If God sends people to hell for not worshiping him, then, some might say, he is no better than a cosmic bully. When he doesn’t get the respect that he deserves from you, then you suffer the severe consequences.
I think this is a good question when asked genuinely, because if we were to apply this sort of thinking to another person it would seem pretty obvious that this is a character flaw. But I have a couple of thoughts that I hope will help to explain why I think that it is God’s right to require worship. However, before I attempt to answer this question, we must do our best to be aware that especially as Americans (which I know some of you reading this post are not), we tend to struggle with this. We hold firm to our autonomy and equality, and this concept of God demanding worship brushes up against that. It is worth keeping this in mind, because not everyone wrestles with this in the same way that we might. Now this isn’t really an answer to the question, but it is healthy to remember this.
Now getting on to answer the question, I think that we must talk about anthropological teleology. By anthropological teleology, I simply mean the purpose, goal, or aim of human beings. Anthropology is the study of humanity, and teleology has to do with purpose or goals. When God creates a human being, he creates them for a purpose. And God being perfectly good, creates them for a good purpose. But God isn’t like the gods of the Mesopotamians or the Egyptians—he isn’t interested in creating slaves, but he is interested in creating worshipers. There is a difference. From my understanding, the key to Christian worship is the love of God. So you were designed to worship God by loving him. If your idea of worship is limited to singing songs, then your idea of worship is quite small. Worship is a way of life that bleeds into all areas of living. Worship has to do with proper affections, motivations, and purposes. But here is a crucial point: you cannot worship God without loving him, and, I would argue, you cannot love him without enjoying him. So the take away is this: when you worship God, the purpose and goal of your life is being fulfilled. The result is that you are granted happiness. So worship of God looks astonishingly like being happy in him. More could be said, but I simply want to make the point that God has designed worship to bring you happiness. (A couple of years ago, a video of Victoria Osteen [wife of Joel Osteen] circulated around the internet where she claimed that God wants your happiness through service. This made many people quite upset, but I think she was more right than wrong on this issue, even if she could have [and probably should have] said more. I replied here)
When we worship, we are fulfilling our purpose, and this should bring us joy in who God is. But also, if we worship anything else (and everyone worships something), we believe and live out a lie that isn’t beneficial for us or anyone else. Imagine that you fall in love with someone. They say all the right things, do all the right things, and everything about them seems perfect. But now imagine that everything that they do has been calculated and engineered by someone else who has simply told the person that you think you love how to act, what to say, and what to do in order to make you fall in love with them. If you knew this information, I imagine that you would quickly fall out of love with this person, because they aren’t who you thought they were. This is how it is when we worship things other than God. We fall in love with them, but only because we don’t realize that they cannot bring us ultimate happiness. If fact, the whole thing was a lie, and once we understand this (and we all eventually do), then we fall out of love with them because they can’t deliver what they promised, and we run towards other things. When we refuse to worship God, and instead worship what he has created, we fall in love with the wrong object, and sooner or later we discover this. Now, I understand that my analogy breaks down fairly quickly, but it serves to establish my point which is this: worshipping anything other than God will lead to our disappointment, because it isn’t as great as we think it is. We all worship something, and if we worship anything other than God, we set ourselves up for disappointment, and we fall for a lie that something else could bring us long lasting and true happiness.
Finally, we must understand that God does deserve our worship, and when we worship other things, not only have we missed out on happiness and believed a lie, but we’ve also robbed God of his due. Now I say “robbed” simply to say that we do owe God our affections. I want to be clear that God does not need our worship—as if he would lack something if we refused to give it to him. But we must remember that God is the only one worthy of our worship, and so to refuse to give it to him is to refuse to give him the respect and honor that he deserves.
Regarding the notion of whether or not it us just for God to send people to hell, I have dealt with some of those questions here. Let it suffice to say, that hell is essentially the separation from life, goodness, hope, love, peace, joy, and comfort. These things are all in God. If you are separated from God forever, then you are separated from these things. You can’t have God and not have God at the same time. He doesn’t coerce you, but he allows you to choose.
We need a balanced theology of worship. On the one hand, we understand that true worship is designed to bring us happiness, while on the other hand, it is something that God deserves. He doesn’t force us to worship him, but invites us to participate in his greatness. You could refuse to look out and behold the beauty of a sunset—but all the worse for you. We must learn to see that God is not simply looking to take, but to give. And in worship, we give him trust and adoration and he gives us himself.
(Thoughts? Comments? Feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org)