I recently saw this video posted, which summarized this interaction between the pope and a young boy.(1) The young boy speaks to the pope about his father who recently died. The boy claims that his father was an atheist and so is concerned about the eternal state of his dad, is he in hell? This would obviously be a very difficult situation and no one (hopefully!) wants to declare to a young grieving boy that his pops is in hell.
After talking to the boy privately the pope addresses the crowd with the content of the conversation by asking them a series of questions, including, “Does God abandon his children when they are good?” and the crowd responds, “No!” You could go into the weeds and say that this is true as “…all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12 [ESV]). In order to be a child of God, one must believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and then God will never abandon you, regardless of if you are good or bad, but if you’ve never believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, then you are not a child of the God of the Bible in the sense meant here. Of course, we don’t know the whole story about this boy’s father, so it would be impossible to speculate on his eternal condition, but just based on the information given, an atheist does not go to heaven. In the actual interaction it seems that the pope is working from the basis that despite the father’s profession of unbelief, it is possible that he was actually a believer, and I can get behind that. Christians can do all sorts of terrible things including denying their own Savior.
The summarization video, however, seems to draw a different conclusion from the interaction. “Pope Francis told the boy that God has a ‘Dad’s heart’ and would not abandon his father, even though he was not a believer.” I flat don’t see that in the actual video but I might have missed something. Still, let’s consider this idea of a God with a “Dad’s heart,” and see if what this video says makes any sense.
I used to like a band called System of a Down. They have a song called “Chop Suey” in which the crucifixion of Jesus is referred to as a “self-righteous suicide.” Others criticize historic Christian teaching on the value of the death of Christ as promoting “cosmic child abuse”. Historically there was an incorrect teaching known as “moral influence theory,” which in church history has become most associated with the writings of Peter Abelard. These positions undermine the correct teaching that the death of Christ was absolutely necessary, the penal substitution theory of Christ’s death.
So, we can read a lot on the different ideas and be outraged at one position or another. In my conversations with unbelievers they seem to conflate all religious teaching with being general teachings on how to be a good person under the “all paths lead to god” umbrella. This is most assuredly NOT what Biblical Christianity teaches. But, if it were true that God has a heart of a father who would not condemn his unbelieving children who are good to hell, then that would be more or less in agreement with many people’s understanding of Christianity, just another form of morality, but it would be the grossest of all the options.
The first mention of “love” in the Bible is when God commissions Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering…” (Gen. 22:2 [ESV]). Abraham obeys and God provides a substitution. The God of the Bible is the one who spared Isaac but “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all” (Rom. 8:32). “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Think of the worst, most annoying person you know. Now think of your child. Now think of actually loving that worst, most annoying person you know. Now think of that worst, most annoying person being on death row for something he did against you(!). Okay, now think of some kink in the legal system that allows you to send your child to die in that person’s place and then doing it. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). That’s what God did for us. In traditional Christianity, the penal substitution variety, it is taught that God did this because there was no other way to achieve salvation and to reconcile the world to Himself. Again, you may flat disagree, but that is what Christianity teaches, so work with it from within the system. “He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no one to intercede, then his own arm brought him salvation, and his righteousness upheld him” (Is. 59:16). It is said that stars in the sky are the works of God’s hand (Ps. 19:1), but to achieve salvation took God’s arm, his strength.
In traditional historic (and Biblical!) Christianity, the Father sends the Son to die as an absolutely necessary way to save sinners. In order to avail oneself of the gift purchased by Christ, one must not work, but receive the gift. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). Again, not everyone believes this, but the story itself is internally consistent and coherent. This righteous, holy, creator God. This problem. This solution. For us.
Now, try to fit this into a framework where one can receive forgiveness with or without believing in the Lord Jesus Christ. You have this annoying bad person. You have your child. You send your child to die for this person, but, the truth is, you’re a jolly nice fella and you could save this awful, annoying person who sinned against you with or without the death of your child. But, what the heck, you send him to die anyway. Maybe the bad person will see this sacrifice you made and decide to mend his ways and be a better person if you do. That is a disgusting religion of true cosmic child abuse that promotes a pointless, self-righteous suicide. Again no one (should) want(s) to put themselves in the place of condemning someone to hell, so it makes sense to try to make room for those who reject God, but in doing so one undermines the whole of what Christianity is and instead presents a God who unnecessarily sends His own Son to die a horrible death. What kind of a father’s heart is that?
The love side of Christianity gets most of the attention. I think this is good but there is a truly horrific side to it as well. There is a ton of bloodshed in the Bible. Just see how many times you come across the word “blood” in the first five chapters of Leviticus. Christianity is a story about a holy God who loves his creatures infinitely but that love is in spite of the terribleness of the sin we carry. And sin is horrible. So horrible that it takes the shedding of blood in order for it to be forgiven. A loving father would not send his own son to die unnecessarily. God sent Jesus to die for us because there wasn’t any other way. The catch (if you want to call receiving a totally free, unearned, undeserved gift of infinite value a “catch”) is that you have to receive the totally free, unearned, undeserved gift of infinite value. “We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:20-21). There was no other way.
(1) I am reliant on the subtitles so I can’t be sure but it does not appear that the summary accurately portrayed the conversation.