If the gospel is true, why use fear to compel belief?

I don’t recall Einstein ever threatening people that they would burn in hell if they refused to accept his theory of general relativity. The same goes for Newton, Kepler, Copernicus, Archimedes, Planck, Bohr, Curie, Bacon, Faraday, Feynman, Darwin, Hubble and a host of other scientists who revolutionized the way we understand the universe. There was no need for them to threaten us with hellfire, because the accuracy of their calculations and conceptual models could easily be measured against the real world. If they were wrong, we refined or rejected their theories. But if they were correct and we refused to believe them, what hung in the balance was not eternal damnation but a diminished existence here and now spent in the darkness of ignorance rather than the light of knowledge.

Not to put too sunny a spin on humankind’s quest for enlightenment, which has given us an increasing capacity for destruction even as it has allowed us to probe deeper into the nether regions of the universe, but I see a clear connection between these scientific theories and the teachings of Christ, particularly his two–make that three–greatest commandments:

  • Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind:
  • Love your neighbor as yourself.
  • Love your enemies.

I’ve always considered these commandments the “e=mc²” of the moral universe, because they completely revolutionize the way we order our lives. More importantly, they disclose the only way of escaping the cycle of retributive violence in which humankind has been embroiled since Cain killed Abel. Christ’s commandments also have everything one looks for in a scientific theory: simplicity, elegance, inner coherence, a high explanatory value and most importantly… testability.

As I have observed these commandments applied to various conflicts around the globe and even in my home, the results always confirm the validity of Christ’s words. The same is true when we ignore his teachings. Such behavior always leads to escalating tensions, violence and ultimately destruction or even self-destruction. We see this clearly in the gospels themselves. Jesus not only teaches these things, he demonstrates them with his life, death and resurrection. Not even the grave can hold him. Meanwhile, his persecutors defy Christ’s teachings… and reap the consequences.

Which leads me to wonder why so many Christians feel it necessary to compel belief at the point of a flaming sword. If the gospel is like a scientific theory–a statement about the universe that can be tested and confirmed–why is there any need to threaten those who refuse to believe it? That would be like Einstein threatening to use the very nuclear power he helped us harness to annihilate those who disagreed with him. Like Einstein’s theory, the truth of Christ’s life and teaching should be plain to see. (Even if we, like Einstein, have to wait years to see them confirmed.) People can either live in the light of it and thrive, or skulk under the shadow of death and perish. Obedience and disobedience are their own rewards. Why tack an eternity of torment onto a lifetime of misery?

I can already hear the response: “We preach hell, because that’s what Jesus taught.”

On one level, I agree.

“Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14)

Exactly. Few of us are willing to relinquish our violence, and none of us do it consistently.

Jesus is “‘the stone you builders rejected, which has become the cornerstone.’ Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:11-12)

Precisely. No one can be saved from self-destruction apart from imitating Christ. But as I believe Jesus took great pains to explain, these are are proximate consequences, not ultimate consequences. After all, the Apostle Paul tells us the wages of sin is death, not eternal life–not even eternal life in hell.

If we want to argue otherwise, we have to conclude that Christ’s commandments don’t reveal an ultimate truth about the universe after all. Loving our neighbor as ourselves and loving our enemies were merely temporary measures, not a true expression of the heart of God. How could they be, seeing as Christ, himself, won’t be bound by them when he’s tossing sinners into the lake of fire?

If that’s actually how things end, I guess you can say Christ’s commandments really are like a scientific theory–merely an approximation of reality that will only survive until an even better explanation comes along. I can’t even begin to imagine what that explanation might be, but I can say it’s one “scientific revolution” I hope I’m not around to endure.

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About Kevin Miller

Kevin Miller is an award-winning screenwriter, director and producer who has applied his craft to numerous documentaries, feature films and shorts. Recent projects include "The Chicken Manure Incident," "Hellbound?," "Drop Gun," "No Saints for Sinners," "spOILed," "Sex+Money," "With God On Our Side," "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed," "After..." and the upcoming biopic "The Divine Comedy of Thomas Merton." In addition to his work in film, Kevin has written, co-written and edited over 45 books. He lives in Kimberley, BC, Canada with his wife and four children.

  • Mathew P

    “…apart from imitating Christ.”
    Actually, this is terribly non-Biblical. The Bible says that believing and following Jesus are the only way to salvation, not imitating him. The Bible teaches that it is for all intents and purposes impossible to imitate him. Depending on when you believe humanity first came to be we have a clear statement that no one else, in all the history of the world, ever lived a sinless life; but, he did. It’s impossible to imitate Christ, that’s the whole point of our being washed in his blood and cleansed by his righteousness.

    • Kevin Miller

      Matthew: I suppose you think Thomas A. Kempis wasted his time on this book then.

    • http://whoisrobdavis.wordpress.com Rob Davis

      Following is different from imitating?

    • DanVincent

      Impossible to imitate Christ? Does that mean we don’t TRY? Of course we are to imitate Christ. I find your point rather nonsensical :/

    • Frank

      Indeed it in non-biblical. Unless you write your own.

      Following is not imitating. It is much, much more. After all there are plenty of people imitating Jesus that are not following him.

      Of course the longer we follow Jesus the more we become like Him but it not about imitation.

  • Bryan Osborne

    Very well put Kevin! It is just the way I think on the matter, too bad many more don’t. Perhaps they have trouble with principles of it, as though God himself and all his greatness is being diminished or degraded by such an elemental or “human” way of thought. We have to comprehend the teachings of Christ in such a way or rather than being our salvation it will become or downfall. The Commandments for example are not to be used to beat people over the head with but as a guide to live in peace with each other, and if there are those who do not wish to follow we must, again, leave them in peace. Believe or go to Hell is not a peaceful way, and cannot possibly be God’s way.
    Thanks Kevin for your insightful words.

  • http://www.thejesusdrivenlife.com michael hardin

    @Matthew P: Actually, Kevin is quite biblical. First, to follow Jesus is equivalent to imitating Jesus. Matthew, the gospel writer uses the technical term akoluthein (usually translated “to follow”) as a referent for discipleship. Second, T.W. Manson has pointed out that Jesus Aramaic term for disciple was not the standard word for pupil but the word we translate as “apprentice.” An appentice is one who learns by copying or imitating. Third, research for the past 15 years on the human brain has demonstrated that we are little more than ‘copy machines’ that is, we are constantly imitating. Andrew Metzloff has demonstrable evidence of imitation occurring just 1/2 hour after birth in babies who have not yet seen their birth mothers. Rene Girard, back in 1962 postulated, based solely on literary evidence that we humans imitate one another’s desires. His work has recently been vindicated by various disciplines of scientific research. Fourth, imitation of Christ is salvation. Inasmuch as we all need models, imitating Jesus brings new life, his is THE life we are called to imitate or “follow.” Fifth, Whole swaths of Christians believe in Jesus but don’t look anything like him. I believe in Middle Earth, E.T., and green dragons. So what? Last, your disconnecting faith and life (most likely due to some fear of Arminianism or Pelagianism) is the bane of modern Christianity and has resulted in a two-kingdom doctrine that has created multitudinous problems for the modern world. So kudos to Kevin and go do your biblical homework Matthew.

  • Gene

    Kevin, it seems to me that fear is not directly useful to compel belief. Logic is what compels us to believe anything and we receive that through different means. However, I’ll say this: Fear it seems is useful for getting someone to think about investments. So while it may not be directly connected to compelling belief, it does seem logically possible that it is connected to compel the necessary questions that precede belief. Prudence and fear are closely related. Wisdom properly warns us of consequences for decisions and actions we make. Therefore it seems fear has it’s place for helping us to think through the dilemmas that form our beliefs.

    No, fear does not prove anything, but it is a natural intuitive built in mechanics that we all should heed. Would you disagree?

    If there is danger ahead for lack of belief in something, should one ignore that fear?

    • Kevin Miller

      Could it be a matter of semantics, Gene? I like the sound of prudence. It’s a healthy awareness of the consequences. However, fear is more animalistic. Think about it: If you’re walking along the edge of a precarious cliff, fear could actually make you fall b/c you second-guess yourself. Prudence would ensure you never found yourself along the edge of that cliff in the first place.

  • Gene

    Kevin, agreed and once again I think it is semantics. I would say prudence/wisdom can utilize fear. If we believe people will suffer for the choices they make then we should warn them of such things. So I disagree with you if you believe we should not. After all most Christianity does preach turn or burn. (it’s not entirely wrong is my point). But if we say fear is the difference between heaven and hell, as most Christians treat it, I agree with you – fear does not compel us to believe, LOVE DOES THAT and it keeps us there. Fear compels us to recognize the consequences of the course (cliff’s edge) we walk and rather than consume us, it should simply communicate love and life. I think we agree.

    That brings me to say that I think the gist of your post here is that people tend to walk more in fear than in love. We weaklings of a species tend to be afraid in that animalistic sense (which is natural). But we must realize WE ARE NOT ANIMALS – we have a creator who is benevolent and we are made in that image – the image of love, patience, kindness, endurance. We were made to love one another and love God’s creation. – So I agree :)

    regarding being imitators of Christ – you forgot to mention Paul the Apostle :)
    Cor and Eph both state this. I think it’s sad that we as Christians have been under that blind notion that we are not to imitate Christ because it’s impossible. We are commanded to and through the holy spirit we do. Under such a paradigm, the Holy Spirit simply cannot accomplish what he came to do – write God’s laws on our hearts – after all that’s impossible even for the Holy Spirit – so he simply seals us for the day or redemption – sad theology.

    • http://www.preachingpeace.org Michael Hardin

      Gene: Could have added Paul and a lot more, thought it best to keep my post brief. The problem with the theology we have been critiquing is that it is mired in dualism which leads to two-kingdom thinking and a platonic otherworldly view of salvation. Thankfully all of this is being overturned much to the joy of many and the consternation of the “certain.”

  • Larry

    The oldest lie of the devil AKA “the Talking Snake” is found in Genesis chapter 3:

    2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”
    4 “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

    Old Beelzebub is still at it only now he uses the church to spread his oldest lie: “The soul that sins shall NOT surely die. It will however spend eternity in a SERIOUSLY bad neighborhood!”
    Jesus contradicts this nonsense in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
    So there’s your choices, folks; destruction (see PERISH) or eternal life from Jesus. I know which way I’M gonna go!

  • Null

    If indeed a book written by man contained any sliver of truth it has been washed away by entropy through translation and mans inherit corruptive nature. Esoteric dogma isn’t necessary for spiritual faith, it only retards ones mind. Before you crucify me for my views… remember, as for truth in reality you and I are equally incorrect.