I was taken aback when I was asked recently by a friend why anybody who doesn’t believe in God and in heaven and hell would bother trying to be good. If there is no threat of punishment or promise of reward, why should we bother trying to be loving and generous? Why bother being faithful and honest? Why value truth above lies?
We’ve known each other for more than half our lives, and I thought my own answer to this question was clear:
Because human beings are happier if we love each other, if we are honest and truthful and trustworthy.
St. Augustine of Hippo concluded in the 4th century that the reason we humans suffer is because we are conceived in sin. Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden because they ate that forbidden apple, and God was so angry that He has punished every man, woman, and child ever since. That, despite the fact that we are redeemed by the death of God’s own son. We might be redeemed, but even innocent children are still being punished.
I don’t think that’s the meaning of the biblical story of the Garden of Eden, and I don’t think that’s the way the Hebrews, who did not believe in heaven and hell, understood its meaning. I know that Augustine was trying to solve the problem of suffering, but he didn’t. Turning God into an unforgiving, irrational tyrant doesn’t make sense. Especially when at the same time one wants to argue that this is an all-powerful God of Love.
I think the Garden of Eden is a poetic answer to a question we all ask sooner or later – why is there so much suffering? And I think the answer suggested by this ancient Hebraic parable is that we create much of our own suffering. There are things we might want to do – figuratively eating the forbidden apple. But if we do, we are ultimately going to be unhappy. Profoundly unhappy. Far more often than we want to admit, we create our own unhappiness. We expel ourselves from paradise. It is not God. It is we ourselves who create our own hell.
I think Freud, who was Jewish, understood this. As he was puzzling over patterns of unhappiness in people’s lives, he reached the conclusion that we so often are the authors of our own unhappiness.
It is Cain who murdered Abel, and the story is not that it made him happy. So too, it is we who are bombing each other, it is we who are destroying so much of our environment, it is we who are untrustworthy, we who do not keep our promises.
It is we, not an eternally unforgiving God, who are the authors of much of our own discontent.