Sunday, July 10, 2005

God wants a relationship with you... and you better not say "No"

One of the main ways I have heard Christianity advertised is as follows: "God is not interested in your good works etc., rather what he wants in a relationship with you. He sent his son to die on the cross so that you could be reconciled to him. Accept this gift, have faith in him, make him your lord, and you will have a relationship with him that surpasses relationships between spouses." The second part is sometimes omitted, but generally implied: "But if you don't accept his offer, then you will be condemned as a sinner and sent to spend eternity in hell." Actually this second part, even more than the first, is what spurs evangelism to save the lost by telling people about this relationship offer.

The question I have is this: Is this relationship offer really a good and honorable thing as is generally presupposed by Christians? At first it sounds like nothing could be better. An offer of a perfect relationship, free of the defects that haunt human-human relationships, including the fact that it lasts not only through this life but through eternity. One would be a fool to turn down such an offer. But let me bring out the aspect that disturbs me through a parallel analogy:

There is a handsome, eligible bachelor, son of the governor and the wealthiest man in the land. Now he happens to meet a peasant girl, and falls in love with her. He makes her this proposal: "Come marry me and I will pay all your debts, take you away from menial labor, dress you in the finest clothes and give you all the luxuries you could want on top of my love. But if you refuse, then I will see to it that you are fired from your job, barred from future employment in the land, your home will be repossessed and you will live in abject poverty for the rest of your life." Surely, no matter how wonderful the benefits he offers her if she accepts, one would not call this a good or honorable proposal. Rather, wouldn't one condemn it as just the opposite: a malicious act that takes advantage of his wealth and her low position to virtually force her into a relationship irrespective of her wishes? The honorable thing, and the only action if he truly loved her, would be to treat her well even if she refused his offer of marriage. So isn't God guilty of this same crime if he sends people to hell who refuse his offer of a relationship?

One response to this is to say that the analogy is mistaken in that the peasant girl was already in a terrible mess, and the rich man was offering to save her from it, not to actively punish her himself if she refused his proposal. Well, I'm not sure if this objection is valid or not, and I will consider this question in a later blog, but for now let's accept this revision. Let's say that the woman has been convicted of a terrible crime and is scheduled to be hanged, drawn and quartered the next morning. Now the rich man comes to her in jail and says: "I love you deeply and want to marry you. If you accept this marriage proposal then I will use my influence to have you acquitted and freed. But if you don't accept, then I will leave you to your fate. (Also in the future if after accepting my proposal you reject me, then I will make sure your charges get reinstated)." Well again, doesn't this conditional offer demonstrate that the man's love is not deep and pure? If he truly loved her he would have her freed whether or not she accepted his marriage offer.

So I conclude that this relationship offer from God is not really an outflowing of sincere love, but due to it's conditional nature is rather primarily self-seeking and unconcerned about the human fate. I am surprised it is used so frequently by Christians despite this huge flaw -- I suppose either the conditional nature is glossed over, or else the conditional aspect is justified by various means. But it seems pretty rotten to me.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Thoughts on Heaven

For at least the last two millenia, many have longed for a better life than was their lot here, and have taken consolation in the anticipation of achieving this in heaven. But what do we mean by "heaven" and is it really a meaningful hope? Here are some of the Christian components of heaven:
  • Free from pain and sorrow
  • No death or (permanent) harm to individuals
  • Free from evil and evil actions
  • Full of God's love and care for us
  • Full of happiness and joy
  • It is a nice place to live
  • Lots of pleasures and riches ("streets of gold")
  • Continual worship of / interaction with God
The question I have is: Is this a satisfying place? Is it really somewhere one would want to go? At first blush one would say "Of course". But what about the issue of freedom? Is there freedom in heaven? That is, is there freedom to do what we want to do, to think what we want to think, to pursue what we want to pursue? If there is not freedom all of these "pleasures" are pretty meaningless. It's like being locked in a jail with all the luxuries one could want, except the freedom to direct one's own life.

By freedom I mean one's life is not determined or prescribed by someone else. I think of it this way: imagine oneself as a point in a high dimensional space, where each dimension is a possible action or thought one could have. Certain dimensions are constrained, and we cannot move along those: for example one can't punch a fist through a concrete wall, nor can one factor a 50 digit number in one's head. Being free means having a rich set of unconstrained dimensions along which one can choose to move or not to move. In this sense being alive, being human, and being free all have the same meaning. That is why prison is a punishment -- it takes away a large portion of one's life.

Now back to heaven. The idea of no death, pain, sorrow, or permanent harm actually takes away a lot of freedom. One cannot take risks as one knows that nothing really bad can happen to oneself. Heaven must be very carefully padded to prevent someone falling off a cliff and dying, (or equivalently people's bodies are indestructible). It must be like living in a grand phantasm. One is not free to fully experience it, since that freedom would involve possibility of harm and death.

No sorrow eh? So that means one cannot do anything that would emotionally hurt another person. One can't be rude, one can't be too forward, one can't be withdrawn, and so forth. There are innumerable things one is not permitted to do in case they hurt someone. Or perhaps people aren't hurt emotionally by anything. But surely feeling loved and feeling hurt are two sides of a coin -- if one can feel loved, then surely one will feel pain if this love is cast asside. So in heaven either we are devoid of emotions, or else we are constrained by lots of rules to prevent hurt emotions.

Perhaps one would reply that people in heaven will be good and will always choose the good path and think the right thoughts. But that is saying people's lives are prescribed not to proceed along certain dimensions. That is much the way in which a manufacturing robot would be programmed to operate. Surely lives like that are empty shells. The problem with heaven, like communism and other utopias, is that it fails to take into consideration freedom.