Jesus, Christians, and Fear

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 …
Who’s there?
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.

9 thoughts on “Jesus, Christians, and Fear”

  1. Robert Roberg

    Agreed Dan, there is very little good news in the “Good News” in our times. Here’s my definition :
    the Good News is that there is a supreme king named El Shaddai who loves people so much he wants to bring them to live in his kingdom. He commissioned one human, Yahoshua, to make it possible through a fire/spirit baptism whereby he baptizes people with the pneuma Aletheia -The angel of Truth.

  2. Paul Pavao

    How do you personally balance this? 1 Peter 1:17 says to conduct ourselves throughout our lives with fear, and the judgment is specifically in view. 2 Thessalonians 1:8 say he is going take vengeance in flaming fire on those who do not obey the Gospel. Surely you are not suggesting we throw out the baby with the bathwater.

    Secondly, I would say that if the only thing that keeps a person from committing adultery is fear of the judgment of God, it is true that they are not much of a follower of Jesus, but at least they are not committing adultery! Adultery will keep you out of the kingdom of God (Gal. 5:19-21).

    Surely there is a way to address the evangelical problems–there are so many of them–without putting to nought the kind of things I just mentioned.

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      Thanks for the question, Paul. Taking a look at the passage in context, I would note a couple things. First and foremost, Peter is talking to people who are already part of Jesus’ kingdom, not unbelievers. V. 15 refers to the holiness of “the one who has called you;” v. 17 refers to the Father is one whom “you” (i.e., the hearers) invoke. Therefore v. 18 refers to believers, not unbelievers (see my comment about the Pharisees in the original post).

      Second, “live in fear” does not state the object of that fear. Note it does not say “fear of God” or “fear of punishment” or “fear of hell.” Those are all inferences. Here, I think perhaps it might be instructive to refer to my Mom’s article on the use of the word “fear” in the New Testament. As she points out, the Greek use was somewhat interchangeable with our concepts of fear as “fright” and a more general “reverence” or “respect.” In context, it seems to me Peter is saying we ought to live repectfully, or maybe even better, circumspectly, in the light of God’s nature and Christ’s sacrifice.

      As to 2 Thessalonians 1, take a look at v. 6 for context. He’s referring specifically to those who are persecuting the church, and he’s doing so to comfort the church that their suffering is not for naught and justice will be done. Once again, he’s preaching to believers, not to unbelievers.

      As for the Galations passage, if the biggest message you see there is “adultery will keep you out of the kingdom,” I suggest you look again. “Strife” and “fits of rage,” not to mention “rivalries, dissensions, divisions” are way more common in the church. We’ve got a whole lot to worry about besides sex there. And as I said before, if “adultery will keep you out of the kingdom,” does that really mean only if you do the anatomical act, or maybe also if you really wish you could? Jesus’ standard in the Sermon on the Mount might suggest the latter.

  3. Paul Pavao

    I hope it’s apparent that adultery was not the only thing I get out of Galatians 5:19-21. I only used adultery because you did in the article. As for 1 Peter 1:17, I agree it is written to believers, and it tells us to fear because of the judgment. I don’t think fear is the only thing Christians should do, but it is one thing. When we are walking with God and growing in love, then walking in love will assure our hearts before him (1 Jn. 3:18-22). When we are tempted to stop, to stumble, to give up, then fear can be a great motivator. The whole of Hebrews is written both to encourage and terrify those who were tired of Christianity and thinking of going back to Judaism. People get weary today, too, and when that happens, reminding them of the reward and fearing the judgment makes a great motivator.

    I think you article is an unbalanced reaction to some pretty terrible things that go on in evangelical churches. I certainly agree the right wing gospel is awful, but I think a “no fear” gospel is not the answer.

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      We’re gonna have to agree to disagree there, Paul. I remain convinced, in secular life as well as spiritual, that if the only motivator to something is fear, it’s pretty much meaningless to the one who sees the heart. Combine that with the damage I see done on a near-daily basis by the fearmongering right wing of the church, and I see no choice but repudiate the approach entirely. That, and of course the not-at-all-minor detail that Jesus’ teaching was diametrically different, ought to be enough to make us change our tune.

      As I said in the original post, there IS room for fear in Christianity … but the ones who should be afraid are our Pharisees. They’re not experiencing holy fear, they’re fanning the flames of unholy fear. If hell is a thing at all, it’s they who should quake.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *