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Guilt and the Need for Forgiveness
By Paul Copan | Bulletin Roundtable Part 2
In this Roundtable, our writers have each chosen an existential reason to believe in God to explain and defend, drawing from the categories discussed by Clifford Williams in his excellent book, Existential Reasons for Belief in God: A Defense of Desires and Emotions for Faith (IVP Academic, 2011). Last week, in part one, David Baggett explored the human desire for immortality and how the Christian worldview meets this need in a marvelous way. In today’s article, Paul Copan discusses the nearly universal experience of human guilt and the inability to escape from it apart from a gracious God who forgives.
Clifford Williams’s book on existential reasons for belief in God emphasizes the important connection between God’s existence and deep human longings that serve as pointers to God. These include the need for security, for the longing to overcome the fear of death, the need for forgiveness to relieve one’s guilt, and so on. God’s existence provides the resources for addressing these deeply human concerns. These longings provide sufficient reason for believing in God. Logical arguments for God have their place, but rationality doesn’t capture everything about our human condition. Alongside rational arguments, these deep human longings or needs serve as complementary reasons for God’s existence.
What do we mean by “needs”? We have to be careful here, as people commonly confuse needs and wants. Williams presents the following parameters:
• Needs must be felt by many others.
• Needs must endure.
• Needs must be significant.
• Needs must be part of a constellation of connected needs.
• Needs must be felt strongly.
If we can put it another way, what qualifies as a true human need includes ubiquity, permanency, substantiality, profundity, interrelationality, intensity. One of those needs is “cosmic security.” Here is Williams’ argument from this human need:
1. We need cosmic security. We need to know that we will live beyond the grave in a state that is free from the defects of this life, a state that is full of goodness and justice. We need a more expansive life, one in which we love and are loved. We need meaning, and we need to know that we are forgiven for going astray. We also need to experience awe, to delight in goodness, and to be present with those we love.
2. Believing in God satisfies these needs.
3. Therefore, we are justified in believing in God.
In what follows, I discuss the reality of human guilt and the deep need for forgiveness.
Crimes and Misdemeanors
One of Woody Allen’s films is Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). In this story, we encounter Judah Rosenthal—a well-respected, but weak-willed, philandering eye doctor. When he wants to break things off with his mistress Dolores, she threatens to “out” him to his wife unless he leaves her. She writes a letter to expose their affair. In desperation, Rosenthal makes arrangements with his mobster brother to kill Dolores, and his brother is “successful” doing so. Despite the ensuing police investigation, which thoroughly scared Rosenthal, the investigators determined that the suspicious activities of a thief who was reported to have been wandering about the mistress’s apartment complex sufficiently explained the murder.
Though the doctor was no longer a suspect, he still was plagued by guilt. The film raises the question about appropriateness of guilt if one has gotten away with murder: Should Rosenthal really feel guilty if he has actually gotten away it?
Guilt and Forgiveness
As divine image-bearers, we come into this world with moral capacities. The conscience, which alternately accuses or else defends us (Rom. 2:15), is part of that divinely bestowed moral package. Of course, some people are “seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron” (1 Tim. 4:2). For this and other reasons, the conscience may not always serve as a reliable guide. C. S. Lewis observes that our feeling guilty or innocent doesn’t guarantee that this is actually the case:
I have talked to some who felt guilt when they jolly well ought to have felt it; they have behaved like brutes and know it. I've also met others who felt guilty and weren't guilty by any standard I can apply. And thirdly, I've met people who were guilty and didn't seem to feel guilt. And isn’t this what we should expect? People can be malades imaginaires [hypochondriacs] who are well and think they are ill; and others, especially consumptives [those with a destructive disease], are ill and think they are well; and thirdly—far the largest class—people are ill and know they are ill.
But when the alarm bells of conscience go off, we ought to pay attention to them.
The conscience reminds us that we live in a moral universe. It points us beyond our individual existence, beyond our culture, toward the transcendent realm with its moral framework—toward a “divine Lawgiver,” in Lewis’s words. The fact that we humans recognize not only a moral ideal but also our own failure to live up to it leaves us with a problem: what do we do with that burden of guilt? Perhaps we think of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, in which Lady Macbeth and her husband are complicit in King Duncan’s death. Her troubled conscience is revealed in her somnambulations, during which she tries to rub out the stain of his blood on her hand: “Out, damned spot. Out, I say.”
In our human relations, we recognize the need of forgiveness from one another when we have hurt or broken trust with others. But what if, say, the person I have deeply wronged has died without my having asked forgiveness? What if I have engaged in “the unfruitful deeds of darkness” (Eph. 5:11)—deeds about which no one else knows or is involved? What if such deeds produce in me a guilt that cannot be assuaged? Where do I go? Even when we have harmed persons and damaged relationships, ultimately our wrong is against the divine Lawgiver: “Against You and You alone have I sinned and done what is evil in Your sight” (Ps. 51:4).
We Christians know that the heavy burden of guilt is alleviated by grace of the divine Lawgiver—the “just” and the “justifier” (Rom. 3:26). The former atheist Francis Spufford and author of the book Unapologetic, tells us why he left atheism because he made just such a connection between feeling guilt and seeking divine mercy.
[Atheism] turned out not to contain what my soul needed for nourishment in bad times. It was not any kind of philosophical process that led me out from disbelief. I had made a mess of things in my life, and I needed mercy, and to my astonishment, mercy was there. An experience of mercy, rather than an idea of it. And the rest followed from there. I felt my way back to Christianity, discovering through many surprises that the religion I remembered from my childhood looked different if you came to it as an adult with adult needs: not pretty, not small, not ridiculous, but tough and gigantic and marvellous.
Our own guilt along with the need for forgiveness is one of those deep longings we human beings have. Such a need—along with an array of others—can serve as another one of those existential pointers to God’s existence.
 Clifford Williams, Existential Reasons for Belief in God: A Defense of Desires and Emotions for Faith (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011).
 Ibid., 32.
 Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1964), 33.
 Luis Rivas with Francis Spufford, “Q&A About ‘Impenitente’ [Unapologetic],” http://unapologetic-book.tumblr.com/post/99715799639/qa-about-impenitente-english-version.
— Paul Copan is the Pledger Family Chair of Philosophy and Ethics at Palm Beach Atlantic University. Learn more about Paul and his work at paulcopan.com.
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