A recurring theme I’ve seen in conversations with skeptics is the notion that God is a tyrant. His commands are arbitrary and unfair, they say, and he enforces them with the threat of eternal pain and suffering. Not long ago, an unbeliever framed it like this:
“The God of the Bible seems barbaric to me. He’s no better than the Nazis or Japanese of World War 2, rewarding people for towing the party line but torturing others who dare to disagree. Your “god” is the worst kind of tyrant.”
There is quite a bit packed into this challenge, and the emotional overtones of an evil occupying army can make a rational assessment of the merits of the argument a bit difficult. Let’s consider for a moment what underlies this challenge: the military tyrants being referred to were brutal and dictatorial; they brooked no opposition and punished people with torture and death for the slightest infractions. They offered little or nothing in return. In short, they used people as little more than animals and discarded them as if they were so much garbage.
Does any of this resemble our knowledge of a perfect God? God created us from nothing and breathed life into us. He gave us free will and promised us a share in eternity with him. Reflect for a moment on what that means. Eternity with a perfect and infinite being makes the greatest pleasure or satisfaction that we can imagine here seem like playing in the mud. But we did not embrace that gift. By “we,” I do not mean simply Adam and Eve; I mean that every human being who has ever walked the Earth has used their free will to rebel against God, to strain against the yoke of obedience to God, to refuse to accept God as creator and father. In so doing, we sin. God did not create sin. He did not force us to sin. Nor did he create evil, for a perfectly good God is not capable of creating evil. What we call evil is simply the gap that we create between us and God when we use our free will to rebel against him.
Despite our rebellion, God crafted a solution that would allow us to nonetheless be reunited with him. It involved God becoming a man and living a perfect life. God did not punish his Son, nor did he inflict torture on him. God the Son volunteered to perform this saving act; having lived the perfect life, he was the only human being who could stand before God and be judged worthy on the merits. No other human can do this. Remember that God is an eternal being; consequently, each one of our sins – our acts of rebellion against him - is an eternal offense. And since he embodies infinite perfection, even the smallest of those departures, those sins, amounts to an eternal offense against God. For God to be just, he cannot ignore such rebellion; he cannot accept us as we embrace and celebrate our sin, no more than we would allow a son or daughter to remain at home while living a criminal lifestyle. Instead, there must be a transaction in which we give up our sin, in which there is atonement for our rebellion, before he can be reunited to us. When we refuse to do this – for whatever reason – God is certainly within his rights to separate from us. This eternal separation from God is what we call hell. It is no different than what we do when we put criminals behind bars or when we lock our doors at night; one of our most basic rights involves the power to associate or separate ourselves from others.
God has the power, and the right, to separate himself from all of us, as an act of perfect justice. That he provided a solution is a gift, not an act of tyranny. This gift comes not through the torture of Jesus, but through Jesus’ voluntary participation in the transaction. It works like this: Had Jesus committed even one minor sin, he too would have been eternally distanced from God. Having to pay his own price, he would have no standing to accept punishment for us. But Jesus was different; he had not sinned and consequently, God had no basis to punish him. When Jesus volunteered to accept our punishment, he asked God to pour out his wrath upon him. Jesus accepted that wrath – the outpouring of God’s perfect justice - for us and in so doing he balanced the books. By allowing Christ to pay this price, and by making salvation through Christ a free gift to anyone who desires it, God satisfied the requirements of perfect justice, perfect love and perfect mercy.
But of course this begs a question. What if I didn’t ask Jesus to do this? What if I do not want his help? On what basis does a fair God force me to receive it against my will? He does not, and that of course is the point. In the end, the separation I seek by not asking God for salvation is granted to me. Doing otherwise would make a mockery - a lie - of any notion of free will.
Is God a tyrant? No more so than a loving parent who sets the rules for an errant child and expects them to be followed. Actions have consequences, and we ignore that at our peril. But wanting to have our way and still escape the consequences is not a smart bet. And calling God a tyrant for meaning what he says will not change that.