Monday, September 07, 2020

Anonymous Asks (109)

“If God loves the world, why does he make people choose between loving him back or spending eternity in hell? That sounds more like an ultimatum than love.”

I agree: that choice does sound a bit like an ultimatum. The Bible also frames it as a command.

Why is that? Why is there no third option where God simply leaves me alone to do my own thing, and I leave him alone to do his? Surely a policy of benign indifference would be more loving than condemning millions of people to a lake of fire.

I wonder what simply leaving humanity to its own devices would look like ...

Social Conventions

Up to a certain age, society rightly holds parents responsible for the things their children do. If little Bobby throws a rock through the neighbor’s front window, for very obvious reasons that neighbor will usually not look to Bobby but to his dad or mom to pony up the cost of replacing it. The fact that these sorts of demands for recompense from the responsible adults in a family occur at all suggests that the principle of parental accountability is hardwired into us.

This is probably because we find it reasonable that a parent who brings a child into the world owes it to the child and to society, so far as possible, to teach him how to navigate his environment without causing injury to others. A world in which this was not the case would quickly become Lord of the Flies writ large. Thus, even though bad behavior might come quite naturally to our children, we try to teach them not to be bullies, thieves, cowards, disloyal, selfish or dishonest. Why? Because we know these things cause emotional and physical pain to others.

Bodies and Spirits

We teach these lessons in hope that when our children are too big for their parents to exercise control over their bodies and spirits, they will have learned to do it for themselves. Teaching them to behave so as not to harm others is an act of love both to others and to our children, who would otherwise become miserable antisocial misfits.

At some point, however, little Bobby becomes an independent, autonomous being. He has a job and is paying his own way in life. His mom and dad have discharged their responsibilities to him and to the world, and while society may certainly express its opinion about whether they have done so well or poorly, it does not hold Bobby’s parents financially responsible when adult Bobby robs a drugstore, runs a red light or sets fire to a church.

Heavenly Conventions

With respect to the matter of responsibility for the behavior of his creations, God is in a similar position to the human parent, with two major differences: (1) the size of the job (which is obviously breathtaking in scope), and (2) its duration. For God, the responsibility never ends.

Nobody can ever grow up and become “independent” of God. The very breath we draw comes from him. He holds the fabric of the universe together. Hebrews says of Jesus that he “upholds the universe by the word of his power”. Paul affirms that “in him we live and move and have our being”, and again, “in him all things hold together”, or cohere. There is no place a human being can go in all of creation to be truly autonomous. Wherever he is, God is there too, making his environment congenial to his continued existence and keeping him from instantly returning to the dust from which he came.

It is no surprise, then, that whole schools of theology (not to mention the unbelieving world) blame God for every act of evil that takes place in our universe, no matter who commits it. Whether this is a reasonable position to take is not the question; the fact is, if God wanted to, he could stop all such things from occurring in a nanosecond. Moreover, God himself has assumed the responsibility for calling all his creatures to account, and has announced this fact repeatedly throughout history.

Freedom of Choice

So why doesn’t he just stop sinners from sinning now, before they do any real damage ... an “ounce of prevention” and all that? The standard Christian rejoinder to that question is “free will”. For obvious reasons, God takes no pleasure in acts of devotion performed mechanically or against the inclinations of the actors. There is sweetness in voluntary displays of love, but none in mindless obedience from an automaton or in the groveling servitude of a fearful slave.

If indeed God finds great joy in the voluntary, loving obedience of his creatures, as the scriptures appear to teach consistently, it makes perfect sense that he has created our current environment to maximize the possibility that men and women would be able to choose loving obedience to God over rebellion and self-will. And yet it should be obvious that allowing his creatures to choose the good automatically allows for the possibility that they will not.

For beings with genuine choice, any situation that creates opportunity for Christ-like forgiveness also opens up the possibility for satanic vengeance. Any situation that creates opportunity for loving sacrifice also opens up the possibility of selfish hoarding. Any situation that creates opportunity to conquer temptation also allows for the possibility of surrendering to it.

The Third Option

So much, then, for our present situation, in which God allows good and evil to exist side by side in order that true, voluntary good may ultimately be revealed for all to see. But because God is ultimately responsible for every act in the universe, in order to remain just, he must at some point call all doers of evil to account. He cannot simply leave them to their own devices. That “third option”, in which God simply leaves me alone to do my own thing apart from him, cannot exist.

One reason is God’s holiness: he cannot abide sin, and though he will overlook it for a time in order to allow for voluntary good in the world, it is impossible for him to overlook it forever. His ability to overlook sin is directly predicated on the fact that “he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed”. If that day never came, we could not reasonably refer to God as “holy”. The eventual judgment of sin is essential to the maintenance of God’s character. It is a built-in feature of God’s plan for this world and its inhabitants.

The second reason is God’s justice. Every human being who pursues his own will rather than God’s leaves a trail of victims behind him: people he has lied to, cheated, used and taken advantage of. In every single case when a man has chosen to please himself rather than please God with his actions, he has caused pain rather than healing and strife instead of peace. To leave evildoers eternally free to continue to commit evil would be to allow them to inflict an eternity of harm. Who would want God to allow that? The martyrs under the altar in heaven cry out “How long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” It’s a question that demands an answer, and only God can give it.

The Lake of Fire

What is the lake of fire? It’s the most loving thing a loving God can do with rebels who reject his salvation.

I very much doubt it’s a literal lake of literal fire. There is no reason to imagine it must be. I believe the lake of fire is the torment an eternal spirit experiences in the absence of God, and therefore of every possible good in the universe. There is no remedy and no end, because the only solution — embracing the love of God — has been rejected once and for all. For God to introduce any good thing or any relief at all into the experience of the damned would be to condone their deeds and enable their ongoing rebellion.

So then, when a man declares repeatedly that he wants nothing to do with God, God eventually grants his request. I’m not sure what else we could reasonably expect him to do.

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