In one of my philosophy courses not too long ago I had a student who had become convinced, based on Darwinism, that God had not made humans, and that religion was a human construct to meet an internal psychological need. Throughout the semester she was obviously antagonistic in the classroom to anything I said that had to do with God or religion. Whenever I referred to God, she would try to get me to re-state what I was saying in the form of a mere hypothetical, but even hypothetical references to God seemed to bother her. Toward the end of the semester, I had a significant discussion with her during office hours, and it turned out that she had been raised in a very conservative Lutheran tradition. When she came to the university and encountered Darwinism in her biology classes, she could not fit that with her fundamentalist conception of religion, and so she had basically tossed out the entirety of religion as just what Dawkins and Dennett claim it to be. But during my class, she had come to see the difference between scientism and science, and between evolution as a scientific thesis, and Darwinism as a philosophical thesis. She had come to see that she didn't have to choose between science and Christianity. (For more on this subject, see William Carroll's article, "Creation, Evolution, and Thomas Aquinas", or pick up the recently published book Creation and Evolution: A Conference with Pope Benedict XVI.)
Those who do not understand the difference between science (in the ordinary contemporary sense of the term) and philosophy are often convinced that if evolution took place, then philosophical Darwinism (i.e. there is no God, no ultimate meaning, no ultimate purpose, no right and wrong, etc.) follows. Creationists who do not understand the difference between science and philosophy often make the very same mistake, reasoning that if God exists and morality exists, etc., then evolution must be false. If you want to see how this works in practice, watch this interview with Jeffrey Dahmer (the serial murderer and cannibal), and notice how he moved from philosophical Darwinism (which served to justify in his mind his immoral actions) to a rejection of the scientific theory of evolution. (H/T: R.E. Aguirre)
What makes it more difficult in our age to hear and understand the gospel is that we tend not to be aware of the philosophical prolegomena to the gospel. When I was a teenager, the gospel seemed to be something that merely floated on top of my human existence; it did not go to the heart of my existence. I knew that I was mortal, and from the Bible I understood that when I died I would go either to heaven or hell. I did not want to go to hell; I preferred to go to heaven. Hence it was obvious that I should "ask Jesus into my heart", which I did when I was about four years old.
But I did not understand what knowing Jesus had to do with my present existence. Knowing Jesus seemed to be something that really mattered only as a necessary condition for determining where I would go in the life to come. Later, I came to understand that I had missed the whole point; I had construed the gospel in an entirely nominalistic and voluntaristic manner, as though it was only extrinsically related to my well-being. (I have discussed this in more detail here.)
If we do not know the answer to the question "What is my purpose in life?" or "Why am I here?" or "Why do I exist?", then we do not truly understand the gospel. The gospel will then seem like "good news" to us only in an indirect, penultimate sense, as relating only to our future state after death. But the philosophical question "What is the meaning of life?" is directly related to the gospel, and presupposed by the gospel.
Here's why. The old catechism asks the question: "Why did God make you?" The answer: "God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next." Broadly speaking, that is the meaning of our human existence. The Compendium to the Catechism adds, "God Himself, in creating man in His own image, has written upon his heart the desire to see Him." The reason we exist, the reason God made us, is to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him, and in that three-fold activity be eternally happy with Him. That means that our human nature, and more precisely the nature of the human soul, is made in such a way that we are not satisfied with anything less than knowing, loving, and serving God. This is why all human cultures express at least some 'groping about' for God in various forms of religion. This is what St. Augustine means when he says "Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee." He is talking about the very nature of the human heart, as God designed it. It "can't get no satisfaction" until it knows, loves, and serves God.
We were made such that we find our complete happiness and fulfillment in fellowship with God. This blessed fellowship is what Adam and Eve had when God walked with them in the cool of the day in the Garden. Everything else besides God is finite, contingent, and incomplete, and therefore cannot ultimately satisfy the human heart. Idolatry is misery; contingent things take their rightful place in our overall blessedness only when we receive them as gifts from our Maker, not when we substitute them for our Maker. We can be perfectly free only in ultimate subjection to Perfect Goodness; ultimate subjection to anything else is slavery. Being made in the image of God involves being made such that we have a power in our soul that is intrinsically directed to the Cause of all causes, the Source of all perfections, the Truth underlying all truths, the Being underlying all beings, the Unity underlying all unities, the Good underlying all goods, and the Beauty underlying all beauties. When separated from fellowship with our Maker, we are lost, confused, miserable, dissatisfied, and blind. We have some sense that things are not the way they are supposed to be, but we are typically so blind that we often do not even recognize how miserable and empty we are. We may feel that we have no reason to live, no purpose in life. It is easy in such a condition to feel suicidal, because it seems like there is no point to living. And if there were no God, then there would be no point to living, because there can be no end [telos] at all if every end [telos] is subordinate to a higher end [telos], and nothing except one who is Goodness itself can be a highest end. We are by nature aimed at God, but in our darkened condition, we seem to have forgotten what we were made for, and lost sight of who we are. We treat ourselves as mere beasts whose purpose is to eat, drink, have sex and be merry, for tomorrow we die. But that mode of living is miserable for humans, because it doesn't satisfy the human soul, which in its very nature is directed toward the transcendent.
How did we get into this condition? Adam and Eve, by their sin, lost their participation in the divine life of God. They were banished from the Garden. Through their sin we all are born in a state of what is called "original sin", deprived of the life and righteousness of God, darkened and separated from that for which we were orginally made, i.e. fellowship with God. And yet this present life remains for us a period of testing. (See my "Monocausalism, Salvation, and Reconciliation".)
What we will be for eternity is determined by the state of our soul at death. If we die in a state of mortal sin, we remain eternally deprived of the life of God. We descend into hell, "eternal death" (CCC 1056). This is not annihilation. We continue to exist in a state of misery and torment, forever.
"Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, "eternal fire". The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs." (CCC 1035)
Hell is what happens to us and in us when we reject our ultimate purpose, when we turn against the telos knitted into the essence of our heart, and reject what we are, i.e. creatures made in the image and likeness of God. When Jesus was challenged about paying taxes, He asked to be shown a coin, and then asked whose image was on the coin. When told "Caesar's", He replied, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and give to God what is God's." (St. Matthew 22) The point is not ultimately about taxes, but about man. Whose image is on us? God's. We are designed to find fulfillment and complete happiness only in giving ourselves entirely and eternally to God, as a lover gives herself to her beloved for the whole of her earthly life.
The Judgment is not something merely tacked on to the story of our human existence; it is essential to understanding what it is to be human, and why we are here in this life. The whole purpose of this present life is a test. What will we choose? Who will we be forever? All of our deeds in this life are eternally and indelibly part of our history, for the rest of eternity. For the rest of eternity, I will be "the person who, during his earthly life, did x, y, and z". The Judgment is the once-and-for-all determination of the result of that test. The Judgment separates all humans into two categories: those who died in a state of loving God, and those who died in a state of mortal sin. (See this video.)
Understanding the gospel presupposes that we know all this. When the Evangelical comes along and asks, "Are you saved?", it sounds like a different language to the modern ear. Saved from what?, we might ask. "Sin, death, hell", he responds. That's true, but it doesn't get to the heart of the matter, because most people today have little sense of the relation between our human nature [our ultimate purpose in life] and "sin, death and hell". That is why "Are you saved?" always seems to come across as a sales pitch for afterlife fire insurance.
A better way to present the gospel to modern man is to start with our purpose in life: Do you know why you are here? Are you looking for the meaning of your life? We [Christians] know the meaning of life. It is to know, love and serve the God who made heaven and earth and all things, including us humans, whom He made in His very own image, to share in His divine life and have fellowship with Him eternally. Our first parents turned away from God and bequeathed sin, sorrow and death to us, but God has sent His Son to reconcile us to Himself. God's Son gave Himself to us, and now offers us His own divine Life, the very Life in which we were made to share eternally. We receive His divine Life through the sacraments which He established in His Mystical Body, the Church, before He returned to the Father. Believe and be baptized. Receive the Spirit without measure. In the sacrament of the Eucharist, Christ offers to you His Body and Blood. If you eat this Flesh, and drink this Blood, you will have in yourself the Life of God, the Life which you have longed for since you were a child, the divine Life than which there is nothing greater, and which alone truly satisfies the deepest yearning of the human soul. Jesus said, "As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also shall live because of Me." (St. John 6:57) And elsewhere, Jesus said, "Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst." (St. John 4:14) We never thirst again because we finally have found that alone which satisfies the human heart. Come, eat and drink without charge; Christ offers Himself to you freely, in love. This is why you exist: to know, love, and serve Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God. This is what you were made for; this is why you are here, right now, to know, love, and serve the One who made you. Nothing else will satisfy you, because what your heart most deeply longs for is God Himself.
In order for Christians to be visibly united, we have to be united about what the gospel is. And in order to be united about what the gospel is, we need to be united about the prolegomena to the gospel, the philosophical and theological background presupposed by the gospel. We cannot understand salvation without understanding what man is, and what is the nature and telos of the human heart.
"Nos fescisti ad te, et inquietem est cor nostrum donec requiscat inte." (You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You." - St. Augustine)