Some time ago I interacted with a skeptic named Brian. Brian wasn’t sold on the biblical notion of free will, so I was trying to explain to him that God desires relationship with humans so he refused to make us robots. Instead, he gave us the ability to reject him. A healthy, loving relationship is dependent on both parties being in it because they want to be, not because they have to be. I told Brian that “God understands this and so refuses to coerce us into a relationship with him. He wants us to be in it of our own accord.” Brian replied,
Didn’t Jesus himself say that nonbelievers will be thrown “into the furnace of fire” where “men will weep and gnash their teeth” just as “the weeds are gathered and burned with fire…” (Matthew 13. 40-42 RSV) Why then throughout the Bible is there constant appeal to transcendent punishment for non-believers? Transcendent punishment isn’t coercion? The Old Testament seems to very much try to force man into a relationship with God. Placing a punishment on non-belief is as close to coercion as I can ever see.
In fact it is not coercion. To coerce (in the sense used above) is to “bring about by force or threat.” To receive money or sex, say, at the point of a gun is to coerce. The threat of death brings about the action. It is important to note here that in coercion, neither death nor the action would have occurred without the coercive intrusion. In the normal course of events, a woman attacked by a rapist wouldn’t have had sex with him or been shot. Only because some evil power entered her life is she forced to make a choice between two bad alternatives. That is the nature of coercion.
To accuse God of being coercive is to say, in effect, that He approaches us as completely independent beings and says, “Come with me or burn in hell.” The implication is that if God would just leave us alone, we could live our lives heading toward a third alternative; one that is neither with God nor burning in Hell. That is what comes to mind in Brian’s phrase “placing a punishment on non-belief.” He paints a picture of a bully God arbitrarily imposing his evil desires on a peace-loving planet.
Biblically, however, that is not the way the world is. Rather, the Earth is like a colony of children separated from their parents and wandering across a scorching desert. God comes to them and issues not a threat, but a warning and an offer. He says, “You are going to die out here if you do not let me help you. Please let me help you. I have plenty of water to drink and food to eat and shelter from the sand and the sun. I am your only hope of avoiding the terrible consequences of being out in this wasteland. Please, come to me.” Indeed, this is almost exactly what God says in many places in scripture.
Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.
Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live. (Isa. 55: 1-3)
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matt. 11:28-29)
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. (Matt. 23:37)
This is clearly not coercion. It is a statement of fact. God created us for relationship with Him. In that relationship is life, joy, love, purpose and a lot of other great things. Because healthy relationships require freedom on the part of each participant, God gave us the opportunity to opt out and forgo all those benefits. (God couldn’t keep us close to Him by tying us up in a corner, for instance.) However, leaving God leads only one place – hell. If you will not have God, you will necessarily have the opposite of that – separation from God, otherwise known as hell. There is no other alternatives, no plethora of roads to travel. It’s either relationship with God or separation from Him. Jesus comes to shows us the way home. He doesn’t coerce or threaten, he simply warns and informs and beckons: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. Come with me.”