What do you think of the title of today’s blog? Do you agree? Disagree? Let’s examine the evidence and see what conclusions we can arrive at.
It is an astonishing fact: There was no such thing as the freedom of religion in Israel — at least not as spelled out in the law. (Whether punishments were actually carried out as prescribed is another discussion.) But in Deuteronomy 17, we find yet another admonition against worshiping false gods: "If a man or woman living among you in one of the towns the Lord gives you is found doing evil in the eyes of the Lord your God in violation of his covenant, and contrary to my command has worshiped other gods, bowing down to them or to the sun or the moon or the stars in the sky, and this has been brought to your attention, then you must investigate it thoroughly. If it is true and it has been proved that this detestable thing has been done in Israel, take the man or woman who has done this evil deed to your city gate and stone that person to death." (vs 2-5)
Wow, that doesn’t really sound like freedom of religion, does it? When it came to worship in Israel, there were only two important rules: (1) Worship God. (2) If you worship any other god, you will be stoned to death. How could this be? How could the God who is so into freedom refuse to let His people make the choice about whom they wanted to worship?
Here’s what I’m thinking (but please feel free to share your thoughts and ideas). God is in the business of helping people. And here’s what Dr. Thomas Sowell said about helping people: "When you want to help people, you tell them the truth. When you want to help yourself, you tell people what they want to hear." God is in the first category. He cares about us and will do anything He can to help us, even when it involves a huge, personal sacrifice on His part.
And here’s the truth about worship: Worshiping any god besides the one, true God ultimately leads to death. And it’s not death by stoning. It’s the death doled out by sin, the ultimate self-destruction that comes as a result of separation from the Source of Life. That’s the unarbitrary truth of it; God doesn’t impose the ultimate death for idolatry, but it is a reality — just as gravity is a reality on Planet Earth. That’s why God’s prescribed punishment for false-god worship in Israel was so strong — He was determined to prevent them from heading down the
road of idolatry, if possible.
So, if "freedom of religion" means that people are free to pursue whatever they want to worship and expect the same results, they’re fooling themselves. It doesn’t work that way. Those who love and worship the true God will find life. Those who love and worship anything other than the true God will not find life. They will become so joined to their idols that God will eventually be forced — as described in Romans 1 — to let them go and give them up. Yes, if you want to live, there is no such thing as "freedom of religion."
However, what God does support (and personally works very hard to ensure) is the freedom to choose for or against Him. It is important to Him that we are the ones who make the choice — and that we are well informed when we make it. This was precisely why He set up these deterrents to Israel’s idol worship. He was trying to keep them from running down the path of idolatry until they knew exactly where they were headed. The threat of stoning was also a warning of where their idolatry would ultimately end — in death.
As we will unfortunately discover as we head through the Old Testament, the threat of stoning didn’t keep the Israelites from idolatry. And, more often than not, neither did the perpetrators face stoning for their false-god worship. But even though the prescribed punishment wasn’t imposed, Israel still suffered the consequences of their idolatry. The more they ran after gods who did not exist, the more they separated themselves from the one, true God — until they were in danger of losing all ability to hear His voice.
So, perhaps the title of my blog is a bit misleading. God entirely supports freedom. But He doesn’t just tell us things we want to hear. He tells us the truth, and the truth is, the only true spiritual life to be had is in Him. Anything else is, quite literally, a dead end.