In a recent post, I discussed some weak objections to Christianity that were highlighted on Austin Cline's about.com site. There, Mr. Cline posted the following question (among others) which he apparently believes will cause the typical Christian to stop dead in his tracks with that deer-in-the-headlights look:
Free Will. Freedom to choose is given to man by God. Man has two main choices: 1) accept the Love of God and, upon death, go to paradise for eternity, 2) Refuse God and, upon death, just die, be utterly damned. How is that freedom of choice when it is the same thing as a gun to your head?
At the time, I didn't challenge the analogy, but merely commented, "If people truly lacked free will in the sense used in this question, there would be no skeptics." It now appears that at least one reader didn't understand my point. Hence, this post is intended to break this comment down a bit more.
Freedom of Choice vs. Free Will
The title of the objection Cline posted is "Free Will." This appellation suggests that the objection that follows is that people don't really have free will to choose or reject God -- or Jesus Christ, as the case may be. Instead, whether a person accepts or rejects God has been predetermined. But the title doesn't jive with the content of the objection which asks, "How is that freedom of choice when it is the same thing as a gun to your head?"
Let's be perfectly clear here: Having free will is not the same as freedom of choice. If a person lacks free will it means that the person has been determined and does not have the ability to act independent of the predetermined course. Thus, in a deterministic universe where people have no free will, people cannot choose a course contrary to what was laid before them. If they were predetermined to believe or not believe then they are constitutionally incapable of choosing to the contrary. Freedom of choice, on the contrary, means that the person has more than one choice and can choose between them. The lack of freedom of choice means that the person has the functional capacity to choose one thing over another, but cannot do so because the choices have been limited by some outside force. Thus, while the title says that the objection is about free will, the actual content of the objection is the lack of freedom to choose.
Non-Christians Prove Free Will
The non-Christian is obviously claiming that God is using coercion to force him or her to believe. In effect, God is holding his gun to the head of the non-Christian saying that if that person doesn't believe in Jesus then God will kill him. But that viewpoint is illogical if the objection is really talking about free will rather than freedom of choice.
Unless there is something that I'm missing, the very idea of holding a gun to one's head presupposes that the person being threatened has free will. No one threatens a person to force an action if that person is not free to choose whether or not to do the action demanded. Why put a gun to one's head if the person cannot do anything different regardless? This reminds me of the old National Lampoon magazine cover: "Buy This Magazine or We'll Shoot This Dog." In the National Lampoon cover, the dog is being threatened in an effort to sway the consumer to purchase the magazine. However, if the consumer has no free will and is predetermined to either buy the magazine or not buy the magazine, the threat is pointless -- the consumer will do only what he has been pre-programmed to do.
Thus, if God had created reality such that people had no free will then there would be no non-Christians. Alternatively, threatening non-Christians who lack free will would be pointless because the threat would have no ability to change the non-Christian's mind. This is necessarily true because people, being without free will, would either already be in the state of belief which God desires (1 Timothy 2:3-4) or they would be constitutionally incapable of changing their minds in response to the threat. There are no other alternatives. The existence of non-Christians establishes that people must have free will.
Hell Is Not a Threat
So, if the "gun to the head" doesn't work if the objection is to free will, does it work on the "God is limiting freedom of choice" objection? After all, if God is using coercion to force people to believe in Him, isn't that an actual limit to the freedom of choice?
Again, the existence of so many non-Christians establishes that if God is using this as coercion, it isn't particularly effective. Despite this hypothetical gun, more than a billion people (including many that have heard the Gospel and been raised in the church) have rejected Christianity. If more than a billion people ignore the coercion, it isn't particularly coercive, is it? After all, people are free to simply disbelieve in the existence of the hypothetical gun. That, in fact, was the one reader's comment in response to my original post. The commenter, Brad, first quoted my post and then added his own comment:
BK: I mean, the author apparently doesn't feel like having this so-called gun to his head has compelled him to accept Christ.
Commenter Brad: That's because the author doesn't believe there's a gun to his head. Obviously.
Now, maybe I'm a little slow but it seems to me that if a person is free to ignore the gun because there is no immediate consequence, the freedom to choose has not been a real factor in the choice being made. Thus, this hypothetical gun really has not adversely affected the non-Christian's choice at all.
Looking at this from another angle, it is back to the National Lampoon magazine cover. The dog on the cover is threatened if the consumer doesn't buy the magazine. If the person looking at the magazine cover doesn't believe the threat is real then that person is not coerced to buy the magazine. Even if the dog is really threatened, if the consumer doesn't believe it she retains full freedom of choice to either buy or not buy the magazine.
The Real Situation
To this point, I have been writing as if the "gun to the head" analogy is a fairly accurate analogy of the Christian belief regarding hell. It's not. The gun to the head analogy is a bastardization of Christian teaching. God doesn't ever say, "Believe in Jesus or go to hell." That's what people who don't believe want others to believe God is saying so that God sounds pernicious and arbitrary.
According to the conservative understanding of the Bible (to which I subscribe), what the Bible actually teaches is that people who are righteous will go to eternal life with God. However, if a person chooses to act in a manner that is unGodly, even once, then that person has made himself impure and God, due to his holy nature, cannot allow an impure/unholy person to spend eternity in his presence. The person must first be cleansed of the unholiness. If the person is not cleansed of the unholiness, the place that the unholy person will spend eternity is apart from God -- a place denominated "hell" in the Bible.
In this understanding, what the Bible essentially does is warn others that there are consequences to their actions. If someone engages in unrighteousness, that person is destined to spend eternity apart from God, the source of all life, love, goodness and mercy. So, what God has done (the Gospel or Good News) is provided us with the means to be cleansed so that we can spend eternity in joy with God. God isn't threatening non-Christians with hell if they don't believe -- you, me and everyone is already headed towards hell. Instead, he is offering everyone the chance for life merely by accepting His gift.
The Better Analogies
The problem with the analogy is that it pretends that God is somehow holding a gun against people's heads saying "believe or go to hell." That's not an accurate analogy. The more accurate analogy would be that the person who the bad analogy sees as being threatened with the gun has already been shot and is lying on the floor dying. God is standing there holding out his hand offering life to the dying.
And do you know what the sad part is? The person who held the gun and who fired the fatal shot is the person lying on the floor dying. It is a self-inflicted fatal wound. We are the cause of our own unholiness -- not God.
That is quite a different outlook than the viewpoint of the question as posted by Austin Cline. It is the same difference one might see when a mother tells her child, "Don't play in the street because you'll get hit by a car." In one view, a cynical person can see those words as a threat, but that would be looking at a mother's love in an ugly and limiting fashion. In the fuller view, it's a statement to the child that there are consequences to actions, and the mother is warning of the consequences out of deep love and concern for her child's well being.
What the objection sees as a threat, Christians see as concern rooted in love. Certainly, it isn't the kind of objection that should leave any Christian feeling puzzled if they simply understand that the question contains flawed assumptions.