How Not Knowing Right From Wrong Helped Me Know God is Real

By Tom Gilson Published on April 23, 2023

I wasn’t the only college freshman to enjoy his sudden freedoms. I’m not sure everyone wondered about it the same way I did, though.

It’s been a long time ago now, but the memory remains vivid. I was off at school, living my own life now, not my parents’. My decisions were mine to make. But how would I make them?

“I can decide any way I want to,” was my mind’s immediate answer. “No one’s telling me what to do now.”

There were things I didn’t want to do, like destroying my college career, messing up friendships, making my parents mad enough to cut off my funding, going to jail. Those things put boundaries around my decisions, but honestly, they were still what I wanted or didn’t want. I chose what I wanted, and what I wanted, I chose.

Looking back I see how self-centered that was, but hey, it’s a heady experience, going away to college, and it really didn’t bother me. Something else did instead.

How to Use This New Freedom?

It started with realizing I could do whatever I wanted, with no boundaries around it except the possibility of consequences I might not want to face. That left something seriously missing, though: I couldn’t think of any way I could do anything wrong.

That may strike you as odd, if you have any kind of instinctive or spiritual sense of right and wrong. I had the same instinctive sense, but instinct isn’t reason, and it doesn’t stand up well to questions. If right-vs.-wrong was just some instinct, was it even real? My dad and mom had taught me it was, but what if they were wrong, too?

Discovering “Feels Wrong” Isn’t the Same as “Is Wrong”

One memory remains especially vivid. It’s disturbing, but it will help you see why these questions bothered me so. I had a girlfriend back home. I remember thinking that if I wanted to rape her — I mean, if I really wanted to — the one deciding factor would be whether I could get away with it. Not that I wanted to; it was a theoretical question, not something I was actually considering. But it showed me there were only two things that could decide the question for me: What I want and whether I would get caught.

It seemed like I should be able to say I wouldn’t do it because it was wrong. But when I looked for a place to fit “wrong” into my understanding of reality, I couldn’t find any. Seriously. I knew full well that violence like that could damage a person for life. I knew there was no way either of us could have possibly wanted that.

This wasn’t a “God-shaped vacuum” in my soul, at least as far as I knew at the time. This was a right-and-wrong-shaped hole.

All that was true, and yet all it amounted to was, “I wouldn’t like it,” “She wouldn’t like it,” or, “They wouldn’t like it.” Which isn’t the same as, “It’s wrong.”

Neither was, “It’s wrong because she wouldn’t like it, or it would hurt her.” That’s called “begging the question,” I know now. Back then all I knew was that it felt more like weaseling out of the question than answering it.

A Right-and-Wrong-Shaped Hole in My Soul

That bothered me. And if that wasn’t bad enough, I also knew that if doing it wasn’t really wrong, then not doing it couldn’t really be right, either. No wrong? Then no right, either.

That seemed … wrong. Even when I wasn’t even sure I could believe in “wrong.” It bothered me. A lot.

This wasn’t a “God-shaped vacuum” in my soul, at least as far as I knew at the time. This was a right-and-wrong-shaped hole. I’d thought I’d known the difference between right and wrong. Now I wasn’t sure they even existed. If they did, it would have to depend on someone or something a lot bigger than human wants and preferences. Maybe God? I honestly didn’t know.

Coming to an Answer from Another Way Around

And that was it, in a way. That was as far I got with the question — until I came to know two men on my dorm floor who were Christians and seemed to be enjoying it. That intrigued me, because I’d tried “being a Christian” during junior high and high school years, and it had made me miserable. So I asked them about it.

They loaned me books, I read them, we had long conversations, and gradually I became convinced. I came to faith in Christ one late Sunday night in January of my freshman year. (Someday I’ll have to tell you how instantly and completely that changed my life, but that’s for another day.)

Then Having the Question Sprung on Me All Over Again

I don’t think the three of us talked much about my right-wrong question much at the time, and I don’t recall giving it any real thought for the first month or two after that turn-around night. There was no avoiding it for long, though. That spring, my readings for a philosophy class took me to the atheist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, quoting Dostoyevsky: “If God didn’t exist, everything would be permissible.” Sartre went on to say, “That is the very starting point of existentialism. Indeed, everything is permissible if God does not exist.”

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I saw that and said to myself, “Wow. That looks familiar!” It was exactly the same issue I’d been dealing with in my mind. Sartre was badly mistaken about a lot of things, but not that one. If there is no God, there is no right or wrong. Or, from the other way around, if there is such a thing as right or wrong, then there must be a God.

For my final, 40-page paper in that class (I remember that number all too well), I chose to wrote on Sartre, God, and this question of right and wrong. It was a bold move, in retrospect. To this day, almost 50 years later, that prof remains by far the most intimidating atheist I have ever dealt with. I wrote it anyway. To my surprise, he gave me an A.

And Again and Again …

You’d think I would have been satisfied. What happened instead was, the question got revved up in my mind all over again, and I knew I wasn’t done with it yet. I distinctly remember thinking, “What do I know? I’m only a freshman.”

So I signed up for a course in ethics the next year, for exactly that reason. It turned out the same: No one had any real explanation for right and wrong apart from God. Still I thought, “What do I know? I’m just a sophomore. Surely someone has another answer!”

And the Answer Remains: God Alone

And in one way or another, I’ve been at that question ever since. I’ve read, I’ve studied, I’ve probed, and I’ve had hours of debates on it. I’ve explored all kinds of alternate opinions. I can discuss the issues more precisely and less naively than I ever could have back then.

Still, for all that, the answer hasn’t changed. I’m just more convinced, that’s all: If you think there’s such a thing as right and wrong in the world, you’ll never find any explanation for it but God Himself.

I have no reason to think my 40 freshman pages changed my prof’s views on God. That’s okay; or rather, it’s between him and God, not me. The question certainly helped push me the right direction. And there’s nothing wrong about that.


Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor) is a senior editor with The Stream and the author or editor of six books, including the highly acclaimed Too Good To Be False: How Jesus’ Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality.

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