Non-believers have a hard time understanding why God would be angry with his creation. Why would God want to punish us at all, let alone for all eternity, for simply being what he made us to be? After all, they reason, if he created us “this way” – with the urge to “sin” or to act in ways displeasing to God – he should hardly be surprised to find us acting in that very way. Doesn’t this make God seem unfair, at the very least, or outright malicious, by making us virtually unable to meet his demands?
One skeptic friend of mine put it this way:
“The more I think about it, the harder it seems to me to believe that God could be upset with us for doing what we do. When I discipline my children for misbehavior, my goal is to get them to act properly. I know they’re going to misbehave because everyone does, including me, so inflicting eternal punishment on them would be horrific beyond belief. The punishment should be just enough to get them back to where they should be, and really nothing more. If God is going to punish us for our offenses against him, when he made us this way in the first place, I have a hard time believing that such a God could ever be described as “loving.”
This is a powerful challenge, and one that on its face seems valid. We had no part in our own creation, or in our fundamental nature, so shouldn’t the “blame,” for lack of a better word, lie somewhere other than with us? Even granting that when we reach the age of reason, we are making our own choices, we are influenced by our early upbringing, as well as by the hardwiring of our minds. Some people, for instance, are angrier by nature, while others possess a mellow or laid back approach to life. If God made all of us “equal” in some sense, where is the fairness is punishing the angry rebel for acting out on what he was “pre-wired” to be?
Like many challenges to the Christian worldview, this one trades on the intuitive sense of fairness we all seem to have. There should be a point to punishment, we think, and it should be designed to accomplish a particular end. Since no one wants to view themselves as really “bad,” we have a seemingly endless capacity to forgive ourselves when we transgress, and so we assume that God will do the same.
The problem begins to emerge the more one thinks about what is really at play. It seems unfair, to say the least, to build something for a particular purpose but to use parts or designs that actually defeat that purpose. If, for instance, I want to design a car that is efficient and graceful, I should not be surprised to fail if I make the tires out of clay. The car won’t roll properly, and I would have only myself to blame. Or, if I decide to build a hydroelectric dam out of wood, instead of concrete, there would be something decidedly wrong with me if I became upset when the water caused the wood to rot over time. Such examples are endless; what they get at is the idea that we get what we design, and we shouldn’t be surprised – or more importantly, we shouldn’t be angry – when the “design flaw” we introduced creates the predictable result.
So, the question then becomes: Is this a fair challenge to what God did? The way the skeptic framed his challenge, it would seem so. God made us “to sin” and then gets mad at us when we do. But that isn’t the Christian worldview. God does not compel us to sin. He did not create within us a need – such as the need to drink water – and then punish us for satisfying that need. No, “sinning” is not a particular thing that we are somehow programmed to do. “Sin” is, rather, the word we use to describe what we accomplish when we use our free will to violate God’s will. When we take our rebellion and act on it, either mentally or physically, we “sin” by contravening God’s perfect will. He doesn’t “want” us to do that. He’s expressed that quite clearly. But more importantly for our purposes here, he does not “want” to stop us either.
Consider: any loving relationship that you will ever have necessarily involves the use of free will. Whether it’s a deep long term friendship, or a passionate romantic pairing, what makes the relationship valuable is that it is by its nature free. If we “force” someone to love us, whether through threats of harm or promises of reward, we know – despite any outward appearances or behavior – that the “love” is not real. If we lose the ability to fulfill the threat or to provide the reward, we will also lose the person. That’s why money, for instance, can’t buy happiness, but why people in long-term marriages are, by and large, healthier and happier than their divorced counterparts. There’s something intrinsically rewarding about being in a long and loving relationship.
God wants this for us, his creation, but he faces the same conundrum that we do. If he forces it, we are nothing more than robots – flesh and blood, perhaps, but not really in relationship with him, machines with beating hearts. And so he must follow through on his “design” – he must give us the ability to choose not to follow him, to rebel against him. But this freedom of the will is not a design flaw. He did not purposely build us in a way that we can only displease him. Possessing free will is, by contrast, the only way we could be built so as to create the possibility for a mutually love-based relationship.He did not design us to be sinners; he gave us the capacity to sin, because the greater good of true relationship with him was possible only to beings who possessed the ability to reject him.
The skeptic is getting it wrong because he is not yet thinking deeply enough about what he is saying. Unlike the parent raising the child, God is not punishing us to accomplish some end. At that point – the point of eternal judgment – it is simply too late. He is, instead, giving to each the thing he or she has essentially requested. For those who die in rebellion, he grants them separation. The fiction that they can be God, that relationship with God is unnecessary, becomes their permanent reality, carrying with it the loss that separation from the true source of life and joy entails. For those who turn their wills over to him, who become “slaves” to him so as to obtain a place at the master’s table, he grants them eternity in his presence, with all the joy that flows from fellowship with him. He does the work to make us perfect, or at least perfectly acceptable to him, but we must first assent. And to assent, we must possess the freedom of will that allowed us to sin in the first place.
This may seem harsh, and to those who die shaking their fist at God, there will be an element of harshness. Our prisons are filled with people who insisted that their own will be done. When they reap what they’ve sown – separation from those upon whom they preyed – they too may feel the harsh hand of justice. But it is a harshness that is rooted in fairness.
And, like the question of free will, it can be no other way.
Posted by Al Serrato