If there’s a heaven at the end of life, then there must be a hell too, right? And so you should be afraid, very afraid!? Right? Or not?
Atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell famously said that religion is based on fear. Is he right? And should it be?
If you’ve been living with a religion based on fear, this page may assist you.
Fear in christianity
There’s a lot of scary things in the Bible.
- In the story of Noah’s Ark (Genesis 7), everyone in the world is drowned except for 8 favoured people.
- God is said to have commanded the wholesale slaughter (= genocide) of several people groups as Joshua invaded Canaan.
- The Old Testament (Leviticus 20) said adultery and homosexuality were punishable by death.
- All people must face God’s judgment.
- Jesus spoke of hell, which many christians interpret as meaning many people are punished forever.
These stories present us with a scary and sometimes angry and violent God, which can be traumatic for some christians, especially children. I know as a child I found the idea of hell terrifying.
The horror of the violent parts of the Old Testament lead many christians to question their faith, and wonder whether these parts of the Bible can really be true.
For many of these, fear enters the picture again as earnest fellow believers warn them of the slippery slope of questioning God’s word. Some fear they’ll be sent to hell for questioning God.
Fear and control
Fear is, shamefully, often used as a method of control to ensure conformity. In cults, total obedience can be demanded. In churches, it generally isn’t so stark. Nevertheless fear of losing faith or losing one’s place in the fellowship can be used to stifle challenges to the status quo.
LGBTQI people and those who support them can be accused of being ungodly, divisive and rebellious. Leaders and ministers who step out of line can lose their ministries and jobs. Those who see social justice as being part of the church’s mission can be accused of not staying true to the gospel (or even of being Marxist!).
It shouldn’t be this way!
One of the most repeated commands in the Bible is not to fear (about 90 times, many more if we take phrases with similar meanings).
We haven’t been given a Spirit of fear but of a sound mind (2 Timothy 1:7). Perfect love (which we have from God) casts out fear (1 John 4:18).
It is true that Proverbs 1:7 says the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, but we need to recognise the difference between reverence & respect, and terror. A child shouldn’t fear their parents, but certainly should respect them.
Fear and control are manipulation, and shouldn’t be part of churches. Paul says clearly in Romans 14 that each of us is responsible to God, and we should be wary of judging. Jesus also warned against judging (Luke 6:37).
There is a place for caring for each other, sometimes even correcting each other, but it must be done in love, not via fear.
Psychologists say that fear tends to reinforce moral behaviour. But Jesus calls us to be friends rather than mere servants (John 15:15), suggesting that God is more interested in transforming us than merely forcing us to behave better. Fear generally doesn’t transform our hearts, but love does.
And a fear-based religion makes us less happy in life.
The Bible’s arc towards love
We can see in the Bible a developing revelation of God’s dealings with people. God is portrayed right through as loving, but in the Old Testament, he was also seen as angry, judgmental and requiring adherence to the Law. These characteristics aren’t entirely absent from the New Testament, but there love plays a central part:
- God IS love (1 John 4:8)
- The greatest of all characteristics of a christian is love (1 Corinthians 13:13).
- The greatest commandments of all are based on love – for God and neighbour (Luke 10:27).
- God’s attitude towards people, and his reason for sending Jesus, was love (John 3:16).
- Some of Jesus’ last words to his disciples before his death were the importance of love (e.g. John 13:34-35, 14:21-23)
It seems clear that God wants us to respond to him out of love, because of the love we have received from him (1 John 3:1, 4:10). Fear is contrary to that.
So christianity is a religion of love, not of fear.
Leaving a religion of fear
God calls each of us to mature in our faith, and in our behaviour (e.g. Ephesians 4:13-15). I believe that applies to us as individuals, but also to churches and the human race as a whole. As the Holy Spirit reveals more to us, we can move on to newer understandings and live as children and friends of God, not servants.
That includes leaving behind a religion of fear, no matter how helpful it may once have been. There are steps we can take.
We can study the Bible, look up passages on fear and love, and see what the New Testament emphasises. We can listen to podcasts and watch videos – Brian Zahnd, Peter Enns and the Bible Project may all be helpful.
There are good reasons to reject the fearful teachings
There are good reasons to reject the conventional evangelical teachings on hell, the Canaanite genocide and Genesis 1-11 as history, while still accepting the gospels as historical. Many apparently good and sincere christians reject these teachings. We don’t need to be afraid.
Jesus promised the Holy Spirit would lead us into truth (John 16:13) and we only want to believe what the Spirit wants to teach us. So we can ask him to guide our reading, conversations and thoughts.
Find people on the same journey
It can be difficult, even scary, challenging some of our deeply-held beliefs. Other christians will likely be concerned about us, maybe even pressure us to give up the journey. It can be hard to go it alone. So search out others on the same journey, online or in person. Compare notes, pray for each other, encourage and support each other.
Don’t be afraid
We haven’t been given a Spirit of fear (2 Timothy 1:7) but the Spirit of truth (John 16:13). He won’t give us a snake when we want to eat fish (Luke 11:9-13), but if we seek the truth we will find it. We shouldn’t be afraid, for “greater is he that is in us than he that is in the world” (1 John 4:4). To paraphrase Dean Sherman, if we question received wisdom and seek the truth, “our salvation won’t leak out all over the floor”!
It may, or may not, mean changing churches
Some people find they have to leave the church they were in because it is just too negative. Some find other churches while others find small home groups and other informal forms of “church”. But others find they can stay right where they are and can still stand in the new truths revealed to them. Prayer and the Holy Spirit will guide to the right choice.
Photo by Mantas Hesthaven on Unsplash.