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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  • GScandlen

    I don’t think our free will extends to choosing Christ or not. When I accepted Jesus, I had no choice in the matter. I didn’t want it, and spent years running from it. But God was insistent. His taps on my shoulder kept getting stronger. I have free will to determine what I will have for lunch today, but my faith is a grace given to me by God.

    Once we have that grace, living a Christian life is not a sacrifice, but a joy. It is like being in love — you would do anything for your beloved, even lay down your life gladly. Think of all the pop songs about how the singer would swim any ocean, climb any mountain for his beloved. These are songs of joy, not grudging sacrifice. Now put Jesus in the role of your beloved. The happiness is indescribable, because unlike a human lover, Jesus will never disappoint you.

    • Amarah

      Yeah, as Christians mature in Christ, the relationship is out of love rather than obligation.

  • Renee Thompson

    I think we must take the argument one step further that although we know that to live like Christ in the world we must share what we have with those less fortunate and suffer the consequences of a dying soul within us if we do not, that obligation in no way embers us with the authority to coerce that moral act through the force of law. Taking the fruits of another’s labor by force is stealing, even when the intent is ostensibly to benefit the unfortunate.

    • Amarah

      Christians are called to give to others by God. I also believe that the whole “take from the rich, give to the poor” idea is demoralizing. Kind of like our relationship with God, we have it out of love, not obligation. We also give out of love, not obligation.

      • Renee Thompson

        Exactly. A moral act of charity is not moral if coerced. Coercion not only deprives the giver of the moral value of giving but deprives the receiver of the knowledge he is loved by the expression of charity. redistribution of wealth by force (government or otherwise) cannot be a moral act.

  • John Thomas

    I might suggest that an effective method to opening up a discussion when people ask you if Christianity is coercive is to help them realize that all communication is seeking a specific outcome and is, thus, coercive.

    People don’t communicate unless they are looking for something from the communication (more information, to change someone’s mind, to make a person laugh, etc.). In this light, Christianity is coercive, but no more so than atheism or agnosticism.

    The question of whether Christianity is coercive reveals a lack of understanding of communication and interaction between people. Once this issue is clarified, then we can get to the real issue, which has to do with intent. The intent of Christ and Christianity is for the benefit of humankind. Christ came out of love for our benefit. Atheism has no beneficial intent beyond short-term gain and communicates that baseness of a godless morality and character as it’s intent (even atheists who act in “moral” ways do so out of an amoral intent for self-benefit).

  • Chip Watkins

    Although our “choice” to trust Christ may superficially appear to be uncoerced, we can make that choice only because of the regeneration worked by the Holy Spirit (based on God’s predestination of us before the foundation of the world), and once we are regenerated, we will inevitably (perhaps after walking a long and winding road) choose to trust Christ. This is the faith that is not of ourselves, but the gift of God.
    Thereafter, we obey God primarily out of gratitude, not obligation, though recognition of obligation is helpful when gratitude is not sufficient.
    An act is moral if it is the right thing to do, regardless of whether it is coerced. If I unconditionally love someone, the fact that I am coerced to do so by the call of God on my life doesn’t make the act of love any less significant.

    • Orwellisblushing

      Jesus warned of those who do good acts but whose hearts are like sepulchers.
      “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.”

  • anarchobuddy

    Great topic, Dr. Bradley. This presented dichotomy between being forced to choose Christ or being forced into hell has troubled me. So often, when presented with intellectual difficulties of faith such as this, I tend to set them aside and forget about them until, sometimes much later, I am reminded of them. Thank you for reminding me.

    To press the question further, does it seem coercive to have created us at all? Would some of us have preferred to have not been created and live a life of suffering (perhaps in a rural part of a developing country where most have not heard of Christ)? Perhaps one does not like the idea of heaven or hell and never asked to have either.

  • Tara Holley Jones

    You had me until you quoted John Piper. 😉 No, I jest. (I like much of what he shares, but I think the Lord would love it if he could relax a little.) I enjoyed the article, fascinating subject. I sincerely enjoyed it. As a Christian myself, although not of the “send ’em all to ECT” variety, I’ve always struggled with:

    A choice between life and death (i.e. possible annihilation?) I get that. A choice between a life darkened by poor choices and wrong thinking vs a life illuminated by hope and renewal both now and in a life to come? I get that.

    A choice between choosing to follow the way of Jesus who loves you so vs being kept alive supernaturally, forever and ever and ever and ever, to be punished in the most exquisitely painful way because of your errors during your finite life? Yeah… that is coercion. How can it not be? How. Can. It. Not. Be?

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