sing-along that includes the head officer of the concentration camp, the head of the women’s camp, and the supervisor of the gas chambers.
Back in my college days, when I’d walk past that inscription and puzzle at its meaning, I would have thought of myself as fundamentally different than the people in those photos. They were bad people; I was a good person. Now I see that, frighteningly, there is no ontological difference between me and the smiling employees in that Auschwitz photo; the difference is nothing more or less than the stories we tell ourselves about what was going on in the background. Whether or not any one of us is a good person or a bad person can fluctuate from day to day, from moment to moment, depending on the number of lies we allow ourselves to believe. And, as the cheerful faces in the photos illustrate, there is no limit to the level of evil the average person can fall into supporting if the pressure is high enough and the lies are insidious enough.
This is not to say that I believe that every single person would have worked at Auschwitz if they’d been in the right place at the right time. But the difference between those who would and those who wouldn’t is not a difference of inherently good people vs. inherently bad people; it’s only a matter of who could see the truth amidst tremendous pressure to buy into the lie.
Without God — or, to phrase it another way, without objective truth — we are sailors without a compass, trying to rely on gut instinct to navigate troubled waters. It might work out some of the time, as is evidenced by the number of nonbelievers who are indeed “good people” most of the time. But it leaves us vulnerable to the legion forces that try to steer us off course, and it makes it almost impossible to weather a great storm. If we don’t know the truth about who we are, why we’re here, where we came from and where we’re going, we’re on shaky ground to begin with; and when we deny the existence of objective truth on matters of what is good and bad, what is right or wrong, we lose control of our own lives. The further we get away from the truth, the closer we get to becoming slaves of those ever-present, soul-killing voices, with names like Lust and Greed and Power and Selfishness and Status, that whisper in our ears, “It’s OK, just do it. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
When I was an atheist, I thought I was more liberated than the people who believed in God. After all, I didn’t have all their bizarre rules and regulations to bog me down. Now I realize that those “rules” that seemed so bizarre are actually a tool set, a key to unlock the shackles of sin, a compass and chart to navigate the troubled waters we all find ourselves in. Now I realize not only where that inscription came from, but what it means. To know God is to know the truth. And without the truth, we can never be free.