Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The problem of a loving god

So, a friend of my brother in law wrote a comment on my previous entry, "Does God's command to Love Him, by it's very existance, render it an impossibility?", and he has a question/dilemma that I'd like to look at in more depth.

I'll repost the important stuff from his comment here to make life a little easier:
...I've really been struggling with this question lately, maybe even to a further extreme than your blog deals with it. Here's my problem:

I feel like I do have a choice whether or not to love and follow God. However, it's a pretty crummy choice. What sort of love would it be if I told my wife "you can love me or not love me, it's your choice. I want you to choose to love me so I know your love is real and we can have a good life together. If you choose not to love me, that will hurt me but ultimately it is your decision. By the way, if you choose not to love me, I'm going to cast you into a lake of fire where you can burn forever." That's where I'm really hung up... I feel like that is the choice God has given us. How can there be any true love of God when the alternative to loving him is eternal damnation? What sort of loving being offers his creation a choice like that?
Anyway... that's what I've really been struggling with. I appreciate your blog and look forward to more posts, and if you have any input about my comment I would definitely welcome it.

Ethan Cornelius
[emphasis mine]

Ok, so to address this properly, I think it's best to start at the beginning with the preconceptions that make up where I feel you're coming from:

1. First off, I think I'll try tackle the eternal damnation thing, just because it's something I've been thinking about. I know this is a little left-field, but a good friend of mine that I trust as a strong theologian once said something about hell as we understand it isn't actually a Biblical thing. Now, unfortunately, I don't have any real references - although it is something I'm planning to follow up with him on - and I'll share what I learn and the resources I get when I get them - but I thought I'd get that in here - maybe Hell and eternal damnation isn't really what we think it is.

Following on from that thought, a very close friend of mine just posted an interesting post here [check out my comment as well, as I don't feel like repeating it here] talking about a very interesting thought where Jesus says something like "the gates of hell shall not prevail against the church, or the children of God" - his comment (referencing Shane Claiborne) was that gates don't do much attacking.. so possibly - it's the Church [God's people] that will be attacking the Gates of Hell and -possibly- rescuing those deceived by the deceiver.

Take a look at the post, he does a better, more in depth, job of explaining it - and I've commented on this a bit better there too, but I think it's a very interesting and alternate view on the whole God sending people to hell thing.

Something else that I've been thinking on is this: Why do we always presume that it's God (and by that I mean God-the-Father) that will do all the judging? We seem to see God as this harsh and horrible being, and Jesus, as our advocate trying to stave off His wrath over us, and we are all hoping that when it comes to judgement day, that Jesus will hopefully be able to stave off God's wrath on those that have said the little prayer...

Where do we get this from!? The Bible specifically says on a few occasions that Jesus is the one that will be judging, not God the Father - so if we should be fearing anyone - then I suppose, it should be Jesus. But He died for us - and actually, I believe that by Him being fully God, God died for us - including the Father and the Spirit. In some plane of reality, the Godhead laid themselves down to save their creation. As an aside from this aside, 1 John 4:18 plainly states that if we fear, it is for fear of punishment - and this fear shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. Earlier in the verse, John says - perfect love drives out all fear - so as our understanding of God's perfect love for us grows, so our fear should dissipate.

So, I hope I've placed some doubt as to whether there is such a thing as hell in the sense of a place of eternal damnation where people will be 'dying forever' in hellish pain and suffering.

I know I haven't done a good job of explaining it away, but if you are happy to take my word on it for now (I will supply the alternate arguments or references when I get them), there's a chance that Hell isn't actually an eternal place, as we often think it to be.

2. I think some of the problem with your question, is a warped perspective of God. I like what Marc said in his comment, although, I look at the whole "wages of sin" thing a little differently. I'm not so sure that it is "God being just" that brings about the "wages of sin being death". I think the "wages of sin" term is better understood in the same sense as the wages of cancer is death. What I'm meaning is that I think what it is saying is that the logical [and only] outcome of being entrapped in Sin is Death. And we chose that, by rejecting God's request/command in the garden. It wasn't something God placed us in, it's something that we ourselves moved into. Albeit, God could possibly have never placed the tree there in the first place, but then where would our free choice be - and how could we ever really choose Him. I think in His wisdom, He allowed us to make that choice so that we could make the choice to choose Him again - as I fully believe God is all about relationship.

I think that a better picture is this: We were stuck, naked and starving, feeding the pigs of a foreign slavemaster, and God paid the price for us, and offered us a place in His house as sons and daughters, embracing us in our stench and squallor, and in that place, He is offering us a Life of relationship and habitation in Him, and I believe that the gospels are full of these pictures of God as a lavishly loving Father - in the true sense of the word. What I mean by this is that He isn't loving in some arbitrary alternate manner that we don't really understand. He is loving in a 1 Cor 13 kind of way. He is loving in the sense that we know in our hearts a loving person should be. But He is also infinitely wise, and does what is the best for us, and so I think sometimes it is possible, in our finite, foolish wisdom, to misconstrue what God is doing as something that might seem unfair or unloving. Like a father that forbids his child from consuming a 2kg tub of ice cream, for instance - or stops a toddler from touching a hot stove - the child doesn't get why he can't get his own way, and may in some ways feel that his father is being unfair, yet even our wisdom knows that the father is in the right and that what he is doing is out of love for his child.

I was listening to Wayne Jacobsen's Tranformation series [link and more resources I've found helpful here], and he does such a great job of describing the cross as a cure and not punishment. That Jesus laid down His life for us as a reflection of His words: "the greatest thing a friend can do for another is lay down his life" [paraphrased] - so it was clearly as an extension of relationship. It was as if God saw a cancer in mankind that was destroying us, and yet none of us could withstand the Chemo (God's wrath) that would kill it . The only person that could withstand it long enough to destroy the cancer, was God incarnate, and so Jesus came to earth and took that Sin upon Him, effectively defeating the cancer that plagued mankind, and thus giving us Life again, and reuniting us with the Father.

This is just a side thought and something that just came to me, but if the wages of Sin is Death, and that Death is not just the 'falling asleep' kind of death (as Jesus put it) then, could it be that it is a Death that is the antithesis of Life?

So if Life in the bearer of it is eternal, then could Death in the bearer mean temporary life? Could it be that God created mankind as eternal beings when He breathed Life into us, but Sin brought Death upon us, which removed the eternal Life and replaced it with temporary life. Seeing as God is an eternal being, it would be impossible for us in Death to ever have eternal Life with Him. And so the act of reuniting man to God wasn't so much appeasing God's disdain and blood-lust, but rather, by gaining victory over death, Jesus enabled mankind to be eternal beings once more - and thereby we are able to live in the relationship that He offers us?

I don't know if I've really managed to answer your question, or given you an alternate perspective, but I think when our view of god is as you have in your question, we will always end up with a god that is neither very nice nor particularly loving. We end up with somewhat of an abusive god, dolling out nice things when we think we're doing well, but always dangling the "I'll douse you in fuel and set you on fire if you step out of line" threat above our heads.

And that is why I think we need to take an alternate view of God. To step to one side as it were and start re-aligning our view of God with what He says of himself, both Biblically and through the Spirit in our hearts.

Ethan - I hope this helps - I'm keen to hear your thoughts on this as we walk towards a better understanding of Dad..


Thys said...

Cam. loving this blog. I want to try get into the habit of sitting somewhere with my laptop and just focusing on it. The issues in here are a little too intense to handle during a work day!

I wanted to respond to your response to Ethan's response . . .
You said, "I think the "wages of sin" term is better understood in the same sense as the wages of cancer is death. What I'm meaning is that I think what it is saying is that the logical [and only] outcome of being entrapped in Sin is Death. And we chose that, by rejecting God's request/command in the garden. It wasn't something God placed us in, it's something that we ourselves moved into."

But in this you are also making certain assumptions without questioning WHY God has set it up this way. If you step back further, you have to wonder why God - who CREATED THE SYSTEM - has decided to create this "logical outcome" of sin. If you were able to create your own system, would you have setup eternal damnation as the outcome for your finite pions with brains the size of a mustard seed? I'm being a little patronizing, I know, but I hope you can see the point I'm trying to make :)
I really liked your friend's thoughts on hell not being what we think it is - I'd like to hear more about that.
Allright, back to work!

Laurel Kriegler said...

Now this is a topic that I love. Let me see if I can try to keep this comment short.

Firstly, God created us for the purpose of having a relationship with Him. However, love can not be bought, or commanded (to echo another blog entry), and therefore God HAD to give us freedom of choice; - do we obey, or do we disobey Him? Now note that the word Sin = disobedience [to God].

Secondly, God is HOLY. Therefore He cannot tolerate sin [disobedience] anywhere near Him. This is why He cast Satan and a third of heaven (eternal beings like God) out of heaven to roam on the earth.

Thirdly, Hell was NEVER created for us human beings. If you read the Bible carefully, you will see that it is the place for Satan and the demons, NOT us human beings.

The tragedy is that we believe that it was created for those of us who disobey God, rather than understanding that it was created for Satan, and that he doesn't want to go there alone - he is fighting to drag as many of us down with him as he can.

I've found that getting a grasp on this reality helps to put the whole heaven/hell thing into perspective - and this is why Jesus spends most of the gospel time (check this out, if you like) warning us that Hell is NOT a nice place ... because it wasn't made for us, and He'll do anything to save us (ie, die on the cross ....).

So it's not with any kind of joy or glee that God boots us off to Hell to join Satan because we disobeyed Him - it's with a breaking heart, because we are blinded [by Satan] from seeing that it's not where we're meant to go.

Well, that's my two cents ... :)

Cam said...

Thys! Hi and welcome! :)

Something interesting to think on, which came from chatting about this with Bells, is: What about Satan. He was in Heaven with God for an undetermined amount of time, and yet he sinned. Where did that come from!?

For me, Hell is just the opposite of God. So, if we decide not to choose His Life the alternate can only be the opposite of life in God, which is life outside of God. Which, in my understanding, is death.

I don't know that God so much 'created the system' as the 'system' is a natural extension of who God IS - as I mentioned above - if the life God is offering us is life IN Him, then not choosing it has to produce something outside of God.

I've been thinking on this lately - and as I mentioned, I'm really keen on studying it more, but I've been thinking along the lines of:

If God is Life. And all the Life that we have is in and because of Jesus, and if Jesus himself referred to what we call death as 'falling asleep' and seemed to define 'death' as something else, then could we assume that 'death' is the opposite of 'life'. And that being separated (as that is a definition of death) from the Life giver, can only mean 'no life'.

So, as an extension, I'm starting to think that unbelievers aren't so much going to 'go to Hell for eternity' - because that would assume that they were still receiving some life from Jesus - just enough to enable them to experience Hell. Rather, those who don't accept the gift of Life through Jesus conquering Sin, will experience the natural effect of Sin - Death. Eternal Death. Ie the lack of Life - for eternity. Which for me, means the unsaved simply won't exist anymore. So for those who don't accept Life, they will experience Death. For those that do, they will experience the Life that God had always had for us.

I hope that makes some semblance of sense. At the moment it is just a theory (which is loosely backed up by some scripture - was reading Thessalonians, some of which points to this in some way) - and as such - I could be wrong. But it does seem to fit with my current understanding of God better than the traditional 'Hell theory'.

However, if I am wrong, I think, for me, it might just mean that there are things about the decisions that God makes that I won't understand. I know that's a bit of a cop-out, but He is God after all, and although I believe that He chooses to reveal Himself in a way that is consistent with who He is, there is always the fact that we will never understand all the reasons for how He acts - the fact that He could heals some people, and yet doesn't heal others is an example. I don't understand why, but it doesn't reduce my view of who God is, rather I accept that I won't understand everything (as a child might not understand the reason that his father won't let him eat a whole tub of ice cream).

Hope that gives some input into this ongoing discussion!

Again - I'm glad you've stopped by :)

Laurel Kriegler said...

A question - if hell is simply 'non-existence', then why all of Jesus' warnings that it is an unpleasant place to be? Because surely Jesus tells us the truth, and that Hell is a place of punishment?

Cam said...



Thanks for the post! I like what you're saying, although I don't agree with everything (this might just end up being semantics though)

is Sin really 'disobedience to God'? or is it our independence from God? - this could very well be semantics, but I think it's our will for independence from God that is the Sin in us - not so much disobedience to God. (Rom 3:20 might partially explain this - even if we filled the letter of the law (presumed obedience to God) we wouldn't be 'made right' with God.

Another thing - I don't agree with this: Secondly, God is HOLY. Therefore He cannot tolerate sin [disobedience] anywhere near Him. That, I think, is a HUGE misconception about God that is prevalent in Christianity today. I don't mean this as a dig at you, but if you take a little while to think it through, I'm sure you'll come to a similar conclusion. I do not believe that God's Holiness is that fragile!. Jesus lived on earth for 33-odd years, socialising with the sinners of the day. When Adam and Eve sinned, it was God that sought them out - they were the ones hiding from Him! I believe that it isn't so much that God cannot tolerate Sin anywhere near Him, but that Sin cannot tolerate God.

I think He cast Satan/Lucifer out of Heaven, because Lucifer wanted to be God - He was prideful and had become independant in his heart. He was cast out, because he no longer revered or respected or submitted to God - not specifically because he had sin on him. The book of Job references the devil in heaven talking to God about Job. This might just be alagory, but if we were to take it at face value, it would put God and what could be coined as the most Evil, unholy being in all humanity, in the same place. In Heaven, of all places. Sin does not displace God. God displaces sin.

Sorry to pick this apart this much, but another thing I'm not sure I agree with is that the angels - those thrown out - are 'eternal beings like God'. I do not find any biblical basis for this. Angels are created beings. God is the ONLY eternal being. Everything else exists BECAUSE OF God.

I like your thoughts on Hell not being created for humans - it is an interesting thought - however, that doesn't mean that Humans' won't go there, presuming the traditional understanding of Hell prevails. To be honest, I'm not sure Hell was created for Satan or Humans. If it was created 'for Satan' could it be that it was created so that Satan had a place to abide, and the only reason it is such a horrid place is because that's where Satan and all the fallen angels abide in all their evil and unholiness?

I'm starting to think that Hell as an eternal concept is a faulty one.

If nothing has life apart from God, then it would mean that God would actively need to give life to Hell for eternity to keep it going.

I'm not sure that I can speak authoritatively on this, but I'm starting to think that post 'judgement day', everyone who has not the Life made possible by Jesus will simply cease to exist - but at the moment, this is just conjecture.

I'd also rather say, that in his disillusionment and independence and chosen separation from God, He is trying to get as many people to be separated from God as well. So he isn't so much trying to take people 'down with Him' but is rather trying to steal people from a relationship with God, as God had intended us to have - which is what he did with Adam and Eve, and what he continues to do today.

I agree that God isn't happy about our sin and that it grieves Him. However, it is rather that He longs for all to have life and life in abundance, and not to choose Sin that leads to Death - and not the 'falling asleep' death that Jesus talks of, but final death. (read my previous comment on this post - it better deals with my thoughts on Hell).

I don't really believe that God 'boots us' anywhere. I think that whatever happens to those that haven't chosen the Life that He gives, will be as a natural result of our Sin (ie Death) and not because God is booting anyone.

I'm sorry if I picked your post apart a bit. My intention wasn't to be negative or destructive or anything. I feel that much of those preconceptions are unhelpful in understanding God for who He says He is, and although a lot of what you said seems to be a traditionally accepted norm, I don't know that it truly has a biblical base.

Please respond where you don't agree, or do agree or whatever. This is my understanding of things, and I can very possibly be wrong. :)

Cam said...


I'm not sure that Jesus is talking about the eternal place, as we think of it, or of the place that people go to between now and judgement day.

I say this, because Jesus refers to Haedes (Hell) and Paradise in the story of Lazarus, and then refers to Paradise when He talks to the murderer on the cross.

To be honest this is something I'm still thinking on and about, and researching, so I might be wrong about this whole thing, but it does seem to make sense to me.

I will continue to look at this, and it will most probably be a continued discussion here, as I'm quite interested in thinking on it more - as it seems are others as well.

I'll need to have a look through the gospels again to see the context in which Jesus says this, though.. but it isn't a concept I've come up with entirely on my own - A good friend of mine (Sean from Laconic Sage) mentioned to me that he's not sure he believes that hell is as we understand it, and according to him there are others that think the same way - so I've taken that as a starting point, and then as I read the Bible, and think on these things, and find out more about this God, I've come to start thinking the way I've been writing here.

Laurel Kriegler said...

I have responded to Cam's discussions on my blog because the answer is VERY long (and that's a warning). Feel free to read and comment.