Why Ancient People Needed God, Why Modern People Don’t, and Why I Still Do

Imagine living in the ancient world, a world without internet, without computers, without electrical power, without complex machines, without running water—without the conveniences of modern life. Just imagine it—the work required to gather and prepare food and water, clothing, and shelter. Also, imagine the limited knowledge available to you. It is the knowledge of your family, your tribe, your people, your ancestors. It is mostly practical knowledge required for survival.

Imagine how you might explain how things happen around you. Imagine that after several months of planting and cultivating your crops, one day they suddenly begin to turn brown and die. Imagine struggling through the next few months with just enough food to survive.

Imagine that the following year a swarm of grasshoppers tears through your crops, consuming them to the ground. Another year of hungry survival. What would you do? How would you explain what has happened?

For those living in the ancient world, both scenarios illustrate how much of the world is beyond direct human control and beyond immediate human explanation. Yet, ancient people looked for ways to explain the events in their lives and to influence what might happen. For this, the ancients “needed” the concept of “God,” or at least the supernatural. They turned to spirits, deities, or their dead ancestors to explain why things happened as they did and to somehow influence what happened in their lives.

Why did the crops suddenly turn brown and die? Because they didn’t offer sufficient sacrifices to the fertility deity. Why did the grasshoppers swarm at this time? Because evil spirits had invaded their land. Therefore, by performing certain rituals or by making certain sacrifices, they believed they could appease these powers of the unseen world and hopefully make their lives better. Ancient people needed the idea of “God” or the supernatural to be able to make sense of their world and try to control it in some way.

The situation changes with the rise of modernity. Modern science can provide logical, natural explanations for the events in normal life. So, why did the crops die? Because a virus infiltrated the fields. Why did the grasshoppers swarm through the crops this time? Because climate conditions forced them to change their regular movement patterns. Science offers answers to these kinds of everyday questions.

Furthermore, through technology, people can manipulate the world around them in ways not even imaginable in the ancient world. They can prevent the virus from destroying the crops or prevent the grasshoppers from eating the crops. It would seem that the idea of “God” or “gods” is no longer necessary to explain or manipulate the world around us.

In this sense, modern people no longer need the idea of “God” or even the supernatural. In fact, it is only with the arrival of modern man that real atheism emerges. Atheists have decided that they no longer need “God” most often because they believe science provides sufficient answers to explain and even control our world.

In fact, if science and technology have come so far in explaining so much of our world and if they continue to explain more and more with each new discovery, why does anyone need “God”? In one sense, the answer to the question is that no one does, at least not the idea of “God.” It is true that the vast majority of people, even modern people, have recognized that science itself is always limited both by the people who develop it and by the phenomena it takes into account. For this reason, science often does not provide satisfactory answers to many of life’s deepest, most difficult questions.

But ultimately, it is not the idea of “God” as an explanation for the everyday world that matters most to me. The truth is I need God—not just the idea of “God,” but the true, living God. I need Him for innumerable reasons, but the most pressing reason is that I am condemned as a sinner.

Although someone may object that sin is something made up in my head or something pressed upon me by my social environment, I know better, as do millions of others. Since I was a child, my conscience has condemned me. Even when no one ever indicated that what I was doing was wrong, my conscience pricked my heart. My conscience testifies to my need for something that is beyond myself to achieve: forgiveness.

Only God can remove the condemnation of sin, its guilt, its shame, and its punishment. Sometimes people lose their sense of guilt or shame about some behavior, but this loss most often results from a choice either to excuse the behavior or to just live with it. But God’s work exemplified in Christ does not excuse sin, nor does it ignore sin. It takes the sin away through Christ’s atoning sacrifice. His sacrifice, God’s sacrifice, brings forgiveness to those who believe.

Forgiveness stands at the heart of the Christian message, the Gospel. Paul demonstrates this point when he describes the Gospel to the Romans. The Gospel is God’s power to rescue us from the judgment of God to come (see Romans 1:16-20). Our sin convicts, condemns, and controls us. Only God can overcome sin. Only God can forgive.

And that is why I still need God. In fact, it is why all people need God.