This 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.
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, â€œFor God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.â€ 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 â€œperish.â€ Two verses later, the word â€œcondemnâ€ is used twice.
One of the best experiences I ever had in Bible study was listening to a series of sermons on â€œThe Fear of Godâ€ 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 Matthewâ€™s gospel 10:28, â€œAnd 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.â€ 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: â€œThe 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.â€
So, do these passages of scripture answer the question â€œIs Christianity a religion of fear?â€ Is it really that simple?
The answer, of course, is â€œNo.â€ 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 personâ€™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 weâ€™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, â€œI 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,
â€œBut to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates,
â€œâ€˜We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.â€™
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, â€˜He has a demon.â€™ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, â€˜Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!â€™ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.â€ (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 Fatherâ€™s house, and a constant occasion for rejoicing.
Thereâ€™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 â€œSinners in the Hands of an Angry God.â€ 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, â€œIf even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.â€ 21 Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, â€œI tremble with fear.â€ 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, â€œYet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.â€ 27 This phrase, â€œYet once more,â€ indicates the removal of things that are shakenâ€”that is, things that have been madeâ€”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, â€œWoman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?â€ 11 She said, â€œNo one, Lord.â€ And Jesus said, â€œNeither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.â€ (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?