In my post, Does God Have a Split-Personality?, I linked to a video that featured an ogre who was questioning certain Christian doctrines. Today, I want to focus on something else that the ogre said. Allow me to quote my post:
“The ogre asked the Christian these questions and received a response, which said that Jesus wants him to go to heaven, but that he’d have to send him to hell if he did not accept him. The ogre was puzzled. Who says that Jesus has to do anything? If Jesus wants him to go to heaven, and Jesus can do whatever he wants, then why can’t Jesus let him in?”
The ogre’s question reminds me of a story that I read on an atheist web site. An atheist was telling his story about how he became an atheist–his secularist testimony, if you will. His father was a fundamentalist preacher with a strong personality, and the atheist decided to come out of the closet with his new-found beliefs. The atheist asked his dad how God can permit evil, and the dad responded with the typical Christian “free will” answer. The two debated, and then the dad finally said that God has to respect free will. The atheist did not know how to reply at that moment, but, when he looked back at the discussion, he asked himself, “Wait, who says that God has to do anything? Can’t God do what he wants?”
I can sympathize with the atheist’s debate experience, since I’m not that good on my feet. Usually, I can come up with a refutation long after the debate, but, by then, it is too late. I already look bad!
As far as free will is concerned, I wrestled with this issue in my post, The Free Will Defense. I showed that the Bible does not present human free will as something that God never, ever violates. God doesn’t always allow the human will to go wherever it pleases, for he is able to influence it in a certain direction, good or bad. At some times, God chooses to intervene. At other times, he just lets nature take its course.
In my opinion, God is not bound by absolute rules, at least not in the case of human free will. If God respects free will the vast majority of the time, that is because he sees value in it. He chooses to respect it, but he doesn’t have to do so, and, in some cases, he doesn’t.
And he may not follow the same program at all times, in every stage of human history. Allow me to explain. When I was at DePauw University, I took a class with a philosophy professor, and he was discussing the problem of evil, which asks how a good God can permit evil to exist. He was a devout Anglican, so he wanted God to come out good. He told us about an atheist who disputed the typical Christian “free will” response. According to the atheist, God could have created a world in which people have free will yet always choose to behave morally. So the atheist was saying that the Christian free will response was way off base, since God should be able to prevent evil while respecting human choice.
For my professor, that sounded absurd. First of all, he denied that God is completely omnipotent, for God can only do what is logically possible. God cannot create a square-circle, for example. Second, my professor said that a free will that always chooses to do what’s right is not genuine free will.
But I thought that the atheist was making some sense. First of all, Christianity believes in original sin, which holds that people have free will as well as a propensity for evil. So why couldn’t God create a world in which people had free will along with a propensity for goodness? Second, in the prophets, God promises to program the Israelites to make them righteous (Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 36:26-27). A lot of Christians apply these promises to God’s work of regeneration, which includes the spiritual transformation of sinners into righteous people. So God can create people who predominantly choose to behave righteously. The atheist was not presenting an impossible paradox.
So why does God allow evil? Maybe he wants to show why evil is evil. God can give us command after command, but we’re not going to appreciate their value until we see the bad consequences of evil behavior. Once we do so, we can be open to God’s way of doing things. And when we find that we are too weak to follow God’s way, we can turn to God, and he will change our hearts in a righteous direction.
But God does not always follow the same program. For example, he may have respected the free will of the Judeans before their captivity, since he permitted evil to exist for a long time before he punished them. But, according to various prophets, his goal after their restoration is to make them inherently righteous. So God allowed free will to run free before the captivity, but he will not do so after Israel’s restoration. In the case of free will, therefore, God is not bound by rigid, inflexible rules. He does what he chooses, according to what he thinks is best for each situation.
Another issue that usually draws the line “God has to do such and such” is the substitutionary atonement, the doctrine that Christ died in our place to pay the penalty for our sins. Many evangelicals say, “Jesus had to die because God is just, and he can’t leave evil unpunished. And blood is the only way to atone for sins.” Is this true? I don’t know. Could God have removed our sins without blood? I don’t see any reference to a blood sacrifice at the Golden Calf incident. God simply chose not to wipe out the children of Israel, after Moses had pled for them. But, then again, who knows? Maybe there were sacrifices that took care of that. Even some rabbis associate the calf of the sin offering with the Golden Calf, as if the former atoned for the latter. Plus, there were many Israelites who died because of that affair, so God didn’t leave sin completely unpunished.
I know that Hebrews 9:22 says that there’s no remission of sin without the shedding of blood. But it’s interesting that there is a lot of talk about forgiveness in the Hebrew Bible that does not even mention blood or sacrifices. The prophets focus mostly on repentance as the path to atonement–ceasing from evil and instead doing good. There’s a lot about blood in other parts of the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Leviticus), but, if every single writer of the Hebrew Bible was as preoccupied with blood atonement as evangelicals, then why doesn’t it always come up? It sure comes up in every evangelical discussion of atonement that I have heard!
Did Jesus have to die for atonement to occur, as if God is bound by certain rules of justice? Or did God think that it was a good idea for Jesus to die. Perhaps God could have accomplished the atonement in a variety of ways, such as just removing the sin or putting us all through purgatory. But he saw the death of Jesus as the best option, maybe because it teaches us the value of unconditional, self-sacrificial love, or emphasizes to us God’s disgust with our sins. After all, God shows us through the death of Jesus that we deserve to die!
Yet, I still want to respect what Jesus said in his Gethsemane prayer: “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matthew 26:39). That seems to imply that there was no other way for atonement to occur, since Jesus wanted God to look for any other possible avenue. Why would he consent to beatings, humiliation, and death, if there were another way to bring about atonement? But, then again, maybe his death accomplished other things in addition to the purgation of sin. As I said in the last paragraph, it showed the depth of God’s love and his disgust for human iniquity.
So does God have to do things the way that he does them? I don’t think so. In my opinion, he can do things in a variety of ways. But he views the path that he has chosen as the best possible option that’s out there, most likely because it emphasizes, highlights, and teaches certain values.