One of the biggest questions/objections to belief in God: “How can you love and obey a God who threatens to punish and send you to hell if you don’t behave, and lets people die for no reason?” Here is how I answer that, in a conversation format.
Me: Do you love your parents?
Joe Skeptical: Yes, of course I do.
Me: Ok, why do you love your parents? <The answers are always accompanied by a look of surprise. When they answer me, the tone of their voice suggests they think I should already know why they love their parents, and they can’t believe they have to actually explain it to me.>
Joe: Well, I love my parents because they are the reason for my birth. They gave me life. They raised me, supported me, protected me, fed me, encouraged me…all the things parents do.
Me: Did they ever discipline you? Like spankings, grounding, yelling, or taking anything away from you?
Joe: Of course, how else would I have learned right from wrong?
Me: How did discipline make you feel? You were angry at them, right?
Joe: Definitely, it felt like I was always grounded.
Me: Did you stop loving them because they grounded you?
Joe: What? No!!! They were just doing what parents are supposed to do.
Me: Exactly right! Now, when I asked you why you loved your parents, you gave me a list of reasons. None of that included anything bad or any kind of punishments. You only listed the good stuff.
Joe: Right, what’s the point?
Me: The point is, when you think of your parents, you think of everything good they did for you. For someone to suggest that you might stop loving them because they punished you, that seems ridiculous to you, doesn’t it?
Joe: Of course. Why would I stop loving them because they grounded me? I still have to live with them. I may not like how they operate but they are still my parents.
Me: So, when you asked me how I can love a God who punishes people….I will now go back and give your answer regarding your parents. I love God because He is the reason for my birth. He gave me life. He raised me, supported me, protected me, fed me, encouraged me…all the things parents do.
Joe: No, wait. Your parents did all that. Not God.
Me: Who do you think gave me parents?
Joe: Well….okay I see your point.
Me: It’s not just all that….parents are “supposed” to serve as examples of God’s character and behavior. Obviously not all parents do that. Mine didn’t. Mine were drug addicts and alcoholics who beat me on a regular basis. I saw no love. If parents were supposed to be examples of God, and I thought of mine that way, I would naturally think that God was terrible. We live in a fallen world. God’s design for parenting is ignored more than it is followed. Some people are lucky to grow up in a God-fearing household, with parents as examples of Godly character. Others, like me, have to learn a different way. That is the real reason people object to God…their perception of Him is skewed due to worldly thoughts. They think God is only supposed to love them, provide for them, and give them what they want and need. He does do all of that, of course, but He chastises and disciplines us too. So lets go back to your original question. How can I love a God who threatens punishment and hell? Okay…when your parents made a rule, they expected it to be followed, right? They probably told you that if you didn’t follow their rules, there would be punishment.
Joe: Yes. I knew that if I came in after curfew, I wasn’t allowed out for a week.
Me: Exactly. So, when people look at the Old Testament and see how God “condoned” all the killing and taking His people into captivity, they see Him as a tyrant who doesn’t really love His people.
Joe: That’s exactly what I see.
Me: Have you read the parts where the prophets warned the people of impending punishment? Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Jeremiah, Zechariah, those are just a few.
Joe: Well, no. I only saw the punishment.
Me: Precisely. God gave specific instructions to the Israelites for when they moved into the promised land. They were to drive out the pagans living in those lands. God told them if they didn’t, the pagans would be a snare to them. They were not to intermarry with the pagans, they were not to worship the pagan gods, God specifically told them all of this, and He told them they would be punished if they did those things. That was the purpose of the prophet in Biblical times. Like a parent nowadays is “supposed” to do….they laid out the rules on behalf of God, and warned of the punishments for breaking the rules. So, when the Israelites moved into the promised land, they did NOT drive out everyone they were supposed to. They lived alongside them. Then they intermingled with them, and began doing everything God specifically told them NOT to do. If your father told you NOT to stay out past midnight and you came home at 1am, you would expect a punishment, right?
Me: Israel should have expected a punishment too. They broke the rules. Do you see where I’m going with this? Do you understand now, why God “allowed” other nations to come in and take them into captivity, kill them, oppress them, etc…..? That was their punishment for breaking the rules.
Joe: <sigh> Yes, I do. But, I don’t understand why He had to let them be killed.
Me: Did you always understand your parents’ punishment? If you came home after curfew, your dad would not allow you out for a week. That was his designated punishment. Did you ask him WHY he chose that particular punishment? No. You didn’t. Because how he chooses to punish you is HIS decision. You don’t get to pick your punishment.
Joe: Ok, I get it. I just don’t see why God had to allow them to be killed, though.
Me: Because that was His punishment. We don’t get to question why He operates the way He does. I mean, we do question Him, but He doesn’t have to answer. He makes the rules, He gives the punishment He chooses for breaking them. He warned them over and over through the prophets. They ignored the prophets, some of them they killed for speaking out.
Joe: Okay, you have proved your point. I don’t see how this is relatable to today, though. We don’t have prophets to listen to.
Me: Sure we do! What do you think the church is?
Joe: The church is where people go to hear about God.
Me: Exactly. Now, there are a LOT of corrupt churches who twist God’s words. There are also a lot who don’t preach about rules and consequences. They only preach about God’s love and forgiveness….all the GOOD things like you remember about your parents.
Joe: Well, if churches don’t preach a complete and accurate account of God, then how can we know what is true and false?
Me: Let me introduce you to the Bible. God’s rule book, history book, full of examples…..it tells you everything you need to know to be a successful child of God in today’s fallen world…..