Keira Knightley is a well-known English actress perhaps best known for her role as Elizabeth Swan in the Pirates of the Caribbean movie series. She has also starred in several critically acclaimed movies like Atonement, A Dangerous Method and The Imitation Game.
She is an atheist and CNN reports her saying the following about Catholicism:
English actress Keira Knightley has joked that she wishes she were Catholic. “If only I wasn’t an atheist; I could get away with anything,” she said in 2012. “You’d just ask for forgiveness, and then you’d be forgiven.”
Other sites, like Atheist Republic, give the same quote but more fully:
It’s absolutely extraordinary. If only I wasn’t an atheist, I could get away with anything. You’d just ask for forgiveness and then you’d be forgiven.
I’ve been unable to find the original source of the quote and the link that CNN provides just goes to The Sun home page. In any event, what can we say about it?
Classical Paganism and Forgiveness
I thought this was an interesting criticism of Christianity, because secular critics of Christianity don’t normally think that the primary problem with Christianity is that it is too quick to forgive, too compassionate or too merciful. If anything, they accuse (orthodox) Christianity of exactly the opposite; that it is not compassionate and too moralistic. But perhaps this is now changing given that Western society is becoming more secular. Someone who grew up in a Christian home but reacted against it would think it too strict. But someone who didn’t grow up with Christianity and who has had a life successful in worldly terms, might look in on Christianity and think it too lax and will find its teaching on forgiveness strange and counter-intuitive. This makes sense, because the Christian teaching of forgiveness does not naturally occur to us and even strongly violates people’s moral emotions, particularly those who have been severely wronged. This is consistent with the fact that Knightley is English and England is one of the most secular countries in the West, which means that many people there grow up in secular homes. The idea that mercy is a sign of weakness and produces moral anarchy and injustice is an old idea of pagan moralists. According to Rodney Stark, in the ancient world of classical paganism where Christianity grew and especially among the philosophers of that world, “mercy was regarded as a character defect and pity as a pathological emotion: because mercy involves providing unearned help or relief, it is contrary to justice. As E.A. Judge explained, classical philosophers taught that “mercy indeed is not governed by reason at all,” and humans must learn to “curb the impulse”; “the cry of the undeserving for mercy” must go “unanswered”.” Stark continues:
This was the moral climate in which Christianity taught that mercy is one of the primary virtues — that a merciful God requires humans to be merciful. Moreover, the corollary that because God loves humanity, Christians may not please God unless they love one another was even more incompatible with pagan convictions. But the truly revolutionary principle was that Christian love and charity must extend beyond the boundaries of family and even those of faith, to all in need. As Cyprian, the martyred third-century bishop of Carthage explained, “there is nothing remarkable in cherishing merely our own people with the due attentions of love…Thus the good was done to all men, not merely to the household of faith.”
Aristotle for example believed that true compassion cannot be felt for those who deserve their suffering. You will not find mercy and forgiveness among Aristotle’s virtues. Not only the ancient Greeks, the Romans were not fond of mercy and forgiveness either. Even if they did not condemn it, they did not regard forgiveness as a true virtue in the same league as the other virtues they defended. You will be hard-pressed to find forgiveness recommended in classical pagan ethical teaching. It is also important to distinguish between the virtue of mercy and forgiveness and a basic policy of tolerance in dealings with others. If you can never overlook even small wrongs you will have no fruitful dealings or relationships with other people at all. This isn’t forgiveness as much as it is just pragmatism. Forgiveness and mercy that is identified as a great good and virtue goes far beyond this pragmatism. It doesn’t identify certain small wrongs for which forgiveness is appropriate, and certain larger wrongs for which it is not appropriate. Of course, Knightley is not claiming in this comment that we as human beings should not forgive each other, but that there’s something wrong in the idea that we can absolve ourselves of sins by merely asking God for forgiveness. (However, I will argue later that Knightley’s comment ultimately implies the same thing even if she doesn’t wish to endorse that implication.)
What is Repentance?
Knightley’s worry seems to be that the forgiveness of sins in Christianity turns into a license to do wrong. She thinks it implies that “I could get away with anything.” This is to misunderstand what repentance is. If you are a Christian, you are forgiven your sin by God if you repent of it. What does it mean to repent? It means at least to admit you were doing wrong, and to sincerely determine to do better. In other words, if you are repenting merely to get a license to go on doing it, then you are not really repenting, because you’re still intending to do it. This means you won’t be forgiven. Also, the Bible tells us that there will be evidence in our lives if we have truly repented and turned to God. For example, John the Baptist tells the Pharisees “Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God.” (Luke 3:8) Also, Paul tells us that if we have repented and turned to God, this will show a certain fruit in our lives (Romans 6:1-4):
What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
Who will Decide?
So Knightley’s belief that the forgiveness of sins gives people a license to do wrong is mistaken because it relies on a misunderstanding of what it means to repent. But, going on the offensive, we can ask how we are to absolve ourselves without the forgiveness of sins and without a God to forgive us. Knightley presumably would admit that she has done at least some wrong things. What does she do about them? Does she think that she should get what she deserves for all of them? All of us are wrongdoers to some extent. All of us have done deeds that need to be forgiven. Who decides who can be forgiven or absolved and for what wrongs? Must government decide? Must public opinion and society decide? Must the victim of the wrong decide? All of these options result in a moral relativism, because whether you are absolved or not will come down to a matter of luck and chance. It will depend on whether you are in a society that is more forgiving, or that doesn’t regard your particular wrong as being unforgivable, or the victim of your wrong is more generous than if you had done it to someone else. It becomes a matter of blind chance. So this doesn’t work and we are still left with the question: if not God, who decides?
While Knightley may not wish to endorse the idea that humans should not be merciful and help the undeserving, her comments ultimately imply this. If the notion of absolution and the forgiveness of sins in general is problematic, then people should always get what they deserve and we should not help or show any compassion to those who are suffering justly or as a consequence of their own actions. (This is additionally problematic because it places human beings in the place of God in determining what suffering exactly is just, which we arguably cannot do. We do not have all the facts when it comes to someone’s moral character and even if we did, how would we know what negative effect is exactly commensurate with their particular makeup of bad character?)
Creature and Creator
A related complaint is the idea that God can forgive what was done to other people. Shouldn’t it be the victims’ say whether they are forgiven? It was a wrong against those people, not God, so why would God have the authority to forgive it? First, it doesn’t make sense to say that you have the authority to morally judge someone simply because you have been wronged by them. Being wronged does not give you a gown and a raised desk by which to pass judgment on your wrongdoer. You cannot determine whether they should be absolved or not. Why does the fact that you were wronged by them give you the authority to make wholesale judgments about their moral character? Being wronged is not a qualification or an achievement. It doesn’t give you some sort of wisdom or competence to determine whether someone should be considered morally free and clear, because this goes far beyond any moral claim you may have as a result of the wrong. At most, it gives you a claim on what was taken from you ( such as in the case of theft). The question of whether someone should be absolved goes beyond any reparation that can be made to you. The claim you may have is about what is relevant to you and what was taken from you, which means that the absolution of the wrongdoer lies far outside your purview. To think that you can declare whether someone is absolved or not in effect makes you into an arbiter of the moral universe ( which you are not). It is not clear to me at all why being a victim of a crime gives you some authority or entitlement to declare whether someone is absolved or not. The idea that absolution is in the purview of the wronged may result from the belief that what makes something wrong is that I did something that the victim doesn’t like. But that is not what makes something wrong, which brings me to the second point.
Only the Creator has the authority to say how things should be and how they shouldn’t be. Only the Creator establishes an order and determines it to be good, and deviations from it to be bad. Immorality consists solely in violating this order and design, which is why all wrongs are first and foremost or primarily wrongs against God and why God has the authority to forgive them. The creature does not have the authority to say that something that happened ( that they didn’t enjoy) was bad or good or right or wrong (except derivatively because God said so first). What makes something wrong is God’s normative order, not because the wronged felt that it was wrong, or preferred it not to happen, or that it caused them to suffer. The fact that any person fails to enjoy something does not make it wrong. It is wrong to violate, without good reason, someone’s preferences. But the fact that someone doesn’t enjoy their preferences being violated is not what makes it wrong. That person can say that it was unpleasant or agonizing, but not, in his own authority, that it was wrong. The creature’s will does not determine what is moral and immoral. Part of the lesson of the book of Job is that the Creator has the say in what happens to us, because we are the creatures. So to think that you as a victim can determine whether to absolve someone or not means to usurp God’s authority and to sit yourself illegitimately on God’s throne of judgment. Unforgiveness usurps the authority of God. An unforgiving person says to God: “I have the authority to say what happens to me. I have the power to say if what happens to me is right or wrong and I can determine what is the correct response and punishment. I am judge, jury and executioner of my own little moral universe. I have the knowledge of good and evil. I am like God.” So unforgiveness represents a fundamental rebellion against God. Say someone deliberately causes you a great deal of suffering and you want that person to suffer in return. This will be because you have made the fact that you suffered into the definition of wrong. The fact that you didn’t like it is made into the reason for its wrongness and so you become the issuer of moral commands, and as the issuer of moral commands, you also then have the authority to punish. That suffering of yours could just as well have happened without it being anyone’s fault, by sheer accident. What would be your response then? The issue we have is not with the person who wronged us, because the suffering they cause, or something very much like it, may just as well be caused by accident without anyone to blame. The issue is whether we can submit to God and not regard our own preferences, desires and emotions as sovereign. Conversely, true innocence and purity comes through absolute submission to the will of God, an absolute recognition that God has the authority to determine how to order the world, what to allow and what not to allow in my life, and where I should go and what my destiny should be, even if I suffer severely. This is the example of Jesus, who showed absolute submission to the will of the Father even to the point of suffering an agonizing death (Philippians 2:8):
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name
At this low point in the Garden of Gethsemane, when the temptation to disobey God would have been strongest, Jesus says (Matthew 26:39):
Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
Of course, this submission does not come through our own strength, but we rely on the mercy of God through Jesus’s death on the cross. And we stand in God’s presence by the blood of the Lamb. My invitation to you as you read this is to humble yourself and to recognize that you are sinful. Pray to God, repent of your sins, and believe that Jesus did die for you to remove your sins and reconcile you with Him. Determine to follow Jesus unconditionally, to worship Him alone, and to live like He did.
A Concluding Prayer
Lord Jesus, by whom all things were created, I pray that you would help us to live in complete submission to your will and to apply your commandments in our lives. Forgive us all our sins and I pray that you would help us to live in forgiveness and love toward all. Please touch the hearts of every unbelieving person who reads this so that they will come to know you. To you be all the authority and glory. Amen.
 Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement became the World’s Largest Religion, (HarperCollins, 2011) p. 112
 Ibid., 113