The Ten Commandments have been in the news recently, and the news hasn’t been positive. Atheists are doing their best to remove the Ten Commandments from any public place where they’ve been put up, such as courthouses or parks. This campaign by atheists to remove Christian symbols, like crosses, from any public setting is reaching a ridiculous extreme. The next thing you know, they’ll be after Google Maps or Mapquest to remove any cross streets from city maps. After all, when two streets cross at right angles, someone looking down from an airplane might get the impression that the city is endorsing Christianity by putting crosses everywhere. And I’m sure the atheists will want to ban graph paper, too, because of all the intersecting lines.
What’s odd about this atheist “crusade” — or, actually, anti- crusade — against the Ten Commandments is that they aren’t a Christian text at all. In fact, the Commandments aren’t even a biblical innovation. Think about it for a moment: could any culture, or any society, survive if it didn’t have the Ten Commandments in some form? Imagine a civilization, for example, that didn’t have a rule about stealing from other people, or just killing other people indiscriminately.
Try this experiment with your atheist friend. When he or she isn’t looking, take his wallet or her purse. When they discover what you’ve done, they’ll confront you. “You stole my wallet! Give it back!” And you answer, “But ‘Thou shalt not steal’ is part of the Ten Commandments, and that’s a Christian rule. You don’t believe in Christianity, do you? So what’s the big deal about your wallet?”
You see, the Commandments, or “Ten Words” as the Bible actually calls them, aren’t really biblical law at all. They’re what’s called “natural law,” principles that apply to any culture or civilization. And the society that disregards them is headed for chaos and disintegration. Is that where our culture is headed today?
Okay, but what about the first two commandments: “You shall have no other gods bedside me, and you shall not bow down to any idol of your own making.” Aren’t those religious command- ments? Well, everyone has a religion of some kind. Theologian Paul Tillich defined religion as “ultimate concern,” and he said that everyone has some kind of ultimate concern, even if it’s the concern to avoid having any ultimate concern. Even atheism, then, is really a religion, the concern to avoid being religious. Or a person’s religion might be that very unscientific philosophy that’s called “evolution.” Or it might be the determination to enforce what’s “politically correct.” Or a person might be religiously committed to impressing and pleasing other people, leading to dysfunctional family patterns such as the alcoholic husband and his enabling wife.
Most commonly, by ignoring those first two commandments people just make themselves, and their own preferences, into their gods. Without those commandments, we would just worship another holy trinity: “Me, Myself, and I.” That’s happening today in our culture; people insist on being their own authority and nobody else can tell them what to do. We’re all infected with this idea. Whenever the checkout clerk says to me, “Have a nice day,” I’m tempted to reply, “Don’t tell me what kind of day to have!”
The apostle Paul has an interesting comment in Romans 7:7. Discussing the Law, he summarizes the entire set of commandments in the tenth Commandment: “You shall not covet.” Coveting is putting your own selfish desires ahead of everything else, and manipulating other people into conforming to what you want. But that’s exactly the same thing as the first Commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.” The Ten Commandments, in other words, come around full circle. Putting God first, others second, and yourself last is what straightens out all of life, and that’s what the Ten Commandments are driving at. Jesus Christ summarized it when he quoted Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:29-31). I repeat, these aren’t specifically Christian principles. No civilization could survive if every member of society consistently put himself first, without regard for the needs of others.
Finally, what about the criticism of the Ten Commandments, that they’re so negative? — “Thou shalt not, thou shalt not, thou shalt not . . .” Well, think about it: suppose the Ten Commandments were all positive: “You must do this, you have to do that” — and the “have tos” could go on ad infinitum. Would you be happy with that set of commandments, and would you be free? By stating a few things in the negative — by restricting behavior in certain critical areas — the Ten Commandments leave us free in all other areas. If nothing is forbidden, then everything is required. And we would go nuts trying to do everything — which is the trap many people find themselves in. But when we know a few things that we mustn’t do, then we have the liberty to plan our lives in other respects.
A famous philosopher once said, “Freedom is the recognition of necessity.” That is, when we know what kind of behavior is really necessary in life, then we have the freedom to act without worrying about all the unnecessary, harmful or trivial things we might be tempted to do. Our atheist friends are quite wrong; the Ten Commandments aren’t specifically Christian, but belong to any stable civilization. They aren’t true because they’re in the Bible; they’re in the Bible because they’re true. And they aren’t restrictive, but liberating and life-enabling. And they’ll endure as the necessary basis for a healthy culture, whether or not somebody wants to pull them down and hide them from public view.