In Why would a god let so many of his "flock" stray?, two of our skeptics had this to say:

What is a slave? One that has to follow the orders of his master. What if he doesn't? He's punished horribly - scared into servitude, if you will. His actions aren't directly forced, but indirectly. And I am supposed to follow the rules that god has set out. And if I don't, I will be punished horribly in hell. But only at the end. So my actions are still forced. I'd rather be a slave - at least then I could match actions to punishment.

If the followers of the Judeo-Christian God are right in this, all mankind will be judged upon the Apocalypse. At this time we will all be found either worthy or lacking, whereupon we will either ascend to Heaven or be cast into Hell for all eternity. Well, as an atheist, I'm curious...where's the third choice? If God's all about freedom, including the freedom to stray, why the limitations? Those who don't subscribe to His rules, or even His existence, can't be held responsible for not adhering to them, under the circumstances. This is equivalent to beating a stray dog for begging. He doesn't know any better, and you have no authority over him anyway.

Two fascinating analogies here -- the stray dog and the slave, both chosen to represent the human race in its relationship with God. It almost makes me wonder whether these worthy noders aren't closet Christians, their metaphors are so apt.

The question they raise is one of ownership, something implied in the title of the earlier node but which was never fully explored by the contributors. Who is the boss of me? The atheist would probably reply, "I am the boss of me, and those persons whose authority over me I accept." This is the essence of Ælien's denial of God's right to judge him -- he hasn't agreed to enter God's service, so why should he be expected to behave as if he has? It's ridiculous, as if an Army drill sergeant walked up to me on the street and shouted, "DROP AND GIVE ME TWENTY!"

But on the other hand, I know perfectly well that the drill sergeant can kick my ass, and if it looked like he might do so if I didn't obey his lunatic orders, I might indeed drop and give him twenty just to avoid a thrashing -- a situation similar to what Saige envisions. Putting these ideas together we come up with an image of God as someone who is more powerful than we are, who demands obedience to His will, who sits in judgment on humanity, and who punishes those who do not obey -- but who does not have any right to do so. If God is not my master, the punishment is unjust.

The thing is, this description of God is inadequate. To borrow from the title of a popular book, he's simply too small. The person we are talking about (whether you actually believe in Him or not) must be eternal and almighty, the unmoved mover, the first cause, the ground of all being; one who created the universe, its laws, and everything in it, including and especially us. A being of limited existence, knowledge, power, and goodness might be a lower-case god, a godlike being, but not God.

By what right then does God judge us, and decide whether we may continue in eternal life or perish? By the only authority that really matters in the end: he made us.

So where does our choice lie? There are many passages in the Bible that address this issue, but I don't like to make people read off computer screens any longer than necessary and so I'll limit myself to two. The first is from the Gospels, while the second is from Paul's letter to the Romans:

John 8:31-36

To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."

They answered him, "We are Abraham's descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?"

Jesus replied, "I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now, a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed."

Romans 6:16-23

Don't you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey--whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.

I put this in human terms because you are weak in your natural selves. Just as you used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer them in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness.

When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

We are not wild dogs; we are, as Ælien suggested, strays, God's dogs who have bolted from our Master and now live, cold and begging for scraps, on the world's streets. God does not beat us for begging; he calls us home.

And just as Saige suspects, we are slaves, put in the unique position of being able to choose which master we serve. It is not a kind of choice that is easy for us to understand, raised in a culture where "choice" is confused with "preference", and we imagine that our decision to serve God or Sin ought to have no deeper consequences than the decision to drink Coke or Pepsi. But here we find a metaphor that hits closer to the mark; a dog may find its home, but it is still a dog. But when as servants we freely return to the service of our true Lord, we find amid the celebration that not only are we forgiven our error, but we are made heirs along with the Lord's Son.

So we do have a choice -- as strays we are free to remain in the cold, for eternity if we wish. As slaves we may follow the lure of our worldly desires down into dust and ashes. There is no third choice, for we have no home but God's kingdom, no true Master other than Christ, in whom God is not only Lord but friend and brother.

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