As the country commemorates Independence Day, I thought of writing a short reflection of what independence and freedom means in the context of my religious upbringing.
From an early age, I had been taught that because God loves me, he sent his son to die in my place. It didn’t matter that I was just a chubby kid who loved dogs and reading comics. I deserved to burn in hell because I was a sinner — because I was a descendant of Adam and Eve who ate the forbidden fruit. It didn’t yet occur to me to ask why the Divine Gardener conveniently placed the forbidden fruit right smack in the middle of the garden where it was easily within reach.
Anyway, because of this, I was born with a fallen nature — that was why even as a child, I could lie, think bad thoughts, and disrespect my parents. Now, we may think these are small faults but an infinitely Holy God supposedly could not tolerate even the tiniest speck of sin. The usual Sunday school example was that if you take a pristine white tablecloth and put a drop of black ink on it somewhere, it wouldn’t be considered clean anymore. So because of that, my soul deserved to burn in hell for all eternity and there is no redemption for it at that point.
Yet, if I decided at this point, to accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior, then I would be saved from this eternal fate and instead of roasting in hell, I would be feasting in heaven (though hopefully not on the flesh of those roasting in hell).
This decision was posed an exercise of freedom, that I was free to choose my own destiny — that of eternal bliss or of eternal torment — and I had to do that at an age when if you asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would answer, “Batman” — but I had to decide at that moment, because one never knows when death would come calling (child deaths are a grim reality) and by then, it would have been too late.
Even to adults, this decision is posed as an exercise in freedom. “You’re free to choose,” is the standard line of many preachers, “but know that if you make the wrong choice, then it’s off to hell you go.”
That was the doctrine I was brought up with, in a nutshell, and as an adult, I find it absurd.
Any court of law will tell you that a decision made under stress or threat is not one that is made freely. If, for example, a person holds a wealthy man’s family hostage and threatens to kill them if he doesn’t sign a contract handing over his business and properties to the hostage-taker, the man can always contest the validity of the contract later on, if he can prove that it was signed under duress and not of his own free will.
In a similar fashion, I would say that a decision made for Christ under the threat of unspeakable, everlasting torture, cannot be one that is freely made. The “choice” is no choice at all for what lunatic would choose otherwise? And even if a lunatic did choose otherwise, we would seriously question that person’s sanity and mental health.
Of course, I am aware of various theologies which try to explain this. Some would say that God simply respects your decision to not be with him. Fine, then, so why the eternal torture? If a man courts a woman, asks her to marry him, and she says no, can he say, “All right, I respect that, but as a consequence of your decision, I’m going to lock you up and torture you?”
Oh but hell isn’t torture. Hell means “separation from God” and that softens the blow a little because compared to the Bible’s graphic depiction of hellfire, it is now some fuzzy, abstract concept of separation, like being in a limbo in some dark space — but I would argue that this is not what the book says.
Some would say that God is simply handing out “infinite punishment for an infinite offense” — said offense being not recognizing him as God. My response would be, does it have to be that way then? Does God have no choice but to mete infinite punishment? Why not finite punishment? He could just make you disappear and that’s that — there’s no need to keep torturing you forever, is there? Or he could just simply spank you on the butt and forgive you. Why does this omnipotent being seem so limited in his choice of actions? Surely there are better alternatives to throwing one into hell for all eternity with no chance of redemption.
As a father, there are numerous ways for me to teach my kids a lesson but never one that harms them for life. Even the mother of a convicted murderer still cries and pleads for mercy as he is led to the lethal injection chamber. Is her love greater than that who is supposed to be the father of us all?
There is meme going around on the internet with a picture of Jesus saying, “Love me, so I can save you from what I’m going to do to you if you don’t love me.”
But is that really love? And are you really free to make that choice?
Happy Independence Day.
Originally published in Sunstar Davao.