Reality has consequences.
This is a more important truth than the very popular (and important) saying “Ideas have consequences.” And it is far, far more important than the saying “Elections have consequences.”
But, nevertheless, it is a truth often ignored.
For instance, there is a common conceit that ‘all people are basically good.’ But the reality is more subversive. Yes, God made us good. After all, we bear His image and are designed for His good purposes. Our intelligence, strength, passions, and sociability enable us to accomplish extraordinary feats. If we were not good in this ontological sense, it would not matter very much if we were not so good in a moral sense.
Yet, as G.K. Chesterton so neatly observed, “Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.” The reality of a pervasive bent towards selfishness and pride, in all their socially respectable and socially disreputable forms, is easy enough to see.
This reality has consequences. It implies that any salvation will need to be a gift, but not earned. That our redemption will involve our repentance. That a new life could never make us better than others, but only grateful recipients. And that any genuine turn to God will involve far more than wanting prosperity, accepting an argument, or vocalizing a scripted prayer. Salvation will have to go so deep into the human experience that it replaces our fundamental self-love with — what will remain an eternal surprise — a greater love for our heavenly Father.
This reality has consequences in every other aspect of human existence. Our general moral deterioration should yield useful predictions about the expected behavior of the powerful, whether we are reviewing the economy or taking stock while waiting in line at the local bureaucracy. I’ve found that reflection on this sober reality consistently yields invaluable insights.
Reality also has consequences when it comes to the question of God. Sometimes I observe (and have naively participated in) conversations about God’s existence that pleasantly assume we are all homo rationalis – rational men – equally interested in the truth of the matter.
But of course, if there is no God, this changes the game entirely. For one, we are no longer made in the image of the non-existent God. We are, at best, the hardscrabble result of an intensely competitive, high stakes game called ‘survival of the fittest.’ As Alvin Plantinga has explained,
But if naturalism is true, there is no God, and hence no God (or anyone else) overseeing our development and orchestrating the course of our evolution. And this leads directly to the question whether it is at all likely that our cognitive faculties, given naturalism and given their evolutionary origin, would have developed in such a way as to be reliable, to furnish us with mostly true beliefs. Darwin himself expressed this doubt: “With me,” he said, the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”
It is a nice fiction to pretend that we are all equally invested in believing the truth. This is a basic assumption in polite society. But if there is no god, humans are perhaps not ‘designed’ to know truth. Or perhaps we are meant to know the truth, but remain sadly unable to consistently acquire it, or are limited in our capacity to do so on great, abstract topics like the existence of god. Or, maybe we can know the truth, but there is no moral obligation to do so, and choosing to perpetuate lies is literally no better than deciding for what is right. If ‘rationality’ conflicts with my survival, then throw it off the life boat; let’s live another day.
By contrast, if the Triune God of the Scriptures reigns in heaven, that reality will have consequences as well. “I believe that Jesus is my Savior” is not intended to be a personal badge of honor or a tribal marker but a declaration of allegiance. Our best efforts to ascertain the truth of the matter will be painfully hindered by self-love and self-deception. The rational search to find God, if God is there to be found, can legitimately be aided by prayer, church attendance, Bible reading, miracles, and the gracious kindness of the Holy Spirit. To neglect these resources is like trying to fly around the world blindfolded. If there exists a loving God who can remove the veil, and directly show Himself to you, why not go that route?
Reality has consequences. If it was just ideas that have consequences, then perhaps theologians would be the most moral, reasonable, and respected members of our society. (And perhaps there is a good theological argument that, if it were not for original sin, theologians would be so honored. I look forward to reading about it in a peer-reviewed theological journal). Instead, it seems that knowing what is right or true is a different kind of thing than being right or true. (To complete the loop: part of being who we are intended to be includes knowing what we ought to know).
Perhaps we could team up and win an argument with your grandma, but chances are that she’s got us all beat, hands down, at loving and serving people. (Then again, maybe we’d lose at both: I know my grandma would beat us in cards, win the argument, and then give us a big hug after she treated us to dinner). Conversely, we all know brilliant people who can make any wrong idea seem reasonable and right, and eventually, their lives reflect how easily they deceive themselves and others.
Reality has consequences. For instance, the Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman has famously said,
Everything is made of atoms. That is the key hypothesis. The most important hypothesis in all of biology, for example, is that everything that animals do, atoms do. In other words, there is nothing that living things do that cannot be understood from the point of view that they are made of atoms acting according to the laws of physics.
If this is not just a hypothesis, or a point of view, but reality, there are consequences. ‘You’ aren’t making free choices according to the guidance of ‘your heart.’ Rather, when ‘your’ fingers type away on the keyboard, its just impersonal atoms obeying the laws of physics. I’d encourage you to think about it, but what would be the point? Not that I could help myself; the laws of physics made me do it!
Reality has consequences. Who you choose to be, how you choose to live, what you choose to believe: these are all weighty decisions. Powerful trends in our culture make light of ideas and tend towards the trivialization of life. But our lives matter. If the Christian story is the story of reality, they matter so much that God became human, lived a perfect life, died on the cross for our sins, rose again from the dead on the third day, ascended into heaven, and will one day come again to fully establish his kingdom. The reality of your life choices had consequences. It led to the reality of God dying, out of love for you, to rescue you.
As David put it in a famous Psalm:
I waited patiently for the LORD;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the LORD.
Reality has consequences. Thank God, the greatest reality for your life is that the Triune God of love – loves you!