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 probably should have typed “are counterintuitive” rather than “seem counterintuitive”.

    Just look at Jesus. A lot of people have respect for Jesus even if they are not christian because of the way he taught, interacted and healed. But, if he was so great, why didn’t he heal and resurrect everyone? Yeah, he did some good. But, there was a ton MORE he could have done, but didn’t for some reason. If he was who he said he was, then there must have been more going on than what we think is important, and something different going on than just what we think should have been done.


  2. Thanks for your reply. I guess I have two main problems with that notion. First of all, I find it hard to explain all the religious diversity if God comes to us in his own time, in his own way. If he loves us all, why wouldn’t he come to all of us in a way that cuts through all the various religious beliefs? If coming to Christianity is the result of God’s work and not the individual’s, why is there so much variation?

    Secondly, the idea that God is found in the foolish, weak, obscure (and confusing?), that means real objective truth is much closer to inanity than anything rational. To get to what’s actually true, we must move closer to things that are utterly false. To me, that comes across as a stark warning.

    And is it possible that the passages you reference can be read another way? For instance, if I’m not mistaken, John 15 is Jesus speaking to the disciples. That’s a very specific instance that might lead to misunderstanding if we try to apply it to all people. Romans 5:8 says that Jesus died for everyone without requiring them to first come to repentance. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they can not come to repentance, especially since so many other passages encourage people to do just that. Romans 3 has always seemed a bit hyperbolic to me, especially when considering all the examples in the Bible of those who sought after God. They didn’t always live perfectly, but they did seek after him. Finally, Eph 2 says that salvation is a gift that can not be earned. But verse 10 still says that Christians are expected to do good works. To me, it gives the impression of a two-way street, and that seems to fit the reality we live in as well. As I said earlier, how else can we explain all the different, contradictory beliefs about God and Christianity?

    Thanks again for responding though. I hope you don’t mind my reply. Not trying to be argumentative, just offer my own thoughts.



  3. “Thanks again for responding though. I hope you don’t mind my reply. Not trying to be argumentative, just offer my own thoughts.”

    I don’t mind at all. And, I’m not taking it as argumentative. Though, if you want to fight about it we can 🙂


  4. “I find it hard to explain all the religious diversity if God comes to us in his own time, in his own way.”

    What if religious diversity exemplifies us trying to reach God? That is what christianity teaches – that we are all trying to reach God in some way, in wrong ways. The only way to God, according to christianity, is that he came to us. Complete opposite of what we think/want.

    “To me, that comes across as a stark warning.”

    I think it is a stark warning. Or, for many in this life who are among the broken, mistreated, maligned, and unjustly treated, it contains great hope.


  5. The Bible says (I refer to the Bible because that’s the authority that’s being questioned in this post) that we all break the law and that we need to be saved from the judge who must be just and enforce the penalty of the law.

    This is a good thing. I wouldn’t want to live in a lawless “Mad Max” type of universe where the strong can rule over the weak.

    I also appreciate that there is a day when evil will be held accountable.

    The good news is that God gave us a way to be free. He didn’t leave us helpless in our condition as a lawbreaker who deserved the penalty for breaking the law. He was merciful and paid the price for us.


  6. @slainvictor, “It definitely is a lot of mental gymnastics that seem counterintuitive.”

    Thanks for at least being honest about the situation.


  7. @slainvictor

    I agree that people are trying to reach God, and not just those in Christianity. I guess I feel like the landscape would look a bit different though if people were actually reaching him (and he were reaching back).


  8. “I wouldn’t want to live in a lawless “Mad Max” type of universe where the strong can rule over the weak.”

    We do live in this type of world. I think we need to acknowledge that we absolutely do. I hold hope that one day “all things will be made new”, but right now they tend to suck – A LOT – for a lot of people. It is that sucking that leads me to the stupid hope that what was begun in Jesus’ resurrection will be completed some day.


  9. But Diana, what evidence do you see for this view? How rational is it to hold people accountable to a law they don’t realize they’re beholden to? If the King of Candyland tried to hold you accountable for breaking one of his rules, shouldn’t he at least be able to demonstrate that his kingdom exists, that he’s an actual authority, and that you should be subject to his whims? Until he does that, no just being would think you off the mark for ignoring the laws of Candyland.

    Or consider even another religion. You’re not living according to the laws of Islam, so should you be held accountable to it? Or should Allah first make sure you can believe in him? What’s the just thing to do?


  10. @Diana, “He was merciful and paid the price for us.”

    That would be great if this were the end of it. But there’s more…..
    He might have paid the price, yet there is still a “but” …….
    We still have to jump through some hoops.

    If he created everything , then he should be the one to fix everything. After all the Bible which you reference also says, “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create EVIL: I the LORD do all these things.” Isaiah 45:7


  11. Nate,

    You say there is no jail, but because we’re law-breakers, we’re in the bondage of sin. And we’ve been told that ALL have sinned and fallen short. We’ve also been warned that there is a day of judgment coming.

    God sent Jesus as a picture of the way to stand before God with our penalty paid. Every steeple with a cross cries out “the penalty was paid!”

    He sent the payment in the flesh for all the world to see. We just have to receive it.

    There’s no mental contortions here. No hidden compulsion. Just love.


  12. We live in such a large universe. Why is it so impossible to believe that there’s something “out there” that has tried to communicate with us and give us a message of warning and a way of escape?


  13. @Diana

    Your comments are only true IF a person believes the bible. Not everyone (in fact, I would say most that post on this blog) put their faith in this collection of books by unknown writers.

    Further, you mention we live in such a large universe. I agree … which makes me all the more doubtful that there is anything “out there” that is trying to communicate with us. However, if there is, where do you think this entity might be?


  14. Diana, why can’t we make a similar argument about Thor? Or Krishna?

    To you, Christianity is very clear because it’s your religion. But Christianity claims to be the only way for all of humanity, and the vast majority of those who have ever lived were not Christians. There’s a real problem there.

    Also, Jesus did not appear to me. He did not appear to you either. He may have lived 2000 years ago, but the only records of him are written by people we don’t know. And they didn’t get all the details right, as cross-examination shows. Why in the world would a loving god expect everyone to believe anonymous, sometimes inaccurate texts written at a time when superstition was high? Do you really not see the problems with that?


  15. When you strip away the details, Christianity sounds very nice, as your comments and the illustration at the beginning of my post show. But those details can’t be ignored, and when you add them in, the sweet, sunshiney story suddenly becomes dark and ominous. God will send you to Hell if you don’t believe in him, yet he’s made it very easy to not believe…


  16. Yes slainvictor,

    The world is still under the power of sin. ;( It sucks because a lot of people are selfish and cruel. And I believe one day they will be held accountable for their greed and callousness.

    But I also believe that some people may be able to acknowledge their own hate and meanness and admit their wrong. If they believe there may be a higher power they must be accountable to out there, perhaps they will turn to the way provided to be the penalty for their actions.(Jesus)

    Just acknowledging our wrong actions shows a state of mind that is able to be made better. It reveals a humility and a willingness to be restored in a relationship.

    For some reason pride seems to break relationships.


  17. @Dianne

    Please demonstrate/explain, using your own intellectual ability and without utilizing the bible or theological terms how Jesus
    A) was able to walk on water
    B) rise to heaven
    C) Create the Universe.


  18. Personally, I’m willing to suspend belief for a little while on miracles. We should definitely realize that if they happen, they are miracles, which means it’s extremely unlikely that any ever occurred. But if God really does exist, then I’ll concede that miracles may be in his bag of tricks.

    My problem is with the underlying theology. Why would such a God who loves us, is all powerful, knows what we need to convince us of his existence, and wants a relationship with all of us, hide so completely from us? Furthermore, since this system will undoubtedly cause some well-meaning, good people to never believe in him, why would he punish them with no chance of relief simply because he was a better hider than they were a seeker?

    To me, that is hugely problematic. And that’s what I would prefer to hear Diana (or any theist) explain.


  19. Hi Diana,

    The world is still under the power of sin. ;( It sucks because a lot of people are selfish and cruel. And I believe one day they will be held accountable for their greed and callousness.

    You are right – a lot of people are selfish and cruel and it does suck. In some ways I agree with the bible – I tend to think that all of us are selfish and cruel at times, but some worse than others. We are all nice at times too, some more than others. I myself make an effort to be nice and not cruel (but I certainly fail at that sometimes).

    But according to your beliefs is it actually the greed and callousness that they will be held accountable for? Or does it have nothing to do with whether or not they did selfish and cruel things? Some Christians believe that the bible teaches that the only thing people will be held accountable for is whether or not they accepted the gift of salvation that was given freely to them. In fact it has been expressed clearly by some that heaven will have people in it who were incredibly cruel and selfish but ended up finally deciding to accept this gift, and that hell will have people in it who were very rarely cruel but just had a hard time believing that there was truth to a lot of the stories written 2000 years ago. Is this what you believe?


  20. exrelayman,

    You said,

    “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!”

    I disagree with you.

    Hell is separation from God . . . who is the source of all light and provision and love. He can’t let a law-breaker into his kingdom because it will no longer be a place of love and kindness.

    Separation from God is the eternal penalty that a person who chooses to stay in the bondage of sin must pay.

    Why wouldn’t a person just receive what Jesus did for them?


  21. What I believe is that ALL of us have sinned. All of us have hurt another person in one way or another.

    I also think there are those who make a life out of finding fault with God and his Word, while some people see Jesus on the Cross for the first time and begin to weep. I don’t know what the difference is.

    Why do some see a tyrant hanging there and some see a savior?


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