There is probably no quicker way to turn a morally sensitive believer into an atheist than by telling her that she has to set aside her deepest moral intuitions when thinking about God. People who are told to blindly submit to a harsh and vindictive conception of God that seems completely opposed to everything they know about what is good and just places an enormous psychological burden on them that is too great to bear. Oftentimes the only way people can see to be released from this is to stop believing in a God altogether. While I don’t blame them, and even think that atheism can be a much better worldview than bad theism, there is another option. That option is to let go of a certain conception of God, while still being open to envisioning God in a different way.
Traditional teaching on hell, and its insistence that God’s moral goodness is totally different from human moral goodness, has probably done more to contribute to atheism than anything else. Atheists have traditionally been branded as immoral, but many of them reject traditional theism out of deep moral convictions; convictions that say that a God who tortures people forever for sin that they couldn’t help avoiding in the first place is not worth worshiping. I think they are on to something, and they are right to challenge a religious response that appeals to divine mystery to justify actions that we would immediately and unequivocally label as evil if attributed to human beings.
Christians with a traditional perspective on everlasting punishment often appeal to the “God’s ways are higher than our ways” argument, implying that we should just believe the traditional view and not ask questions. I would point out that God’s ways are higher than our ways, not lower than our ways. I have always heard the higher-ways-of-God argument brought out when some kind of cruel picture of God is being defended. Before looking into it, I just assumed that wherever people got this argument from in the Bible, it must have been in a context where God’s vindictive and retributive punishment was being defended. I expected the passage to read something like, “My anger burns forever against the wicked, and my punishment, unlike that which comes from mortals, shall know no end. My ways are higher than your ways, declares the Lord.” That isn’t in the Bible, but this is:
Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isa 55:6–9)
When Isaiah throws out the higher-ways-of-God argument, it isn’t to defend the vengeful punishment of God; it is to defend the abundant mercy of God! To take this text and use it to defend a conception of divine justice and goodness that certainly seems much worse than any human understanding of justice and goodness is to use this text for the opposite purpose than it was originally intended. Isaiah isn’t asserting that God can do evil and call it “good” because God is God. He is proclaiming that God’s goodness is infinitely deeper and wider than human goodness; that God’s ability and desire to mercifully pardon human beings is beyond our understanding.
We should not set aside our divinely-implanted moral conscience when evaluating different understandings of God. I know some will say this is too human-centered, and that it makes humanity the measure of all things. While there may be something to that worry, I would respond like this: if we don’t use our conscience, how could we tell the difference between a revelation from God or the Devil? Blind submission seems a far more dangerous route than critical thinking. I would also add that it was Jesus who taught us to think about God on the analogy of human goodness:
Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:11-13)
Jesus told us to use human standards of goodness in our conception of the divine. Jesus was confident that however good a human parent may be, the divine parent is far better. That should be our confidence as well.
Excerpted and adapted from Flames of Love: Hell and Universal Salvation.