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Is God obscure and arbitrary in what He wants from us?

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What does God want from us? Is it fair that He condemns us to Hell if He is so ‘hidden’? A skeptical correspondent raises these questions and more in a parable, to which CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds.

M.B. from Australia writes:

You walk into a classroom. On the blackboard, the teacher has written on the board “You have one hour to find out what the color of the box is”. You are given 4200 books which were written thousands of years ago—all of which stating that the box is a particular color. You try asking the teacher questions about the box, but he does not reply.

At the end of the hour, teacher then rewards the students that guessed the right color and then sends the rest of the children to detention. You argue that it was logical to say that you didn’t know because you knew nothing about the box (where it was, where it came from etc). But this isn’t a good enough excuse and you are sent to detention.

How is this fair? This is exactly how God treats his children …

If you do not believe this is fair, then god is unfair, and why do you believe?

CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:

There is little correspondence between your parable and how God treats us. For a start, your story assumes that God has left us completely in the dark about His power and majesty, which Christianity denies. We don’t need the Bible to know we have a moral obligation to worship God and give thanks to Him, and we don’t need the Bible to know we fall far short of honouring Him properly:

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness, because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give him thanks, but they became futile in their thoughts and their senseless hearts were darkened” (Romans 1:18–21, NET; emphases added).

And once these points are established, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that, just as we demand justice when we’re wronged, so God has a right to demand justice for us wronging Him. The ancients had a rather implicit understanding of this evinced in the universal practice of religious sacrifice. Why else would people bother with such a costly and impractical system? Why not just kill the animals for meat and be done with it? As such, people come into the ‘classroom’ before any books are opened without any excuse for not already being aware of important truths about God and themselves.

Next, the point about the 4,200 ancient books is irrelevant. A plethora of religious texts does not mean the ideologies espoused in them are any good, or that all of them are false. Moreover, if an exclusivistic religion like Christianity or Islam is true, that automatically falsifies all religious claims that contradict it. That’s why studying the exclusivistic religions is the best way to start any search for religious truth—if any one of them is true, then that automatically ends your search. You don’t have to know everything about every religion in the world to know that most of them are false.

Finally, your idea of ‘getting the colour of the box right’ has nothing to do with Christianity. We are not called to believe in something arbitrary about God; we are called to believe in the very specific and historical solution He has provided for our ‘just condemnation’ problem—Jesus of Nazareth, God the Son incarnate as a man sent to die for our sins and rise again to set us right with God the Father, such that if we trust in Jesus, we will be saved from our ‘just condemnation problem’. In other words, the Gospel deals with the very problem we should all be aware of—that is far from arbitrary.

And besides, what have you got to lose by properly investigating the truth claims of Christianity? I trust that you are not so irrational as to remain satisfied with facile parabolic misrepresentations of ideologies other than your own.

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Readers’ comments
Kristoffer D., Denmark, 24 January 2015
A very interesting answer to a very interesting question that i think a lot of people go on asking. Thank you. But i think there is an extra question that I would like to hear's stance on: How will God judge those who have not heard of Jesus Christ? I trust that God knows best, and that there must be a good answer, but I often times find my self questioning and doubting about this. What about those who have not heard about Jesus, or had a bible? I'd love your thoughts on this. Thank you for everything you do. God bless.
Shaun Doyle responds
Romans 2:6 is pretty plain: "He will render to each one according to his works". God will judge them based on their works in the light of the revelation they had received. However, since God has made his existence and majesty plain to all, nobody has an excuse for not worshiping Him and giving thanks. For more information on those who have never heard the gospel, please see What about those who have never heard? and What about ‘those who haven’t heard the Gospel’?
Geoff C. W., Australia, 25 January 2015
Like many people, MB seems to conclude that since there is something ot (gender-neutral pronoun for people) doesn't like about God, then God doesn't exist. I wonder if the last time MB had a headache (which was presumably disliked), ots brain ceased to exist.
Terence T., South Africa, 25 January 2015
Greetings Another inaccuracy in the parable given by M.B. is one I am joyful M.B. risked facing. That is asking the teacher who does not respond. The teacher does respond and He responded through Shaun Doyle. M.B. The Holy Spirit of God dwells in all who believe Shaun's reply. The teacher will respond to your questions through such people. May the Risen Lord Jesus bless you all Terence
Steve B., Australia, 25 January 2015
Why start with an illustration that criticises God M.B and not a question that might help you understand your own condition? Do you think people are naive? Please tell me M.B how you would run the universe?
Rob H., Australia, 25 January 2015
Shaun, your article is less than honest. You have assumed that the whole world is Christian, and that all people have the same idea of right and wrong. A Muslim in Saudi Arabia would have a very different view. Yet he too is dictated to by his clergy. His subsequent actions would warrant hellfire if he were Christian. He dies with a smile on his face . Does he go to heaven for his obedience to God, or hell because of his terrible crimes against humanity?
Shaun Doyle responds
I haven't assumed that everyone has the same ideas about right and wrong; I've assumed that God has one idea about right and wrong, and that He has revealed himself sufficiently to make people morally culpable for not following His ways. But this doesn't guarantee that everyone will have the same moral values; it just means that it's our fault that we don't. Nor did I assumed that everyone is Christian; I assumed that everyone should be Christian. Besides, how does the existence of abominable moral systems like Islam falsify the existence of objective morality? Counterfeits not only presume the existence of the real thing, but they also presume the value of the real thing. And even if some moral system is dictated to us, the responsibility for following or rejecting it is still ours. If someone is commanded to blow themselves up to kill infidels, he's not thereby fated to be a suicide bomber; he can (and should) still disobey. In a similar way, just because God dictates that homosexuality is sin does not mean it's thereby impossible for people to be homosexuals. They are commanded not to be, but it should be obvious that the command does not make people unable to disobey.
Thomas J., United States, 25 January 2015
Given the unfortunately weak analogy the enquirer offered to justify the suspension of his belief, the response was good. What it takes to persuade people is very difficult to determine at times since the "excuse", regardless of what it may be, is never the real reason for keeping one's knees straight. Using another poor analogy, they are like the person trying to use a vending machine. They are irritated that their homemade slug won't work when they refuse to use the coin of the realm, faith, given freely by the Spirit. Of course what might "make the penny drop" for each person varies considerably. Hopefully they never decide to just walk away.
James T., United States, 25 January 2015
I feel M B's argument is a bit like,a pre school teacher asking their students whats the answer to 2 + 2 = and the students were giving different answers other then 4 and then the teacher concludes there is no answer to the problem because their students were giving different answers to the problem.
Simon F., Australia, 25 January 2015
A more accurate parable would go something like: A child goes home and sits in front of the television. He ignores his Father because he has a bad attitude towards him. He does not say hello because he does not want to show respect. In fact, he has no interest in his Father because he does not like that his Father has rules in the house. Sadly, he has no relationship with his Father because he is held back by childish pride and arrogance. If only he would come and spend some time with his Father, he would learn that his Father loves him greatly and that the rules are designed to protect him but that he doesn't just want a robot who follows rules. Rather, the Father desires a son who loves him and trusts him, obeying rules out of a believe in the Fathers wisdom and desire to benefit his son. The reality is that we are all disobedient children and that the reason we know our Father God is because his goodness and mercy are so persistent.
Gennaro C., Australia, 26 January 2015
So many "unbelievers" are proposing dilemmas that in their opinion would struck down evidence of the God of the Bible's reality. But it seems to me that ALL of them show a common flaw - Dawkins included: all start their trial one step down the track ignoring the starting one: the battle between good and evil and the way God deals with it (that includes suffering). Darwin himself scabbed God off the system because he couldn't stand that some parasites can prosper only on their hosts bodies. They simply ignore Evil's reality. How can they solve an equation if one term is missing? Shaun's answer is excellent: Did M.B. "Accurately" investigate the matter (the God of the Bible)? Or it was started with an "assumption"? Some so called science is used to - which is totally un-scientific! How it comes that a number of biologists (university lecturers) do believe in the God of the Bible and in creation?
J. R., United States, 26 January 2015
The analogy leaves out several pertinent facts. First, the answer is in the textbooks provided ( the Bible). Second, only one person passes the test (Jesus). Third, the teacher announces that because one student passed the test all students in the class pass. We call that grace, God's undeserved love. The students now have two choices: believe they have received a passing grade because Jesus did and the teacher said so, or they can believe that Jesus couldn't have passed either and the teacher can't be believed. Those who believe the teacher will come back to class happy and thanking Jesus and the teacher. The others will continue to try to pass on their own or never come back to class. Analogies are poor ways to explain God's word especially if they are not carefully thought out. Reading and studying the Bible is the best way to know God's plan of salvation.
Steve B., Australia, 26 January 2015
Simon F., a great illustration of our condition but I doubt the impudent child would agree.
Jack P., United States, 27 January 2015
God is not fair! I was born in America into a "nuclear family." I know there are children born in other countries that will die with bloated bellies of starvation and disease. That is not fair! Fair is in August (unless when I told my kids in August that it was in July [when they really screamed that their treatment was unfair]) God is just! It is better to be with Him than to exist in our lives here. The innocents are better off than us. Death is! No matter what your circumstances. There are days I wish I was with Him 40 years ago, but His will keeps me alive (for some odd reason). Paul had the joy of the Lord during beatings, imprisonment, and torture. He wasn't treated fairly. Bottom line is: Being with Jesus in Eternity; not if there is fairness on earth. Our lives are just a vapor, praise Him.
Terry P., Australia, 27 January 2015
Paraphrasing MD’s question: Is not God unfair in sending to hell those who haven’t put their faith in him for salvation having never heard of him? «/ How is this fair? This is exactly how God treats his children …If you do not believe this is fair, then god is unfair, and why do you believe? — MD /» Well, the Son of God told us his own parable on his judgement of his servants… «/ ‘The servant who knew his master’s wishes, yet made no attempt to carry them out, will be flogged severely. But one who did not know them and earned a beating will be flogged less severely.’ — Lk§12:47 /» On the Day of Judgement, it appears that neither believer nor unbeliever will be able to gainsay his Creator’s judgement on all the things he or she had done to other people, whether those things be good or evil. «/ The time has come for the judgement to begin; it is beginning with God’s own household. And if it is starting with you, how will it end for those who refuse to obey the gospel of God? It is hard enough for the righteous to be saved; what then will become of the impious and sinful? So even those who suffer, if it be according to God’s will, should commit their souls to him — by doing good; their Maker will not fail them. — 1P§4:17-19 /» If MD has read that he should put his faith in God for the forgiveness of his sins, it’s in his own self-interest to believe in God, not disbelieve because he thinks he is unfair. Because, by disbelieving he is putting himself squarely in the camp of the faithless whom God has said he is sending to hell.
King T., South Africa, 27 January 2015
The basic assumption behind the parable posed by MB is that the children are innocent of any wrongdoing and that the "test" will declare them wrong and deserving of punishment if they fail. Hence the shout of "unfair" from the writer. In reality it's the complete opposite: We are all already guilty of sin and therefore condemned to eternal death. No amount of self-work can save us from it. As J.R. said above, it's God's mercy and grace which brings us into a right relationship with him and that's not of any of our own doing. It is therefore fair for God to pick and choose whom he'll allow into His kingdom. Even though the invitation is extended to everyone, not all will accept - in this case the one thing that they COULD/CAN/SHOULD do, they reject. So the idea behind the parable as stated is basically a bad excuse people use to not accept God's invitation. My neighbor uses exactly the same kind of logic to reject Christ.
Murk P., Canada, 28 January 2015
The one who became a servant among us is not in the business of hiding coloured boxes my friend. His love for you is demonstrated by Him getting dragged through the streets made from what He made. He hung on a cross made from wood which he caused to grow. He made it abundantly clear how we should live "follow me" no secrets Shaun - we don't need to read the Bible to know - but we do need the Bible to be true to know anything (thus including our culpability) Ie; since it is ultimate authority it does not depend people reading it to validate it Reality is what the Bible says it is. It is God's revelation of what was / is / and is to come. If the Bible is false no one can know anything.
Shaun Doyle responds
I agree; if the Bible is not true, then ultimately we are caught in a self-referential abyss where we can't know anything. See Naturalism in the light of reality for more on this.
Gavin B., Australia, 29 January 2015
Great response as usual from CMI, written with grace and tact, but with strength of conviction. I wanted to also point out two two big errors with this article. First, the teacher presents one right answer and many wrong answers. Yet God only presented one right answer - it was men who presented their own answers. The correct analogy would be a teacher giving a simple question and providing the answer, but some students arguing that the teacher is wrong and confusing other students. Secondly, the teacher punishes the students for getting the wrong answers. But humans are not punished for faulty theology - of course we must believe in the true gospel and not our own made up version - but we are punished primarily for our sins, not our unbelief. I want to also applaud your criticism, repeated very well by James T - as it relates to the assumption in the analogy that because there are so many belief systems it means that none are correct. This view is just simplistic, naive and faulty logic.