Religion is one of the great evils of our world: So argued Karl Marx, the nineteenth century German philosopher and revolutionary socialist. Marx dismissed religion as an opiate that numbed the minds of common people to their pitiful social conditions. He maintained that the myth of an afterlife, in which the faithful are rewarded, was fabricated by oppressed people in their desperation to devise means by which to cope with their earthly sufferings.
Under the spell of this myth, the poor secured just enough contentment to weather their oppression at the hands of the wealthy. Marx challenged the lower classes to recognize that God is a fantasy and heavenly reward a fiction. If they would unlock the door on this conceptual prison of their own making, they would pave the way to their liberation from economic oppression and its array of attendant miseries.
But subsequent history revealed a dark hazard in atheism. Former atheist, Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004) saw this menace up close and exposed it. Milosz studied law, was fluent in five languages, and distinguished himself as a poet, translator, and author of Polish prose. Born in Lithuania, he lived much of his life in Poland under Nazi oppression and embraced atheism and leftist views before defecting to France from communist Poland in 1951. He spent many years teaching literature at the University of California, Berkeley, received the Nobel Prize for Literature, the U.S. National Medal of Arts, and an honorary doctorate from Harvard University.
Neither an intellectual slouch nor the member of an oppressed class, Milosz saw firsthand in Nazism and communism the atrocities human beings can commit against one another when they lose the sense of a God in heaven who holds individuals accountable for their actions on earth. In his essay, Discreet Charms of Nihilism, Milosz recalls Karl Marx’s dictum that religion is the opium of the masses. Milosz came to see in atheism that the true opium is the beclouded notion that our deeds perish with us—that we will not be held accountable by God for our actions, thoughts, words, passions, and attitudes (2 Corinthians 5:10; Philippians 2:10; Hebrews 9:27).
When a society begins to believe there are no eternal consequences for individual deeds, that society quickly loses its moral bearings. When people believe they can lie, steal, cheat, oppress others, fornicate, and worship self with no fear of a final accounting before God, their social relationships are constrained by little more than the fuzzy parameters of whatever they can get away with, and vengeance is meted out by whoever holds positions of power.
Milosz witnessed this hazard in the repressive regimes under which he lived. We see the occasional outbreak of this orientation when we witness another school shooting (sadly we now speak in terms of “another”). When a shooter walks into a school building, murders innocent people, then takes his own life, that gunmen demonstrates an utter disregard of any notion of accountability to God after death. If you believe you will stand before your Maker to give account for your life on earth, you do not prepare to enter God’s presence with the blood of children dripping from your hands!
Such a gunman also demonstrates the beclouded notion that he alone can right the wrongs he believes he has suffered at the hands of others. Since there is no God reigning from heaven’s throne who will judge the living and the dead (1 Peter 4:5), vengeance must be taken by my own hand, in this life, where, when, and however I may choose to secure it.
If the notion that we will render final account to God is a myth, it is a remarkably serviceable one. Put me next door to pagans who believes the gods monitor their actions and that their deeds have eternal consequences over anyone who has imbibed the cultural opiate that our actions perish with us. People who believe we are accountable only for what other human beings happen to witness, and that vengeance is theirs to be meted out as they may, frighten me.
Better yet, surround me with those who know God is no myth and after death comes our final accounting before the one who sees all things. Born in 1782, Daniel Webster served our nation for four decades as a Senator and two-time Secretary of State, becoming the highest paid attorney of his day. He was a man of unusual mental acuity and widely revered for his moral integrity. “The most solemn thought that has ever entered my mind,” he revealed to an inquirer, “is my accountability to my Maker.”
Armed with the reality of an all-seeing God who serves as the eternal judge of right and wrong for everyone, I am liberated to love my enemies and fight for justice without reverting to violence. I can do this with the confidence that God will handle justly what I cannot (Romans 12:19-20). And I can do this insofar as my standing before that Judge is already secured, not by my righteousness, but by the gift of faith in his righteousness imputed to my account (Romans 3:10-26).
Dan Miller has served as the Senior Pastor of Eden Baptist Church since 1989. He graduated from Pillsbury Baptist Bible College in 1984 and his graduate degrees include the MA in history from Minnesota State University, MDiv and ThM from Central Baptist Theological Seminary and DMin from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Dan is married to Beth and the Lord has blessed them with four children: Ethan, Levi, Reed and Whitney.