Why Fear is Incompaible with Faith

Saturday, March 22, 2014

A long time ago I wrote a paper called "How Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?" I wrote it because I was really struggling with the whole hell thing, and frankly found the way my fellow evangelicals were dealing with it was really insensitive and hurtful. The big issue here is fear, and how Christianity often intentionally cultivates and breeds fear in people.

I recently got a letter from a reader who is struggling with this herself. She tells a story that I'm sure all of us are familiar with,
I recently went to a Campus Crusade event and the guy speaking told a story about how he was in a fraternity. One night his "brother" told him he was feeling down because he had just broke up with his girlfriend, and the man sharing his testimony was saying how he was going to share with his friend about Jesus but was going to wait until later that night. Well long story short his friend died that night in a drunk driving accident. He never said his friend went to hell but he essentially insinuated it by explaining he had the answer and the urgency in sharing the gospel.
The example is actually pretty subtle compared to some of the hellfire presentations many of us I'm sure have heard. The message is only "insinuated" as she says. Yet despite this, it nevertheless plants a seed of fear that has devastating effects, as she goes on to explain, 
"This put me on a trajectory of fear, knowing that my family and most of my friends in my sorority could die in a car accident as well and they could go to hell because I didn't tell them" 
As a result, she says she has "become consumed and scared with the concept of hell." I'm sure that was the intent. After all, if you are consumed with the fear that people are going to hell this will result in a person who is active in evangelizing, right? So why is fear wrong? If the danger is real, shouldn't we cultivate fear?

Absolutely not, and I'll tell you why: If there is one thing I have learned it is that fear is toxic to the soul. Love and fear cannot coexist. Either love will push fear out or fear will push out love. That's why John says, "There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear... The one who fears is not made perfect in love" (1 John 4:8). 

To put it bluntly we have a choice between the way of Jesus which is love or the way of the devil which is fear. Fear leads to violence. Fear shuts out love. Fear kills the soul. Fear debilitates and paralyzes. Because of this, being motivated by fear is never good.

This is true regardless of whether there is a legitimate reason to fear or not. People are afraid they won't have enough, and so they steal and kill and dehumanize. People are afraid so they trust in violence and power and guns. When they do that, they are not trusting in the way of Jesus, they are not trusting in love. Fear is un-faith. Fear is anti-faith, anti-love.

So if that's true, why is it that so many Christians cultivate fear? Their concern is that if we don't stir up fear in people then no one would evangelize. But the opposite is in fact the case.  People stop evangelizing when it is fear-based because that's what fear does, it debilitates. Additionally, fear as a motivation to come to God simply does not work. It plants shallow roots so the person who is with God because of fear does not stay (who wants to stay with someone they are terrified of?). In contrast, when the bond is based on love then it can grow deep roots that will last.

Now let's talk about sin and hell: I don't mean the trivial "did you ever tell a lie" nonsense. I mean real harm, real brokenness, real hurt. Do people do really hurtful and horrible things to each other? Yes, they certainly do. Are people hurt and broken? Yes, more than you know. Abuse is real. Rape is real. Starvation is real. War crimes are real. In short, there is a "hell" right here that many people are in the middle of, and that matters, and we should care.

This idea of hell right now is vital because it means we need to care about people's lives right now, and not just about life after death. I believe in that, too, I hope for heaven with all my heart, I long for eternity. But life here matters. People matter. That's why Jesus spent all his time caring for people and their very real needs. When we have a theology that makes all of that a waste of time then we suck the life right out of life. Your life matters, and the life of others matters, too. If we don't see that then we are not loving.

We therefore do need to help people connect with God's love when we can (and that includes caring for their material needs). But if we really want to do that then we need to do it through real relationships. You can't address those kinds of things by handing out a pamphlet. It needs to be deep and real. And it needs to be motivated by love not fear. Love heals people, it makes them come alive. Fear is what drives people to do all sorts of profoundly hurtful things, it is what makes people shut themselves off from love.

The problem with the whole fear-based "if you don't tell your friend about Jesus they will get hit by a truck tonight" argument is that it puts a pressure on us that is really God's alone to carry. It is not our job to save people, that's God's job. It is our job to simply love them as best we can. We need to trust God to save people. But instead we have this messed-up idea that it is all up to us, and God's hands are tied, and because of some ridiculous technicality (not saying a particular prayer, not formulating the doctrine of the Trinity just right, not being born in the right Christian country) they will be tortured forever and ever in an eternal holocaust camp, and it is 100% up to you to prevent the whole thing. That is completely absurd, and frankly it's abusive. It puts us in God's place, placing an insane burden on our necks. How could you love or trust a God like that?

So let's talk about trusting God. The bottom line is that if we are going to trust God, then we need to be able to trust that God is not going to just shrug while the people we love go to hell. We need to trust that God cares more about this than we do. If we are troubled by the idea of people going to hell, that is not because we are "doubting" but because we have the same heart for the lost that Jesus does. That voice of protest in us is Jesus in us. That is God's love in us. God is not less loving than us, God is unimaginably more loving than we are. Paul prays that we would really get a hold of this.

"I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us be the glory." (Eph 3:17-20)
Read that again slowly and really let it sink in. We are to be rooted in love. A love that is so much wider and longer and deeper than we can possibly imagine. And that love is the basis for trusting that God can do "immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine." That is who we are trusting in. That is what our God looks like. That's why Jesus repeatedly said to people "do not be afraid."

Let me conclude with this: People often ask after reading my paper on hell what my "answer" is. First of all, here is NOT what I am saying: I am not saying "God is really loving, and so when people are in hell it will be for their own good." Hell is not good, and God does not want anyone there (whether that means people who are suffering right now or in eternity). Love cannot tolerate hell.

What I want to suggest is that we have a reason for hope. That hope is based on two solid foundations:

First, God's love revealed in Jesus shows that God wants to break everyone out of hell. God loves all of us. As 1 Tim 2:4 says "God wants all people to be saved." That is God's deepest desire.

The second factor is that God is able to save us. The reason I have hope for this is the cross and resurrection. The cross shows God's amazing way of overcoming an unsolvable problem in a crazy upside down way that no one could have imagined. It shows that God can find a way where it seems impossible. It shows that God's love is able to overcome death and hell. It shows that death is not the final word.

So based on those two things together I think we have a solid reason for very real hope. I hope that God is loving enough and creative enough to break through to us in our stupidity. Now, this is a hope, not a certainty. In this life certainty is something we rarely have. What we can do is trust and hope based on the evidence we see. So this is no a baseless hope that amounts to wishful thinking. It is a hope based on he solid ground of who God is in Jesus and what God did in Jesus. In the end it's about trusting God, trusting in love. That hope allows me to love without fear.

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9 Comments:

At 8:23 AM, OpenID stanrock.net said...

Fantastic post, and devastatingly cogent paper.

St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote, "For the chastisement, however painful, of moral disease is a healing of its weakness.For the chastisement, however painful, of moral disease is a healing of its weakness."

I have two posts in which you may be interested.

"An Ancient, Unsound Argument in the 'Hell’s Duration' Debate"

http://stanrock.net/2014/03/18/an-ancient-unsound-argument-in-the-hells-duration-debate/

"Freedom & Sovereignty: The Heterophroneo"

http://stanrock.net/2014/03/19/freedom-sovereignty-the-heterophroneo/

 
At 10:17 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Thanks Stanrock. What I like about the perspective of folks like Gregory of Nyssa is that their view (as opposed to either eternal punishment or annihilation) is redemptive rather than being destructive.

The caution however is that at the time they thought that physical punishment was restorative. So they project that understanding onto their view of the afterlife. We now understand that beating people is actually deeply harmful and abusive. So we need to be careful of simply adopting their view and seeing hellfire as "purging" and thus seeing suffering as good and God's will. God's will is certainly redemptive, but I think we should question whether suffering and pain are from God, or whether perhaps instead God uses evil (suffering, harm) and turns it to good. Some food for thought!

 
At 8:46 PM, Blogger Abbey Bradley said...

eternally grateful for this. thank you thank you thank you Derek for further revealing God's love to me.

 
At 7:56 PM, Blogger ofgrace said...

Derek, it seems to me you really nail this problem here:

"The problem with the whole fear-based "if you don't tell your friend about Jesus they will get hit by a truck tonight" argument is that it puts a pressure on us that is really God's alone to carry. It is not our job to save people, that's God's job. It is our job to simply love them as best we can. We need to trust God to save people. But instead we have this messed-up idea that it is all up to us, and God's hands are tied, and because of some ridiculous technicality (not saying a particular prayer, not formulating the doctrine of the Trinity just right, not being born in the right Christian country) they will be tortured forever and ever in an eternal holocaust camp, and it is 100% up to you to prevent the whole thing. That is completely absurd, and frankly it's abusive. It puts us in God's place, placing an insane burden on our necks. How could you love or trust a God like that?"

Not only does this reflect a deeply distorted image of God and the true nature of the apostolic Christian faith, it also betrays a very deep level of unbelief in God as He has revealed Himself in Christ. It seems to me that this unbelief is the result of a form of "Christianity" that has departed from its apostolic moorings and is, frankly, a form of humanism, not genuine faith based on a real experience of the presence of Christ in His Church. Another bad fruit of this sort of unbelief is that it results in our making those deemed "unsaved" into projects, rather than persons Christ knows intimately and loves unconditionally. It even thwarts our own sanctification because what is motivating us in our religious expression at that point is no longer the ravishing vision of Christ in His prodigal Self-giving love we receive in the Gospels, but only crass self-interest--the instinct for self-preservation and self-validation by convincing others that our opinions about the meaning of Scripture are true.

 
At 7:56 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

That's wonderful to hear Abbey!

 
At 8:09 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

OfGrace,

Yes, it's really messed up. It deeply hurts people, and because of that is sin. It's the most dangerous kind of sin because it pretends to be a virtue. This is the "bad news" that Jesus came to save us from. That's Paul's central argument in Romans, but we have gotten it flipped around backwards.

 
At 6:46 AM, Blogger ofgrace said...

Here's a quote from one of the Desert Fathers that also speaks to your post (in context of commentary on the verse "Love covers a multitude of sins."

"Whose work is it to disturb, to condemn and to harm, if not that of the demons? And here we prove to be helpers of the demons in our own perdition and our neighbor's. Why is this so? Because there is no love in us! For "love will cover a multitude of sins" (1 Peter 4:8). The saints do not condemn one who sins and do not turn away from him, but suffer with him, grieve over him, make him to understand, comfort him, heal him, as a sick member, and do everything in order to save him" (Abba Dorotheus).

From here (where there are more excellent quotes speaking to this issue from an Orthodox perspective):

http://fatherjohn.blogspot.gr/2014/03/stump-priest-love-covers-multitude-of.html

 
At 4:31 AM, OpenID lindabailey01 said...

Hi Derek, the views that you express remind me very much of those of the 1st world War army padre and poet, G.A. Studdert Kennedy. Here is his poem:

Eternal Hope.

Can the Father in his Justice burn in everlasting flame
Souls that sunk in foulest squalor, never knew the Father's Name?

Can the Love of man be greater than Eternal Love divine?
Can the heart of God be harder, than this hardened heart of mine?

Can the pangs of Hell be endless, void of object, void of gain,
Save to pay for years of sorrow with Eternity of Pain?

Cursed be the foul contortion, that hath turned his Love to hate,
That hath cried at death's dim portal, "Enter here, and 'tis too late."

Cruel pride and vain presumption claim to grasp where angels grope;
'Tis not God but mean man's blindness dims the deathless star of Hope.

 
At 6:29 AM, Blogger ofgrace said...

Here's a recent post which shows the framework the early Chistians (especially in the East) were working with in understanding the gospel. A far cry from today's Penal Substitution, a doctrine which fuels the fear "hell":

http://glory2godforallthings.com/2014/04/25/the-scope-of-passover-and-penal-substitution-theory/

 

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