jesus: all about hell???
(The YouTube clip below will be my illustration. Start watching from 1:44, with the section following 3:11 being the most pertinent to this discussion. By the way, this post is in no way meant to reflect an opinion about a prominent Christian advertising campaign).
I watched this last week, and when I heard the comments about Christianity being a religion of fear my first reaction was to say “No!”
But then I reflected on those statements. While my belief is that Christianity is not meant to be a religion of fear, I empathised with those making such comments. The truth is that if you were to form your opinions about the Christian faith from much of the preaching that occurs today you would assume it is based on fear.
Let it be known, when I (and, as I understand it, the presenters of the program shown above) say “fear” this is not meant in a biblical sense, but in a modern sense, referring to horror or apprehension.
So, I suppose my question is, what is it that Christians “preach”? Isn’t it meant to be good news? And if so, to whom? Only to those who accept/believe it? When did Jesus stipulate that?
Many sections of the Church today preach a Hell-heavy message. A question could be, is such a message going to reach a society who largely don’t believe in Hell? Apparently it doesn’t… (It seems to me that fear-based preaching really works the opposite way to what is intended with most people anyway, as the above program demonstrates. People ending up thinking CHristianity has no real power apart from terror.)
Moreover, what kind of disciples does such preaching/teaching produce anyway? In my experience often very fearful, critical and unloving disciples. Such disciples also have very little concern for things going on in this world, in this time, for their whole view of faith is oriented toward a (usually non-material) life after death. Compare that with Jesus’ concern that God’s kingdom come on earth as in heaven (Matthew 6), or that good news, liberty, vision and favour come to the spacio-temporo-material world of people (Luke 4:18-19).
There is often a complaint among certain segments of Christianity that Hell is not preached enough, particularly to non-believers, as if Hell were the yardstick for sound doctrine (interesting that there are no debates around it in the New Testament given the range of views about afterlife in the first century). Paul’s preaching in the Areopagus in Acts 17, one of the most complete evangelistic discourses in Scripture, seems to bear witness against such concerns. There is a complete lack of mention about Hell, and while judgment is outlined, we cannot impose our modern-popular views of Hell onto Paul’s doctrine of judgment and assume that’s exactly what he meant by it (I would argue it wasn’t at all…).
Does this mean I think Hell is unimportant? Not at all. But I think we need to be very careful: after all, how much do we really know about Hell anyway? As much as many Christians have come up with intricate accounts of Hell over the centuries, I would argue the vast majority is actually speculation rather than concrete fact. Even putting aside the fact that much Western thinking about Hell has been mostly influenced by Greek Platonic ways of thinking from the early centuries on, the Scriptures are at best unclear about Hell. This is best illustrated by the vastly differing opinions of world-class scholars. Indeed, we should be humble about how we view Hell. In spite of this, however, I think judgment is an important aspect of the Christian worldview, as Paul demonstrates in Acts 17, though this must be not only balanced, but also well-informed (much popular understanding of judgment is, sadly, grossly short of the Scriptural account).
Perhaps my major concern here is that when we preach Hell like many Christians often do we end up with a faith so focused on afterlife that is becomes useless for life on earth. And if Christianity is like that, then why does the New Testament spend most of its time dealing with issues related to this life? Indeed, fearing God is not meant to be frantically worrying about your eternal destination, but about your total awe and love of the God who created all things, and by extension love also for those things.
Is it that Christians don’t believe enough in the power of God’s love and his Spirit moving in people’s lives that we must resort to threatening people with Hell and damnation? Or is it that many Christians don’t have the energy or ability to love people enough, and so preaching fear is the easier, more safely-distanced alternative? Which is stronger anyway: love or fear?
The Fear of the Lord
My fear of Thee, O Lord, exults
Like life within my veins,
A fear which tightly claims to be
One of love’s sacred pains.
There is no joy the soul can meet
Upon life’s various road
Like the sweet fear that sits and shrinks
Under the eye of God.
Oh, Thou art greatly to be feared,
Thou art so prompt to bless!
The dread to miss such love as Thine
Makes fear but love’s excess.
But fear is love, and love is fear,
And in and out they move;
But fear is an intenser joy
Than mere unfrightened love.
They love Thee little, if at all,
Who do not fear Thee much;
If love is Thine attraction, Lord!
Fear is Thy very touch.
—F. W. Faber
Would love to hear your thoughts.