Although it can be worded countless ways, one of the objections for God I hear all the time is this:
How can anyone believe in a loving god who demands that people worship Him and condemns them to Hell for an eternity if they do not?
Somehow it doesn’t sit right.
First, I often get this objection from people who claim to lack a belief in God which begs the question. If a person doesn’t believe in God or Hell, why would they worry much at all about why a being who doesn’t exist might send anyone to a place that doesn’t exist?
I don’t spend any time sweating over the fact that 23 virgins won’t be waiting for me in Heaven, or that I won’t be reincarnated, or that I won’t be god of my own planet someday…as other faith systems believe because the logic in endlessly contemplating what one believes isn’t true has never made sense to me.
Second, the question misrepresents the nature of God, worship, judgment, and Christian theology as nearly everyone who is familiar these things understands them.
If God were truly forcing us to worship him, 99-100% of the world’s population would be Christian. Obviously, this is not the case, so perhaps God’s intention is not to force us after all. Many people reject Christianity and even the notion of God, so clearly we have the freedom to believe God and hell don’t exist. If God meant to force everyone to worship him, he would not have allowed people to doubt his existence or coming judgment.
But suppose that one believes God exists and will throw those who don’t worship him into hell. When the scenario is depicted as a choice between flattering a despot or torture, it seems that one is unethically forced into worship. In reality, the choice is between choosing to do good by loving God and following him, or choosing to reject God and do evil. One is rewarded for doing good and punished for doing evil, but this is not necessarily coercion. In society, people are punished with fines or incarceration for doing wrong, yet no one would say that we’re forced to obey the law; in fact, many choose to commit crimes, even when there is a great chance they’ll be caught. In many other situations, people choose to receive immediate gratification despite knowing there will be negative consequences later. People get drunk, knowing they’ll have a hangover the next day; students have fun during the weekend instead of doing homework, knowing they’ll get bad grades on Monday; people conscious of their weight indulge in foods that are delicious but also fattening. In each case, there is a clear choice: self-gratification now and unhappiness later, or self-discipline now and reward later.
Coercion is more than the existence of a negative consequence: it is a threat or an irresistible force that causes a person to do something they would not have done otherwise. If someone becomes a Christian because they come to know Christ and want to follow him, they aren’t being forced into that choice; they may not have even thought about hell.
On the other hand, if someone becomes a Christian because they’re afraid of going to hell, their position is similar to that of a child who doesn’t do wrong because he’s afraid of being caught and punished by his parents. Is the child being coerced? Technically, he’s making a choice he wouldn’t otherwise make because of fear. Ideally, he would do the right thing because he wanted to; but if the only way to motivate him to do the right thing is by threatening punishment, better that than his doing the wrong thing.
Similarly, worshiping God is the right thing to do, and is in our best interests, and God would rather we come to him out of love instead of fear. If nothing else will get us to do the right thing, fear is a last-resort motivator. However, as there are people who freely choose not to worship God, and others who choose to worship out of a genuine desire to do so, it’s clear that God is not forcing us to worship him.