The image to the right features an actual sign at a church in the area, and just across the street, another sign reads, to paraphrase: “Heaven: A prepared place for a prepared people.”
A friend of mine made a salient point years ago that, of course, still holds true today, even as Christianity has been losing ground to nonbelief the last few years in America (more recent research from Pew shows a similar trend), if church leaders insist on using passive methods like billboard messages to attempt to reach the public, they should at least be focused on getting people into the doors of the church, rather than making theological points that a large portion of unchurched people aren’t going to understand in the first place.
In any case, indulge me while I unpack the message in billboard above and the message posted across the street. “When God made you, it was love at first sight” is essentially saying that, based on theology and biblical teaching, that God’s creation, man, was made in Yahweh’s image and was, thanks to God, endowed with free will to choose right from wrong and was given remarkable intelligence and complexity to be able to rule over the earth as a unique being among God’s other creations. It is also saying, from a more specific and modern standpoint, that God’s love extends to everyone and, to flesh out the idea a little further to really capture what the church teaches, God supposedly loves everyone so much that he sent his son to die on the cross for the atonement of sins, and even when a person chooses not to accept this “free” gift of salvation, God is supposedly grieved by the loss.
If we work through the theology logically and take the Bible and Christian doctrine at face value, we can see that neither statement about God’s love happens to be true, and even if it were, God’s love is actually inferior to the human conception of real love.
Here, I will have to slip into rhetorical language and speak as if I think all of this could be true for the sake of argument. Some Christian apologists have misunderstood this technique, as they misunderstand a great many things, to mean that I might actually believe in God and that I simply don’t like the story or don’t want to accept it. I, in fact, don’t believe, but in order to argue against this theology, I have to assume, at least for the duration of this post, that it could be true in order to fully work through its implications.
So, with that out of the way, the first thing that needs to be said is “God’s love,” agape love, is supposedly the highest form of affection that can be bestowed on another being in the universe, but as we shall see, it is a strange, debased, almost perverse, kind of love. Since we are told that “God is love,” I will speak of love as if it’s a stand-in for God himself (or herself).
God’s love is the kind of love that made it perfectly acceptable to place a wager on Job’s life, one of the deity’s most devout servants, and then stand idly by while this beloved follower was stricken with all sorts of personal maladies and afflictions. It’s the kind of love that commanded Abraham to kill his only son as a demonstration of his own love and devotion.
It’s the kind of love that created humans with the full knowledge that Satan would wander into the garden, under the roving, all-knowing eye of Yahweh, tempt Adam and Eve and cause the fall of the entire species.
It is the kind of love that foresaw from before the beginning how man would suffer and die for thousands of years under unimaginable brutality, enslavement, famine and disease and watched, as Christopher Hitchens has said, with “indifference” and “folded arms” before finally deciding to get involved a few thousand years ago in largely illiterate Palestine.
It’s kind of love in which the end, the salvation of mankind and the consecration of the new covenant, justifies the means by the morally bankrupt concepts of scapegoating and vicarious redemption.
It’s the kind of love that is responsible for heaven and hell, Satan, original sin and indeed, evil itself. For, if God is not ultimately responsible for these things — all of these things — he is not omnipotent or omniscient, and thus, not God.
It’s the kind of love that foisted mankind, without giving us any say in the matter, into a cosmic chess match between the forces of good and evil.
It is the kind of love that compels man to reciprocate that love, bend the knee or perish forever, that commands us to love someone in whom we must also fear.
It is the kind of love that condemned man even before he was created and then proceeded to make humans the carriers of a disease the church calls original sin that has only one cure — that same love, a terrible love.
If all of this is true, God, equipped with the complete knowledge of human history before creating a single biological cell, still hurled mankind into the grist mill, into the wreckage of earth, where we are told that the wheat will eventually be separated from the chaff, where far more than half of us, either unaware of the gospel message or unable to use our reasoning capacities to verify the authenticity of the stories and holy texts, would be cast down to perdition to cringe and scream and burn forever and ever, where we are shuttled out of the womb into the shadowlands, hobbled from the start by ancestral trespasses and original sin.
This is what you must believe about God’s love in order to be a Christian. Perhaps even more wicked is the idea that God, having knowingly shackled his “good” creation right from the beginning, “prepared a place” for those who, concluding that life without Big Brother was just too difficult a prospect, could then be shuffled away to a gloomy ingathering once the veil of woe was finally draped over all of life — the creator paralyzing his own creation and then calling the one and only antidote true love.
At issue, then, are the basic contradictions or incompatibilities between God’s love, humanity’s idea of love and the theological concept of sin.
If God, in his omniscience, was somehow surprised or caught off guard by man’s first disobedience, he’s not omniscient and thus, not god. Those who view the Adam and Eve story simply as an allegory still have to account for the enduring dissonance between God’s love and the problem of evil. If evil springs from God, then God is the progenitor of evil, and is thus, not omnibenevolent; if evil came from another source outside of God, then God is not a unilateral, self-sufficient agent, and is thus, not singular or all-powerful.
Apologists may argue that our idea of love and God’s idea of love as presented in the Bible are two different things: God can see the big picture and his version of love is more broadly defined to include a system of punishments and rewards as a way to teach and help us grow in the faith — the common refrain that we should become more “spiritually mature” — whereas humans’ concept of love is more narrowly focused on interactions and affection in the here and now. But for humans to even be capable of loving someone that we can only read about and pretend to talk to in our heads, God’s love must be relateable to us in some real way, and as I have argued, any reasonable examination of the gospel story will find that this love, real or imagined, holds little intrinsic value, except to those who are the most wishful-thinking, ill-begotten, downtrodden and hopeless.
The Bible must be an attempt to appeal to us, on some level, by human standards of love, but for many of the reasons I just laid out, it fails.
We can even go so far as to say that the modern conception of human love and affection supersedes godly love by several large degrees, and the contrast could not be anymore pronounced.
Real love, unlike godly love, does not come with contingencies. Real love, unlike godly love, is not compulsory and cannot be forced. Real love does not require a series of tests and temptations for verification of authenticity. Real love does not come prepackaged with guilt and fear. Real love is a two-way street. Real love does not require the complete surrender of a person’s individuality. Real love means caring for someone else selflessly as they are, not for who they should be or will be at some point in the future.
Real love, most importantly of all, is unconditional.