Today I am, in a way, revisiting the series of articles I posted earlier this month (July 1 to 12 – here and here) on the subject of fear. In doing so I am addressing the comment of one reader of those articles who asked the question, “Isn’t a fear of hell part of the formula/equation of conversion?” This comment represents a prevalent belief that fear of punishment is essential to morality and to spirituality – and to conversion to Christianity. Thus the “hell fire and brimstone” type preaching that seems never to die out.
There is, in fact, an element of fear in law. There must be penalties attached in order for law to have “teeth.” But just because people “obey” law out of a fear of the penalty attached to a certain legal enactment does not mean that person is moral. Fear of punishment really has little deterrent effect. Law abiding citizens obey law out of respect for the law. People who disobey law have little respect for either law or its consequences. God fearing men and women obey God’s law out of respect for the Lawgiver, not merely out of fear that he will punish them in hell if they don’t obey. They know it is right to respect and keep the law. With them it is a matter of principle – a matter of character.
By the same token moral people will not abide by law that requires the doing of that which is not right or is immoral. It was on this principle the apostles could tell the Jewish authorities that they would not be bound by their requirement that they not preach the gospel.
Acts 4:19-20 But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.”
These men had a sense of obligation that transcended the fear of displeasing the Jewish authorities and thereby incurring their wrath and possible punishment. With them the fear of judicial retribution for defying the authorities did not outweigh their sense of obligation to God to do his work.
The doctrine of eternal punishment was widely believed among the idolatrous people of the Roman Empire, but there has hardly been a more morally corrupt people than those of the Gentile world of that day. Paul described the moral degeneracy of these people in the first chapter of the Roman letter (Romans 1:18-32). In fact, he said in vs. 32 “Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” Obviously knowledge of God’s punishment for sin was no deterrent to their progressive plunge into a cesspool of moral and spiritual degradation.
After establishing from biblical and extra-biblical sources that the Jews also had a concept of punishment for sin, Thomas B. Thayer, in a book, The Origin and History of the Doctrine of Endless Punishment written in 1855 makes the following observation.
“So little influence did the doctrine (of eternal punishment, MR) have on the Jews in the way of restraint. Such testimonies of the moral condition of those believing it, do not go far toward fortifying the large claims set up for its conservative and sanctifying power. The Jews could not have been much worse with no religion at all, than they were under the pressure of their faith in endless torments.”
I recognize that Thayer was a universalist theologian. But what he says here is true regardless of what he believed about the eventual salvation of all humanity. Sometimes it takes someone who is on the extreme of some position to point out the obvious to people on the opposite extreme.
The fact is that fear of punishment does not work to make people righteous or spiritual. The Jews had the law and they had the prophetic promises of the destruction of the unrighteous. Jewish writings from the period prior to the coming of Christ shows they generally had the same concepts of punishment that people today have, but Paul says in reference to these people that “None is righteous, no, not one …” Their belief in eternal punishment did not act as an incentive to righteousness.
After citing the teaching of Paul in the 1st and 2nd chapters of Romans which indict both Jews and Gentiles of being guilty of sin, Thayer again says …
“Such is the description of the moral condition of Pagans and Jews, as given by the inspired apostle. How much better were they for having believed in endless punishment? How far were they restrained from sin, or hindered in the indulgence of their evil passions and criminal desires, by the terrors of a future judgment and an endless hell? And yet, in direct contravention of these notorious facts of history, we are told that the doctrine of unending punishment is the only safeguard of society, the great moral force of the world, without which it would speedily fall into irretrievable wreck and ruin!”
Because people “obey” Biblical commands under the coercive force of threatened punishment does not mean they are spiritually formed and mature people. What does this say about our concept of spirituality when we believe that the only way people will obey God is because they fear punishment? It is a very dim view of human beings who were made “a little while lower than the angels” and “crowned him with glory and honor” (Hebrews 2:6-8) to think that when called to that estate of exalted being to be restored to that place intended for him to occupy they could be moved would be through threat of eternal punishment! And it is a very dim view of God to think he must resort to fear to bring men to him!
It should be obvious to us that fear produces little in the way of desirable or lasting results. What should be obvious to us also is that God desires greater things of us as human beings than to force us into reluctant compliance through the threat of eternal, unremitting torment.
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:5).
Jesus said to a lawyer who queried him that the two greatest commandments are …
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Luke 10:27.
First here, let me say that salvation does involve the forgiveness of sins which, if unforgiven, would lead to eternal ruin, but salvation is not just about rescuing human beings from hell. It is not just about getting us safe and sound into the “heavenly” afterlife. Salvation is about life both now and forever. It is not just life as a quantity of existence. It is about life as God always intended it to be lived – a quality of life that reaches beyond the present perishing world into the eternity God has planned for his people – a more abundant life.
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10).
The life Jesus came to give humankind is a life we can freely choose because it is life. It is a quality of life as opposed to mere existence – even eternal existence. It is a life of the kind God always intended for us as his creatures to live. It is a life that is begun and lived in progressive movement (sanctification) toward the ideal of his own likeness – a likeness demonstrated and modeled before the world in Jesus, the Son of God and Son of Man. It is a life lived in recognition of the right of Christ to rule over us as Lord and King.
When people are taught of Jesus who is the ideal representation of both God and man, they see themselves as they truly are. We all “fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). No one has lived up to that standard of perfection. We fall short in different ways, but we all “miss the mark” of his perfection. But, as the apostle goes on in the next verse to point out, we “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus”(Rom. 3:23). This gift of grace surely must count for something to induce us to choose the life he offers instead of condemnation on account of our inadequacy and shortcomings.
When we come to realize our sinfulness – how sorely we fall below the ideal of human life – that should cause us to desire a better life. Just to see salvation as the forgiveness of personal sin without this realization of the “upward call of God in Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 3:14), shows that we have a limited view of what salvation is about.
When one chooses to become a Christian he or she is choosing to live a different kind of life from the life that people of the world choose. It is to choose goodness over indifference, mediocrity – and certainly over an evil lifestyle. It is to choose to live a life guided by the “wisdom that is from above” (James 3:15), as opposed to earthly, sensual, devilish “wisdom” (vs. 17).
To choose the Christian life is to choose to live in fellowship with God – to “walk in the light” of divine love as opposed to walking in the darkness of sin and hatred (1 John 1:5-7; 2:8-10). It is to choose to live in close association with the best people on earth and the kind of people one would want to live eternally with – people whom we can call brothers and sisters – people who sometimes are closer to us than blood kin.
Thus, becoming a Christian is not just a matter of fleeing destruction. We are to believe in God because he is the greatest good and deserves our honor, worship and devotion. It is a matter of choosing God and the good that he is and does because he is the ultimate good. And it is good because it means for us the life the good God desires to give us.
Ultimately, love is the only motivator that will bring us to this choice. Go back and read 1 Corinthians 13 again – and again – and again.