[Originally published as Is God a Cosmic Dictator?]
One of the things I notice a lot in conversations with skeptics is how many people confuse Christianity with Islam. The God of the Bible is loving, merciful, just, slow to anger, and compassionate. He does punish sin, but he gives time and opportunity for sinners to repent. (Repent means to turn away from sin and toward God). In many instances, He gives generations for a people to repent.
The god of Islam is not loving nor merciful. He demands you earn your way to heaven and commands you obey him merely because he has commanded.
In the Bible, God tells his people that he is presenting them with the way of life. He tells us to obey, not merely because he commands, but because what he commands will give us life, joy, and peace (as we can know from experience and common sense). When the God of the Bible says, “Do not sin,” he is saying, “Do not hurt yourself or others.” When he says, “Obey,” he is showing us the way to our own joy and well being.
And this is not a criticism of Islam. I am not talking bad about Islam but merely pointing out some of the key differences between the depiction of their god and the God of the Bible. So often, people think they are the same, but they are not. For instance, as presented in the Bible, God makes Adam and Eve to be his children, and he walks with them and talks to them. He warns them not to do what would separate them from him and bring death.
In Islam, Allah is described as distant and so other than he cannot be understood. You cannot have a relationship with Allah. You merely obey because he commands, or you go to hell. That is like a dictatorship.
So what of Hell? I have been asked, “Why can’t atheists just choose to be happy without God and be left alone? Why does God have to punish them for that?”
I understand where they are coming from. On the surface, it is very much like the metaphor of asking a girl to the dance and then punching her in the face when she says no.
But only on the surface.
First, God is our king, and a just and sovereign ruler cannot turn a blind eye to rebellion. Also, sin hurts people, and there is a cost to our evil. God would be unjust to ignore our sin and let it go unpunished. Either he takes your sin through Jesus’s death on the cross, or you take it yourself.
Instead of thinking of it as punishing a girl for refusing to let you take her to the prom, consider it more akin to respecting the choice of someone to refuse to let you carry them out of a burning building. We’re not a worthy princess awaiting the suitor of our choice. We are a rebel who is burning down what the king has built. Jesus finds us, the victims of our own arson, trapped in the smoke, and we either let Him carry us to safety, or we pay the price for our foolishness.
Often God’s justice means letting people have what they want, and hell is separation from God. This is literally what the atheist is asking for when he asks God to leave him alone.
The atheist is asking for hell, and God respects his choice.
But in a deeper sense, one cannot be happy apart from God. Asking why you can’t just be happy without God is like asking why plants can’t just grow healthy in the dark. Plants need sunlight to live. When they go into the dark, they are moving from life into death. (I know plants can’t walk. It’s a metaphor — just go with it).
I do not think the Bible depicts Hell as a place literally made of lava and fire like movies and Islam do. I think Hell is the place where people are free to turn away from God forever and turn into death forever. This is where the Lord of the Rings Smeagol/Gollum metaphor comes in.
Remember Smeagol? He was something like a hobbit until he found the ring, and then it was his addiction. he lost himself to it and gave up everything else. Gollum is the shell that is left after the ring consumes his humanity until all that is left is the shadow of what he was and the obsessive addiction to what he wants.
Plants wither and die in the dark, and so will the human soul without the loving presence of God. Weighted down by your sin and without forgiveness and love — without sunlight — forever, we would wilt and die forever.
We need God as plants need sun — as lovers need their beloved — as fish need water — as birds need to sing. This is the famous passage from Augustine’s Confessions in which he states, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
To address another issue skeptics frequently bring up — there is no just rebellion against God, and there is none that is not also some form of suicide. When we rebel against evil, we are fighting for justice. When we fight against the holy and just Creator, how can that be anything but evil? When you fight against life and love, you are on the side of evil and death. God is love and the author of life.
I have no doubt that you know of many atheists who claim to be happy without God, but I do not believe them. As atheism has grown in the West, so have drug and alcohol addiction and suicide. Depression has never been more of an epidemic, and the once Christian West is eating, drinking, smoking, and snorting itself to death. And sometimes just putting a gun in its own mouth.
We now have more access to drugs, alcohol, pornography, and every deviant lifestyle we can imagine — things thought immoral and taboo only decades ago are now taught in schools as healthy and normal lifestyles. We are less religious, and far less Christian, but we are certainly not happier.
Even in cultures where they are religious — the Islamic Middle East and the Mormon American West — there is depression, suicide, and violence, not peace, life, and joy. It’s not religion that brings life and joy. It is only Jesus.
Of course, you will know the failures of the Christian West as well as I do, but I here quote GK Chesterton (An author I cannot recommend enough).
Christianity has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found hard and left untried.
When the West has failed to be at peace, it has failed to be Christian. When the West has done evil, it has been in clear violation of the teaching of the Bible.
Islam and atheism have murdered untold millions, stripped whole countries of their rights, killed the unborn and blown up school busses, slaughtered the innocent in the concentration camps, and made slaves of generations. When we hear the sounds of oppression and death, the beheading of the unbeliever, the torture of the nonconformists, they are just the sounds of the religious worshipping their gods.
When the West was truly Christian, it invented the sciences, built orphanages and hospitals, and made some of the greatest art and architecture, and music the world has ever known. It made countries where we gave to those in need, worked to make each generation more prosperous and well educated than the last, and gave its blood, sweat, and lives to end slavery. It wrote laws that made people equal, gave everyone the right to speak their minds, and even gave every religion the right to exist side by side.
God is a father, and his children bring home friends to be adopted. There is no one like our God.