I don't know about you, but I've heard this objection to God and Christianity several times, and it goes something like this: "Would God really punish someone who just grew up being taught the wrong things, who grew up being taught to believe the wrong things? Does God punish people for wrong beliefs?"
You may notice something about the way I said that. That's not actually an assertion, at least formally speaking; it's a bunch of questions. And there's a tendency today for many people who are espousing theologically liberal views to not so much come right out and say their view and make an assertion and defend it with arguments and evidence, but to just ask a lot of questions. In fact, I've kind of joked with some friends that you can generally tell - and this is not totally accurate - but how theologically liberal someone is by reading what they write about God and counting the number of question marks per sentence in the article. The higher the ratio, the more likely something's going on there. Now, that is not a surefire rule by any means. I say that pretty much just humorously. However, we should be suspicious when someone makes their points more with questions than with answers and with clarity. That's pretty much what I want to convey there.
So we're talking today about this assertion that God isn't going to punish people for just believing the wrong things; He's more concerned about us loving each other. That's the idea we're going to talk about today.
God Says Beliefs Matter
The first thing is, when anyone claims to say what God believes and what He's really like, the question you have to ask is, how do you know? How do you know that's what God believes, that's what God expects? The only consistent answer is if we go to His Word and we take Him at His Word and we understand what He has said in Scripture. And so let's look at some passages that talk about belief and how essential it is, or not, for Christian practice and for being right in God's eyes.
John 20:31 says, "These events were recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing, you may have life in His name."
I don't think John is endeavoring to write a very systematic, theological view of how salvation happens and the aspects of belief and faith and trust and action all here, but at a very minimal level, what we can say is that he strongly links believing with having life in Jesus' name, with becoming a new person, with becoming a Christian. I think that is very safe to say. It is by believing in the name of Jesus, trusting in that name, we could also say, that you become right with God. That's John 20:31.
Let's look at John 3:16.
"For this is the way God loved the world: He gave His one and only Son so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal life."
Our belief here, once again in John, according to Jesus, is what allows us to have eternal life. Believing in Jesus is necessary to be a Christian, to have eternal life.
Let's look at John 3:18, which, of course, comes shortly after 3:16.
"The one who believes in Him," that would be Jesus, "is not condemned. The one who does not believe has been condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God."
So this comes right after John tells us that Jesus did not come into the world to condemn it, but to save it. However, He needed to save it because it already stood condemned because people had not believed in the Son of God, had not believed in God. And so belief here, once again, is inextricably linked. You can't separate this from what is necessary to be right in God's eyes, to be a Christian. Belief does matter in God's eyes.
Another passage we can look at briefly would be Galatians 3:6, which says, quoting the Old Testament, "Just as Abraham believed God, it was credited to him as righteousness." So if we return to our initial assertion, really phrased in the form of a question, would God really punish people who believe the wrong things? Well, if we take God at His word in the Bible, the answer is yes. If you do not believe in God, that means you believe incorrect things, then you would be punished for those. Believing wrong things is actually a pretty big deal.
Now, that's not the only reason someone gets punished, and we don't have time here in this podcast to support the idea that the people actually are punished for their sins, that God justly extends His wrath toward people who break His law and are not found in Christ. (In fact, I'm trying to keep these episodes a little shorter because they've been creeping up from 14 minutes, and that's kind of my target, and of course, this digression hasn't helped that. So back to our topic.)
"Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness." Our beliefs are extremely important. Now, we may separate out belief a little more from action and from trust a little more than certain biblical authors do, and I do think that's important to remember. Belief is incredibly important.
So our first point when responding to this claim that God really wouldn't punish people for wrong beliefs; He's more concerned that we love each other. Our first point is that God says He actually is concerned with our beliefs, and there are correct and incorrect beliefs and they actually have eternal consequences. We should, as Christians, be very careful with what we believe. We should test everything against the Word of God, test our own understandings against the Word of God, test our own understanding of a given passage against another passage. Use Scripture to interpret Scripture. So we need to be very concerned with what we believe, but we also need to be very concerned with what others believe.
So parents, it's incredibly important that your children believe the right things about God, that we raise up our children - it's a little odd for me to say that; I'm getting used to this idea still that my daughter will be born at the end of October, so I need to start thinking more like a parent - but something that already stands out to me is how much the Bible holds parents accountable for teaching their children to believe the right things. We see this in Deuteronomy 6 with the Shema. "Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall worship the Lord your God." And he goes on to tell Israel, specifically fathers, but we can say family units, to teach their children to believe these things, to talk of them when they get up, when they go to sleep, when they walk on the road, when they're at the dinner table. Teach your children is the strong command of Scripture. Why? Because beliefs really matter.
So that's our first point: God says what we believe matters. And He's in the best position to tell us. But we can say a little more about that, and I think we can help reinforce this idea with some areas in life where people take this for granted. So the non-Christian making this claim that God doesn't really care about our beliefs doesn't actually live consistently with that idea that beliefs don't matter in pretty much every other area of life.
Beliefs Matter in Other Areas of Life
Here's an example: What you believe about your spouse really matters. If you don't believe they're your spouse, you won't act like it. I think this makes the very common sense point that our actions flow from our beliefs. We don't always act totally in accordance with what we would say we believe, but nonetheless, we act in accordance, in a pattern, with how we believe. So if I don't believe a woman is my spouse, I am not going to act towards her like she's my spouse or my wife. My belief really matters there. So if I'm not acting towards my wife like she's my wife, and let's say I actually try and marry another woman or I sleep with another woman and I don't think it's an affair because I don't think this other woman is my wife, well, I have actually done something wrong. I have sinned against this other person, and this person would justly, on the Bible's view, have grounds for a divorce.
"Why?" Someone could say. Well, what do my beliefs really matter? Well, my belief that this woman was not my wife actually influenced how I lived. It affects so much. It affects how I view where I live and who I live with and who I have obligations to. Our beliefs really matter.
Another interesting example of where beliefs matter is when it comes to believing in God, and specifically in God creating everything and denying evolution, and then trying to get a job in a secular university. There have been many studies and documentaries done to show the fact that these people have a remarkably hard time getting a job or keeping a job or getting tenure. Why? Because even liberals and evolutionists understand that beliefs matter. If this person is not convinced of evolution, they're not going to teach evolution. Their worldview is going to be different than an evolutionary worldview. And so they are excluded from the academic academy, because even non-Christians understand in every other area of life that beliefs are important.
They're important when we form our worldview. They're important with who we live with and who we love and who we marry. And they're certainly important on the most important question of life, which is, who is God? How has He revealed Himself? What do we need to do to be right with God? Or perhaps said more accurately, what has God done to make us right with Him? And how do we get on board with that?
So beliefs matter in other areas of life too, when it comes to marriage, when it comes to jobs, when it comes to paying your taxes. If you don't believe you have to pay your taxes, you probably won't pay them, and the IRS is not going to care about your belief. They're going to come and take their money. Because beliefs matter because beliefs impact how we act also.
I want to be clear here: I think beliefs matter in and of themselves. To not esteem God as God means that we esteem something else in His place, which is idolatry, and that will impact how we act in tangible ways. But incorrect belief in and of itself is also a problem.
Needing to Love Each Other is a Belief
So, first point: God says beliefs matter. Second point: We don't act like this in other areas of life; we act like beliefs matter in other areas. And our third point is gonna hone in on the second point of the assertion that was made, that God's simply more concerned with us loving each other. He's not concerned with our beliefs. To which I would reply: is that a belief? Is it a belief that God is more concerned with us just loving each other, and if it is, which it is, then is God concerned with that belief? And how can you say God's not concerned about our beliefs about God and other things but then say that God's concerned with our belief about loving people? It sure sounds like you're saying God's concerned with our beliefs. And indeed He is.
The non-Christian, when making this assertion, even if it's stated in the form of a question, cannot escape the fact that beliefs matter. Beliefs matter to the person making this assertion. They hope you believe what they're trying to tell you. And they're trying to convince you that God at least cares about one belief, which is loving each other. But how would you know that? You would have to say, "Where has God spoken? Where has God said He's more concerned with our love than our truthfulness and accuracy?" And the fact of the matter is that Scripture links standing firm in the faith and loving each other at many points. We don't have to reject holding firm to biblical doctrines and orthodox beliefs in order to love people. In fact, I would say, if we do reject those, we have not loved the person we are called to love most, who is God. Certainly if we hold incorrect views about God and what He expects, we won't actually objectively be loving our neighbor well because we'll be giving them something other than God's truth, which is ultimately not loving. Maybe it's soothing, maybe it comforts them, but it ultimately just comforts them on their way to hell, and that is not loving.
We don't have enough time here to talk about culture's redefinition of love and how it's actually wreaking havoc in the church and with individual Christians, but nonetheless, we can't separate this idea that faithfulness and devotion to God's truth is inextricably linked to how we love God's people and God's creation and everyone created in His image.
The need to love each other is itself a belief, and we're being told with this assertion that God's not so concerned with our beliefs. So there's a self-refuting nature with this objection.
Well, I hope this has been helpful. I have heard this claim a fair amount and I wonder if you have, too. Basically, it isn't wrong for God to punish people based on their beliefs because their actions also matter, but how we believe about God, what position He occupies in our mind, and how He orders our worldview and our desires and our directions and our actions is very important. We've looked at that from Scripture; we've given examples from marriage and even how secular universities hire and evaluate candidates, and we've also seen that the claim itself that love is more important to God is a belief that, at least from this person's point of view, God is concerned with.
So we can be more prepared to reason with this person, to walk them through this, and hopefully to show them that they need to be concerned with what they believe about God, because God is concerned with what they believe about Him.