A reader emailed the following question to me. With permission, I’m reproducing and responding to the question here:
One recurring thought I keep having that I’d be interested in reading your thoughts on relates to the nature of salvation vs punishment and the way in which Scripture seems to call us to respond to God. Now, as I read it:
1. We are sinful/flawed human beings that require God’s mercy and love to save us.
2. We are told that if we don’t accept that love & mercy, then horrible eternal fate awaits us as due penalty for our sins/rejection of God’s love
3. We are then also commanded to love God.
Now, this may not be an ideal analogy – but please bear with me. Suppose I have for instance, a daughter. She’s working somewhere, and a man she’s never met before and has no reason to know or trust approaches her and tells her that he loves her, and will provide her a wonderful future – if she loves him in return. This would be odd enough on the surface. But then – suppose this man followed up with the provision that were she not to love him and respond to his love favorably, he would return for her and torture her for the remainder of her existence (I suppose a factor here is that in the Christian sense, the torture would perhaps be eternal, depending on one’s view of ECT/etc.)
Our gut level, natural reaction would be to consider this person a sociopath and a danger. While I’m not leveling such an accusation about God, by any means, the broader point is that our human nature naturally doesn’t have a “love” reaction to such things. It feels contrary to the concept of love and supreme grace. My objection isn’t that sin shouldn’t have consequences, or that humans don’t/shouldn’t have free will. But it seems as though the traditional Christian view is that we are supposed to have a loving and grateful response to what is a horrific construct.
Now, one could accept that this is simply the unpleasant reality and respond to it – believe it, repent, and do what one believes is congruent with living out the Christian faith, but we are also commanded to “love” God. Which means that we don’t have the option of simply viewing it as a reality, we are also supposed to have a loving response to a figure that presented us with a “turn or burn” reality. I liken it to someone living under rulers they do not trust the character of, or chose, but continue to abide by their laws and edicts. They may well comply – but their heart response is unlikely to be that of love. It would be more akin to fearful submission – something that the Scriptures also seem to speak against, including warnings in Revelation and other places that the “weak” and the “fearful” will face wrath.
This is a common objection or concern as regards Christian theism. It seems to me that the objection is two-fold. To begin with, we have the initial problem that love cannot be coerced/forced/commanded. And yet, this is precisely what God seems to demand of us. To make matters worse, God then threatens us with damnation should we fail to love him. But threats are apt to make individuals less likely to love, not more. Consequently, God’s forceful demands and threats leave the human in a seemingly impossible predicament.
You will like the dessert … or else!
You probably don’t need another analogy to sense the problem here, but here is one anyway. Imagine that you’re over at a friend’s house for dinner when he says: “I made something new for dessert.” Then his expression darkens: “And you will like it.”
You’d think that was a strange demand. After all, you may like the dessert and you may not. But it seems unreasonable to demand that you’ll like it. Taste doesn’t work like that.
To make matters worse, your host then pulls out a shotgun and points it at your head. “And if you don’t like it I’ll blow your head off!” he barks. Now you’d be even less likely to enjoy the dessert. Indeed, as long as a gun is pointed at your head you’d be unlikely to enjoy eating much of anything.
Mutatis mutandis for a divine being who demands that we love him or face an eternity on a cosmic rotisserie.
So what can be said in reply?
God as Hound of Heaven
Let’s begin with with a definition: Just what do we mean when we say “God”? I’ll tell you what I mean. I mean that being than which none greater can be conceived, the maximally good, most perfect person who is the source of love and goodness. Since I believe this is who God is, I reject any picture of God as commanding love under the punitive threat of damnation.
But that is not the only point at which the objector’s picture is askew. The objector also seems to view the love of God as, to some degree, arbitrary, like that strange suitor who appears out of nowhere to demand the love and fidelity of a young woman. But God is not merely a strange suitor who appears out of the mist and demands our allegiance. Rather, as I said, he is the ultimate source of love and goodness and as Augustine said, our hearts are restless until they rest in him. He pursues us so we may find fulfillment in him, the source of all life.
As for hell, I view it not as an arbitrary punitive measure imposed on those who refuse to submit to this arbitrary interloper. Rather, hell is the predictable consequence of self-imposed wretchedness endured by those who reject the life that is offered to them.
Think, for example, of the addict who willfully rejects the entreaties of loved ones to return home to shelter, warmth, fellowship and food, preferring instead the misery of life on the cold, dark street. The life endured is a living hell, but it is one self-imposed and most emphatically is not the arbitrary punitive imposition of the bereaved family members. That is how I view hell.
The picture of God that I’ve described here answers the objection presented. And it is not idiosyncratic. Rather, it represents a mainstream view — and I believe the correct view — of God in the Christian tradition, one that is famously summarized in Francis Thompson’s iconic poem, “The Hound of Heaven.”