The Limits of Tolerance

by Andrew Forrest

Is there a limit to tolerance? A friend of mine put that question to me this afternoon, in response to last week’s post on tolerance. My answer: No. Here’s why.


The Roots of Tolerance

Tolerance is simply the social recognition of a fundamental truth: all people are completely free to choose to believe and do whatever they want to believe and do. There are no exceptions to this principle. This truth is not dependent on whether laws and governments recognize it; this truth is simply true.

Yes, governments and societies try to constrain the behavior of the people under their power, but they cannot actually remove free choice from their people–all they can do is make it more or less likely that people freely?choose this or that action.

As I argued last week, tolerance has its roots in the character of God: God created us as free creatures and allows us to exercise that freedom, for good or ill.

I don’t think there is a limit to tolerance because I don’t think there is a time when God takes away our freedom to choose.

But Actions Have Consequences

We are all free to believe and do whatever we choose, but we are?not free to choose the consequences of our actions. Actions have consequences. I’m free to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge, but I cannot avoid the consequences of my freely chosen actions. Actions have consequences.

Doesn’t God’s Tolerance Have a Limit?

In the Bible, we read how God eventually allowed the Israelites to be conquered by their pagan neighbors as a consequence of their continued disobedience. I don’t think this is an example of the limits of God’s tolerance, however. Rather, I think God’s tolerance never wavered: he always allowed the Israelites to freely choose to accept or reject him. But, although God’s forbearance (a synonym of tolerance) never ran out, the Israelites’ actions eventually caught up with them. Their actions led to the Exile. Certain actions lead to certain consequences, the way day inexorably follows night.

What About Human Law?

As humans, we seek to constrain certain behaviors precisely because?we know that people are always free to choose. When we lock up the serial murderer, we are not suddenly denying his freedom to choose, but acknowledging it: we know that if we do not lock him up, he may very likely continue to freely choose murder. Actions have consequences and human societies impose various consequences on various behaviors, but those consequences do not change the fundamental fact on which the principle of tolerance rests, namely that people are always free to choose.

Our True Limit

God’s tolerance does not have a limit, but our lives are limited: we are limited by the choices of our actions, and we are limited by our?mortality. None of us can choose to be exempt from the consequences of his choices, and none of us can choose to be exempt from death.

Sooner or later, all our actions catch up to us.

P.S. Why Does This Matter?

Tolerance recognizes that it’s never too late for anyone–all people can choose to turn towards God or away from God up until their last breath. (And maybe beyond their last breath–who knows?) Because I can’t take away someone’s free will–even by force–it means that the pressure is off: I can’t force anyone to believe what I believe. I can’t make anyone believe anything, but I can persuade her‘through my words and actions to freely choose the Truth I’ve chosen.

Which is a sacred privilege, when you think about it.




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Judith Howard June 22, 2016 - 5:34 pm

Very well written. I share the same opinion about Free will. We can do anything we want if we are willing to pay the consequences.

Doug June 22, 2016 - 9:52 pm

Great commentary. It would seem to me that the Islamic tenet of forcible conversion of nonbelievers is an epitome of intolerance. So one has to ask what is an appropriate Christian response to intolerance of that level? Are we to tolerate intolerance? My answer would be no. How does this fit into your view?

Andrew Forrest June 23, 2016 - 9:19 pm

Doug, you have hit on something really important. The tolerance that liberal democracies have codified into law is based on a traditional Christian understanding of the human. (This understanding took centuries to be accepted as true, but its roots lie in the church.) In my understanding, Islamic theology does not make the same space for tolerance, hence the struggle in so many Muslim countries to reconcile their faith with modern notions of freedom.

Tolerance, as I understand it, does not mean we believe that other beliefs are true, nor does it mean we allow people to walk all over us. Rather, I think tolerance means we respect other people’s free choices such that we allow them to face the consequences of their actions. So, with regard to the forced conversions, we should oppose that idea strongly (I think religious freedom is the deepest freedom there is). In this country, if forced conversions were to be an issue, we should pass laws (grounded in the First Amendment) that would impose severe consequences for those actions. Overseas it’s more complicated, because our power is much more limited, but I’d argue that we should use our influence to oppose those actions there, too.

It’s basically like the theology of Deuteronomy: you are free to do good or do bad, but if you do bad, you’ll have bad consequences.



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