October 22, 2017

Evangelical Anxieties 1: Is Christianity a Religion of Fear?

anxiety3.gifThis is the first in a new series of posts exploring the increasing role fear is playing in evangelicalism. I anticipate ten or more posts in the series, and I hope they will be helpful to my readers. I could write more on these topics, but this is a blog, not a book. I look forward to your comments.
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The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. -Solomon, Proverbs

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some detestable insect, over the fire, detests you, and is dreadfully provoked: His wrath towards you burns like fire; He looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be thrown into the fire…-Jonathan Edwards, Sinners In The Hands of an Angry God, 1741 (Updated Language)

Is Christianity a religion of fear?

The most well-known verse in the Bible says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” From that verse, billions have concluded that Christianity is a religion that tells us of a loving God and his gracious gift of giving his son for sinners.

At the same time, anyone reading the same verse can see and understand the word “perish.” Two verses later, the word “condemn” is used twice.

One of the best experiences I ever had in Bible study was listening to a series of sermons on “The Fear of God” preached by Al Martin. One of the most effective preachers of his generation, Pastor Martin conveyed that the fear of God is rational, foundational and healthy.

Jesus said, in Matthew’s gospel 10:28, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” While some modern versions of Jesus would make this kind of rhetoric impossible as an expression from the mouth of the Son of God, anyone who studies the Gospels seriously will have no doubt that Jesus talked like this quite a bit.

The writer of Ecclesiastes concluded his journal (12:13-14) with these words: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”

So, do these passages of scripture answer the question “Is Christianity a religion of fear?” Is it really that simple?

The answer, of course, is “No.” Christianity is not a religion of fear, and any honest study of the Bible, especially the New Testament, will lead us to a more complex and balanced conclusion.

There is an element of fear in any rational, honest person’s approach to life. If there is a creator God who holds us morally accountable and before whom we will all stand justified or rejected, it is soundly, soberly reasonable to contemplate the fearful aspects of such a being and such a relationship.
The Gospel is good news to those who understand the bad news. In fact, should someone look at the human race, the world we’ve made or into their own record of living up to what they know to be right, and not feel some fear in regard to God and the future, I would judge that person to be irrational, if not delusional.

Looking at the moral compromise the young nation made with slavery, Thomas Jefferson said, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.”

Jesus, who knew all of this, apparently did not interpret the Kingdom of God as a Kingdom of fear. When his religious critics found him too eager to celebrate with sinners, he said,

“But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates,

“‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.” (Matthew 11:16-19)

Jesus knew what the last day was all about, and he knew what a sinful generation had to account for, but he came declaring that the nature of the Kingdom, now, was a banquet, a party at the Father’s house, and a constant occasion for rejoicing.

There’s no need to recite the many stories and parables that show this. There is no need- I hope- to rescue Jesus from the dour reinventions of those who want him to sound like the precursor of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Most of us know this very well. Some say too well.

Jesus did not teach a religion of fear. He taught a religion where fear has been defeated by resurrection and reconciliation; and the relationship between God and his family is the relation of the prodigal to the joyous Father.

The writers of the New Testament are very aware that there is a difference between the kind of fear of God engendered in the older covenant and the kind of joy in God found in the new. In the epistle to the Hebrews, the anonymous author goes back into the history of the nation of Israel to find the right contrast:

18 For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest 19 and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. 20 For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” 21 Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” 22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

25 See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. 26 At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” 27 This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. 28 Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, 29 for our God is a consuming fire.

There is a kind of reverence and fear in the new covenant, but it takes place in the midst of universal rejoicing in the victory of God and the deliverance of his people.

Jesus said that the good shepherd brings home the lost sheep with joy. It was his refusal to leave sinners with the burden of the fear of the law, and his announcement of immediate forgiveness for sinners because the Father rejoiced to do so that brought Jesus into conflict with the religious authorities of his time. What was the purpose of the law and the temple if not to separate, by fear, God and sinners? To which Jesus said, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” (John 8:10-11)

Christianity is not a religion of fear, at least not to those who belong to the God who has reconciled himself to the world in Jesus. For certain, a kind of fear and reverence of God remain and even grow under the influence of the new covenant, but the tune to the song has changed, and there is no fear in the kind of love poured into our hearts in and through the Spirit sent by Jesus.

The apostle John saw this perfectly:

14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. 16 So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. 17 By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. 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. 19 We love because he first loved us. (I John 4:14-19)

Christianity is not a religion of fear.

So why has evangelicalism increasingly become a religion of fear? What is it evangelicals are so anxious about, and why?

Comments

  1. Jeremiah Lawson says:

    The Jefferson quote gets me thinking that a lot of what passes for evangelicalism is a sort of surreptitiously adopted civic religion. It’s as though evangelicals have become enamored with the idea that they represent America or what America SHOULD be. When I was in college one of my friends was a missionary kid who was raised in Nagasaki and she told me I was one of the few Americans she’d met who thought of himself as a Christian first and an American second. Most people, she told me, in this country seemed to think as though American and Christian were synonymous.

    So if people feel America is going to seed perhaps they feel evangelicalism is going to seed? I don’t really know. It might explain why theological conservatives find it compelling to talk about counterculturalism when the term used to be invoked by anti-establishment types. It seems more and more jargon used by the old left has been reappropriated by the religious conservative wing. I say that as a theologically conservative guy whose probably a moderate Republican.

  2. Christians are afraid not just of God.

    I think a lot of what I have been sensing is fear of other people, and especially of other Evangelicals. Its because we are so scary! Bleah!

    I think there is a lot of anxiety out there, and it is fanned by the media which urges us to play it safe and watch more TV in our relatively safe suburban homes.

    I think my first answer is that Evangelicals are afraid because we live in a fearful culture – fear sells.

    I believe we are afraid to approach God too closely – because we are afraid of having a Mount Sinai experience rather than a Mount Zion experience. Either experience is rather frightening from a consuming fire point of view. But Mount Zion has a cross – and a heavenly city, and Jesus on it!

    We do not believe that we are worthy of being loved first (1 John 4:19) and we do not believe that the “dangerous” people in inner city America, in Iraq, or even in the cubes next to ours are worthy of being loved first.

    -Mark

  3. Interesting; I just blogged about the fear of God and how it can’t be an emotion if we’re commanded to have it. (I’m logically following the same interpretation we use when we discuss the command to love God — that biblical love is understood as an action, following Paul’s definition in 1 Corinthians 13; and so is biblical fear, when we consider its depiction in Deuteronomy.)

    Fear is the opposite of faith, and Christians who lack faith in God will express it through fear. Certainly the church is full of people who lack faith; this is why about 80 percent of us are passive spectators. When we don’t trust God to sort out the evil in the world, we fear it. When we don’t feel it can be overcome by spiritual means, we attempt to do it through political means. When we don’t trust the Holy Spirit to help us overcome temptation and resist the devil, we hide from the devil instead of standing up to him. And when we don’t trust the Holy Spirit to convict the people in our congregations, we try to do the convicting ourselves — and create cults.

    That’s the fear I see most often in Christianity; and it is the direct result of not having the fear of God that’s commanded of us.

  4. One problem that has once again risen in the evangelical movement is this false holiness idea that if you “sin,” you will lose your salvation. Interestingly, whenever I ask these people what this sin is and how much we have to do to lose our salvation, they get nervous and run away. Hebrews 4:16 tells us that Christians may approach the throne of grace with confidence. But there are still those (i.e. T. Tenney) who want us to jump through hoops to get to God.

    On the other hand, among the younger Christians especially I think there is the opposite problem of too much laxity. There seems to be more of a “Yo, God, whatsyup?” attitude. Invoking the fear of God -that is, fear in this context meaning His holiness and seriousness – perhaps this is what could be an antidote to that.

  5. The fear you are describing is generally not part of the evangelical church in Australia. I must conclude therefore that there are some very specific things going on in America.

    Think of the “culture warrior” Christians like Al Mohler and James Dobson. Every time I go to Mohler’s website he writes articles (assuming it’s actually him who writes them and not some FOTF blog jockey) designed to make Christians fear.

    Culture warriors ignore the gospel and promote fear because their very message is anti-gospel.

    Christian CWs want the laws of America to be conformed to Biblical laws. They want Americans to submit to God’s rule… but without the gospel. Even Rod Parsley is suggesting that adultery should be criminalised (http://www.centerformoralclarity.net/Articles.aspx?page=2007013005).

    Why this focus on the law? Why this focus upon obedience? I don’t see in any of the writings of Christian CWs the compulsary enforcement of faith in Christ. Getting people to come to Jesus in repentance and faith is not their focus.

    Literally, therefore, the battle is against the world. Sinners and unbelievers are our enemies that need to be put in their place, either by legal or political means, or even by force.

    The irony is, of course, that there is nothing in the NT about setting up a Christian state. The NT was written during the reign of the Roman Empire, a most corrupt, miltaristic and pagan state as any that has existed. And yet Peter, Paul, James and the other NT writers have absolutely no message (clear or otherwise) ordering Christians to take over the state for Christ.

    God is transforming the world through the gospel and through the church.

  6. It seems to me there is a real paradigm issue when it comes to churches that operate either out of fear or out of grace. Those that operate out of fear tend to micromanage (just to make sure nothing is out of place!). They tend to be harsh and highly judgmental. They tend to operate from a checkbox mentality. This often turns into Pharisaicalism – we did this, this, and this…so we are alright with God this week.

    Other churches operate from a grace perspective. These churches tend to leave more room for people to make mistakes = members have more room to grow. They tend to do more sheperding and are more concerned with identity than checkboxes.

    While I think we do need a proper fear and respect of the Lord I also think that of the churches I have been around, the healthiest ones were the ones that operated out of grace and not out of fear (1 John 4:18).

  7. I think there are too many people who believe that humanity’s “problem” is that people have committed too many “sins,” and that one needs to be forgiven of “sins.” Ongoing “sinning” will result in a kind of un-reconciliation. Oh, and being left behind. Ahem.

    If, however, one understands Jesus’ salvation project in terms of reconciliation of humanity to God and the restoration of your life and my life and our lives to his image and into his fellowship, judgment is no longer just about declaring who’s “in” or “out” in some kind of cosmic juridical process, but rather God “putting things to rights” in us.

    I don’t think it’s reasonable for any Christian to live in fear of being “un-reconciled” to God – like my fellow youth group members in high school – but the ongoing judging work of God is a fearful thing because the transformation is painful. But the transformation is also good.