Is God a Bad Parent?
There has been an interesting transition over the last several decades whereby many people seem to reject God not because they don’t believe He exists, but rather because they believe that He is cruel and evil, demanding obedience to his tyrannical project. What can we say to someone who believes that God is primarily interested in making his creation toe the line? How do we respond to someone who believes God is saying, “Do things my way or I’ll destroy you?” This week Vince and Jo discuss the nature of relationship with God and offer some helpful and gracious ways to question the questioner whose assumptions about God, Heaven, and Hell might not line up with what Scripture teaches and what Christians actually believe.
Question Asked in This Episode: “I am debating with a young person about God. She says if God is real, he is cruel, letting any of his children burn in Hell just because they don’t want to do things his way, even if they are a good person. She says it’s like a parent that tells his child, ‘Do things my way or I’ll destroy you.’ I don’t know how to handle this.”
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Michael Davis: Hello and welcome to another episode of Ask Away with Vince and Jo Vitale. I am your host, Michael Davis. There has been an interesting transition over the last couple of decades in which many of those who reject God do so on the basis of their perception of his character rather than on a simple disbelief. Rather than thinking that a belief in God is illogical, many atheists believe that the Bible tells the story of a cruel and evil deity that has more in common with a tyrant than the God of love and mercy. How do we address the questions of God's judgment against those who do not believe in God's goodness? How do we tell people of God's love when many believe that the Christian God is nothing more than a dictator who wants to destroy those who don't do exactly what he wants them to do? But before we get started, Jo, could you tell our listeners a little bit about what's coming up at the Zacharias Institute?
Jo Vitale: Yeah. We have a really exciting program coming up in 2020 at the Zacharias Institute. We have the emerging apologist program for those of you who are excited about discerning, whether you're someone who is called into apologetics and evangelism, please do come down and spend the week with us. It's always a great time of mentorship with a smaller group of people. Applications will be opening soon. We've got Refreshed coming up again next summer, so be sure to sign up if you're a high schooler heading off to college. It's just a great week of preparation as you get ready to go and step into a new stage of life. We've got some different training question evenings coming up. We'll be discussing topics like the environment and suicide and racism, so some big questions coming up into the next year, so it's going to be a really fascinating discussion from leading scholars in these areas. So if you want to go on a deep dive into learning around this subject, then this is the event for you.
Michael Davis: Excellent. Okay, well let's jump into our question. This question is from Angie. “I am debating with a young person about God. She says if God is real, he is cruel, letting any of his children burn in hell just because they don't want to do the things his way, even if they are a good person. She says it's like a parent that tells their child that, do things my way or I'll destroy you. I don't know how to handle this.”
Vince Vitale: Angie, I just love the humility of the question. I love that last line, “I don't know how to handle this.” I feel that way all the time with respect to questions that I get, and thank you for trusting us with this one. There's so much here. We're looking forward to digging into it and I'm so glad that the question comes out of a real conversation that you're having as well, and we hope that that continues to be a meaningful relationship. The wording of the question is really interesting. In particular, “letting his children burn in hell because they don't want to do things his way.” I think if I was in this conversation one of the first things I would do would be to ask some questions. I would probably ask, “What makes you think that this is the Christian position? Did you read that somewhere or did you hear that somewhere or from someone?” Because when I read that wording as a Christian, it doesn't initially strike me as the best way to phrase what is going on between our relationship with God and the idea of heaven and of hell. So sometimes you need to first question the question and see what's behind it before proceeding.
Vince Vitale: Here are two very different things that a parent could say to a child when the child questions their parent's ways and says, why should I do it your way? The parent could say, “Because I said, so and if you question me, I'm going to hit you.” And unfortunately sometimes parents do say something like that and that's not good, but it could be very different. When I think about what God says to his children and to those he's created, I don't hear that. I hear something very different. I hear something more along the lines of “Because it's not good for you to do this or that,” or whatever the instruction is, “and here's why it's not good for you, and I want the best for you because I love you and I'm so committed to you, knowing that I love you and wanting the best for you, that I'm even willing to give my life to prove it to you. But in the end I do respect your decision and I won't force you to do something you don't want to do.”
Vince Vitale: Those are two different things that a parent could say to a child when the child is saying, “Why do I have to do things your way?” They sound very, very different. The question sounds a lot more like the first one, but when I read through the scriptures and in particular, when I get to know the person of Jesus, I hear something much more similar to the second way of saying things and just the words of Jesus start to come to mind. He says so many different things of course, and some of them are hard and challenging and, at times, very difficult to swallow because he's serious about truth, but he also says things like, "Come to me all you who are weary and burdened. I'll give you rest. You'll find rest for your souls. My yoke is easy, my burden is light. I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him and he with me." Those words sound very different than because I say so or my way or the highway.
Jo Vitale: I used to think it might be the case that you can find yourself in different situations with your parents, can't you? Like it may be that your parents are pushing you one way because they want you to be like a professional violinist and you just like, that is not the vision I have for my life. Actually, I want to go off and do something completely different. And it may be that your parents have one vision for you, actually you want to do something else and their vision might even be a good one, but so could yours be, and therefore there isn't really so much a right or wrong there, but there are different goods. And why should it be that the parents should get to say, “Hey, you're going to do things my way regardless of what you want, even if what you want could be a good thing.”
Jo Vitale: Now that seems to be the kind of scenario you're talking about, but I don't think that's the kind of scenario we're talking about when it comes to this question of life with God eternally. I think it's much more kind of scenario where a child is standing there by a hot stove and determined to stick their hand on it and burn themselves and the parent is saying, “No, don't do that because you're going to hurt yourself and you're going to hurt yourself badly.” And should the parent just be like, “Hey, no big deal. If you just want to go ahead and do that anyway, I'm not going to try and persuade you otherwise. I'm not going to do my best to convince you. I'm not going to try and pull you back from that fire.” No, no loving parent is going to do that. So I think there's a question also about what kind of scenario are we talking about? There are times when you absolutely want your parents to step in and do everything they can to dissuade you because it's an act of love. So it's really just a question of what sort of situation are we talking about here.
Vince Vitale: Yeah. And it's interesting how sometimes when you dig further into a person's question, if you just listen really carefully, they'll sometimes tell you what's behind the question and so there's a really interesting phrase in the question, even if they are a good person. And that's interesting, right? It's implying that heaven and hell is primarily about whether or not you're a good person. And that's a great starting point for conversation because that's not actually what Christianity says and so it's a great opportunity to maybe revise someone's opinion or misconception about Christianity and to say, actually, I used to think, and I did, that Christianity was about that, that heaven was about whether you were good or whether you were bad, but actually what it's about is whether or not you're in relationship with Jesus and those are two different things. Heaven is not a reward ceremony for those who have been good enough. It's a relationship with those who want to put their trust in God.
Vince Vitale: Those are two very different things, and so thinking about heaven and hell in terms of goodness is just a category mistake. One other way of putting it. You might say God's greatest desire is not for you to be good. I think He does want you to be good, but that's not his greatest desire. His greatest desire is actually just for you, just to be in relationship with you. And that can be very refreshing for someone to hear. It could really speak to someone's soul if that has not been their conception of God. And it's interesting how sometimes someone is saying, I don't want that right now. I don't want God in my life and yet I'm upset about the fact that in the afterlife if I don't want God, He will respect my decision. So right now I want Him to respect my decision with respect to the fact that I don't want Him in my life, but I'm upset about the fact that He would respect it in the afterlife and allow us to have that estrangement between us. There's a bit of a tension there I think as well.
Jo Vitale: Well because it's interesting because the implication seems to be, “Hey, because I think it's about being good that gets me into heaven, then that should be my outcome regardless of whether gold comes with it or not. But I would suggest that actually what you're implying here, if you follow that through, it basically leads to the sort of analogy where, I mean, imagine someone wants to ask you out on a date and you say, “No,” you're not interested in them, and you may very well be a good person, but they're just not the person that you want to date. They may be a good person, but you're not interested in the relationship. But that person doesn't take no for an answer. They tie you up, they stuff you in their basement and then they keep you in prison there in a relationship with them forever whether you want it or not.
Jo Vitale: I mean if that's actually what heaven is, if heaven is about relationship with God and you're saying “I should get it anyway, regardless of whether I want God,” that leads to a troubling analogy of its own. So it's worth pressing back and perhaps putting it in those terms and saying, “Is that what you're saying you actually want here?” And I think it needs to be cleared up. What is it we're talking about when we talk about heaven? And I think often what people want is, they basically want a system where it is about whether you're good or not. I think that's actually what people want. They want this reward system because people are always assuming, “Hey, well, wherever the line is, I'm going to come above it.
Vince Vitale: The line is right behind me.
Jo Vitale: It's below me somewhere. I can think of some terrible people who are very differently from me or whatever, but I'm going to make it into this batch of people who should be there. So therefore, let me do it on my own effort. But just take God out of the picture. Thank you very much. But that is such a fundamental misunderstanding of actually what goodness even is. If you want to take God out of the picture, you literally can't have the good things without him because they are actually grounded in him. You know, think about your life, every moment of joy, every impulse to love, every incredible sunset that you appreciate or this kind of orchestra, crescendo or breathtaking moment when a child is born or the times when you laugh so hard you literally can't breathe or something tastes so good that you literally sigh when you try it. Every good thing that we have in this life is dreamt up in the mind of God and it's just the smallest taste of what ultimate bliss is and that's what we find in Him.
Jo Vitale: But if you strip God away, if you actually tried to take God out of the picture and have these things without Him, you just can't have them because He is the source of those things and we talk about it as Christians in terms of common grace, the idea that in this lifetime God gives us access to good things. He's generous with us. He allows us to have a foretaste of what life could be like with Him when we have all those good things. But actually when you take God out of the way, that's what you're taking out. So it's not even possible to have that scenario where you remove God and wind up with the good rewards at the same time.
Vince Vitale: So it seems almost like their concept of heaven is like being really rich on earth. You have everything you want and that's basically it. But that's not the heaven of the Bible.
Michael Davis: Yeah, that's absolutely right. I think if you summarize what we've said so far here, when people say being good should be good enough for God, one, it assumes heaven is about how good you are. Right? And that's not true in Christianity. But then the other thing which you've been speaking to is that it assumes that we are good as well. And that's also something that Christianity doesn't say. And I find it interesting how easily we deceive ourselves about our own goodness. Right? We were saying that we want that line to be right behind us. But it's so interesting when you start to talk to people about society as a whole, everyone is quick to bemoan the evils and injustices of society. We all agree about that. But then somehow “Me and all of my friends are good people, right?”
Michael Davis: Like everyone, I know is a good person. But somehow when we start to talk about society, we all agree and it makes sense. You just look to the history of the 20th century and all the wars. You look to the slavery in the 21st century. I mean you go on and on, you just pick up a newspaper, listen to the news. We all agree about the evil that is present so deeply and so entrenched in society. But then we think that us, and everyone we know are good people. That doesn't make sense. There's a tension there. If we're right about the evils of society, then we need to look more deeply about what's actually in our own hearts.
Jo Vitale: And even bigger than that. I mean, what is greater in this generation than the cry of our hearts for justice and that deep longing that we have and why do we seem to want that as a society, politically and socially, and yet we don't think God should provide that? Even though we recognize time and again that our broken systems actually can't provide it, that justice fails time and again because it depends on our fluid understanding, and yet we then think, “Hey, there shouldn't be someone ultimately judging things. There shouldn't be the perfectly good loving God shouldn't actually be the one to deal with this and sort it all out.” It just, it doesn't make sense of our instincts. I may have mentioned this in a previous episode, but I've always loved the quote from Agatha Christie, my favorite murder mystery writer, in her book, Murder in the Vicarage, one of the protagonists basically has this line where they say, "I should hate it if when my time came, the only plea that I had to offer was that of justice because then only justice would be meted out to me."
Jo Vitale: You know, the point being you can't demand it for everyone else and then protest when God is going to bring it to yourself, and that is so hard for us to face it. And it should be hard for us to face because like Vince has said, if none of us are good, and I know myself, I know how utterly selfish I am. Martin Luther described sin as being curved inwards. It's basically that everything always winds up being about me before anyone else. And that's so different from a God who is all about others, is all about loving the other before himself. And we're always about putting ourselves before others. You can see the clash there. You can see why we're worlds apart and why God might have a different perspective for us. And yet his commitment to us is so big that even though justice is what we deserve and it's a very serious thing, he's doing everything that he can to reach out to us.
Jo Vitale: Thinking back to this parent analogy that we've been talking about, I mean, what is the greatest story known that Jesus tells about the kind of Father that God is? He's the God of the prodigal, the God who, as soon as someone turns around and comes back with even the slightest idea in their mind that perhaps they want to change their ways. This is the God who takes off running while they're still far off to reach them and to rescue them. Because far from being like, do it my way or I'll destroy you, he gives us the freedom to go our way, but he's doing everything he can to rescue us. His desire is for life, not for death. That is the heart of who He is.
Vince Vitale: Yeah. And in that beautiful story of the prodigal will coming home, he does at least make those initial steps home and the father sees him far off in the distance. But what if the child doesn't return home? And this is very real to us now and to you too, Michael, as we see our children begin to grow, but at some point they're going to become adults. At some point they're going to become old enough that we're going to have to respect some of the free decisions that they make.
Michael Davis: I need you to stop talking like this. It's not going to happen.
Vince Vitale: No profusely. But when that happens, and so many people around the world who've experienced this, what about when an adult child refuses to come home when they're in a really bad place and they refuse to come back to the family and they're hurting themselves in a terrible way? And what if the parent goes to them and does run after them and sleeps on the street with them and is willing to give their life for them and the child still won't come home? It's like the analogy you gave earlier, Jo, dragging the child home and locking the child up, as an adult child making a free decision, even if it's a decision to hurt him or herself, that's not the loving thing to do. The loving thing to do is to run after the child to make sure you're present there in the circumstances with your child, to be willing to do whatever it takes to lay down your life to give them that offer of returning home, and that's just what the Christian God has done.
Michael Davis: Yeah. So Jo, do you think maybe a lot of this has got something to do with a focus in certain churches where it really is more about behaving or you're going to go to hell, and maybe digging in deeper in regarding to maybe just that really, again, certain churches are so hyper-focused, very legalistic in that as long as my kid behaves or as long as I behave in a certain way, but it really is less grace and more hell.
Jo Vitale: Yeah, and I think that's right. I think that did creep into the church in a big way culturally for a long time. And to my mind, that is the saddest thing because the very place that should be preaching grace, the church is supposed to be a hospital for the sick. The very people Jesus came for becomes the place of condemnation. And it's such a perversion of what God has called us to be, which is to be a city on a hill, like a light shining in the darkness where if you're lost and hurting, you can come limping in and find hospitality and warmth and love.
Vince Vitale: And you said Jo, it's a perversion and it's also an inversion. You know, Ravi sometimes says that Christianity is the only system in which redemption precedes righteousness. So it's not that righteousness is not important and it's not that judgment is not important within the Christian faith, but redemption comes first. We first have that welcome home from the Father and then it's out of the overflow of gratitude in our hearts and the empowering of the Holy Spirit who comes to live in our hearts that then hopefully we can begin to live in a better way.
Michael Davis: Amen. Well guys, we are out of time. Vince, sum it up for us.
Vince Vitale: Well, I hope one of the things that you're hearing from this episode is that God desires all to be saved. He is not someone who's saying, My way or the highway,” just for the sake of it. He's not arbitrarily just giving us legalistic rules. He's not just saying Because I say so.” He's saying, "No, open up my word. Dig into it deeply. I've given you a lot of pages here, not just to say “Because I say so, but to tell you how much I care about you and why I'm asking you to live the way I'm asking you to live." It's not that God desires hell for us, but sometimes we choose hell, not just in the afterlife. Sometimes we make a choice that's similar to that even now, because we make the choice that we wanted to have apart from God. We want to do things our own way. And for a lot of us, we're choosing that right now and it isn't working. Is it time to try another way? Is it time to make a different choice?
Michael Davis: Vince, Jo, thank you guys so much for joining me. Thank you all for listening and we will catch you guys next time.
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