Everybody should have an atheist in their life. I mean it. We take way too much for granted. Most of us have absolutely no idea how atheists think. We need to know more than how to answer them. We need to understand and respect them.
I love the atheist in my family. She pokes me. She argues with me. She challenges me. She makes me think.
"How difficult is it not to be a jerk?" she asked the other day.
It's a good question. She knows right from wrong for the most part--probably as much as most Christians I know. She knows she was born with this knowledge, a knowledge she didn't summon up for herself. She doesn't much care why she knows--she just does--and tries to live by it. She sincerely wants to be a good person and seriously can't imagine why that shouldn't be enough.
I try to imagine sometimes how God sees her. I know He loves her--that goes without saying. But how does He look on her sincerely good intentions? Are they enough? That's a harder one. Paul, in writing to the Romans, considered the same thing:
It is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles, who have not the law, do by nature what the law requires, they are a law unto themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.--Romans 2: 13-16
Atheists have no faith in Christ, but they often have an active conscience--the law is written on their hearts. They, then, can be doers of the law without knowing from Whom the law comes. They are a "law unto themselves", but that law often conforms to God's. If God justifies the doers of the law, will my atheist then also be justified?
She might. God is, after all, in charge of His own heaven. He measures each one of us by something humans can neither see nor know--our hearts.
However, Jesus also said that:
No one comes to the Father except by me.--John 14:6
By faith you are saved.--Ephesians 2:8
My atheist has neither Jesus nor faith. In fact, she has summarily rejected them both but, in her defense, I know far too many professing Christians who think less than an atheist about right and wrong. We might do well to consider them more often.
Right and wrong are not always instinctively easy to come by. I used to think, for instance, that some certain lies ("No you don't look fat in that dress" or "I don't have to report that income--they paid me cash") were OK to tell. I don't anymore. My notions of right and wrong have shifted with changing age and circumstances.
It's the same for everybody. That's why a country has laws. None of us decides for ourselves what is legal. We don't individually decide our own speed limits and, as a result, we can all share the same roads without constantly crashing into each other. It's the same for life, isn't it? We don't decide right and wrong for ourselves so that we don't destroy one another. I may think it's OK to arm myself to the teeth and use my guns to defend myself and you don't. I may believe it's OK to spank my kids and you don't. I may think I have a right to share in someone else's wealth and you don't. We both sincerely believe we are right.
I don't know about my atheist, but when it comes to deciding right from wrong, I need a place to look it up, something I didn't write--the constitution for the laws of the land and the Bible for everything else. And I take comfort that, as long as I still live, God is working in both of us--me and my atheist. And, as long as she is willing to listen to me, really listen, I am happy to try to return the favor.
In the meantime, recognizing that I don't have all the answers, I cry on both of our behalfs, "Lord, have mercy."