Economics 101 & Theology 101

Are Christ and Christianity Coercive? A Christian Economist’s Perspective

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Last week, Lawrence Reed, president of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) published a piece in FEE’s “Clichés of Progressivism” series that addressed the cliché that Christ advocated redistribution of wealth.

Reed ably navigated what can be a touchy subject, but in so doing prompted some further questions.

Sure,” some said, “Christ might not have advocated handouts or redistribution of wealth, but aren’t we overlooking something?”

While Christianity is not coercive in that Christ tells us to give of our wealth others without cause, many shy away from Christianity because the choice between Christ and hell seems manipulative at best and malicious at worst.

This attitude reflects a poor understanding of Christianity and the actual constraints each of us face.

Are Christ and Christianity Coercive?

As a Christian economist who interacts with atheists in my discipline, I often encounter the objection to Christianity that questions whether becoming a Christian is consistent with their idea of freedom. When told that they can choose Christ or they can choose eternal damnation, they understandably object.

Painted in these terms, the decision seems unreasonable. Why would God tell us that we need to shape up, go his way, or head for the highway? When we revisit the Garden, it becomes evident that this is an overly simplistic view of it.

Choices and Constraints

God created each of us in his image. He designed us to glorify him because he is the only true object of worship and the way to our greatest fulfillment.

He gave us the freedom to make choices as we desire. These choices are bound in a reality of consequences, both good and bad. We can choose to do exactly as we desire, but there will be diminishing marginal benefits, particularly when we choose to sin.

As Christians whose eyes are open to what God wants for us, we are less constrained with our options because we know God and know what he wants us to do.

In this regard we can choose his will or our own. We are not coerced to do this. The motivation is not coercion – we do it because of gratitude and our love for God and what he has done for us. This is the story of grace.

Just as we are responsible for how we respond to the constraints written into nature, we must respond for ourselves to the constraints within our relationship with God.

In the same way that I face the effects of physics if I choose to walk off my roof, I will experience consequences if I choose something other than what God originally intended for me.

The effects of serving God or to rejecting him are not always immediately evident, and that is often what leads some to conclude that God is giving us the option between two evils.

In fact, this is the opposite of the case. He has given us the choice to follow our own will and experience some pleasure on earth with a path that inevitably leads to pain (in this life) or follow his will and experience the way to true life and enjoyment in this present age and in the age to come.

An Economist’s Perspective

As an economist, I can’t help but also look at this question like an economist. And when I do that, I’m reminded that we are all economists.

Let me share this passage written by French economist Frederic Bastiat by way of explanation:

There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen. Yet this difference is tremendous; for it almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favorable, the later consequences are disastrous, and vice versa. Whence it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good that will be followed by a great evil to come, while the good economist pursues a great good to come, at the risk of a small present evil. 

As Bastiat describes, we are each faced with the choice between a difficult and often misunderstood life with a far off reward and a pleasant and politically correct existence with an uncertain eternity.

Christians are generally the ones with the higher tolerance for a longer-delayed gratification. Sadly, those who choose the immediate pleasures don’t always recognize them for the sins that they are. As John Piper explains,

The person who rejects God does not know the real horrors of hell. This may be because he does not believe hell exists, or it may be because he convinces himself that it would be tolerably preferable to heaven. But whatever he believes or does not believe, when he chooses against God, he is wrong about God and about hell. He is not, at that point, preferring the real hell over the real God. He is blind to both. He does not perceive the true glories of God, and he does not perceive the true horrors of hell.

Whether we’re dealing with coworkers, friends, or family members, we need to become more aware of the attitudes and knowledge about God demonstrated by those around us. Let us help others face the constraints built into the world around us so that we can all be good economists when it comes to Christ.

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