There are a lot of things that I struggle to understand: string theory, driving below the speed limit, the appeal of Lady Gaga.
One of the things I struggle to understand the most is the attraction to pastors and churches whose identity, at least to those of us on the outside, seems to be defined by what or who they hate coupled with a morbid fear of hell. These churches and their pastors are characterized by sermons full of yelling and screaming at the congregation and strong denouncements of anyone, Christian or otherwise, who doesn’t agree with their theology.
This, of course, isn’t anything new. This “turn or burn” approach to the faith has been around for a long time. The people we see shouting from the street corner or telling their congregations that God hates them are part of a long, but usually less nefarious, tradition of Christians whose primary focus is making sure they and those around them, don’t go to hell. This tradition really picked up steam in the 19th century with the advent of the 2nd Great Awakening. During this time of social and economic revolution, fear ran rampant across the country that the end was nigh. Although certainly not the sole cause of “revival”, this fear of the end and eternity in hell drove thousands of people to “get saved.”
It’s this same fear that drove the “end times” hysteria of the May 21st campaign. It wasn’t love and hope that drove people to pour their life savings into billboards and cross country caravans. It was fear that the end was near, people would go to hell, and they would be held accountable for whether or not they “got the word out”.
In these sorts of situations, or when we simply “witness to sinners”, we like to say that we are warning people about hell because we love them and don’t want to see them go there. I’m sure there is an element of love and compassion in our motivations, but our sales pitch about getting out of hell reveals our underlying motivation. Ultimately, we are driven by our fear of what God might do to us after we die.
The early church wasn’t driven by a fear of hell. They were driven by love and passion for a God who, unlike the other gods of their day, loved them some much that He sent his only Son to be one of them, live among them, die for them, and then rise again so that they could live with Him forever.
To be honest, for a long time I bought into this theology of fear for a long time.
I can’t count how many times I made a trip down to the altar growing up. Fear of going to hell kept me in a constant cycle or “rededicating” my life to Jesus. Likewise, in high school, it drove a burning passion for biblical prophecy and all things end of the world. I was terrified of Armageddon, the antichrist, and my name not being “written in the Lamb’s Book of Life”. So, I thought that discerning the “signs of the times” would have me better prepared for the apocalypse and increase my chances of not go to hell.
Looking back at my faith then and comparing it to what I see in the church now, I am convinced that the church believes fear is far greater than love at motivating people to become Christians.
Or at least for me, that seems to be the primary ministry philosophy in many of our most “successful” churches. In my own experience, I have witnessed a common trend in many of the (non-prosperity gospel) churches and pastors who gain the most converts. There is usually, but certainly not always, a primary focus on hell and how to avoid spending eternity there.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Fear is easy. There are few things that will get butts in the seats and then down to an altar and eventually on a membership roll faster than telling people they are assured of hell if they don’t “accept Jesus” on the spot.
Now, I’m not saying that hell isn’t a possibility for all of us. I’m simply pointing out that trying to literally “scare the hell out of people” seems to be the primary motivation and approach to evangelism.
I just don’t think it works.
Now, this might sound counterintuitive based on what I said above, but I’m not convinced that “success” in the church is measured by how many butts we have in the seats on Sunday morning. I think the research of groups like Barna bears this out when they demonstrate the long term ineffectiveness of our traditional “our way or the highway” paradigm for church. Personally speaking, I can bear witness to the truth of Barna’s findings. I grew up around plenty of people who had the hell scared out of them at a young age, only to abandon the church later when life outside the sanctuary was less scary than they were taught to believe.
I don’t think it’s bad to have a healthy fear of eternity apart from God. I certainly wouldn’t want that, but fear can’t be our motivation for faith. It rarely lasts. As a youth pastor, I can almost set my watch by how quickly the fear of hell wears off after teens leave church camp or a fiery youth rally. Do you remember the weeks after 9/11? Churches across the country were packed full of people terrified (and perhaps rightly so) that we were on the brink of World War III. Once that fear wore off, attendance got back to “normal”. Or how many people after growing up in a culture of creationism and heaven vs. evolution and hell, are simply leaving the faith after having holes punch in this theory of creation they were told would keep them out of hell?
If the church is looking for an “easy fix” to the “problem” of sagging church attendance, then “turn or burn” will probably work…..but not for long.
I think we need to give love another chance.
Though not as powerful of a conversion tool in the short term, I think love has a far greater chance of resulting in a lasting relationship with God than fear. Telling people that God loves them in spite of their imperfections won’t get people down to an altar nearly as fast as telling them that they’re going to hell that night if they don’t come down to and altar and assuage the wrath of God.
But, how many lasting relationships have you ever had that started with fear? I would be willing to guess the answer is none. If that relationship did begin out of fear or was shaped and defined by your fear of what the other might do, then no one would call it love. We would call it an abusive relationship.
To borrow an old cliché, I think our relationship with God should be similar to our relationship with our spouse or significant other. Chances are if you’re life isn’t a movie, then it wasn’t love at first sight. There was probably an initial attraction, but love didn’t blossom the moment you made the decision to ask that person out on a date. It took time to get to know each other, to talk to one other, to argue with each other, to grow together. But it’s that process that builds a bond that lasts much longer than our fear of the boogeyman living in our closet.
I say all of this because I think it’s tremendously important to understand exactly where these two beginning points of faith leads us. If we begin with fear and God’s wrath, then we come to “accept” the God who first loved us, not out of a similar place of love, but out of fear of what that God might do to us. We stay in that relationship out fear that not doing so will cause God to pour out His wrath on us. When this happens, our “relationship with God” is essentially the same as someone suffering from battered spouse syndrome. In this case, God is not a loving Father, but a brutal monster willing to murder His own Son before setting His sights on the rest of us.
When it comes time to do fear driven evangelism we don’t preach a message of love, but a message of turn or burn. Sure, God may love sinners in some way, but what’s important for them to know is that if they don’t say they sinners prayer, they’re going to hell. It’s this fear that gives rise to street preachers and their megaphones, Christian fundamentalists with their lists of essentials, Fred Phelps and his picket signs, and apocalyptic fanatics who see the end of the world around every corner.
This is not a healthy theology and it’s not one that lasts. It lasts only as long as people are afraid. Once that fear goes away, the reason for accepting Jesus is gone and there is no real reason to continue being a Christian.
On the other hand, when we begin with love our understanding of God and evangelism look very different. God is not an angry deity standing by reading to pour out His wrath on creation, but a loving Father, brokenhearted by sin, but eager to restore the broken relationship with His children.
Likewise, evangelism isn’t driven by fear of hell, but a loving hope that genuinely believes that not only is this God worthy of worship and relationship, but that the world in which that evangelism is taking place can actually be redeemed because that God doesn’t want to destroy it. Instead, He wants to bring heaven to earth and make all things new.
It is love driven evangelism that empowers Mother Theresa to devote her life to the untouchables in India. It gives birth to the recent surge it Christian non-profits convinced they can actually change the world and bring an end to poverty, malnutrition, and the lack of access to clean drinking water. And it is this love that drives broke college students to turn out their already empty pockets and donate $2.6 million to end modern day slavery.
Fear doesn’t do these things. It can’t do them because it has no reason to do them. Only love can change the world because only love has any hope that the world can be changed.
There is an attempt by the latest generation of turn or burn preachers to bifurcate the faith into “conservative” (authentic/Biblical) preachers who are “honest” about sin, and “liberal” (heretical/wishy washy) preachers who try to “tone things down”. Their primary beef is what they see an an overemphasis on God’s love.
It sounds strange just to write that, let alone hear some actually complain about it.
However, there is a reason that John writes “God is love” and not “God is wrath”. Certainly, love is not God’s only attribute, but it is God’s primary attribute. God is Triune because God is love. If God was wrath, there would be no Triune relationship because the Father, Son, and Spirit would be too angry to stand each other’s company. Therefore, there would be no God.
Fear controls, manipulates, and exploits people. It’s the easy way out when we don’t want to do the hard work of loving, living, and listening to people who disagree or are different that us.
We must choose the difficult and narrow path. We must choose love over fear. Love, not wrath, must be the beginning and ending point of our theology if for no other reason than this is the very way in which the Bible itself is formed. It was love that created the world, love that set the Hebrew slaves free, love that gave birth to God in a manger, love that healed the sick, love that was nailed to a cross, love that walked out of the tomb, and love that will return to make all things new.
I believe that context is important. So, let me close with the context of the much maligned passage “God is love.” From the writer of 1 John,
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.
The question is not whether love is greater than fear. It is. The question is “Will we have the courage to let love be greater than fear?”
Grace and peace,