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.

25 comments:

  1. Good thoughts. . .I was struck the other day in reflecting on past times of worship how much we thanked God for the cross, thanked God for saving us. There's so much irony in this because the only reason we need to BE SAVED is because of God's wrathful/vengeful side and his proclivity to damn anyone who would not keep his commandments and worship him. In a sense, the cross is only God's way of dealing with a DEFECT IN HIS OWN CHARACTER - that is, his unwillingness to accept people who have broken his laws in some way. So, while I can understand that God might need to whip up some solution to satisfy his bloodthirsty as well as merciful sides, why do I have be grateful for that? Wouldn't it just have been easier to chill and not be so uptight about the sin thing, instead of having to kill thousands of animals and finally a spotless human to take care of it? Why should I praise God for being incapable of doing what any human parent can do - love and forgive offenses without spilling blood?

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  2. Yes, surely being able to unconditionally forgive someone is a great good and according to Christian doctrine something God is unable to do. I think the usual reason given is that he is required by concerns for justice to punish (or spill blood). But I don't think that really works -- surely if someone is wronged he doesn't have to punish the wrong-doer, and if we wrong God then he doesn't need to punish us. Furthermore that requirement on justice would invalidate the idea of someone dying for someone else as how can that be just?

    --Daniel

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  3. Would you be willing to forgive someone who is constantly stepping all over you and who does not even care to say "I am sorry" let alone stop doing it?

    What's the point in asking God to act like a fool when we don't like to be taken for fools ourselves?

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  4. Daniel, this is an old, but refreshing post. I've never heard anyone speak like this, or raise such good questions about our over-used church-y cliche`s. I like your analogy about the girl in prison, but I disagree with your conclusion. Your story made me wonder if God indeed saves us from our own mess...but maybe, just maybe he doesn't actually threaten to take it all back if we fail. In fact, I got a little excited, and a hint of that joy I felt in the beginning of my, a-hem, let me put it this way, "freedom walk", came back...but only momentarily. You see, my own faults and failures lead me to believe that I've tarnished the deal somehow and God has turned his back on me. How can I know? I suppose if I really had a "relationship" with him, he'd call, or write, or email, or show up at my door sometime to let me know where I stand. So, I wonder if it's not really about a relationship at all, what if it's about obedience to a God who has the power to squish you like a bug. Maybe he would "talk" to me more if I stopped criticising others, stopped yelling when I was mad, stopped cursing at drivers on the road, stopped backbiting everyone I'm annoyed with...all I know is that whether it's a relationship, or just an insurance policy against hell, I better keep trying--what else is there to do?

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  5. Lael,

    I'm not sure about needing to obey God. Perhaps the best approach is to work with what we have, rather than expect supernatural salvation or damnation. We must surely admit that we often make mistakes and regret our choices; after all we're finite beings that cannot rationally consider every option. And yet we are not powerless, and we can pull ourselves out or get help from others to get out. We don't need an infinite God to lay laws down for us, or threaten us with hell for criticising others or not obeying him. We can recognize what is good on our own and pursue it without that kind of motivation.

    Daniel

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  6. Thanks for your analogies. It certainly shows the Biblical God up as egotistical to the extreme - creating beings so that they can worship him, and condemning them to eternal damnation if they do not. It makes me think that the people who wrote the Bible must be the same way, or somehow hold this kind of monstrous personality as a bizarre ideal. All over, it rings of insecurity - in the writers and reflected in the God. Who would want to worship an insecure Being?

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  7. The analogy would be more like someone who is eating food laced with a poison that is slowly killing them. If I come along and say, "look, I'll give you an antidote to the poison, and take you away to my castle to live your life in pleasure with good food." Then, I am truly being kind to you. If you accept, you will live. If you refuse, then you will die of your poisoned food, and there is nothing I can do for you... except maybe kidnap you against your will.
    If God is who the Bible says he is, then he is of infinite value, and is truth. For me to value anything else more than god is to live in a lie. If God is truly just, then he MUST ultimately destroy all lie. If he truly loves and wants to restore us to himself, even though we have lived the lie, then he must find a way to do so without violating his own justice. According to the bible, he did so by sending his own son to bear our sin and take our punishment... but, then, what if we refuse to let go of the lie? The lie must be destroyed. This is why we must accept the gift and believe in christ - it is ultimately how we can part from the lie and be found in the truth, so that when god destroys all lie, we are not destroyed with it. There is no, "I'm going to save you even though you refuse my offer." Because you are still choosing the lie, and the lie must be dealt with.

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  8. Indeed we are weak fallible creatures that are going to die. I have no problem with that. Isn't God big enough to let us be what we are, and let us die in peace? Sure, he can offer the pleasures of heaven for his chosen. But why does he feel the need to hold a cudgle over our heads? Why promise eternal punishment for not believing something that appears false to me?

    I don't think using the concept of "justice" can justify it. God is not required by justice to punish us (for whatever wrong we have done to him); no, he can forgive us if he chooses. He does that for some, and he tells us to do that for those that sin against us. And it is not a matter of propitiation. Do you believe that justice implies that a debt of sin accumulates that can only be paid for by innocent blood followed by groveling in repentence? What a strange concept of justice? Are you willing to question that concept of justice?

    Daniel

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  9. I am responding to this point made in the original post:

    "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."

    The bible says that God 'causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.' Matthew 5: 45. I believe that if God wants he could zap us all the moment we reject him, and i think that would be fair. Just and not unjust. But he does the honorable thing... He gives us chances, over and over and over again.. The character I believe you are not considering is that of God being Just. Whenever a man commits a terrible crime, for example, raping a baby (or young child) we tend to want to see that person locked up, punished, we want to see justice served. We get that desire to see justice from God, and he wouldn't be just if they weren't consequences our actions..

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  10. Is your claim that it is a terrible crime to reject the advances of a suitor, in this case God? Why is that a crime? If God wants to declare that a crime what kind of suitor is he?

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  11. I agree with the analogy of us taking poison. Let's say that God gives us free will to do whatever we want. Our actions can be good or destructive depending the consequence they produce. Since God is all-powerful and all-knowing, he knows what is best for us. He's giving us a choice to either follow his advice (which is the truth because he is an infinite being and his knowledge is also infinite) or to go the wrong path that leads to destruction. Let's say we lie, cheat, and kill. These actions are destructive because they lead to so many problems and cause us to feel deep guilt for what we have done. Over a period of time, we might not feel this guilt anymore because it is repressed. Maybe this guilt is the "hell" that we are putting ourselves through.

    We can choose to follow God and listen to what he has to say, or go the wrong path and suffer by our own choosing. Of course, we would have to decide if the Bible is really the word of God.

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  12. Hmmm -- I'm not sure what believing that the Bible is the word of God has to do with living a good life. Many people do seek to be honest, caring and loving towards others without believing in God or the Bible. For me, being brutally honest in my beliefs has lead me to reject beliving that the Bible is the word of God. The idea that hell is the reward for someone who seeks to be completely honest in his beliefs is morally repugnant in my opinion.

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  13. The Bible says that Christ's sacrifice of himself was sufficient for all, once and for all. The so called 'price' has been paid. The freedom the suitor offers is everyone's to accept or reject. As far as the relationship with the suitor goes, the release is not dependant upon that, the girl is still free even if she chooses to reject a deep relationship with him. However there are further benefits to be had by entering into the relationship. The suitor has already expressed he is prepared to go all the way - he can give as much to the relationship as the girl wishes, the elusive fullness of life is hers for the taking but she must choose to play her part in allowing the relationship to grow. If the relationship developed irrespective of her choice that would be abusive.
    The problem with this otherwise good analogy is that it tempts us to think in very individualistic terms. The relationship is more father/children than husband/wife. Thinking on a scale where more than one person is involved means that justice suddenly changes from being all about me and what I want to what's best for us. God's commands aren't a tick list of reasons for condemnation, rather how we might live together. Current evidence shows that loss of respect for God's commands leads to break down within society. Please don't argue about the church, or other religious institution's failures because they get it wrong. But hey, stuff the institutions, follow the commands and see more positive relationships develop around you.

    Paul

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  14. Paul,

    Are you implying that the girl can accept Christ's sacrifice (and so gain freedom/heaven), but not be forced to accept him as Lord, and perhaps not even believe in him? If so, then that's a good deal that even atheists would not mind.

    On the other hand, having to "believe in Jesus and accept him as Lord," to gain freedom/heaven is exactly the conditional bargain that I find unjust. Will you believe in something that you judge is false and make him/it lord of your life simply to avoid God punishing you in hell?

    The reason the analogy is individualistic, is that the punishment/reward is individualistic: you go to heaven or hell based on your choice. Sure one can make father/child and husband/wife analogies, but I don't think those change the essense of my argument.

    Is there really quantitative evidence shows that Christianity is better than its competitors at improving societies failures? If so, please point me to it. Actually, I think something like humanism is much more likely to improve our societies.

    Daniel

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  15. I would first suggest that you read the bool "To Hell with Religionship--God wants Relationship" because it accurately deals with this issue in proper context. I think that while some "christians and churches" have taught this wrong it is proper;y exemplified in the life of Jesus Christ. I think that what is missing is the fact that each person has the free will to accept or reject a personal relationship with God and out of that relationship or not you will behave a certain way and that will bring consequensces good or bad but that again is your choice. The analogy is flawed because again you are dealing with humans dealing with humans and God is informed of all motives and some choose and reject this relationship out of motives that are self serving and that is not acceptable either. Perhaps a better analogy is that if there were someone drowning and God eho has the ability to save that person comes by and offers to save them and they flatly refuse even to point of going under then the fate that they meet they chose because they could have been brought to safety but they did not want to God did not destroy them they chose to be destroyed but those who chose to partake of salvation have now developed a blossoming relationship that causes them to behave in a way that reflects the new love of their life. It is not forced it just is, many choose to reject this relationship because they can't have it on their terms and their way. If you want it your way then create a universe filled with human beings, animals and system that still remains and functions as intended from the beginning then you can have it your way.

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  16. Let me try and argue your point a little further. Salvation and a relationship with God are the same thing. That is, salvation is the ability to worship God, serve him, love him, truly love others etc. And so saving someone is the same thing as giving him/her a relationship with God. Hence rejecting the relationship must be the same a rejection salvation -- the person allows himself to be pulled out of the water or else he chooses to drown. In this way we can get God off the hook for punishing people that reject his offer of a relationship, since by definition they are also rejecting the salvation God offers.

    I have two responses to that. First: the conflation of salvation and relationship with God is not at all apparent in this world. People can be good, loving, honest sacrificial to others and at the same time believe that the Christian message is a hoax and reject it. Actually from my observations Christians are not any more loving or honest or moral than non-Christians. Surely there would be a dramatic difference if being saved is the same thing as truly loving God and loving others. This doctrine would deny love and goodness to anyone except the saved; but this is contrary to the evidence around us.

    Secondly this doctrine implies that the default state of humankind is hell (agony, suffering, torture etc.). It is only by an action of God that we can escape it. Thus we better be thankful if he offers his hand to save us but if he doesn't or if we reject his hand, then it is our own fault that we suffer. The problem is, that it is God that created this default state. In your analogy, it is God that made the river and puts or throws you in it to start with. Then if you drown he surely has a major portion of the responsibility -- especially if there are a thousand hands offered to you and there is no way to test which is God's hand and which is just another ruse but you can only be saved from drowning if you happen to choose the right hand. Would a good and loving God make the default state of everyone be hell?

    So here is my conclusion. Christians present God as good and loving, who generously and self-sacrificially wants a relationship with everyone. But if one looks at all aspects of this "relationship offer" we see that it is highly coercive: love, worship and do not doubt Big Brother (or Big Father) or suffer the consequences.

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  17. You could break this down to a basic understanding of free will. If you believe in the what the bible says, one of the first things you are taught is that this world is not about you. God, the son Jesus, and the Church are and always will be in perfect harmony. We were created out of love, we represent a feminine and masculine side of God here on Earth. Our lifes here are in constant danger, there is a constant battle of Good and Evil. God could have made us into robots who automatically loved him because it was NOT an option, out of force. But he is a loving, caring God. We are not born into this world knowing who he is. We all find him, and it through FREE WILL that we accept him into our heart. No one sits down and forces us to believe. It is through us seeking him that we find him. He waits patiently until we ask for his help, until we come to him. He will not force himself upon us. That would NOT imply free will. He loves us passionatly because we choose him. It is just a fact that we are all warriors but if you are saved through Jesus, then you never fight any battles alone. Too many times, I know I myself try to idealize different theories and question God, and honestly this has always made me grow stronger in my faith. I've learned that what we might sum up as unfair, is actually our saving grace. The Devil is just as much a part of everyday life, the same as God. We are just so out of tune with most of it.
    About the relationship part, it's completely true that God is a jealous God. He wants your love and devotion, because he created you out of his love, he put a desire in all of us, that can only be filled by him. Anything earthly used to fill the void will NEVER quinch the thirst. We as humans are created to live in relationship with him, it is in our basic DNA, so to speak. Or our spirit, we are meant to be alive and free and at peace in his love for us. Having a relationship with him should be something viewed positively for what it brings to life rather than twisted into a judgment. No matter what earthly circumstances, he always makes up for lost time. Broken and bleeding,He ALWAYS gives us a second chance. He works in all stages of our lifes transforming us into what we are supposed to be! Still sound selfish and of bad character? I promise none of us are here for our own benefit, it's all for him. After all, no one gets out alive! =]

    Hope it interested someone, I had fun writing this =]

    Be Blessed

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  18. Wow, no Universalist up in here? I guess I'll represent.

    1. The essay's argument is perfectly valid. The whole mess could have been prevented by God choosing not to create. There is simply no way around that.

    2. It's highly disturbing to me to hear comments like: "If you believe the Bible..." Or "the Bible says..." Give me a break! How many denominations are there that all claim the Bible says different things based on their particular interpretation? What you ought to say is: "If you believe my particular denomination's interpretation of the Bible" and "My doctrine says..."

    3. Not every Christian tradition teaches an eternal hell for unbelievers. Besides Catholic's purgatory there is a strain of belief articulated by Origen who assumes Paul is teaching the salvation of all humans. There are tons of proof-texts which amount to nothing if you have a close mind, but here are a couple:

    1 Cor. 15:22, "As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall ALL be made alive."

    1 Tim. 4:10 "we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of ALL men, and especially of those who believe."

    1 Cor. 15:28 "When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be ALL in ALL."

    For a million more verses and full explanation of Universalism check out Tentmaker.org

    4. Imagine a form of Christianity that doesn't worship the helpless god of the Free-will crowd who wishes he could save everyone but can't, or the vengeful petty god of the Calvinists who could save everyone but wont, and instead worships a God Who actually practices what He preaches. Who literally never gives up on you, even after death. Who leaves the 99 sheep to find the last one. Who is perfectly Just and Merciful, not punishing eternally for sins that last a few years, or torturing those who never believed in Him for whatever reason.

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  19. The crux of my disillusionment in Christianity has always been this:

    God planned everything from before the dawn of creation
    God created us
    God put the notorious tree in the garden
    God knew exactly what would happen, and it happened
    God condemns all of humanity forever for enacting the plan he had in place
    We are now born into sin
    We are incapable of seeking God, we are so blinded by our sinful nature
    God's demand is that we find Him anyway, or let Him find us, whatever side of the theological fence one prefers
    If we do not succeed in this, or God chooses not to extend this to us, we are lost
    God condemns us eternally- to EVERLASTING torment. And by most interpretations, this will be the fate of the vast majority of humankind.

    Thanks God, but if this was the plan, I would have preferred you did not create me in the first place, thank you very much. The stakes are too high and the cards have been stacked against us right from the start.

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  20. I like your list. The interesting thing is that if a human were to do something like that to other humans, wouldn't we judge him to be worse than Hitler or Stalin? Yet, somehow, when God does it, Christians are able to still praise him as all-good and all-loving. Various excuses are used to get God off the hook like: "justice demands it" -- but surely not as God can unconditionally forgive if he chooses. Also it misses the main point which you bring up: he set up the whole thing in such a way that he would end up condemning multitudes to eternal torment.

    Perhaps one solution is to discard Christian doctrines that are morally repugnant, like Joshua advocates (in the comment before yours), but keep the rest. This has the advantage that one can still go to church, although perhaps a more liberal one. Sometimes I feel I would like to do this. But for me, though, the dissonance is too strong. I grew up in a fundamentalist church, did mission trips, was a strong advocate and participant in evangelizing the lost. But once I concluded I had been propagating falsehoods in the name of Christ, I simply could not go on under the banner of Christianity.

    -DM

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  21. Yes, Joshua's post holds a certain appeal- that is for sure. I did visit his blog as well, although I need to spend a little more time there I think. I like his non-plussed manner, and his ability to discuss these issues without panicking- that speaks volumes to me.

    I am very, very fresh at this "looking at it from the other side of the fence" thing- so I am just going to keep reading and reading and reading (and posting a bit) for now. I would like to have some "belief" intact when all this is done, but I am unsure if I will, or will even want to, as I venture further into this brave new world.

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  22. Amy,

    All the best on your searching. I think life is about learning and growing. There is no rush to make up your mind. If God is good (and if he exists) he cannot be holding a club over your head demanding you believe something that appears to be untrue after careful analysis.

    Here is a book that I read recently that I found very thought-provoking: The Dark Side: How Evangelical Teachings Corrupt Love and Truth The author, Valerie Tarico, grew up in a fundamentalist church, went to college at Wheaten, but eventually decided that evangelical teachings are contrary to the bulk of the evidence and actually harmful.

    DM

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  23. I read through a few of the posts and I am little confused on one particular argument: If God knows everything (present, past, and future), then why allow someone to be born of evil or so called evil? Why was Hitler born? Why were Stalin and Hussein born? Why did God allow this? I guess I am getting into the old and perhaps familiar argument of why does God allow evil to exist. As evil as they people were, did they have any choice in the matter. In other words, were they born evil? What if these individuals were just sick people?

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  24. Verrry late to the party, but this post and the following comments, especially Joshua's and Amy's, got me thinking. As suggested, if God (as modern Christianity perceives Him) is as all-knowing and powerful as they claim, then Amy's suggestion that He set us up for failure from the beginning, is dead on.

    However, Joshua also brings up an interesting point: many denominations seem to represent God as willing to save everyone, but unable to do so due to our stubbornness. In this way, He is "helpless". Some Christians will claim that this helplessness is a showing of love, and the result of the gift of free will. But I wonder.

    What if God didn't know what would happen when He created reality? As humans, we have a reasonably negative reaction to the idea of a God who created reality to fail once, after which He would recreate it perfectly. And we also have a reasonably negative reaction to the idea of a God who, knowing that many of His creations would face a tragic end, went ahead and created anyway. (This also introduces the idea of a God who isn't as perfect and powerful as many Christians want to believe -- why couldn't He create a perfect system from the start? And saying "because free will" isn't a good argument.)

    What we seem to be left with is a God who, regardless of the consequences, decided that creating was better than not creating. He might not have known what He was going to get, but He went ahead and did it anyway. And then everything went hell.

    This "God" is far more human than the one I've hear preached about on Sunday, and I think the idea of Him might make some people uncomfortable. God is supposed to have known how everything was going to go down before He hit the "create all" button. But again, this seems unfair to we humans who have to live with the broken results. This being the case, and considering His later promises to "remake" reality in a perfect way for those who choose to believe in Him, the impression I've started to get is that of a Creator who didn't really know what He would get the first time around. Now that He's seen the results and recognized the flaws in the original work, He assumes He will be able to "get it right" the second time around. Thus, a perfect and heavenly "new creation in Christ Jesus". It's not quite the same thing, but this Creator strikes me as much closer to the Gnostics' Demiurge, rather than the perfect, all-knowing and all-powerful Creator of modern, mainline Christian thought.

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