This is the fifth in a series of posts summarizing Tim Keller’s book “Reason for God.” My hope is that they will help us talk intelligently, and kindly, with our friends about their (understandable) objections to the Christian faith. This time, we take a look at the idea that a loving God and the Christian teaching on hell don’t go together. As always, page numbers from the book are in parentheses so you can look them up later.
By the way, this objection takes many forms. I’m going to summarize just three of them here.
#1 “A God of judgment simply can’t exist” (72)
- Perhaps the most basic American belief is that moral truth is relative to an individual’s conscience. So Americans have a hard time living with a God who punishes people for their sincerely-held beliefs, however mistaken.
- But there’s a history to this belief – modernity encourages us that, because we can control the physical realm (i.e., through science and information), we can similarly control the metaphysical realm.
- We are offended by a God of judgment, but find no problem with a forgiving God. But traditional cultures find a God of grace ridiculous, and have no problem with a God who punishes. If we accept that our culture is not superior to others, we can’t quickly say that our objections are superior to theirs, either. If for the sake of argument, we assume that Christianity is true and transcends culture, we would expect it to be agreeable to all cultures at some points, and, disagreeable to those cultures at some points, too. Perhaps this is one of those places.
#2 “A Loving God Would Not Allow Hell” (78)
- It’s one thing to fight evil and injustice around us, but it’s another altogether to talk about eternal punishment. This understandably doesn’t seem to fit in with a God of love.
- Most people in our time think that hell works like this: God gives us many chances to do what’s right throughout our lives, but if we do not by the end, he sends us to hell forever. The person who’s just died begs for mercy, but God says, “Too late! You had your chance!”
- But this is a caricature and misunderstands what evil is all about. Hell is just the logical conclusion to a life freely lived apart from God. Keller puts it well: “All God does in the end with people is give them what they most want, including freedom from himself. What could be more fair than that?”
#3 “I Believe in a God of Love” (84)
- We want to think that other religions present a God of love, but this is not true. Buddhism, for example, does not believe in a personal God. Since love is something a person does, Buddhism does not provide a real foundation for love. Muslims believe in God’s mercy and forgiveness, but believe it is disrespectful to speak of knowing God personally and intimately.
- It’s also worth asking someone who believes in a God of love why they feel this way. Ancient and modern history, other religious texts, and nature all suggest otherwise. The idea of a loving God comes from the bible, which also says that God is at the same time a God of judgment. So believing that God loves everyone without qualification is actually a great leap of faith.
- The good news, though, is that God really is a God of love: “But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8). The only condition for receiving that love is trusting Jesus, instead of ourselves, to make us right with God. It really is that simple.