As I look at history and consider Jesus’ words in John 15 about abiding in him, I see that people have achieved monumental things apart from God. They have arranged political systems, dispensed justice, erected architectural wonders, and conquered empires whose fragments were glorious even in their fractured decline. When Jesus says that we can do nothing apart from him, what nothing is he referring to? It seems that people who do not know God have achieved pretty substantial nothings, before and after the coming of Christ.
I am reminded of what Augustine says in The City of God about good and bad things happening to good and bad people on earth:
- Good things happen to good people to demonstrate that God rewards righteousness even now, as a foretaste of eternal rewards.
- Bad things happen to good people to show that they too are a part of this world and to encourage them to rest their ultimate hopes with God in heaven.
- Good things happen to bad people to demonstrate that earthly rewards for righteousness go even to the wicked; good people must again look to God and eternal life for satisfaction.
- Bad things happen to bad people so that God can demonstrate that God punishes evil in this life, also as a foretaste of eternal judgment.
The City of God contrasts the citizens of the City of God, those who know God and who will eternally be with him, with those of the City of Man, those who do not know God and who will be forever apart from him. We cannot now know with finality who is in either City, and Augustine cites the parable of the wheat and the tares to show that even some professing to be in the Church are truly citizens of the City of Man. As he deals largely with the pagan history of the Roman Empire, he also addresses Rome’s reputation for virtue and justice as having earthly foundations. He cites Matthew 6 and the Pharisees who have received their reward in full, showing that the splendor of the Roman Empire is its earthly reward given in full. All the good of the Roman Empire was indeed good, but it will pass away.
What, then, can we do apart from Christ? Are “good people” who do not know Jesus not, in some sense, good? I would say yes, but you cannot dispense with knowing Jesus. In Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, the bishop who redeems Jean Valjean’s soul with his silverware and silver candlesticks, makes a very peculiar visit to a man who had been in government during the French Revolution. The man was an atheist, given the history of the French Revolution. Though he was an atheist, his criticism of the Church was for its leaders going about in sumptuous finery and taking no care for the poor, and his own actions were those of someone who followed “true religion” as expounded in James 1:27, caring for the poor and orphans and widows. The bishop ultimately finds that he can only say that God cannot have impious servants and that progress itself relies upon belief in God. God being good and the source of all good on earth and in heaven, those who would love good must love him.
In religion, you must have both your practice and your theology correct if you would have it be eternally worthwhile. I would express the present state of my theology like this: “If people are not coming to Jesus, then perhaps there is no Jesus — either no Jesus in me, or no Jesus at all.” Christians can have their theology right but their practice wrong, or non-Christians could have their practice right but their theology wrong. Even humans all by themselves can see that human works do not last forever, and they try to make “immortality” mean “remembered for thousands of years” rather than “eternally alive”. In John 17:3, knowing God is itself eternal life; given that God is himself eternal, it seems that truly knowing God would mean sharing more and more in his eternality. What about doing things apart from Christ?
In C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce (plot spoiler ahead!), hell is a crack in the floor of heaven. The damned are infinitesimally smaller than the redeemed; the heavenward bus ride from everyone’s point of arrival in hell is actually the bus and passengers becoming more real. New visitors to heaven cannot even press down the grass because they do not yet have enough substance to affect it. As people move “further up and further in” to know God, they become real and have power to affect things. A man who tries to steal a golden apple to take it back to show his buddies in hell attempts the impossible: the apple would not even fit in hell. Retreating from the knowledge of God shrinks those who turn away, and retreating severs the damned from even the capacity to experience heaven. Doing and being anything apart from Christ really is action and existence; given the eternality of hell, it will even last forever.
In the end, you can be and do apart from Christ, but you trend away from full existence by leaving God behind as the source of life. Your earthly works will crumble into dust, and whatever good or bad they have for your immortal soul will probably be from whether you worked in or away from Christ. Ecclesiastes touches upon this too. In various places we are told to do whatever we find to do and work at it with all our might, but in the end we should remember God in our youth. Does this mean that I can’t go to bagpipe school? Well, whatever happens, let me not forget Christ!