I had a nice long, pleasant conversation yesterday with a friend, mostly about the bible and what it means to be saved. At one point she observed that preachers who throw a little fear of hell and damnation into their listeners have been successful in turning people to Christ. She’s absolutely right. Some have been successful, but it makes me very uncomfortable. Why is that?
Part of my discomfort comes from the secular world. Management researchers, teachers and consultants have known for decades that using fear and intimidation to motivate workers is counter productive, even destructive. That has not stopped the practice by those who believe that the only alternative is to be weak and disrespected by subordinates. It’s another example of how some people are unable to think in terms other than black and white, this or that. In the corporate world, the masters of fear and intimidation have sometimes been able to build hugely successful organizations, but I cannot think of one that has not crumbled in the end. Fear and intimidation can achieve momentary success, but it can’t sustain it because it sows the seeds of its own destruction.
In like manner, I can’t see how scaring the hell out of people in order to drive them to Christ can be a source of life giving hope and joy. Keeping them, it seems to me, can only be achieved if they are continually beset by fear and anxiety that any slip up will cast them into hell, and there is nothing life giving and joyful in that.
Secular experience aside, it just doesn’t seem Christ like. How does fear and intimidation square with “Love one another as I have loved you?” How does it square with Jesus’ unwillingness to condemn anyone with whom he came in direct contact, no matter what their condition in life may have been. In every case he sought healing and reconciliation for them. Now and then he came close to condemnation of vaguely identified groups, except that his words implied their own self condemnation for their unwillingness to recognize and participate in God’s reconciling love. A few of the Pharisees, temple leaders and some Galilean towns come to mind.
A few of my fundamentalist acquaintances would counter argue that they are simply warning others about the consequences of not accepting Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, and how is that different from what Jesus did? It’s a good question. The answer, I believe, is that it is God in Christ Jesus, and only God, who has the authority to make a decision about that, and we are not permitted to put limits on, or establish formulae for, God’s salvific intentions.
Jesus knew, and gifted bosses in the secular world know, how to be firm, set standards and explain consequences, and how to do that without using fear and intimidation as their method. Those who do use fear and intimidation are nothing more than bullies who have more interest in their own prestige, power and position than they do in the well being of others, and I will lay that at the feet of preachers who rely on threats of eternal damnation in hell.