Good question...What kind of a choice is THAT?!

[Aug 28/2k]

This came in...


I'm in a debate with two skeptics. One skeptic is takling about how we do not have a choice and how God doesn't give us a choice, we either follow him or burn in hell. The skeptic gave me this story to put across his view of God's love. Here is the story he gave me:

"The other day, I asked a girl to marry me.

"I love you," I told her, "and I want you to love me in return."

She said she'd have to think about it.

"That's cool," I said. "I want it to be your choice, obviously. I want you to love me of your own freewill."

I waited a moment.

"However," I added, "if you decide you don't love me, I'm gonna lock you in my basement and let my crazy cousin Zeke torture you for all eternity."

Oddly, she seemed pissed. "What kind of a choice is that? Sending me to the basement forever?"

"I'm not sending you to the basement," I said. "You are sending yourself. It's your free choice."

I certainly wouldn't want her to feel coerced.****

Now this is what the skeptic had to say about God and our choice.

"So you are backing the ideals of fear, as opposed to love? Jesus can say he loves you but what choice do you have?

"Does everyone by default deserve to go to Hell? You have to work to gain the love of The Creator? If I feel that life is good w/o Jesus, or I decide to live a life of self determined ways, I have bought myself a one way ticket to Hell?

"By common sense that I cannot accept. You in my eyes have been bought by fear as opposed to the ideals of what you sell. Thats the flaw that I keep seeing yet somehow people keep banging on with this unmentioned Fear Tactic. Its such a glaring factor of Organised Religion."

He like other skeptics don't seem to understand that he does have a choice. Can you help? I can't seem to find think of anything to reply to him with.


Well, let's think about this...

First of all, there are many, many more issues than we can get to in this response--most of which are discussed elsewhere on the Tank. I would refer you to the discussion on the nature of Hell (and why it's not Zeke's torture party there), the question of God's justice, and What about those who have never heard the gospel.

Here I want to deal with three issues: primarily the analogy used, and then, the motive of fear and the issue of faith-or-love.

First, the analogy used:

One pattern I have noticed over the past 5+ years of the Tank, is that the positions objected to by skeptics often should be objected to, and some of the portraits of Jesus rejected by non-believers should be rejected--they are abysmal caricatures of His character and heart...The illustration given above is just another example of this...Your skeptic friend is having a moral response to an imaginary situation that IS unworthy--but it's also an imaginary situation that is not representative of the Christian position. If his reconstruction of God's heart and dealing with us were true, then we should be the first to join with him in moral disdain for such an ogre-ish character...

But this being said, this imaginary situation leaves out a couple of major and constitutive components of the biblical description of the situation. Two come immediately to mind: the element of removal of the abusive  and the aspect of rescue.

I'm going to try to re-cast the imaginary situation in such a way as to illustrate these, but my word-smithing abilities may not be up to the level of your skeptic friend.

The element of removal of the abusive from the community of persons:

I came upon a man the other day, physically abusing the people around him. I asked him to stop beating his fellow humans, but he said he didn't want to--he liked being cruel. He said it made him feel 'important' and 'powerful'. I told him it was wrong to destroy others like that, and he said his heart didn't care. He enjoyed the freedom, ability, and leisure to hurt others, and I asked him why he couldn't enjoy the freedom from pain that the others would feel, if he stopped his violence. He said his freedom was more important than theirs--that he was more important that the many victims of his cruelty.

I then warned him that behavior like that would lead to quarantine and exile--a serious loss of privilege, lack of access to resources, and forced removal/reduction in his ability to hurt others--his freedom and self-determination. He said it didn't matter to him--that it was too far away, and that maybe he would escape the authorities.

I even made a special offer--as the ruler of the land: "I can literally give you a new heart, friend; one which can feel important and worthwhile WITHOUT having to make others miserable. That way you would avoid exile, and actually be happy about not abusing others (instead of miserable when you aren't abusing them)!"

He made an obscene gesture at me, snarled, and moved a little down the road to assault someone else.

"My offer is still good, friend, but in a few hours or days, I will act in defense of those people you are hurting...I can only be patient for so long, before, as protector of these people, I have to act in their interest and for their relief from you...I will not force you to make the decision right now, but I will make the decision FOR YOU--in favor of exile--if you continue manifesting a cruel character in this way...

The element of rescue:

I was on duty on the Coast Guard Rescue boat the other morning, when I spotted what I thought was drowning woman. A mile or so off shore, she was treading water and looked quite weary and dehydrated. We sped over to help her, but she swam away from the life preservers we tossed her, she wouldn't grab hold of the lifeguard hooks we extended to her, and she swam away from the life raft and swimmers we sent out to help her. It was bizarre.

I asked her if she wanted some help--actually expecting her to be relieved and even grateful, and she screamed "no, go away!"--even though every now and then she would literally sink under water for a few minutes at a time, and come up frantically gasping for air. She said she was "doing fine without help", and that she intended to stay out there forever like that, just "doing fine".

I pointed out to her that she looked exhausted, dehydrated, seemed ready to drown any minute, and that she would be too tired to make it to shore if she waited much later--and she denied it. She said it wasn't really all that bad, that she had made it okay so far on her own, and that she could no doubt keep it up indefinitely.

I told her I thought she obviously needed medical attention, rest, water, and she refused. She said she was her "own person" and that I could not force her to get out of the water. I told her, cautiously--since she would go ballistic whenever I tried to help her--that  I didn't think she was in any mental state to be able to make such decisions, and that I would have to subdue her and force her into the boat--for her own good. And you should have heard the curses, threats of lawsuits, murder, suicide from she constantly kept swimming away from our boat and from our every attempt to rescue her...

"I kept sending people out, but she kept evading them...I offered and begged and offered and pleaded and offered and implored...and she railed and railed and railed...and always swam away further...and about sundown she went under for the last time...why wouldn't she accept the free help? I'll never know...I was in anguish for weeks and weeks over this senseless loss...

All illustrations have discontinuities with the original concept, but I think my two are closer to the actual biblical position than your discussion partner's. My illustrations are designed specifically to highlight (a) that the offer is an offer of help from self-determined courses of action; (b) that the end result (exile or drowning) is a perfectly reasonable outcome, given the context of community and the context of reality; and (c) that the denial of need doesn't automatically mean the absence of need [e.g, alcoholics, drunk drivers, and perpetrators of domestic violence all say "I'm fine..."]...


I also tried to illustrate, in the case of the drowning woman (with her periodic going under for a few minutes, only to quickly resume the "I am just fine" posture), that most people (everybody?) have mini-experiences in life that are 'foretastes' of a future without love, life, or God.. They have moments/periods of lostness, or alienation, or unease, or disintegration, or emptiness, or insignificance, or coldness of heart, or treachery, or exclusion by others, or rabid pride, or disdain of others, or apathy toward the plight of the "less fortunate", or causeless agitation, or angry hubris toward the kindness of others (including God), or even negative over-reactions to the overtures of the Lord in their life--all of which could be seen as foretastes of future Exile from Life...


Where MY analogies are woefully discontinuous are:


  1. I don't have the rescue attempts motivated by love (with the possible weak exception of the ruler's appeal to the cruel one about his own happiness?)

  2. I don't have the extreme costliness of the rescue to the rescuer. (For example, I would somehow have to get the rescuer himself to 'drown' deliberately instead of the woman, to save her life).


 But at least they have more correspondence with the biblical model that the one under discussion.



Secondly, about the motive of fear.


It has been my experience that people approach God for a personal relationship for a very, very wide range of motives and reasons [see 1ststep.html], and I have learned to be less dogmatic over the years about what constitutes an 'approved motive'...(smile). Fear itself is not a 'bad' thing; it is generally very positive in that it warns us of real dangers. It can become pathological, of course, and require therapy (e.g. claustrophobia), but the self-preservation drives that use fear as "early-warning systems" to keep us out of trouble, is still an important function in our lives.


Sometimes, it can be difficult to tell the difference between "scare tactics" and "legitimate warnings", and it has seemed to me over the years that the difference between the two concerns motivation.




In the two illustrations used above, the application should be clear:


1. The warnings from the ruler about possible early-exile, would be motivated by a love for the abuse-victims (esp. the future ones) and a wish for happiness for the cruel one (via a change of heart/ways), but would gain no 'victory' in losing a citizen to some foreign exile location. This would not be 'scare tactics' in the least.


2. The warnings from the Coast Guard rescuer--that the lady would drown if she didn't accept help--could not be construed as 'scare tactics' either. Although perhaps only motivated by a general commitment to people, no one would think of accusing the would-be-rescuer of using 'scare tactics' on the drowning victim [except perhaps the victim, in denial of the trajectory of her situation?].



To be sure, the Church (and many, many other secondary groups in society) have used 'scare tactics'. I myself "endured" one--although terrified--as an unbeliever back in college. I was "suckered into"  going to this meeting, which had advertised that they would be showing a film about 'highly questionable activities". As it turns out, the film was a religious one, denouncing the 'highly questionable activities", and was very brief--and then the preacher began with the hellfire and damnation...I don't remember the content; all I remember was the "If you walk out that door, you are denying your God to His face" a holder of 'residual and minimal theism' at the time (but not a Christian), I wasn't sure I wanted to force the issue with God so soon by walking out the door prematurely, so my fear kept me there...But it was another two years before I was open to listening to someone talk about God again...


Did these people have enough concern for me, to make the 'scare tactics' into 'legitimate warnings'? I don't know, but if they did, they did not communicate it with the love, warmth, respect, and gentleness that goes along with love...


So, in this case, 'legitimate warnings' can be okay, but the line between them and 'scare tactics' can be very fine...


And the Christian is supposed to be the 'salt of the earth', not the 'whip of the earth' anyway...Christians are supposed to live close to God, so that the beauty of God's heart 'rubs off on them' and so the world can see Him and fall in love with Him, and open up to the rescue and to getting a new heart, filled with love for others...



Third, the issue of love-or-faith.


This is a minor point, but one that I feel might be relevant to the point under discussion. God's initial demand is NOT for a marriage-level love from us, but for a simple childlike trust in Him.


Hebrews 11 points out that those that come to God must (a) believe that He exists; and (b) that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him. And the biblical expansion of this into "trust" or "confidence" in Christ (as God's compassionate answer for the problem of our situation--His means of rescue, as it were) is apparently doable by little children (Mt 19.14) and by those who have large 'pockets' of doubt in their faith (Mk 9.24) other words, people like us...


The great command to "love the Lord your God with all your heart, and mind, and soul, and strength" was given to a people who had already been rescued by faith in the Exodus from Egypt. They had accepted help (albeit semi-reluctantly) from God by celebrating the first Passover--a simple meal, a simple "non-meritorious" gesture, but one done in expectation that God would be "a rewarder of those who sought Him"...


So, the implication of this would be that a better illustration of the 'first step' might be that of accepting a Smiling Stranger's help or letting a Caring Rescue Worker lift you out of the sea into the safety of the boat.




I hope this helps, friend,



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