There’s not a lot that I like about the Appalachian mountain version of Christianity that surrounds me here in southeastern Kentucky, but at the top of a short list is their attitude toward the end of the world. They aren’t afraid of it.
They have a good idea what’s going to go on. They believe some will be ready and some won’t. They realize it will be a reunion for some and a final separation for others. But it’s not an occasion for fear. When they sing about it, preach about it or pray for it, it’s almost always saturated in happiness. When the end comes, they sing, it will be a better day.
If you are looking for the #1 fear producer in contemporary evangelicalism, you need look no further than the subject of the end of the world. Any Christian bookstore, radio station or television station will quickly provide you with evidence that fear-mongering and fear-motivating by holding out the imminent end of the world is still a major evangelical obsession.
In my years working with students, Iâ€™ve had thousands of conversations with Christian teenagers on hundreds of subjects. Iâ€™ve rarely ever seen any of those students seriously and consistently frightened except when they came to me with questions about if and how the world was about to end. Iâ€™ve seen far more evangelical teenagers afraid that Jesus would come back than that they or someone they know would go to hell.
For these students, the idea of missing out on their American-version of paradise on earth is nearly unthinkable. What if I don’t get my license? Or have sex? Or get a big house?
I wonder where they learned all of that?
Several years ago, a youth worker at a nearby church became convinced that Christ was going to return in a particular month that year. (He was helped in that belief by a number of books suggesting 88 Reasons Christ Will Return in 1988.) He took the youth group out to a camp fire in the country and terrorized them with this “theory.” His â€œmotive,â€ of course, was evangelism. The result was not so much faith as it was mental and emotional abuse. If I had been a parent, I would have been livid.
One of the primary problems in evangelism among evangelicals in the inability to distinguish between fear and genuine conviction of sin. John Piper, in his book God is the Gospel, is courageous enough to say that a fear of hell is not a sufficient definition for the faith that embraces Christ as the all sufficient author of salvation. Evangelicals need to hear this message, because they are increasingly given to Tetzel-like tactics in order to produce what they believe is true faith, but is nothing more than fear of judgment or hell.
Fear without conviction? Yes. Emotional manipulation with little spiritual reality or Gospel response. It’s not just possible; it’s common, and short-lived.
Sophisticated fear-producing spectacles such as â€œJudgment Houseâ€ and â€œHell Houseâ€ specialize in taking the fearful elements of modern culture and amplifying them into a Hollywood style, special-effects laden experience of fright. This is followed by a presentation of the Gospel and the opportunity to â€œmake a decision.â€ The product is then called a Christian.
Many evangelicals have questioned this, and some have gone so far as to say that any eschatological fear should be removed from the Christian message, making it entirely about a never-ending â€œthis worldâ€ kingdom. Eschatological differences among Christians are interesting to note, but I do not believe it is possible to entirely remove “end times” eschatology from our message and still remain faithful to what Jesus taught. Even if Preterists have something to teach us (and they do), there is still a strong element in the New Testament that affirms an eschatological inbreaking of the Kingdom and the unknown, but certain, future arrival of judgment. I’m not convinced all this occurred in the first century.
An eschatology that affirms â€œJesus will return in judgment,â€ however, should not produce fear among Christians! This is the amazing irony of what we see in evangelicalism, and it reveals what an idolatrous and materialistic condition the church has lapsed into. When Paul describes the “Day of the Lord” in II Thessalonians 1, he spoke in genuinely frightening terms about the fate of those who were to face judgment, but for Christians he described the same event- the arrival of Jesus in history to judge his enemies- as a time of reward and comfort. Comfort!
The book of Revelation is often described as â€œfrighteningâ€ by evangelicals, but the actual message of the book is that God has sealed his servants and nothing can harm them, even in the midst of the most terrible judgments on the â€œworld.â€ It was a message of assurance, not of fear.
The thought that eschatological judgments may arrive unexpectedly is frightening, but as John Piper says in Donâ€™t Waste Your Life, western Christians tend to be deluded about issues of risk and security in general, believing that we are able to secure ourselves and guarantee the future. Christian eschatology is a matter of giving up control of the future to God, and recognizing his sovereign hand in all events that may occur. Our attitude toward the future is a reflection of our confidence in the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and nothing about that confidence should result in terror and fearfulness.
The industry that exists around the notion that scaring people into the Kingdom and into Christian living is a sad embarrassment to the Christian community. Atheist websites such as Landover Baptist.org rightly skewer this kind of approach, and Christian leaders should develop the courage to insist that the work of human beings in frightening other human beings is not the same as the Holy Spirit showing us issues of our eternal destiny.
Christians should specifically distance themselves from, and condemn if possible, fearmongers like John Haggee, whose boldly detailed predictive books on coming world wars, etc. have become standard mnind candy for many evangelicals. It is rare for Christians to hear any view of eschatology that isnâ€™t filled with the kind of rhetoric that would not be at all out of character in a fascist country. The propaganda produced by evangelicals on the subject of the end times is world class, to our shame.
Christians should be a community who looks at any apocalypse with hope. Not just hope that there is a resurrection beyond, but hope that Christ gives us victory over fear in the here and now. The likelihood of a nuclear detonation, viral epidemic or environmental catastrophe may be real, but Christians have always been able to minister, serve and love in the midst of the worst of times precisely because they believed all these events were under the control of the Lord of history and could not, ultimately, take anything of real value away from us.
A final note to pastors: One of the most important ministries you can perform for your church is to defuse the â€œLeft Behindâ€ mentality by teaching a more Biblically balanced kind of eschatology, debunking the Hollywood-based fear scenarios and teaching the Lordship of Jesus over history and all events in a way that inspires missions, prayer, worship and service to others.
I think of the varying Christian responses to the apocalypse that was Katrina. While some doomsday prophets made their usual noises about Godâ€™s judgment, other Christians made meals and did the work of the Good Samaritan, sharing the Gospel as they served. Those who served had an eschatology as well, but it was an eschatology that produces the fruit of hope, not the fruit of fear and fearful rhetoric.
Pastors: produce that kind of church and Christian. The Day of the Lord is a day of fearful darkness, but it also the revelation of the Kingdom of our savior, and we should greet him with worship, missions and service done in the hope of his soon return.