Evangelical Anxieties 4: Does God’s Judgment Make Christianity a Religion of Fear?

anx1.jpegEvangelical Anxieties is a series of posts on the growing phenomenon of fear as a major component of the faith of evangelical Christians.

It might seem that the subject of judgment is so similar to the subject of hell that a separate post would be inappropriate. In some ways, that would be true, but the general topic of God’s judgment extends in areas other than what will happen to us or others after death.

I am particularly interested in how evangelicals tend to see events in their lives and in history as expressions of God’s direct judgment. The belief that God is actively judging people through the events that happen in life is a significant source of fear for many Christians.

Much of this phenomenon transcends evangelicalism or any particular expression of Christianity. It is a human behavior that even unbelievers may engage in. When bad or undesirable events occur, there is a deep human impulse to see the event as a punishment from God (or fate, etc.) Christians, because of examples of God’s judgment in scripture and because of how many Christian teachers and leaders interpret events in the light of God’s judgment, often experience fear that God is punishing them directly and will do so in the future.

Part of the basis of this fear is the element of unpredictability and the constant suggestion that judgment can be avoided if the right decisions are made. In some situations, this is manipulated by other, sometimes well-meaning, but ignorant Christians- particularly leaders- in ways that are nothing short of cruel.

For example, the inability to have a child may be interpreted as an act of God’s judgment on a couple. Because “barrenness” is a theme of many Biblical stories, it is possible to interpret such events as direct acts of God that occur for his purposes, including judgment. Other Christians may refer to this as a test of faith, or as a punishment for a lack of faith. Leaders may anecdotally or prophetically interpret the event as an example of God’s judgment.

Such events leave individuals with a sense that a mysterious God is orchestrating events for purposes of punishment and judgment. The knowledge of God’s purposes is not available to the ordinary Christian, but is apparently available only to those who have a special understanding of the scriptures or a special experience with God.

There are very few evangelicals who have not heard major disasters interpreted as God’s judgment. For instance, evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson regularly make pronouncements that assume they know the particular motives of judgment that are behind a 9/11 or a tsunami. Not surprisingly, such judgments seem to occur because the particular moral agenda of these evangelical leaders has been violated.

Fear is a tremendous motivator, and the use of the fear of judgment is a way to motivate Christians. For example, American Christians engage in political action because of the belief that God is sending judgment through secularization and moral decline. Responding in such a way that God withholds judgment, often in response to particular old testament covenant promises, is a standard motivational appeal of Christian leaders.

A person studying American history might have reason to doubt whether such actions have any effect on God’s determination to allow judgment. Further, the use of old testament covenantal promises as valid ways of describing God’s relationship with America is questionable. God’s general pattern of judgment on a society is clear in the Bible, but tracing the particulars in the election of particular politicians or the passing of particular laws seems to be a much less certain business.

When the belief that we have much to fear from God’s untraceable and inexplicable judgment is translated onto the level of person lives, family life and church life, the possibilities for fear, even terror, are very real. Pastorally and humanly, we need to take note of what many people are feeling as a result of being told that God is relating to us through acts of judgment.

One of my friends has recently experienced multiple job changes, financial upheaval and a painful divorce that has torn his family apart. His experience in the legal community, and even in the church, has been, at times, painful as well. I am sure that, as a lifelong evangelical, he has thought he was experiencing God’s judgment, perhaps for particular sins. In a broad sense, of course, sin is the cause of much of our human pain, but scripture rarely “connects the dots” of cause and effect in such a way that we can say “God is judging me by what is happening to my family.”

Many Christians and church leaders, however, are not hesitant to “connect the dots,” and the result is psychological pain, blame, self-loathing and resentment toward God. Christians feel like helpless pawns or experiments in a laboratory.

Complicating this are the clear statements of scripture that God does have purposes in suffering and difficulties.

James 1:2 Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

Romans 8 says that suffering and loss can never separate us from the love of God. God is “for us,” Paul says. If we believe that God is judging us, then we may not feel that God is for us so much as he is playing an unfair and capricious game with us.

Other scripture tells us that God “disciplines” those he loves. In Hebrews 12, the author says:

5 And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him.
6 For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.”
Heb. 12:7 It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. 11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

This passage can, if misunderstood, cause a believer to feel that any negative event is, actually, an act of parental discipline for our good. It seems truly bizarre to think of someone losing a child or experiencing the demise of their family and interpreting these events as the direct judgments of a loving “father” who is disciplining them for their good. In tragedies such as accidental deaths or acts of violence, such a way of thinking about God is incredible, even cruel and monstrous.

In fact, Christians and evangelicals have often disagreed on how to interpret the relationship of God to particular actions, but one thing is safe to say: to place a particular motive of God as the direct cause of a particular event is presumption. Christians believe that God is sovereign. They believe he brings good out of evil. They believe he works for the good of his children, and they believe he is a loving father who, even in discipline, is for us. But saying that has done a particular act for the purpose of judgment or for a particular lesson is going too far.

I’ve found the book of Job particularly helpful here. Job steadfastly resists the continual barrage of “connecting the dots” theology coming from his friends. Job believes in a God of covenant promise, and a righteous God who punishes evil. He does not believe in a God whose ways are ultimately confusing and chaotic. Though Job does not know that God is glorifying himself at the expense of Satan in the suffering of Job, Job knows that God’s purpose is not to punish him, but to vindicate and justify him. Job is humbled by his lack of knowledge of God and he repents of speaking rashly about God during his suffering, but God himself commends Job’s confidence in God throughout the ordeal:

Job.42:7 After the LORD had spoken these words to Job, the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. 8 Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and offer up a burnt offering for yourselves. And my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly. For you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” 9 So Eliphaz the Temanite and Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite went and did what the LORD had told them, and the LORD accepted Job’s prayer.

While Job’s theology was not always correct, his confidence that God was not punishing him was correct. This is a lesson many evangelical Christians, pastors, leaders and parents need to learn and apply.

Jesus also taught us to be humble regarding assumptions of God’s direct motive of judgment in particular situations. The lesson of a passage like the healing of the blind man in John 9 is clear: God is glorified in the compassion response, not in the scapegoating theologizing of Jesus’ disciples. Following the implications and example of God at work in the world is the God-glorifying insight for disciples.

John 9:1 As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. 4 We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. 5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6 Having said these things, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva. Then he anointed the man’s eyes with the mud 7 and said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). So he went and washed and came back seeing.

Does the judgment of God ever occur in history? Christians certainly believe that God is working his purposes out, and we believe that temporal judgment is one of those purposes. At the same time, we do not believe that a human presumption of judgment is dependable. It is not pastorally dependable and it tends towards cruelty and arrogance.

We believe that God is for us. In our suffering, he is not experimenting or entertaining himself, but we can be sure he is, even in the midst of the worst events, working towards an ultimate good. His discipline is shaping us into the image of Christ, not judging us for our sins. Christ has been judged for us. God’s wrath as judge has been exhausted on his Son. He is the propitiation for our sins, and no sacrifice- or judgment- is left.

In honoring the sovereignty of God, we have a tendency to forget that any event has multiple levels of causation: sin, self, Satan, society, the unknown, the uncontrollable, and of course, God; at work in and through it all for his purposes revealed in Christ. Should we take the sovereignty of God and abuse it, then we may transform a faith that a good God is at work showing us the way through life into a religion of fear.

For many already suffering and fearful people, that will be a terrible, costly, and unnecessary loss.

5 thoughts on “Evangelical Anxieties 4: Does God’s Judgment Make Christianity a Religion of Fear?

  1. You might be interested in this website http://www.bookofjob.org for a different perspective on Job’s so-called repentance. It is an entirely online commentary on the Book of Job highly praised by Job scholars (Clines, Habel, Janzen, Crenshaw, Good) and the Review of Biblical Literature. Their reviews are accessible by a red button on the left hand column of the website.

    Robert Sutherland


  2. Thank you for that article Michael. I have a very close friend who is struggling with just such issues. I will forward your article on to him today. He will be blessed!

    In Paul’s discussion of ultimate judgments, as relate to believers, he writes:

    1Co 3:11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
    1Co 3:12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw–
    1Co 3:13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.
    1Co 3:14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward.
    1Co 3:15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

    Verse 15 should be a great comfort to each of us, and help dispel the false notions of God’s judgments.

    We will be judged, and things done outside the control and leading of the Spirit will be manifest in that judgment, but those things, rather than us, will be judged and consumed in the fires of His love. It is His love that will consume those things so we don’t have to carry them around in our hearts for all eternity.

    If we could grasp such grace in this life, and allow the Spirit within us to judge and then consume those things now, then in this life we can know the freedom from the anxiety of our sin, and be all the more prepared for the next life.

    Paul’s words have always brought me great comfort.


  3. all i could say while reading this was . . .

    yep, yeah, been there, done that, said that, thought that, taught someone else that.

    you hit the nail on the head. i sadly recall a few times in a fundamentalist bible school that a few friends of mine were suffering from sever injury or sickness. the school’s answer was that they had sin in their lives . . . sigh.

    sadly i also recall one summer being a counselor at high school church camp and reading the small groups lesson material. the only thing lacking was a big stamp from the republican party saying that they supported this lesson material. it made a few claims saying that God’s judgement was evident in the success of the democratic party in the moral issues (abortion, gay marriage, etc.)

    i’m still looking for the proof text on where the israel of the OT is now the america of today. let me know when u find it.


  4. Is everything that happens here the will of God/caused by God? I don’t think so. There is a place called heaven where that happens. I really think there is a fear/grace paradigm shift that many churches are needing. When we hold tightly to fear, we micromanage, and try to “get it all right.” I think we need a better balance between fear and grace. I just posted on that on my other blog


    God bless


  5. Job is awesome. I frequently point out to people how Job’s friends like to present all the very same clichés we still use for why bad things happen to good people. We still use all the same excuses.

    I fear the lack of understanding about judgment largely comes from the lack of reading the Old Testament. In the Psalms particularly, there’s this sense of looking forward to judgment, because since we are on God’s side, God will judge our enemies. We blame God when it makes more sense to recognize our suffering is caused by our enemies (whether they be sin, nature, circumstances, our fallen world, evil humans, the devil and his angels, or what’s left of our own sin nature) and ask God to take up our cause as the plaintiffs in God’s judgment. We are not defendants; God has already declared us righteous and forgiven.

    If we look at the New Testament passages on judgment through this lens, the all-too-common fear of judgment that you’re talking about makes much less sense.


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