Chemicals & Compassion

By purely materialistic standards, compassion is an utterly illogical and unnecessary emotion. Its tug upon the heartstrings, its self-denying influence, the spurs it kicks into the apathetic soul—all of these collectively lead to one mysterious question: why? If all we see is a material world, why do we hate to see suffering? Why do we entertain some idea that once upon a time, the fragments of this broken world had a unified past? 

This is an intriguing question. The other day I was conversing with a French grad student who denied God’s existence but was quick to admit the innate selfishness of every human being, including himself. When I asked him about his opinion on human origins, Éric responded (not surprisingly) in favor of evolution. “Would you then agree that we are all simply arrangements of chemicals, that we are simply material beings?” I asked. He agreed, so I pressed him further. “Why then do we feel compassion for others?” 

Having read some about scientific theories of morality, I had an idea of where he was heading from here. “If I help that person over there, I realize that he might somehow help me survive,” he responded. 

Interesting. Just a few minutes earlier, this man had affirmed that (a) something is wrong with the world (b) because every human being is innately selfish. But now, Éric was essentially basing his entire concept of morality upon the necessity of selfishness, and in effect rooting his idea of good in his understanding of evil

I confess: I played the Africa card. “So what about people who are dying of malnutrition and genocide in Third World countries? It’s not going to matter to you at all whether they live or die; they have no effect upon your survival. Why do you care about them, or at the very least sense the gravity of that situation?”

Éric was uncertain about this one question, but we continued to congenially debate the presence of meaning and purpose in life. I argued that without God, life would have no purpose and there would be no moral constraints or obligations for anyone. Éric disagreed.

“I would have to differ with that last statement,” he said. “My purpose would still be to love other people and live selflessly for a better world.”

“But why would that matter?” I responded. “If other people are simply material beings with chemical makeup, you would have absolutely no obligations to live selflessly. If there is not a God, nothing matters.”

This was only a small snippet from a conversation that lasted at least half an hour. Éric and I had a great time discussing Blaise Pascal, Alexis de Tocqueville, Romance languages, philosophy, the problem of evil, the meaning of life, the purpose of man, and the unique claims of Christianity. This particular part, however, was particularly fascinating because it reminded me once again of the sheer life-changing nature of the Gospel and the despair of self-centered existentialism. Without God, there would be no purpose in life. There would be no meaning except that which you make for yourself. There would be no ultimate reason why we should make moral decisions or care about the other material blobs that surround us, no matter how much you might attempt a meticulously scientific explanation.

Flannery O’Connor profoundly captured this idea in her famous short story A Good Man Is Hard To Find, in which a serial murderer reflects on the claims of Jesus. “If He did what He said,” says the Misfit, “then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can—by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness.”

That may be drastic, but it’s true. Remove God from the equation, and everything becomes permissible. Remove Jesus’ atonement on the Cross, and life becomes a treadmill. Remove the Resurrection of Christ, and we become, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15, “of all men most to be pitied.” Remove God’s sovereign act of Creation and His divine purpose for this world, and we are reduced to lumps of flesh that wander the earth rabidly seeking satisfaction for our ephemeral existence.

We do not live in a purely material world. We have this innate sense that the world is broken, and our homesick longings for shalom bubble frenetically within us. We make moral judgments and appeal to a standard of Right and Wrong. We have compassion on others, even though they may not enhance our survival value by any stretch of the imagination. 

We are sovereignly created by God to fear and adore Him and to love our neighbors as ourselves, not for our own survival. We live joyfully knowing that all things fit His purpose for our salvation. And that is the only truth by which we may live in certain hope that all things in this shattered world will someday be made right. 

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