A recent college grad e-mailed me a question the other day about how to understand the word “heart” in the Bible and whether love was something Atheists could have in their evolutionary worldview, what it would be and how they would account for its existence.
Below is a quick response:
The term (and the idiom) “heart” is purely English.
The Hebrew concept equivalent to our “heart” actually meant guts and intestines… what is referred to as “the seat of emotions.”
Atheists can believe in love as it is a part of conscious thought and something they think developed through evolution as a survival instinct to do with the herd, the collective and group behavior. In other words, these virtues emerged over time through the survival value they conveyed.
If you’re an extreme atheist and deny free will then you attribute love to more animalistic drives, responses, inputs and outputs etc.
From a Christian standpoint love is love whether it is from a Christian or an Atheist.
The Christian believes people were created in the “image of God” (the Imago Dei) and thus are capable of love even if they are apart from God or don’t believe in God. It is a potential that exists for all people because of how we were created.
Love, therefore, is a part of what is called “natural grace,” which means “common to all men,” rather than “special grace,” which refers to the things we believe are common only to followers of Christ.
The Christian teaching is that a relationship with God in Christ would allow us to experience true love, find greater motivation for love and grow into the ability to love in more sacrificial ways than we would without God.
In other words, love begets love and grace begets grace. We literally love because God first loved us.
This doesn’t mean that all people who call themselves Christians are loving and that people who are not Christians are unloving.
In fact, Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan uses an outsider as the example, the one who demonstrates love, contrary to the insiders who don’t demonstrate love.
Love is a virtue. It is common to all men and women and we all have the potential of being loving. Our relationship with Christ is something that, in addition to other things, should grow our virtues, inform our virtues and motivate our virtues.
Another way of putting it: since Christians are given commands by God and Atheists deny any kind of higher authority – there is no excuse for a Christian without love while there is no necessary reason for an Atheist to love.
Again, this is an ethical statement and not a statement of fact. It is about the logically necessary duties or obligations of Christians and Atheists within the respective ethical and moral systems of each worldview – not whether a certain Christian or Atheist can or does have sacrificial love.
Let me know if this hits at the question or helps separate it out…