A while ago, a good friend of mine who was struggling with agnosticism and came to me with a question about Christianity. Some people, he said, claimed that Christianity’s “morality” wasn’t truly moral because God used heaven and hell as a system of punishment and reward. True morality, the argument goes, requires nothing more than itself to serve as motivation. You do something because it is right, or you don’t do something because it is wrong. But God goes farther than that: sin, and go to hell; don’t sin, and go to heaven.
I knew immediately that I disagreed with that characterization, but it took time to put it into words. My immediate response to the question was, “He doesn’t,” quickly expanded to, “God doesn’t use heaven and hell that way,” but that was followed by several false starts and incorrect explanations. Finally, I arrived at what I think is the correct response.
It all has to do with fundamental cause and effect, action and reaction. Take these two statements:
1: If you do your homework, you’ll get a cookie. If you don’t do your homework, you’ll get sent to your room.
2: If you touch the stove while it’s on, you’ll be burned. If you don’t touch the stove, you won’t get burned.
There’s a fundamental difference between them, and I think it’s vitally important. Can you see it?
In example 1, there is no inherent link between doing one’s homework and receiving a cookie. The cookie has nothing to do with doing homework or not doing homework; it’s an imposed effect, not a natural one. It implies that additional action will be undertaken by the one who promises, upon completion (or failure) of the required cause.
However, in example 2, there is an inherent link between the cause and effect. It’s neither a threat nor a promise. It does not imply that not being burned is a “reward” for not touching the stove, nor is being burned an external, imposed punishment for touching it. It is a mere statement of fact, a reflection of reality: True, undiluted cause and effect, with nothing added or taken away from it.
The attack that my friend brought up assumes that Christian morality is like the first example. It implies that sinning and righteousness have no inherent effect to them, and that God merely manipulates cause and effect: Like a parent giving a child a cookie for doing his homework, or sending him to bed for not doing it. This is, indeed, not true morality, because of the external rewards and punishments imposed on the situation. This morality is an arbitrary concept, not a fundamental fact of the universe.
But that’s not what we’re talking about when we bring up heaven and hell. it has nothing to do with God deciding to reward you or punish you based on your actions. Christian “morality”, if you want to call it that, merely states an objective fact of reality: God cannot abide sin.
It’s not that he merely chooses not to, like when I reject vegetables even though I could, in reality, choke them down if I had to. It’s not as though God, at the beginning of time, chose what things he would punish and what things he would reward. It’s that as God, as the Ultimate Reality, his very nature is such that he cannot abide sin.
This is a fact far deeper and more basic than any law of nature: It has to do with who God is. God cannot go against his nature, which is Goodness… and Goodness is relentlessly intolerant of evil.
There is no false morality, no manipulation of cause and effect in the workings of God. When God says, “when you eat from [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil], you shall surely die,” he is not making a threat. He is not bribing them not to eat of it, slipping them rewards to ensure their obedience. He is stating a fact about the tree and the natural consequences of eating the fruit: He is the parent, telling the child not to touch the stove lest he be burned.