One more post on the subject of fear and then we will move on to something else. We probably could go on indefinitely on this theme since fear has been used in so many ways by so many people in so many religions.
Fear has long been used to scare people to move them toward religious “conversion” – a rather dubious method to say the least. You know, the “you are going straight to hell if you don’t repent and get saved right now” approach. This appeal is not limited to ignorant, itinerant, Bible-thumping, backwoods preachers as one might think. The classic example of this kind of preaching is the Colonial Puritan preacher, Jonathan Edwards.
“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is a typical sermon of the Great Awakening, emphasizing the belief that Hell is a real place. Edwards hoped that the imagery and message of his sermon would awaken his audience to the horrific reality that awaited them should they continue without Christ (Wikipedia).
In this sermon, preached at Enfield, Conneticut, on July 8, 1741, Edwards vividly depicted the horrors of hell and God’s readiness to cast all sinners into the fiery pit. Sinners were suspended by a slender thread over the flames, so perilous was their state.
Edwards uses imagery to paint a horrifying picture of eternal damnation for unsaved souls. His use of graphic words describing the horrors and torment awaiting sinners has a remarkable effect on his audience. (Summary and Analysis).
It was said that his description was so graphic that people could smell the burning sulfur and were crying out and wanting to know what they could do to be saved. This same analysis of Edward’s sermon says,
“Even if Hell isn’t a real place and all of the pain and suffering described is a lie, Edwards’ way of delivering his message is so successful that it scares his listeners into believing and following his proposed method of redemption.” (Summary and Analysis).
I was told just yesterday of one preacher who, in a sermon on Wednesday evening of this week, said that he wished he could rip the lid off hell for just 10 seconds so that people could smell it, hear it, see the horrible scenes played out. The person who related this to me said that he was a “21st century Jonathan Edwards!” So the use of hell to scare people is still going on.
If it should be thought that this was a good thing, let it be remembered that there is no preaching of any such kind in the New Testament. The apostles and others preached Christ crucified, buried and raised from the dead. They preached him ascended into heaven and exalted where he is now our Lord and King and people cried out, “What shall we do?” (Acts 2:29-37). The closest thing one will find to the preaching of fear is Paul’s reasoning with Felix of “righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment” in Acts 24:25. Hell is not mentioned even once in the book of Acts – certainly not as a motive for conversion!
Then there is the sensationalizing of hell. There are annual church-sponsored Halloween “Hell Houses” and even comic books that graphically depict the horrors of eternity in flames accompanied with various other means of torture for drunks, drug users, prostitutes, abortionists and various other villainous creatures. The people who create these things think they are doing the Lord’s service, but in reality are sowing the seeds of a lifetime of fear in the hearts of some and in others are laying a foundation for unbelief and rejection of a God. People who are moved by fear to walk down an aisle in a church building are not going to be sustained for very long by the fear that motivated them to begin with. Fear is not faith and neither does it produce faith.
In Ezekiel 33:11 God commands the prophet to “Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked…” In 2 Peter 3:9 the inspired apostle tells us that “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”
This device of fear has been used against even little children in a “God will get you if you don’t straighten up” kind of threat. How horrible to create in the minds of children such a picture of God as an angry ogre just waiting to smite little children who don’t measure up to some arbitrary standard of conduct!
Then there is the reprehensible thing that some well-meaning yet misguided friends do to people in the depth of grief over the death of a loved one, especially an untimely death of a child, a spouse or a parent by telling them that God needed their loved one in heaven so he took them to be with him. The flip side of this is the totally unwarranted assumption that if a person who is a sinner dies that God struck them down for their wickedness without giving them another opportunity to repent. That not only creates hatred and suspicion of a God who would be so unkind and cruel, but a fear that he will do the same thing again. Is it any wonder that people to whom God is so horribly misrepresented turn against him?
Fear is, in some quarters, big business – big religious business. The whole premise of the “Left Behind” series of books and movies is based on fear. The fear capitalized on by this sensationally lucrative endeavor is that created by fundamentalist, dispensational religion. This theme behind the title is the “rapture,” the “Battle of Armageddon” and the supposed coming thousand year reign of Christ. Speculations about these obscure Biblical prophecies have long been grist for the sensational prophets of doom.
There is likely a connection between this frightening depiction of what it is supposed that God will do in the future and the current fear of the immanent fall of the government of the United States, various conspiracy theories, and the dire predictions of what is going to happen if we do not elect conservative Christian candidates to political office, etc. All have substantial roots in the fertile imaginations of the purveyors of this kind of sensational doom-saying.
Why is fear relied on so heavily by religious institutions and religious figures? And why do they feel that they have to rely on fear as a motivational tool? The answer is, to put it simply, it works – sometimes. But unfortunately it does not work in a healthy, helpful way. Fear is a way of driving people – of getting people to do things they would not otherwise do. The downside of this is that it creates a backlash of hatred for God as well as unbelief. Thinking people who come to know something of what God has done for man to bring us unto himself cannot accept the idea of an angry, vengeful God who toys with our emotions in any such way. They cannot accept the idea that God seeks to drive us to him through terror.
There are lovely portraits of God painted in the scriptures that appeal to us with a far different image than that of an angry God. Fear mongers will never tell you about this God of love, mercy and grace.
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness. ” Lamentations 3:22-23
God is seeking for us to know him – to know the breadth marvelous grace, the depths of his infinite love. He is seeking for us to know his character. This is why among people who see the a truer picture of God this scare tactic of hell-fire just doesn’t work. It isn’t that people necessarily reject the idea of judgment or of a just retribution for sin but that they learn of God’s patient and longsuffering nature and of his abundant provision of grace on behalf of his beloved, though straying, sheep and they can’t reconcile that with the depiction of an angry, vengeful God.
God’s way of bringing people to himself is by leading them with love. God refers to his people as sheep. Shepherds know you can’t drive sheep – you have to lead them. Jesus’ words illustrate this. He said …
John 12:32 “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
God’s power of salvation is the gospel. Gospel means “good news.” It is the good news of God’s love and of Jesus’ sacrifice. It is the good news of the man, Jesus, our own representative, on the throne in heaven, ruling over all God’s creation for the good of all. It is the good news that in him there is eternal life when we put our trust in him for forgiveness to the point we are willing to obey whatever he commands us. Fear of hell is not faith and it is not love. If one is moved by fear he is motivated by self preservation.
The commands of Jesus are not some daunting list of rules, regulations and requirements heaped on us to test our faith and endurance. They are not a means of excluding some and including others, marking out an exclusive sectarian segment of humanity, fearful of admitting anyone who is unworthy and suspicious of any who differs with them. The commandments of Jesus are not a burden and are neither a cause of dread, fear nor suspicion.
1 John 5:3 “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.”
In love God has provided for our salvation. In love he calls us unto himself. We are called to live in love for God and for one another. There is no fear in love.
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.”
Consider these words. These are words you will not hear the fomenters of fear shouting to their trembling audiences:
Col. 3:12-15 “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.