Is Christianity Unduly Harsh?

eeTo the secular mind, Christianity can appear to be a giant schoolyard bully, threatening eternal harm for anyone who breaks his rule. A comment to a recent post reflected this position, and helps to bring into focus the difficulty that believers can encounter in trying make their case:

“How do threats of eternal torment help support your case? OK, I know you hold out the alternative ‘Heaven thing’ and I appreciate that. Sounds wonderful!

But American Evangelicalism is so unforgiving that a full 95% of all humanity will, or has been, relegated to Hell for all eternity. And this judgement is based on a worldview, not even on the merits of your behavior. No time off for good behavior? That’s unbelievably harsh!

So I can be a Hindu with a lifetime devotion to the sick, the poor and the downtrodden, and your message is, “Sorry friend, you’re headed for an eternity of pure HELL! You should’ve gotten your worldview story straight Oh well- you’re screwed forever – tough luck!

Your message may be ultimately true, or false. But is there any question that it’s brutal beyond any level attained by the worse human examples?”

Let’s set aside for a moment the dripping sarcasm, which doesn’t really assist the argument. What’s being advanced in this common challenge rests on some unspoken, and unexamined, assumptions. The first is that the threat of “eternal torment” is part of a strategy aimed at convincing people to join “our” group. Since this message is such a turn-off, especially since its directed at “worldview” – as the writer puts it -rather than behavior issues, wouldn’t we be better off just dispensing with the “fire and brimstone” message?

This challenge has met with considerable success in recent decades. One need look no further than Rob Bell’s recent book which concludes that, in the end, “love wins out” and no one remains in hell. The message that actual and unpleasant consequences may attach to our beliefs, and our actions, is wildly unpopular in a pluralistic culture that values individuality as the highest virtue.

The doctrine of hell can’t be explained in a few sentences; it can’t be reduced to a simple soundbite. To make sense of it, one must examine his own hidden presuppositions about the true nature and purpose of this life and about what the “well-lived life” really looks like. It takes reflection, and it takes seeing – or at least trying to see – from a perspective different than the narrow one that focuses on “me;” on how I can get what I want.

So the challenger doesn’t realize that believers didn’t invent hell – the locus if you will of separation from God – as a marketing ploy. Jesus himself spoke of it – often, it seems, and with a distinct note of warning in his words. Modern Christians have no more right – or ability – to modify or change these beliefs than would a modern vegetarian who claims that offering a meat dish each day spices up a vegan menu. Either one holds to the core beliefs of Christianity or one should question why he uses the label at all.

Which leads to the next aspect of the challenge. Isn’t this unbelievably harsh? That, I submit, would depend on the degree to which we can claim ignorance. The example of the Hindu doing good works is meant to drive home the point. Shouldn’t he be rewarded by a loving God?

Not necessarily. A perfect God may actually expect us to do good, so that doing what is expected gets us no reward. Perhaps instead the question is what we do wrong. Has this hypothetical Hindu done anything wrong in his life? How much wrong should a perfectly God good ignore? These questions help point out the rather obvious point that God may not be grading us on a curve. He may instead have put the knowledge of his law on our hearts, and provided us a means to respond, and then actually be committed to holding us to this standard.

Which leads to a final observation: what part of the natural order makes one think God could not possibly be “harsh?” After all, we live on a sliver of habitable space in a universe beyond comprehension, and most of this planet is deadly for us. “Innocent” people suffer all the time when they, even inadvertently, violate a law of nature. Three people walking on the edge of a steep cliff are all subject to the same result if they slip off the edge – the harshness of gravity going one-on-one with the weakness of the flesh. It doesn’t seem to matter to nature if one was a Hindu doing good works, another a child molester and the third blind and unable to see the edge.

Yes, there is an aspect to Christianity that can appear harsh. Anytime a consequence is imposed, the recipient no doubt feels the same way. But if the warning is sufficiently clear, and the consequence fair and appropriate, then the problem is with the one who continued in rebellion, not with the law-giver. But more to the point: wishing that things were different isn’t much of a basis to stake one’s eternal future on.

Posted by Al Serrato

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  1. Machina Centurio says:

    Can you delve deeper into the “good Hindu” argument? I was confused at your response. Is he supposed to be following the Will of God without actually knowing Him or is the ignorant one supposed to somehow find God? Thank you.

    • Al says:

      The assumption many people make today is that God will see our “goodness” and reward it. My point in response was that it is the things we do wrong – our sins – that we need to worry about. What will a perfectly just God do in response to our willful disobedience? Since we all are in the same boat, we all deserved separation from God, a state of being we refer to as hell. I don’t have a “solution” to the problem beyond that which God provides – his Son as a mediator to atone for our transgressions.

  2. Jordan says:

    I. Does God have the right to make the rules?
    Yes, He’s the creator! (Romans 9:20)

    II. Does God really HAVE to punish sin?
    A. A good judge has to be impartial/fair. (II Chronicles
    19:4-7) (7)
    B. He has to give the penalty required. (Romans 6:23a)
    C. But perfect justice meets perfect love in Christ.
    (Romans 6:23b, Isaiah 53:5-6, John 3:16-17, Romans 5:6-8)

    III. Did God make Salvation too exclusive? (John 14:6, Acts 4:12)
    A. No, It’s a gift! (Romans 6:23)
    B. No, It’s easy! (Romans 10:13)
    C. No, He paid a high price, and has the right to require
    what He will. (Isaiah 53:5-6)

    IV. Doesn’t God want everyone to be saved?
    A. Yes, he does. (2 Peter 3:9)
    B. He allows us free will. (Revelation 22:17, Numbers 21:8)

    V. Is God unfair to punish…
    A. Those that reject the Word of God?
    No, they should know better! (Acts 1:3)
    B. Those that misinterpret it (Catholics, Muslims, Mo
    rmons, etc.)?
    No, the Truth is plain. (Romans 10:17, Luke 24:25-27)
    C. Those that don’t have the Word of God?
    No, they have creation and conscience. (Romans 10:13-18, Psalm 19:1-4, Romans 2:11-15, Romans

    VI. Then what is our responsibility?
    A. Those with access to the Bible
    Read it, accept Christ, and know you’re on your way to heaven. (1 John 5:11-13)
    B. Those without
    1. Accept what God has revealed through nature and conscience.
    2. Seek God whole-heartedly. (Proverbs 8:17, Deuteronomy 4:28-29, Jeremiah 29:13)

    VII. Do those who choose not to seek God whole-heartedly have any hope then?
    A. Yes, because God’s plan is people. (Romans 10:14, Ezekiel 22:30)
    B. YOU ARE THEIR LAST HOPE! (Ezekiel 22:31)

    • Mark says:

      Amen to that! How like fallen human beings it is to constantly sugarcoat our sin and thereby denigrate the absolute holiness and utter righteousness of God, Who “cannot look upon sin”, and Who ” dwells in unapproachable light.” Besides, the whole question compares apples and oranges. Sure, compared to OTHERS, the good Hindu comes out well. But compared to GOD he is “dead in trespasses and sins,” for “he who keeps the whole law, yet stumbles in ONE point, is guilty of ALL.” That is why Jesus came, to do for us what we were utterly unable to do for ourselves: raise us from the dead, freely. Thank God.

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