My friend Brian isn’t quite sold of the biblical notion of free will. Lately I’ve been trying to convince 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.
It’s close to coercion but in fact it is not. 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 gotten 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.
I point this out because if we accuse God of being coercive we are saying, 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 – neither with God or burning in Hell. That is what comes to mind in Brian’s phrase “placing a punishment on un-belief.” He paints a picture of a bully God arbitrarily imposing his desires on a peace-loving planet. Biblically, however, that is not the way the world is.
According to scripture the Earth is a colony of hardened criminals, justly convicted and awaiting their sentence. We are like inmates on death row, destined to face the consequences of our sinful actions against God. Into that context, God comes and issues not a threat, but a warning and an offer. He says, “You are on your way to hell. If you do not turn to me, that is where you will end up. I am your only hope of avoiding it.” It’s like a governor offering a pardon to a death row inmate by saying, “Accept this offer or you will die.” It may sound like coercion, but in context, it is clearly not.
Which brings us back to my original point. 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. The original inhabitants of earth chose the wrong path and the rest of us have been traveling it ever since. The road is wide and easy to stay on. Thankfully, Jesus comes and shows us the way home. He doesn’t coerce or threaten, he simply warns and informs and beckons: “Come with me. Take the narrow road.”