|Frans Hals, Young Man with a Skull
You will recall that we were discussing the chapter "Dear Theologian" in your book, the chapter that was written as though it were a letter from God addressed to theologians. In the first section of your "letter" you had raised certain objections to the argument from design, which we attempted to answer in our last blog post. In the next section, which we consider today, you went on to discuss the meaning and purpose of life. The thread of your argument was a little hard to follow, consisting as it did of one objection after another, but if we understand you correctly, the point you were trying to make is this: if human beings find meaning and purpose in life by submitting to the will of God, then how does God find meaning and purpose? Conversely, if God can exist happily without being created or submitting to someone else's will, then why cannot humans?
We would begin by pointing out the obvious difficulty with this line of argument: it basically puts you, a finite human being, in the position of pcychoanalyzing the Deity, not that theologians haven't tried to do it themselves from time to time. Because God is infinite and eternal, all-knowing and all-wise, there are some things about Him that we can never hope to understand, and, frankly, some things that are just plain none of our business. For the most part what we know about God, about how He thinks and why He does certain things, is based solely on revelation; we only know what He Himself is pleased to tell us. Beyond that we must maintain a respectful silence, and not pretend to know more that we do.
What the Bible does tell us, however, is that God is actively involved with His creation. In fact, in one sense the whole biblical narrative is the record how God has acted in human history. You are familiar, no doubt, with the doctrine of divine providence, as well as the plan of redemption. At one point in your argument you picture God as saying "I created the universe from quarks to galactic clusters, and it runs okay on its own . . . there is nothing in the universe for Me to do. It's boring up here" (p. 149). Yet that is not the way God would have put it. What the Bible actually says is that universe does not "run okay on its own." "By him all things consist" (Col. 1:17), and He is "upholding all things by the word of his power" (Heb. 1:3). "For in him we live, and move, and have our being" (Acts 17:28). While He may ordinarily use natural causes to govern His creation, that does not preclude the fact that He is the ultimate, controlling cause. Moreover, He indwells believers by His Spirit, hears and answers their prayers, and guides and protects them through life.
You then raise some questions about the nature of God's love, and wonder how He can be omnipotent, and a God of love, and yet consign billions to hell. This, as you well know, is the classic problem of "theodicy," the justice of God in the permission of evil, and it is one of the most impenetrable mysteries of theology.
However, if you think that there is some sort of contradiction here, consider this: what occasioned the paradox or anomaly is our own irrational, abusive and self-destructive behavior. Before we ask, "why did God permit sin?," we should first as the question, why do we commit it? After all, we have no one to blame for our predicament but ourselves. God did not force us to sin – we do it voluntarily.
As for eternal punishment, let us ask ourselves these questions: Does God love human beings? Then how should He react when to those who harm are injure others, the people whom He loves? With benign indifference? If God is at all just, He must punish and destroy evil. He could have simply consigned the entire human race to hell and that would have been the end of it. But instead He chose to do something else: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that whoso believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." I know that this is a verse that you yourself have quoted many times in the past. But it means that God can both forgive sin and punish it at the same time. Is there a contradiction here in His character?
You point out that any love that is motivated by fear of hell is no love at all, and you are quite correct in this. But you surely have heard of the new birth and how it changes a person's heart. The regenerate person is given a new heart so that he loves God freely and spontaneously. He loves God because of what Christ did for him. It is love responding to love. There is nothing forced or coerced about it.
We also note that in the next section of your "letter" you objected to the idea of a substitutionary atonement. People should have to pay for their own sins, you say. First you complain that God is unloving because He sends sinners to hell; then you complain that He is unjust because He provided a substitute to take our penalty for us. Your suggested alternative is that God is just a made-up concept, which leaves us with neither justice nor redemption. You will forgive us if we appear to be less than enthused with the prospect.
You may certainly pay for your own sins if you so desire; that is your prerogative. But as for us, we would rather avail ourselves of the grace and mercy freely offered us. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound!