There’s a belief, widespread among the devout, that God will punish you if you don’t worship Him. This theme recurs in major religions:
• Christianity: Worship God through Jesus or spend eternity skewered on a spit in Hell
• Judaism: You’re the Chosen, but if you disregard God’s commands, there’s big trouble ahead
• Islam: Worship Allah or get your head chopped off
And so forth. The basic theme is, you must show devotion, or God opens up a can of whoop-ass.
Which raises a serious problem: How can you tell if you’re doing it right? God hasn’t blessed you with a single, solitary comment in your entire life! You must rely on others who claim to have heard from him but who differ on the particulars. Meanwhile, the clock’s ticking: one wrong move and it’s curtains!
It’s as if God were a cranky, arbitrary boss who needs constant reassurance but won’t tell anyone if they’re pleasing Him until He suddenly fires them.
But let’s say you get into Heaven after all (Hallelujah!), and you’re fitted out with a nice robe and some wings, and you float over to a gigantic, gleaming-white house of worship that’s crowded with the faithful, and you all sing some hymns, and then the sermon is delivered by a famous dead saint whose name you can’t recall, and partway into it the saint intones, “We love God with all our hearts!” … and the full horror of your situation hits home: God can certainly read your mind!! And you know yours is full of doubts and heresies, not to mention dirty thoughts about that cute married neighbor who lived down the street when you were still alive. It’s only a matter of time before God appears before you and, in a voice that combines a symphony orchestra with exploding bombs, demands, “How did you get into My House, you blasphemer!!” He points downward, and a trap door opens under your feet and you fall like a rock until you splash into a pit of bubbling lava.
(I think I just channeled Jonathan Edwards.)
True believers may reply, “But anyone with a mind like that would never be admitted into Heaven.” Which leaves out pretty much everyone you ever met.
A number of questions crop up:
• Why would God be so petty as to give a flying patootie how you or I or anyone feels about him? Is He that insecure?
• Why must God play a guessing game with your immortal soul, wherein a single wrong answer can lead to eternal torment? That doesn’t sound divine; it sounds sadistic.
• Why must God enlist millions of people to go around preaching or warring in His name? Did He make a mistake the first time and now needs others to fix it?
• Why would God be angry with, or wish to torment, any of His creation? Isn’t He, you know, beyond that? (With respect to Christian beliefs: how could the “God of Love” have gone so far off the rails?)
Okay, okay, I confess, I’m being rhetorical. My point is that it’s we who — arrogant little bastards that we are — endow God with personality traits of our choosing. It’s we who project onto Him our fears about a scary father or a punishing employer. But it seems pretty unlikely that the Ruler of the Universe would turn out to be a spoiled, murderous sociopath who loves you until you stop paying attention, then goes postal and hurls you into an eternal bonfire.
Maybe the reason these dark beliefs about God are so popular is that they’re promoted by the people most likely to benefit from them — preachers. Scaring the flock is a form of what I call “deodorant marketing”, which makes up a problem for you and then sells you the solution: “You might be stinky! But we have the cure!”
If there’s a Hell, wouldn’t it be more likely God is trying to keep us out of it rather than threatening to put us in? As in: “This way! Follow this man, Jesus! He’ll help you out of there!”
I wouldn’t presume, as some do, to know the Mind of God. But I’ll make a wild guess and predict that a deity worthy of worship wouldn’t care at all what we think of him — or, for that matter, what we do with our lives. After all, we’re part of God’s creation, right? And God’s perfect, right? Therefore, so are we, warts and all. So He’s not gunning for us.