Zealous, Zealot, Fanatic

Either way, it’s safe to say this guy’s gone too far

Below, listed in order of General Intensity, are some words one might use to describe a believer in Christ. Go down the list, and see where the words stop describing you.










Did you stop at “zealot”? Most would, I think. I sure did. I’m a zealous believer in Christ; but I’m no zealot for Christ. Zealots are scary.

And fanatics?

Please. Werewolves are less scary.

Relative to religious conviction, I think it’s fair (if not outright crucial) to consider when and how one crosses the line between zealous, and zealot or (yikes!) fanatic.

My Official Guess is that line is crossed by anyone the moment intolerance for belief systems other than their own kicks in. You’re zealous when you’re about your own religious business; you’re a zealot when you’re about the religious business of others. (And you’re a fanatic when … you start ripping off your shirt and howling at the moon.)

Guy praying in his church? Zealous. Guy screaming on the street through a bullhorn? Zealot.

And none of us needs reminding of what religious fanatics can do.

In conservative Christian circles, the word “tolerance” is almost a curse word. I’m either a conservative or a liberal Christian, depending on the issue. But it seems to me that religious tolerance is the only thing that’s going to save us all–Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, atheists, everyone. In the final analysis, I just don’t see how full acceptance of the belief system of others isn’t the only thing that separates a loving, thoughtful person from being exactly the sort of person that it’s entirely too satisfying to accuse other people of being.

Of course it hurts to extend to the belief system of others the same respect we all feel is due our own.

Withhold that respect if you must. But know that doing so makes you a dangerous person.

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  • I would definitely be the one, not screaming on the streets, but doing street evangelism. Tolerance? Acceptance? Jesus Christ accepted that there would be people who would not believe on Him, but He also condemned them. I'm not saying we get in their face and say "YOU'RE GOING TO HELL!" But we should definitely let them know that they are believing a lie, and that they should set about a diligent search to discover the truth for themselves.

  • Makes me wonder what kind of background they had. My guess would be, they grew up in that sort of environment. Which is unfortunate, because it just means it'll propagate to the next generation. I can hardly imagine people coming to faith as adults, from agnostic backgrounds, doing that sort of thing.

    I'm currently reading a book called "When Bad Christians Happen to Good People", as well as reading the book of Luke in Bible study… the parallels between the rule-spouting Pharisees of Jesus' day and the hypocrites of today are startling. And people say the Bible isn't relevant in modern times! ;-P

  • I'm reading The Jesus I Never Knew by Philip Yancey, and in it he discusses the different Jewish groups of Jesus' day and the way they responded to Roman rule. The Zealots were the revolutionaries who wanted to overthrow the secular rulers. So I think today the guy with the bullhorn on the street might be a fanatic but not a Zealot. The Zealot would be blowing up the abortion clinic.

    As to the offense many Christians take at the word "tolerance," I think it's the changed definition of "tolerance" that is the main part of the problem. Once, "tolerance" meant you respected other people's opinions even when you disagreed with them and continued to live and work alongside them in harmony. Now "tolerance" means that you must agree with everyone else's opinion, which Christians cannot do while remaining true to what the Bible teaches. (Jesus said He is the only way to the Father; if Christianity is true, other religions are not, and vice-versa.)

    For this alleged "intolerance" (belief that contradicting statements can't both be true), we become victims of the original meaning of intolerance and are loudly denounced, disrespected, and ostracized. That's why "tolerance" is becoming such a dirty word in Christian circles.

  • Jesus accepted that they did not believe in him. Their belief, or lack of, is what condemns them. Jesus loved them in spite of their lack of belief.

  • Alex

    I think the conservative/liberal Christian idea is funny. I've heard more and more people talk lately about being one or the other. Personally, I find the whole idea semi ridiculous as we all have access to the Bible and should let our worldviews be shaped by its Truth. Great comments, by the way. I agree with the statement about how the word "tolerance" has changed. Not all roads lead to same place.

  • Being exactly my point, actually. (Alex's last sentence, I mean. I don't know what's ridiculous or "funny" about the fact that there are, very clearly, conservative and liberal Christians.)

  • Lauri

    In my personal experience, you go from zealous to zealot when you spend all of your "faith" telling people who & what Jesus isn't & what He hates rather than living those 2 very simple but apparently not so easy commandments.

  • Kelly

    Most Christians see any reference to "liberal" or as I refer to myself "progressive" Christians as heretics going straight to hell and taking others with them. What is "funny" about it to me is the fact that I felt at some point I had to set myself apart from "christians" in order to accept the label that has now become synonymous with Repubevangelicals. Any thoughts?

  • Candace

    "But it seems to me that religious tolerance is the only thing that’s going to save us all—Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, atheists, everyone."

    HOW, John? How is religious tolerance going to "save us all"? I don't even know what you mean by that.

    Nothing is going to save us all. The entire premise is …. baffling to me, coming from a professed Christian. You have read the Book of Revelation, right? You do believe the Bible?

    There's only One Way for all of us to be saved. His name is Jesus.

  • I mean religious tolerance is the only thing that will save us, as humans, here, on this earth. One race, and all that.

    And are you seriously suggesting that you understand what Revelation really means?

    And are you, now, someone who points to others and accuses them of not really being Christian?

    Sigh. That didn't take long.

  • Candace

    No, I'm serious. How is my "full acceptance of the belief system of others" supposed to work, in your opinion? Do we do nothing but pray in our own churches, in order to meet your definition of non-zealot/non-fanatic?

    Seems to me that Jesus did a whole lot of what would have beentotally and entirely equivalent to someone street-preaching these days. So does HE fall under your definition of a zealot or a fanatic?

  • Candace

    You dork. You changed your initial response on me.

  • Candace

    Perhaps not entirely (knowing what Revelation means) but it seems pretty clear that this world will end amidst a lot of not so great suffering, and a new one will begin.

    And no, I'm NOT now "someone who points to others and accuses them of not really being Christian". If I came across that way, it was unintentional.

    I'm just frustrated. And baffled.

  • Candace

    And, I think that tolerance of another's freedom to believe as they will/do is entirely different from "full acceptance of the belief systems of others".

    If all you are saying is that neither Chrsitians, nor Muslims, nor Mormons, nor Hindus, nor atheists, nor whomever should be going around flying hijacked planes into buildings or conducting Spanish Inquisitions or whatever, then we have no point of disagreement.

  • Candace

    I liked what Shannon had to say about the "tolerance" thing.

    I'll be quiet now. I'm in a mood tonight that probably would have better lent itself to silence in the first place!

    Carry on! 😉

  • Christine

    kinda agreeing with Candace here. The idea that full acceptance of other faiths is what needs to happen I think needs to reworded. I know that Jesus is the only way to God, he is the way the truth and the light. I am totally tolerant of other faiths, have many Jewish, muslim, shintoist and even a satanist friends and I love talking to them about what they believe. However at the end of the day I know the truth and know what where i am going. I think though that the soap box preachers screaming at people are out of touch with today and I totally believe that we need to start talking, having relationships with people before and understanding their view BEFORE we get to a place of telling them that it isn't the truth (and this is done gently through love and relationship not by coming right out and saying it).

    But John you do seem a little vague on what you mean, first post I have read and thought it wasn't clear. If you are saying that any religion gets you to God, saves your soul, then you are deviating from biblical truth and from Jesus' sacrifice. If you are saying that tolerance and understanding and communication need to happen for us all to work together, then Hear Hear

  • ginamarie33

    I do not profess to know John personally or even that I can explain for him what he did or did not mean in this post in reference to to the whole "tolerance for other's beliefs". But I'd like to add my own spin on the matter…..

    First of all, I am a born again Christian who has the assurance through Jesus Christ that I am saved. Period.

    However, having lived through the "tolerance" backlash in every single Christian church and organization I have worked for, John DOES have a point (and, I fear, if many of you would not turn this into a statement against our Christian faith, you might admit it, too…). For, in reality, I have been TAUGHT to theologically attack anyone who ever shares any view outside of faith in Christ. For example, I have been basically FORCED to attend lessons on how to convert Muslims I encounter, how to argue Christ to my Jewish friends, and the like. And, again, I admit I hold the TRUTH in Jesus Christ. However, these approaches – in my experience – have negative reactions 100% of the time. I mean seriously, if a Muslim came up to me, realized I was Christian, and suddenly and immediately told me that I was lost forever, do you think I would be receptive.

    As for me, I take a new approach. I am tolerant, meaning I forge a RELATIONSHIP with people who are not Christians and expose them to the love of Christ with friendship, love, acceptance, and now and then share why I am better for knowing and loving Christ. And really people, I give the Holy Spirit His place in it all; I believe others that don't know Christ need him, but heck……I am not gonna beat them up in order to have them see things my way.

    And that is my very poorly presented two cents….

  • To say that Jesus condemned people who don't believe in him sounds, to me, pretty presumptuous.

    His recorded words in John ("no way to the Father except through me…") seem simple enough when seen through the hermenuetical lens most Protestants have been taught since birth, but there are plenty of other ways to interpret that particular text.

    And outside of John, the other gospels show the vast majority of Jesus' examples with religious outsiders (tax collectors, hookers, Roman soldiers, adulterers, etc…) to end with love and grace, often with no strings attached.

    We do see some of this in the book of John as well (the woman about to be stoned) — in this case Jesus specifically tells a convicted sinner "I do not condemn you" and sends her off, even though she never even asked for forgiveness!

    Most of Jesus' condemnation in the gospels is reserved for the religious folks who think they have it all figured out.

  • Redlefty —

    I am interested in hearing what other ways there are to interpret "no way to the Father except through me." I've studied quite a few different interpretations of the Bible and have never heard another one for that one.

    Also, if there were another way, why would Jesus have died? He is even recorded as praying for another way before His death (Mark 14:35-36). Even if you personally do not believe the Bible is true, you should at least be able to see why those of us who do cannot be logically consistent and say there are other ways to God.

  • Shannon: Here's another way to interpret the “no way to the Father except through me” passage:


  • Clarification — rather than "believe the Bible is true," I should have said "believe these words are literal" above. I do know (and respect) that others who believe in the truth of the Bible have other ways of understanding it and that they may be right in some areas where I am wrong. I just don't see any Scriptural justification for it in this case. If there are other ways to God, there's really no point in being a Christian.

  • Thanks, John — your response came through just as I was writing more. I really never had heard that interpretation, though it does make sense when the quote is used out of context.

    I guess that shows why we Christians need to study the entire Bible so we can better support our arguments! (And why I shouldn't always jump in mid-conversation without having seen what others have said before me.)

  • Shannon,

    I grew up in a very conservative church (which I still attend, actually) and the bible is still my #1 source of guidance in life. I have studied it in-depth for many years.

    For me, I've found that the more I study, the less I'm able to say that any particular verse means just one thing. It seems that God purposely assembled a book that makes it almost impossible for us to put him in a box with concrete answers, no matter how comfortable that box might be for us.

    The same bible that includes John 14:6 also has sections that show:

    — Jesus took ALL sins of the world upon himself at the cross… even the ones who didn't ask for it?

    — Jesus was forgiving people before he had died/resurrected… perhaps the penal substitution model isn't the only way to look at Jesus' sacrifice? Maybe instead of HAVING to die to settle some cosmic sense of justice, he HAD to die to illustrate how much we've been loved all along? It doesn't change God's answer at the garden, but it might change how we see God. And both models can be supported (or shot down) biblically.

    I could go on for a while but I'll try to use some self-control (fruit of Spirit!). 🙂

    If the bible had simple interpretations, we wouldn't be experiencing thousands of denominations using the exact same source text.

    So since my studies often seem to leave me answerless, and even add more questions, I've been trying on different interpretations like people try on clothes. Then I see how those interpretations change my daily walk.

    Right now, if I'm wrong, I'm erring on the side of grace. And this set of clothes — choosing to believe that God has better plans for mankind than I've previously given him credit for — fits me nicely. No clue if I'm "right", but I sure am a better person (and Christian) now!

  • ginamarie33

    Redlefty –

    Thank you for the post! I, for one, think this world would be a much better place if we all shopped for the same clothes you are wearing…..

  • Redlefty —

    I appreciate your thoughtful response and graciousness even when I'm being a bit prickly. I have considered those questions you list, though after looking at several other passages, I still believe that only believers will get to heaven.

    I, too, have seen some changes in my theology as I study, and I will check out your blog to see if you can show me anywhere I'm wrong 🙂

  • altonwoods

    ginamarie33, Your earlier response reminded me of this incident that happened to me the other day,

    I was in the dollar store looking for a small handy size bottle of mouthwash. As I made my way to the front of the store I picked up on a conversation between the cashier and a woman shopper pertaining to job availability.The woman inquired about various jobs around town made a little small talk, then told the cashier that it was up to the Lord to find her the perfect job…and that it was up to Him to decide what hours she would be working, etc… Then she made a comment like “I know that must sound weird”, and proceeded to ask the cashier if she was a believer and if she knew where she would be spending eternity if something should happen…the cashier agreed with her about being a believer, and said she DID know where she was going…

    God Bless this woman for what she was intending to do…

    I m absolutely nobody to sharp shoot anybody else’s evangelistic style…


    Recently a friend of mine made this observation about Christian’s

    “They were so wrapped-up in the joy and rapture, that they could’nt really communicate with their fellow man in a realistic way. So…in that sense…how do others benefit from their state of grace?”

    I wondered if this was sort of what both of you meant?

    All I know is what worked for me,and that is definitely not what would’ve worked for me. If I were the cashier, and I was in fact unsaved, I think I might of gone away from that encounter feeling like some Christian people are kind of nut-zo and that I was NOT at all compelled to be one!

    Of course, everyone s different…and you know what they say about all of the shots you never take (you miss everyone of them) But how many people do you alienate before you find someone who says

    No, I m not saved and could you tell me more about this Jesus?

    Whats happening in our world right now is more than enough of a backdrop to work from as an ambassador of Gods love. I’ve found that the many opportunities to share the love of Christ are more tangible in nature…food,shelter,compassion,a listening ear or maybe even an interesting blog for people to read.

    As Christians, we constantly talk about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. We evangelize and exhort people to come to know “Him” but do we through our actions show others the love of Christ by taking the same time to get to know them either before we do our “cold call” or afterward? Do we feel the need to hang about at all and see that they are discipled or that the seed we have scattered is’nt eaten up by the birds of the air? relationship,relationship,relationship! lol

  • Diana

    "Maybe instead of HAVING to die to settle some cosmic sense of justice, he HAD to die to illustrate how much we’ve been loved all along?" This! I am in total agreement with this!

    Also this: "It seems that God purposely assembled a book that makes it almost impossible for us to put him in a box with concrete answers, no matter how comfortable that box might be for us."

    Thanks Redlefty!