It dawned on me recently that a great deal of my frustration with conservative Christianity is the role that fear plays in the narrative of the faith. In their theology, their evangelism, and their politics, it seems to me, conservative Christians rely on and promote fear as part and parcel of the Gospel. This perspective is deeply antithetical to the God whose most frequent command throughout scripture is “Fear not,” but it’s common nonetheless.
First, theology and evangelism. All too frequently, when people attempt to summarize “The Gospel” in our churches, it comes packaged in a form that is fully grounded in fear. A quick Google on the phrase “what is the gospel?” proves my point. One of the first articles I found was this one from “GotQuestions?Org” which states at the outset: “The key to understanding the gospel is to know why it’s good news. To do that, we must start with the bad news.” It then goes on to explain how man cannot keep God’s laws, that the penalty is death and separation from God, and that in order to go to heaven we need Jesus’ redemption. Pretty standard summary, more succinctly phrased by a cynical joke I came across a few years ago:
Knock knock …
It’s me, Jesus. Let me in, I want to save you.
Save me from what?
From what I’m going to do to you if you don’t let me in.
As I’ve said before on multiple occasions, this focus on hell and damnation within Christianity seriously misses the mark in comparison with the message Jesus actually taught. You can read more if you like by following the link (look particularly at the four-part “Eternal Destiny” series), but for now, suffice it to say that Jesus’ message to his followers, and to the crowds who heard his teaching, was one of invitation, not threat. The threats and damnation Jesus did mention, he focused largely on religious leaders–the Pharisees and teachers of the law–who were quite sure of their own holiness and condemned everyone else. By that metric, the people who should be afraid of hell today aren’t run-of-the-mill “sinners,” they’re the likes of Jerry Falwell, Jr, Tony Perkins, Franklin Graham, and their ilk. These are the men who “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger” (Matt. 23:4). They’re also the ones who justify themselves while condemning others for sins they themselves (purportedly, at least) don’t commit (Luke 18:9-14 … note carefully who’s “justified before God” in that parable).
In contrast, Jesus’ invitation was for the thirsty to come and drink (John 7:37), to follow him (Mark 10:21, Luke 5:27, and others), and above all, not to be afraid (John 14:27, Mark 5:36, Luke 12:32, and others). His command to preach the gospel was not, as Evangelicals would have it, because people are going to hell without the gospel, but rather because all power has been given to him (Matt. 28:18-20). Far from instilling fear in people as “evangelists” are known to do, we should take to heart 1 John 4:18: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.”
This is not just an academic or intellectual issue. I’m sorry to say that Christians’ emphasis on fear spills over into their politics and behavior as well. Believing as they do that fear of hell is the ultimate motivator to holiness, they seem to incorporate fear into much they advocate:
- Their foreign policy is driven by the old adage that “it is better to be feared than to be loved,” and they tend (in the U.S. at least) to be the foremost proponents of military strength and foreign wars;
- They fear the attack of the criminal and the oppression of the government, so they become staunch advocates of the Second Amendment and personal armament, to the point that the president of Liberty University, Jerry Falwell Jr., introduced concealed-carry training on the college campus and encouraged students to take it…and now even has announced the construction of a firing range and armory on campus;
- While claiming to be “pro-life” on abortion, they remain staunchly opposed to the provision of contraception to unmarried individuals, appearing to wish to maintain the triple threat of “conception, infection, and detection” to deter sexual behavior of which they disapprove;
- They are frequently among the strongest advocates of capital punishment and harsh prison sentences (including the excesses of such men as Joe Arpaio, “America’s Toughest Sheriff”) … apparently projecting their own obedience-through-terror onto the general populace.
There’s a tragic corollary to this whole attitude. I’ve talked to a number of friends over the years, who have frankly told me that they’d live a very different life if they didn’t believe in — and fear — hell as a consequence for misbehavior. While I happen to think scripture presents a God far more merciful than that his followers teach, I also wonder quite seriously whether a “faith” that is primarily what my Mom used to call “Fire Insurance” is really faith at all. I recall quite vividly that when the whole controversy over Rob Bell’s allegedly-universalist book “Love Wins” came out, the loudest criticisms seemed–to me–to come from people who resented the idea that other people might “get to” do the “sins” that Christians were so carefully avoiding (usually about sex, methinks) and not wind up burning for it. Seemed a lot like the older brother in Jesus’ tale of the Prodigal son, actually. Seriously, if the only thing keeping you from banging somebody you think is hotter than your spouse, is the fear of hellfire, are you really following Jesus (see Matt. 5:27-28)?
We don’t need to be afraid. In fact, we mustn’t be. The business of Jesus and his Spirit and his Church is about dispelling fear, and replacing it with hope. That so often the standard-bearers of the cross are doing the opposite, is tragic.
Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.