If God Didn’t Exist, What Would You Do?

Antonello da Messina, Mary of the Annunciation (detail) (1475)

If you could “get away with” any sin or sins that you wanted, what would you do? That is, imagine that God could somehow be distracted, that you didn’t have to worry about sin offending Him or being punished. Or alternatively, imagine that God didn’t exist: what would you do?

You don’t have to tell me, obviously, but I want you to think about these questions seriously. Because while I don’t need to know your answers, you should. Why? Because those are the areas that you’re still holding on to sins.

Think about it. Sins aren’t sinful just because God randomly decided to prohibit a lot of behaviors, as if He’s some sort of cosmic killjoy or divine bureaucrat with nothing better to do than regulate for the sake of regulating. Sins are sinful because they’re harmful to us, to our neighbor, and to Christ.

Sometimes, this is obvious: intuitively, we can see that a person (or religion, or society) that thinks murder is okay is headed for disaster. Other times, it’s not as obvious. People are great at convincing themselves that pornography or adultery or drunkenness or divorce are basically harmless, and it isn’t until they’re miserably unhappy and don’t know why that they (hopefully) start to reconsider.

All of this is closely tied to the Immaculate Conception, which we celebrate today. By the grace of God, Mary was freed from original sin. And one of the common objections to this doctrine is that it meant Mary didn’t have free will.

This gets it entirely backwards, as I’ve mentioned before. Jesus says as much in John 8:34, “Truly, truly, I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave to sin.” It’s sin that enslaves, not grace. For a long time (although there are now questions about the extent to which this is true), there was a belief that child born to crack-addicted mothers were themselves more or less addicted, or at least seriously inclined towards addiction.

Whether that’s true or not of drugs, it’s certainly true of sin. We’re born with original sin, meaning that we’ve got an inclination to want sin, even though it’s bad for us. Sometimes, we have to fight to do good, or at least to avoid sin. The difference between us and the Virgin Mary is that she was born “clean,” so to speak. She still could have sinned, but she was more free to say yes to God. And that’s what freedom really is: the ability to do the right thing.

So why do we miss this? Because we have a distorted view of freedom (in which freedom just means having a lot of choices, for the sake of having a lot of choices), and because we believe we’re not truly free if we’re following God. Pope Benedict XVI discussed this in his first Immaculate Conception homily as pope, back in 2005:

Lorenzo Di Credi, The Annunciation (1485)
(Notice the bottom panel, in which Di Credi contrasts
Mary’s Yes to God with Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Paradise)

The human being does not trust God. Tempted by the serpent, he harbours the suspicion that in the end, God takes something away from his life, that God is a rival who curtails our freedom and that we will be fully human only when we have cast him aside; in brief, that only in this way can we fully achieve our freedom.


The human being lives in the suspicion that God’s love creates a dependence and that he must rid himself of this dependency if he is to be fully himself. Man does not want to receive his existence and the fullness of his life from God. [….]

Dear brothers and sisters, if we sincerely reflect about ourselves and our history, we have to say that with this narrative is described not only the history of the beginning but the history of all times, and that we all carry within us a drop of the poison of that way of thinking, illustrated by the images in the Book of Genesis.

We call this drop of poison “original sin”. Precisely on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, we have a lurking suspicion that a person who does not sin must really be basically boring and that something is missing from his life: the dramatic dimension of being autonomous; that the freedom to say no, to descend into the shadows of sin and to want to do things on one’s own is part of being truly human; that only then can we make the most of all the vastness and depth of our being men and women, of being truly ourselves; that we should put this freedom to the test, even in opposition to God, in order to become, in reality, fully ourselves.

In a word, we think that evil is basically good, we think that we need it, at least a little, in order to experience the fullness of being. We think that Mephistopheles – the tempter – is right when he says he is the power “that always wants evil and always does good” (J.W. von Goethe, Faust I, 3). We think that a little bargaining with evil, keeping for oneself a little freedom against God, is basically a good thing, perhaps even necessary.

If we look, however, at the world that surrounds us we can see that this is not so; in other words, that evil is always poisonous, does not uplift human beings but degrades and humiliates them. It does not make them any the greater, purer or wealthier, but harms and belittles them.
With all of that said, circle back around to your answers to my original questions. What are those sins that you are holding to in an Oh-I-wish-I-could sense? Those are the parts of your life in which you still believe, deep down, that sin will make you truly happy. They’re the soft spots in your faith, and chances are good that these are the areas in which you struggle most. 
Now, the struggle against sin has many parts, it might help to remember this: God knows you better than you know yourself; He loves you better than you love yourself; and He’s made it clear that certain moral actions are good or bad for you. The question you have to face now is: do you believe Him?

25 Comments

  1. Please pray for me, and God bless you!

    This is a very sobering post. I wanted to attempt your challenge because I want to improve however I can. But at first it was difficult for me–and it shouldn’t have been because I spent perhaps the majority of my life (or at least half of it) not convinced that there even is a God, and certainly not that Christianity, much less Catholic Christianity, was true. I should have looked to what I was like then.

    The reason I didn’t, and the reason it was difficult for me, is because now that I understand intellectually what God is where I didn’t before, I can no longer conceive intellectually of a situation such as you describe–unless I’m lying to myself and my example is how I believed until a little over four years ago, when I came back to the faith.

    But even before it occurred to me that I have that example, I realized that I did have an answer. What would I do? I would still act in such a way as I believed right, as made sense to me, but I might then try to get everyone else to do likewise and feel frustrated, angry, resentful, of those who wouldn’t, or who tried to stop me, seeing them as barriers.

    In other words, I think a particular vice of mine is pride. I don’t want to think of myself as prideful–intellectually I don’t think of myself as an “I know better than you do” sort–but if I’m being honest with myself, I think that is exactly how I am. I think that I believe I know better than others even though those others are older than me and have experienced more of the world, and even though they are in authority over me, and even though I myself would have strongly disagreed with what I believe now even only five years ago.

    I’m prideful and I’m not trusting enough–I tell myself that it’s not God I don’t trust, but other people, and yet…intellectually I know that’s wrong (I’ve been on the other side of that and I didn’t feel like I wasn’t the one being mistrusted). What we do to the least of Christ’s brethren we do to Him, and if I don’t act like I trust other people to obey God without my specific example or suggestions, then I don’t trust them to be good, and I don’t trust God to find a way to bring them back. And I know that’s wrong because I came back, so I should know better than that.

    Again, please pray for me: I don’t think it’s prideful to say that if you’re capable of the worst sin you’re capable of the best virtue too (since surely the best virtue is conquering such terrible sin, nor would God make anyone too weak to manage it with His help), but if I’m prideful, mistrustful, and hypocritical, then I think I am capable of some of the worst sin. Please pray that I may see where I need to change and that I may have the courage and love to try.

    God bless you, and thank you once again!

    1. Pair O’ DimesDecember 8, 2014 at 5:30 PM
      Please pray for me, and God bless you!

      This is a very sobering post. I wanted to attempt your challenge because I want to improve however I can. But at first it was difficult for me–and it shouldn’t have been because I spent perhaps the majority of my life (or at least half of it) not convinced that there even is a God, and certainly not that Christianity, much less Catholic Christianity, was true. I should have looked to what I was like then.

      The reason I didn’t, and the reason it was difficult for me, is because now that I understand intellectually what God is where I didn’t before, I can no longer conceive intellectually of a situation such as you describe–unless I’m lying to myself and my example is how I believed until a little over four years ago, when I came back to the faith…..

      Same here. Except that atheism, long ago, no longer constituted half of my life. Thanks be to God that the exercise is impossible for me.

      However, its not a matter of God turning His back on me, I know that’s impossible. Its a matter of me, falling asleep or dropping my guard. After thirty years of being back in the Church, I still find myself, occasionally, agreeing with people who are promoting damnable sins. Then later, I realize my error and beg God’s forgiveness.

      It never fails to evoke a memory of this verse.

      Romans 7:23 But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. 24 O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? 25 I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.

  2. Great post Joe!

    One of the most enlightening things I learned this year was about freedom. If freedom resides in unlimited choices, one is no longer free as soon as a decision is made. One would only remain free by not choosing any option, but even indecision is a choice. So, that would mean freedom wouldn’t really exist.

    In Christ,
    Br. Irenaeus op

  3. The paradox is that exercising sinful choices doesn’t make us freer, rather it makes us slaves walling us off from all the positive choices we might otherwise enjoy. Satan’s choice for himself over God has completely walled himself off from the potential he might otherwise have had, and locked him in on his core of empty nothingness that we all are without God.

  4. I view it as an eternal Garden of Eden. Everyday, we have the freedom to make the choice, to obey God or obey the Serpent.

    The Scripture says:

    Romans 6:18 Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness. 19 I speak after the manner of men because of the infirmity of your flesh: for as ye have yielded your members servants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity; even so now yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness. 20 For when ye were the servants of sin, ye were free from righteousness. 21 What fruit had ye then in those things whereof ye are now ashamed? for the end of those things is death.

    Everyday, every instant, we have the freedom, the challenge, to choose again. Sin or righteousness. Sin or righteousness.

    May we all yield ourselves to righteousness and decide to be Servants of God forever more.

  5. Thanks for the post, Joe. Regarding Mary and free will. I understand that being conceived without Original Sin does not mean Mary did not have free will. It’s paragraph 493 of the Catechism that I struggle with, which states “By the grace of God Mary remained free of every personal sin her whole life long.” I can’t reconcile in my head how Mary could have been preserved from ever sinning and yet still have free will. I accept it as Church teaching, but I don’t understand it.

    1. Monica,

      Read Romans 7:13-25; in it, St. Paul talks about the internal conflict that all of us have, as a result of original sin. We can know what’s good, and want to do good, but still struggle with ongoing temptations and inclinations towards sin. By being supernaturally preserved from original sin, Mary was protected against all those temptations and inclinations flowing from original sin. She could still have chosen to sin, but she wasn’t inclined towards sin in the way that we are.

      Rather, she is the New Eve: just as Adam and Eve could have remained free from all stain of sin had they simply obeyed, Mary is in that same position: the only difference is that where Adam and Eve said No to God and yes to a fallen angel, the Virgin Mary said Yes to God through the message of an angel.

      I.X.,

      Joe

    2. Yes, it is Mary’s sinlessness *after* her conception that’s really amazing. She didn’t just say “yes” to God once, at the Annunciation, but her whole life long. It is as if God gave Eve a second chance and she didn’t screw it up the second time around.

    3. Thanks Joe(s). Yes, I get Romans 7 and know that Mary wasn’t inclined to sin, since she didn’t have the concupiscence that comes with it. I guess I was just thrown off by the wording in the CCC, which makes it sound like God prevented her from ever even being capable of choosing to sin.

    4. Ah, I see. I think the Catechism is just saying that it was by God’s grace that Mary avoided all sin, not that God’s grace took away her free will (since, of course, grace works in the exact opposite way: liberating our will, rather than overriding it).

    5. Luke 1 v 47 ‘and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,’

      A person who calls God Savior is a person that recognises they need a Savior. Mary was like you and me – a Sinner. In the above verse she recognises that and calls God ‘my Savior’

    6. K. Buchan,

      Job 33:18, “He has redeemed my soul from going down into the Pit, and my life shall see the light.”

      Job is talking about being saved from Hell. Does that mean that he had to first go to Hell? Of course not. He’s saved perfectly, in a such a way that he never has to taste it.

      The same is true of Mary. God’s salvation is done perfectly through Mary: He saves her so perfectly that she never sins, because He saves her from sinning. So of course Mary would praise Him for this in the Magnificat.

    7. There are many ways to save someone. You can save someone after they are injured or in a calamity. Or, you can save someone from preventing them being in the calamity.

      In that same song, Mary glorified God because she recognized that God had given her many gifts. One of those gifts, was freedom from sin. The immaculate Conception. God prophecied that He would save her from sin when He said, “I will put enmity between you and the Woman.” Meaning that Mary would always despise Satan and his pomps.

    8. Mary is a Sinner like you and I. She said ‘my Savior’ – that’s personal. Christ is also my Savior. Mary is undoubtedly blessed, but she was also a Sinner. No one except God is Sinless. He is unique, that’s why He is the only person qualified to take our place and die for our sins. Salvation has only one way. ‘No one (not even Mary) comes to the Father but by me’ – words from my Savior

    9. K. Buchan,

      Do you think that the Catholic position is that Mary is saved apart from Christ? If so, re-read my earlier comment.

      Yes, Christ saved Mary from sinning. That’s why she was sinless. That’s how He was her Savior.

      As for the Scriptural evidence in support of Mary’s sinlessness, there are several places we could go with it, but let’s start here.

      I.X.,

      Joe

    10. Mary is saved in the same way as I am – through Christ her Savior. Mary was a Sinner before she gave birth and she was a Sinner after she gave birth. No one can be sinless except God. Mary was no exception. She is special in that she was blessed but she was not sinless.

    11. I guess if we’re just declaring our conclusions without any support, I’ll just say, “No, she’s not a sinner.”

      My earlier point, which you don’t seem to be arguing, is that your Scriptural proof-text didn’t actually prove that Mary was a sinner. All we really have to go on here is your declaration that it’s impossible for her not to have been. And on that score, you’re contradicted by two thousand years of Christian teaching, as well as solid Scriptural exegesis.

    12. We already debunked that objection. God put enmity between her and Satan. In so doing, He saved her from sin. Therefore, is right in calling God, “her saviour”.

    13. Romans 3:10; ‘As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one’

      Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.”

      Romans 5:12, “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.”

      All includes Mary

    14. K BUCHANFEBRUARY 13, 2015 AT 9:34 PM
      You believe Mary never sinned in her whole life? If so she needs no Savior

      He saved her the moment she was conceived.

      K BUCHANFEBRUARY 15, 2015 AT 2:28 AM
      Romans 3:10; ‘As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one’

      Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.”

      Both of these are the same thought stream. St. Paul is making a reference to an Old Testament verse. That verse is in reference to atheists.

      Psalm 14:1 The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.

      Atheists are fools who have no fear of God.

      They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good. 2 The Lord looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God. 3 They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one. 4 Have all the workers of iniquity no knowledge? who eat up my people as they eat bread, and call not upon the Lord.

      They continually sin.

      5 There were they in great fear: for God is in the generation of the righteous. 6 Ye have shamed the counsel of the poor, because the Lord is his refuge.

      But God is with the righteous.

      Romans 5:12, “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.”

      Is Jesus a man? Scripture says that He is.

      Matthew 16:13
      When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?

      Therefore, if you claim that all have sinned. You impugn Jesus.

      All includes Mary

      No. It doesn’t. All includes all who sinned. But the wages of sin is death. Neither Enoch nor Elijah suffered death. So what does that tell you?

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