This evening in church I heard the story of private Ross McGinnis, an Army soldier, who died in a combat zone in Iraq on December the 4th, 2006. I was moved by his heroism and thought I’d begin my post with this brief story:
Private Ross McGinnis from his position in the gun turret, noticed a grenade thrown directly at the Humvee he was in. The grenade dropped through the gunner’s hatch. He shouted “grenade!” to the four soldiers inside the vehicle but because the men were confined in the tiny space, they had no chance of escaping the explosion. McGinnis could have easily jumped from the Humvee and saved himself. Instead he dropped inside, put himself against the grenade, and absorbed the blast with his own body. Ross was killed but his comrades were saved. He was awarded the Medal of Honor. However, was Ross’s decision really a “good” one?
Most of us would agree that Ross McGinnis’ sacrifice of himself for his friends was a virtuous act. But let’s briefly consider the question: Why? If we assume that McGinnis did a good thing, then why was it good? If it was good, was it also right? If he had chosen to jump from the vehicle, instead of on top of the grenade, would that action have been bad or wrong or simply neutral? As we attempt to answer these questions, we must ask: What is our basis for making the moral judgement that his action was good? I will assume that everyone reading this post will agree that private McGinnis’ action can indeed be called right and good. But Why?
I submit to you that the only satisfactory answer to these questions is that a good God exists who has made known to us what kinds of actions are “good” and “right”. If God exists, then private McGinnis’ action can be called good. If God does not exist, then his action is devoid of value, and to call it good is meaningless. There are many reasons for this, but let me briefly articulate just one. Let’s for a moment suppose that no God exists and that the universe and all that is in it is just physical stuff. This is the view of naturalism/athesim- that no God or gods exist. According to athesim, there are no non-physical entities, nor could there be because everything is material. There is no “super-natural” stuff- all is natural. You’ve probably heard Carl Sagan’s phrase: “The cosmos is all there was, is, or ever shall be.” He summarizes the position nicely.
Now lets really think about this. Most athesits/naturalists would admit that humanity evolved from lower life forms and that this process was completely natural. I.e. The process was not aided by any god or super-natural force. If this is the case then humans in their entirity are only physical things. They do not have an immaterial aspect to them that is sometimes refered to as a soul, nor are they made in God’s image- because there is no supernatural or immaterial entities to speak of. If humans are only physical, then they are no different than any other biological species. According to naturalism, humans are not qualitatively different than any other animal, insect, or anything else that is composed of merely physical stuff- which is everything in the universe.
Now think, if according to this view there is no supernatural, no afterlife, no judgement from God, etc., then when a human animal or plant dies it simply ceases to thrive. As a physical thing it simply decomposes and there is no part of it that continues beyond its death. Humans then, when they die simply cease to exist. The grave is the end.
If a human ceases to exist when it dies, then what ultimate meaning could be given to its life. Its ceasing to exist could not be different than a cockroach or any other animal ceasing to exist. What would make it different? What ultimate difference would it make if a human, or humanity as a whole, never came into existence in the first place? If the human is simply physical stuff that just accidentally and arbitrarily happened to come into existence, then there can be no “meaning” or “purpose” or “reason” for its existence. Why? because in a merely physical world whatever is,…is- and all that we can do is describe the way things just happen to be. We can not prescribe. In fact, there would be no such thing as prescription- that is, describing the way things “ought” to be. In a merely physical universe, there is no “ought” because the world is just the way the world is. The end is the grave and that is all; It is not “good”, not “bad”- that’s just the way it is.
If our end is the grave and that is all, then does it matter that we ever lived in the first place? What would be different about the universe if humans had never arrived on the seen? If it makes no difference whether we lived or not because we came to be by accident and are not qualitatively different than any other physical thing, and if all that the universe is… is matter in motion, then what sense does it make to say that our actions are good or bad, right or wrong? What difference does it make in the cosmos if one physical creature kills another? The idea or “prescription” that it is wrong is meaningless. If there is only description and not prescription, then the prescriptive phrase, “murder is wrong; i.e. we ought not murder” is meaningless.
The point is that meaning, purpose, and moral values like good or bad, right wrong, justice or mercy cannot have any ultimate significance in a universe that is only physical. If God is not there to give our life meaning, purpose, or value, then we would literally have no significance or worth. We would be literally valueless. Our lives would be purpose-less. And our choices and actions would literally make no difference in the immesity and indifference of the universe.
Finally, If God is not real then private McGinnis’ selfsacrifice was ultimately stupid. Why? because he wasted the only life he would ever know. For what? A non-existent and so-called virtue? If God is not there to give actions value and meaning then what ultimate difference would it make if he had decided to jump from the Humvee to save himself? Why was his sacrifice of himself truly virtuous? For what reason was it good and right? Without God, there is no answer!
To end I simply want to encourage you to search your heart and mind. We all intuitively “know” that there is an ultimate difference between virtue and vice; courage and cowardice; Hitler and Mother Teresa. Only if God exists does this distinction have any meaning. In the grand scheme of things, our human lives are indeed more valuable than insects. Why? because there is a grand scheme of things!…which was given order by God. Humans, therefore, are immensely significant because we are created by God in His image. This is why our lives and actions have value.
Jesus, our great God and Savior, the One who created the universe and everything in it said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” We know that the kind of action that private McGinnis performed was the kind of action that pleases our God. In truth, this kind of action models our Savior’s action of coming into the world to lay down his life for the lost. Are you lost? or have you been found? Have you come to find rest and significane in the living God who created you? Wherever you are in your spiritual journey, I encourage you to keep seeking truth. But as you seek, let me submit to you that until you trust Jesus, the Truth, the Lover of your soul, you will not find rest. And at the end of the day, may our prayer be like that of the great Augustine, who wrote, “Everlasting God, in whom we live and move and have our being: You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”