This one is for the Christians (and possibly other theists, but I'm using the Christian framing) out there. I have a thought experiment for you:
How would you behave if there were no God forgiving you of your sins?
Now easy there, if you feel any defensiveness or offense at that question, please remember it's not an argument. You don't have to threaten your faith in order to entertain this hypothetical as a counterfactual. I assure you, my aim is in exploring our behavior, not anything related to apologetics or theology.
It does take a bit of mental effort, though, to get outside the usual assumptions. The frame I'm asking you to set down for this experiment says that we A) commit sins regularly and are B) forgiven for, and C) not identified with, the ongoing sins we commit.
- I hope A is uncontroversial. We're not perfect! We still "do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate". We still have our thorns and are in a process of progressive sanctification, not perfection.
- B probably doesn't need much coverage: Christ's sacrifice on the cross as propitiation and atonement for all of our sins, thus we are not punished for our transgressions.
- The identification that C speaks of is found in being a new creation, as well as "now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me". Some would debate the language around "sin nature" and whether we are or aren't "sinners" in our redeemed state, but I think there's ample text saying that sin is in us but as our flesh and members, not our spirit or core of identity.
Those articles above add up to a faith that, while we mess up, we don't get held accountable or responsible for the moral transgressions that we still commit daily. That's the Good News, right!? Now... set that down, just for a minute.
My main thought is of responsibility: that we would feel responsible for our choices in a much stronger way. If there were no divine forgiveness to absolve you, would you try harder to minimize the transgressions that are your fault? I would. If I'm the adult in the room, if there's no one or nothing more "soverign" than me around... I have no easy forgiveness available, no "cheap grace" to fall back on, and I think that means a lot to how I would want to act!
I don't think the definition of "sin" in assumption A is an escape clause, either. I would have told myself that it was, in the past: if there's no God, then there's no definition of right and wrong, therefore nothing at all matters and I don't need to worry about good and evil, right? Except, I think I had that tangled up with morality in a way that discounted my own values and desires. Ask yourself this: If it were instantly and conclusively proven to you, somehow someway, that your God didn't exist... would you want to take advantage of your newfound freedom to do anything "bad" that you felt like doing? If you truly answer that with a "yes!" then... well, please let me know so that I can slowly back away. But I think that you likely still believe in some kind of goodness or morality in the absence of a divine arbiter.
So assuming that you still care about minimizing the harm you do, being trustworthy, having integrity as an honest and kind person, etc (even if you weren't allowed to call it absolute "good"), I think the weight of your own sovereignty and responsibility for your own actions would impact your choices! I'm not claiming that we'd be responsible for every implication of every action we make - we're still trapped within amoral systems and don't have control of all of our impacts. But to the extent that we are aware of the options we have, that's what it means to have meaningful choice. And with no absolution for any harm we do...
There may be a God, but not one that picks up the tab for you like your mom did. We need to actually be good people now. -Vinay Gupta
Here's how I would behave differently in this hypothetical world. Without "all things work together for good" to give justification to loss, I care more about minimizing suffering. Without the whole world "in his hands" I would think more about my responsibility to the poor and less privileged, since I can't pass the buck upwards. Without an omnipotent and interventionist orchestrator, I would think more about my contributions to the systems I participate in. Without God as the ultimate authority, I would question the assumed authority of existing hierarchies of dominance such as companies, governments, capitalism. If there's no one coming to our apocalyptic rescue... then I would strive with greater intention to build the world I want my kids to live in. And without eternity assured, I wouldn't be coasting towards my crown but would strive to appreciate every moment.
In sum, I would seek to be fully developed as an adult, responsible and accountable for my choices, doing the most good I can according to my self-authored values. You might feel something similar, if you've been tracking with me through this. Now, to look at the contrast: What accounts for the difference with your current behavior? If you'd take on any more responsibility or sovereignty for your choices in that hypothetical world... would any God want you to do less?
If not, then what's holding you back? Do you hold any implicit beliefs, or observed behaviors, in which you can move from infantile milk to the solid food of spiritual maturity and responsibility? I want to keep growing up - and I hope we can invite each other to help us keep growing.