Agnosticism, Atheism, Christianity, Free Will, God, Religion

Love and Compulsion

I’m currently reading a book where the author said that God remains hidden from us today so that we may freely choose to love him or not. You can’t generate love through compulsion, he argued. And he’s right about that. As an illustration, he gave Kierkegaard’s story about a king in disguise:

Once upon a time, there was a king who longed to marry. One day, as he was riding through his kingdom, he happened to see a very beautiful young lady in a poorer section of the kingdom. He was struck by her beauty, so he found reasons to travel through there more often, even getting the chance to speak to her on occasion. As time went by, he realized he wanted to pursue a relationship with the woman, but how should he go about it?

As king, he could have her brought to the palace so that he could court her, or even propose marriage immediately. It would be very hard for her to refuse the king, but he wanted to marry for love. So he also considered dressing as a peasant in order to get to know her, and only revealing his true identity if she genuinely fell in love with him. But the dishonesty inherent in that approach was unappealing.

He finally thought of a real solution. He would give up his station as king and move into her neighborhood as a regular citizen, perhaps taking up a profession like carpentry [wink, wink]. Then, if she came to love him, they could marry, and he would know that her love was truly for him and not his position.

It’s a nice story, and its application is clear. God loves us and wants us to love him. Because of his position, he could command our love, but then it would not be genuine. His solution was to come in the flesh as Jesus, giving up his position in Heaven so that we could come to know him and love him legitimately.

But when you think about it, this isn’t an accurate illustration at all. In the story, the young woman only stands to gain. If she never meets the king, or if she never falls in love with him, then her life is no worse than it was before. But this is not what Christianity teaches. It claims that all humans are sinful, and we need saving. A better illustration would be a story where people on a cruise have fallen overboard. Someone still on the ship offers to throw the people a life preserver. Will those people first try to get to know him before they accept his offer? Of course not! They’ll happily take any help they can get. All that they really needed was to understand how serious their situation was.

To show the effectiveness of this, consider so many of the conversion accounts in the Book of Acts, especially chapter 2. Peter preaches to the crowd on the Day of Pentecost, and (supposedly) about 3000 of them were converted to Christ that day because of Peter’s message. Did they really know who Jesus was? Did they really have a deep relationship with him at that point? No. The implication is that they simply became convinced that they needed what only he could offer. They were drowning, and they needed rescue. According to that passage, that’s all that was required.

But since God is so well hidden that we can question his very existence, many of us don’t even know we need saving. Oh sure, there are people from a thousand different faiths telling us we need salvation, but the evidence they give to support this claim is woefully inadequate. Why doesn’t God give us a bigger sign, if we’re really in trouble? Why doesn’t he just tell us directly? Why aren’t all these people who are so ready to believe in God united by a single religion? It’s hard to believe there’s a fire when there’s no trace of smoke.

The most glaring problem with this story is Hell. Not all Christians believe in a literal, torturous Hell, but many do, including the author of this book I’ve been reading. How is Hell not compulsion? To fit it into the illustration, we’d need to change a few details. Instead of the king passively waiting to see if the maiden will accept him, he promises his love, but also promises to roast her alive if she refuses his advances. It’s not quite so nice a story when we add in that detail.

When you get right down to it, Christianity is all about compulsion. God loves you, and he doesn’t want to force you to love him or serve him. Of course if you don’t, you’ll be tortured forever.

This only shows that the problem of God’s hiddenness hasn’t been solved at all. The author of this book, as well as many other Christians, say that God is hidden so we can have the “freedom” to either believe in him or not. But their reasoning is faulty, since Christianity gives us no such freedom. It’s like saying you’re free to commit murder in the US, even though it could earn you the death penalty in most states. The fact that there are laws prohibiting it means you aren’t free to do it. When you consider that the Christian God has every reason to let us all know he exists and that he expects certain things from us, the fact that he doesn’t do this is really all the evidence you need to see that he’s either not real, or he’s not all-loving and all-good.

250 thoughts on “Love and Compulsion”

  1. I think Ark summed it up best on a different post when he said that being an Atheist was the best way to allow the “Correct God” to find you. 🙂

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  2. and jesus met the individuals of a specific region 2000 some odd years ago… he didnt meet or show himself to everyone. I mean, he didnt even write his own book – he supposedly had random guys write it for him… and we know all of this because those same random guys told us that’s how it went down? As a result, and you’ve pointed out, many of us question his existence.

    and going along with the analogy, and to offer another way of looking at it, jesus (the husband) would torture his beloved wife (the church) if she didnt love him enough, or cheated on him, or left him, or whatever.

    yet the bible portrays Joseph as being kindhearted for wanting to put Mary away discretely when she was impregnated by someone(thing) other than himself. Which is the good, loving husband, the one who takes no vengeance or the one who has promised to?

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  3. Thanks for the comment, kc! And yeah, I think there’s some truth to Ark’s point. I’ve often said that I have too much respect for God to believe in Christianity — I have a feeling that’s a sentiment you can really identify with.

    William — excellent points!

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  4. When you get right down to it, Christianity is all about compulsion. God loves you, and he doesn’t want to force you to love him or serve him. Of course if you don’t, you’ll be tortured forever.

    Not true! Cry foul senor Nate. That’s the Devil…not God.

    It’s former Christians like you that are leading our youth astray.

    We have to instill real fear into our kids, that way they’ll know God loves them.

    And then we can make this nation…all nations Christian as they’re supposed to be and while we’re at it we can measure our womenfolk for Ironing boards .

    😉

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  5. The analogy breaks down even without the problem of hell. Hiding your identity is one thing, but hiding your existence is quite another. If the King never reveals himself to her and she doesn’t know he exists – how can she love him?

    So glad I’m not a Christian anymore. Having to jump through all those mental hoops to try and make Christianity look rational…

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  6. So glad I’m not a Christian anymore. Having to jump through all those mental hoops to try and make Christianity look rational…

    I know exactly what you mean.

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  7. Nate,

    First of all, I enjoy your writing style. 🙂

    I think a more fitting analogy would be this.

    A father had a son that he loved very much. The son broke the law and ended up in a horrible jail. The father came to the son, bursting with love, and paid the fine for the son so he could get out of jail.

    The son could receive the gift and walk out the door at any time. The father had a wonderful home waiting for him.

    Yet, for some reason, the son was ungrateful, and refused to receive what his father provided.

    Why?

    Who knows? Perhaps it was pride. Perhaps it was an ungrateful heart. Perhaps he thought his father was an illusion. I don’t know.Yet I have children who refuse my help because they want to do it themselves.

    Why would the son choose to stay in a jail cell, rather than in a mansion? Why would a person choose to stay in hell, rather than go to heaven.

    The gospel message is that Jesus (as God) paid the penalty for the laws we broke. We can just receive the gift and walk out of the jail cell into a mansion, but so many refuse. And if the father went in and dragged the son out–wouldn’t that be compulsion?

    The scriptures say God revealed himself through Jesus. He didn’t remain invisible. He came in the flesh–just so he could pay the penalty for the laws we broke. He’s a loving father who waits for us to come back to him.

    Where is the compulsion in this analogy?

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  8. Great post Nate! And I agree with Dave 100% – in fact had the same discussion on my blog a few days ago. Even without Hell making sense of a loving God who wants relationship with all of His creation yet remains hidden is just so hard to resolve. While we can come up with excuses to logically solve the problem it just seems way less probable than the solution that there really is nobody hiding (which is why I prefer to call the problem “undetectability” instead of “hiddenness”). While there may be some “higher” force or power that is transcendent, once you add the “personal” attribute the likelihood goes way down for me.

    Whether it be things like the aliens visiting earth, or fairies, we realize it is logically possible that they exist but they are not detectable except through the stories of those who believe so strongly. Thus it is considered reasonable by many to be skeptical of those things. I can’t see why it is unreasonable to be skeptical of a personal God who wants relationship with His creation.

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  9. Hi Diana,

    Thanks for your comment and the compliment!

    The problem I see with your illustration is that there is no prison. Christianity has to first make you believe that you need saving. But as I look around, I don’t see a difference between myself and Christians that make me think I need anything.

    Perhaps a better analogy would be this:

    A young man is sitting in his office one day, quietly working, when his father bursts in and says “Son, I’m here to save you!”

    The young man is startled and looks around the room. “Save me from what, Dad?”

    “Why this prison that you’re locked in!”

    “But Dad, I’m not in a prison. I’m working. I chose to be here… nothing’s wrong.”

    I think this fits the actual scenario much better. There are real problems in our world, I’m not denying that. But the Christian solution is to wait for the next world. Well what if there isn’t a next world? If there really is an afterlife and the only possible destinations are Heaven and Hell, well sure, people would need saving from Hell. But the problem is that most brands of Christianity say it’s too late by that point. And in this life, there’s no real reason to think Hell even exists, so what is God trying to save us from?

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  10. Howie, I agree with you completely (no surprise there). To me, the reward/punishment part of it really makes the whole thing unbelievable. I could conceive of a personal god working in mysterious ways that not everyone will figure out or believe in if that god rewarded those who found him with a higher sense of enlightenment, or something. Then, at the end of time, all people get to know him and have a happy afterlife. It still sounds like a fairy tale, but I at least understand the motivations of such a god.

    But to say that there’s an all-powerful god who loves us all completely and wants to know us personally, but he stays so undetectable that many can think he doesn’t exist, and then he punishes forever anyone who doesn’t believe in him anyway is beyond absurd to me. If such a god really existed, he would be the most capricious and malicious being imaginable. He would rank far beyond Hitler in terms of evil and sadism. Any who refused to worship such a monster would be the real heroes.

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  11. Diana, let me add one more thing.

    In both of our analogies, someone is crazy. In mine, it’s the father who imagines his son in prison. In yours, it’s the son who’s been freed from something, but doesn’t realize he was ever imprisoned. In either case, is the correct response to punish the deluded individual? Would a father with a delusional son decide to roast his son alive since he’s mentally unwell enough to not recognize his surroundings? In my example, would a normal son torture his father who is too sick to distinguish between fantasy and reality? Or would we expect most people to have compassion on such a person and try to help them?

    According to most Christians, God tortures those who don’t perceive the “truth” about him. And then, once their eyes are opened through that torture, and they plead for deliverance, he says, “Sorry, kid. You had your chance.” (Luke 16:19-31)

    Why continue to believe the Bible when it says such horrible things about God?

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  12. Nate,

    I think your blog got a face lift, right? Looks great.

    As always, great post! Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.

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  13. Dave,

    “So glad I’m not a Christian anymore. Having to jump through all those mental hoops to try and make Christianity look rational…”

    Me too.

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  14. Hi Nate,

    I think your analogy to Diana is a very good one, but if it’s ok with you I’d like to make a slight modification to it that I believe you would agree puts it closer to what we are all talking about:

    A young man is sitting in his office one day, quietly working, when his brother bursts in and says “Hey bro, I’m here to tell you that I just saw the ghost of our great grandfather and that he is here to save you!”

    The young man is startled and looks around the room. “Save me from what, bro?”

    “Why this prison that you’re locked in!”

    “But bro, I’m not in a prison. I’m working. I chose to be here… nothing’s wrong. And ghost – seriously? Did you eat some bad fish or something?”

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  15. Nate-

    Really nice blog. I’ve read through it a bit, and really enjoy your perspective. I think a lot of christians would do very nicely to read through what you have written here, and take much of it to heart in the way they think about their faith.

    Your post here makes very good points: a lot of our reasoning to God is quite faulty. I think, reading and studying scripture make it quite clear that God not only acts in ways we would not expect, but often in ways that are the exact opposite of what we’d expect, and counterintuitive to human thought and common sense. When we start from the thought that we can reason or explain our way to God, we not only make God very small and finite, but we ignore scripture’s teaching that God almost never reveals himself in the “clean, reasonable, and understandable” ways that we expect. Any Jew, probably any person, who lived in the beginning of the first century and said they expected Messiah to teach and act like Jesus would be lying. The God of christian and Jewish scripture does not adhere to our rules, our understanding, our common sense, or our reasoning. He never has and never will. That is why I really don’t think we can get there the way a lot of christians try to convince others of his existence.

    Anyway, I appreciate reading your posts. Thanks!

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  16. @ Diana

    “Yet I have children who refuse my help because they want to do it themselves.”
    Your children can see and hear and touch you, can they not? They don’t have to depend upon unknown writers telling them that you exist and what you want for them.

    “The scriptures say…”
    You see, Diana, Nate, myself and many others aren’t just people who never were Christians. We attended church. We have read the Bible through. We have taught Sundays schools. Eventually, God never showing up in any meaningful way, and the contradictions in the Bible (against the real perceptible world and against itself) caused us to trust the reality we observe rather than a story we are told. But we know what your scriptures say – BTW – other scriptures say other things, and who believes what appears to hinge more on where they live than any inherent superiority of one scripture over another. The scriptures are tales told by unknown authors trying to sell us something and are not confirmed by any independent observers living at the same time as Jesus supposedly did.

    “Where is the compulsion in this analogy?”

    If we don’t walk out of the jail of your story, we don’t just remain where we were. We are threatened with eternal damnation. Danged if I don’t sense some compulsion there!

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  17. @slainvictor

    Thanks for the comment! I’m glad you’ve gotten some value from my posts, and I appreciate you sharing your perspective as well. If you don’t mind my asking, how do you believe people are supposed to come to Christ in the first place? If reason doesn’t help us get there, how can we distinguish between Christianity and all other religions?

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  18. @slainvictor, “The God of christian and Jewish scripture does not adhere to our rules, our understanding, our common sense, or our reasoning. He never has and never will.”

    And yet the bible also says we are created in his image. Wouldn’t our understanding and reasoning be like his or according to scripture it should be if we are created in his image. How can he ever expect to reach us if “He” is the way you describe him above? The bible says he spoke to individuals in the OT and NT. From a cloud he even spoke to the entire tribe of Israel . And yet when their leader Moses took 30 days to come back down from the mountain they had already forgotten this experience of “Hearing God” and were already dancing and worshiping a gold calf.

    As one who tried to be a Christian for 50 years, I just couldn’t play the mental gymnastics anymore.

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  19. “If you don’t mind my asking, how do you believe people are supposed to come to Christ in the first place? If reason doesn’t help us get there, how can we distinguish between Christianity and all other religions?”

    I’m not sure that I can give responses to these that are going to be of any use to you, Nate. I tend to lean toward the teaching that we do not “come to Christ”, but that God, in his way and in his time, reveals himself to us. As Paul writes, this way of thinking seems foolish. But, it draws me and many I know in ways I cannot explain. The best I can do, outside of scripture, is to tell you to look for God more in the foolish, weak, and obscure rather than in the strong, reasonable, and clearly visible.

    “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit–fruit that will last–and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.” John 15:16

    “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8

    “…there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God.” Romans 3:11

    “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Ephesians 2:8-10

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