by Bruce Gerencser cross posted from his blog The Way Forward
Fear…an emotion experienced in anticipation of pain or danger. An anxious feeling. Uneasy. Apprehensive.
We all have experienced fear before. Sometimes our fear is rational and other times it is not. I fear flying on an airplane. I know that my fear is irrational. I have read all the statistics and I know other modes of transportation are safer, but I am still not going to get on an airplane. I have other fears that are quite rational, like fear of falling.
Yesterday, a Christian commenter had to this to say about their grandfather:
My grandfather was an atheist for many years. He was a professional writer (along with being a carpenter-irony unintended) and wrote a number of published articles for Atheist-centered magazines in the 60′s, 70′s & 80′s. I believe he was exposed to the Southern Baptist church as a child, but it did not take as he developed severe alcoholism.
In his early 70′s he had a massive heart attack that left him in very poor health. At this point he converted to Christianity. He himself admitted it was prompted by a fear of Hell, but his conversion seemed truly genuine. He prayed, read his Bible, and spoke to other believers regularly. He seldom went to church as he was so frail, but a pastor and church members would come to his home. His final words were a soft prayer.
As a believer I am glad that my grandfather came to Christ. I know others could point out that he himself confessed a fear bias to his conversion. All I know is he died a happier man than he had been during most of his life.
When I read this comment I said to myself, I hope no one jumps on this commenter over her grandfather’s conversion to Christianity. The hardcore atheist might look at this and jeer, wondering what kind of atheist the grandfather really was. Christian and atheist alike might question whether fear should be a motivator for believing anything. What I want to do in this post is take a look at fear in general and explain why I fully understand the grandfather’s fear and conversion.
Few humans live life without caring what others think. Humans are communal creatures. Most of us desire connection with others of our species. We divide ourselves up into countries, states, villages, tribes, and families. We further divide ourselves by race, ethnicity, religion, economic status, education, and hobbies. Every group we are a part of has certain requirements and expectations. No one wants to be an outlier or considered a group member in poor standing, but there are times when we have wants, needs, or desires that are not accepted by the group. So, we either act on these wants, needs, or desires and are kicked out of the group, or we secretly act on these wants, needs, or desires so we can stay in the group, or out of fear, we conform to the group’s requirements and expectations.
Every week I get emails from closet atheists who are married to a Christian spouse or who are part of a devoutly Christian family. Often these people write of great mental and emotional anguish as a result of not being able to authentically and openly declare their atheism. ( many in the LGBTI community understand this feeling) They fear losing their spouse, children, or family, so they hide their atheism from others. While some self-righteous atheists will tell the closeted atheist that they need to be true to self and come out of the closet, I disagree with such an approach. Every closeted atheist must weigh carefully the consequences of saying, I am an atheist. As I have told countless closeted atheists, once you open your mouth and say, I am an atheist, you no longer are in control of what happens next. (I dealt with this more fully in Count the Cost Before You Say I am an Atheist.)
So, I completely understand the fear many closeted atheists, or closeted anything have. I do not judge them for staying in closet, even if I would not do the same. Their fear is, to them, real and I respect that.
There is one thing certain about this life, we are all going to die some day. Years ago, when I was the pastor of Olive Branch Christian Union Church in Fayette, Ohio, I had a church member who would disagree with me every time I said in my sermon that we are all going to die some day. She believes the rapture is going to happen at any moment, so, in her mind, it is more likely that Jesus is going to sweep her up and carry her away than it is that she will die. Yet, here we are twenty years later, no Jesus, and she is now in her late 60′s. My money is still on we are all going to die some day.
Every human that lived before those who are now living died. No exceptions. No matter what religious myths tell us, there is no evidence of anyone dying and coming back from the dead. One life, one death, end of story. (and please, no stories of out-of-body experiences or going to heaven/hell and coming back) Since no one knows, not even the Christian, if there is life after death, it is not surprising that many humans fear death. We fear the unknown, we fear the nothingness that death will bring. For those who believe humans have a soul, they wonder what will happen to their soul after death.
The power of the Christian religion rests in resurrection of Jesus from the dead. No other human has done what Jesus did. Jesus, the virgin born son of God came to earth and died on the cross for humanity’s sin. Three days later he resurrected from the dead. If a person will put their faith and trust in Jesus they will receive forgiveness of sin and will be given a home in heaven when they die. What a great message, right? Believe in Jesus and after death you will have an eternal home in the Ritz of Heaven. No more pain, suffering or, death. Perfect peace and harmony for ever and ever. Atheism is no match for the hope and promise of eternal life offered by Christianity. All atheism offers is the cold truth, we all die, end of story.
Yet, for all its appeal, the Christian message of salvation and eternal life is rejected by most humans. Even in countries where Christianity is the dominant religion, getting a person to believe this message requires fear and threats of judgment. Pastors and priests remind people of the coming judgment of God and that those who refuse to believe in Jesus Christ will be tortured by God in the Lake of Fire for all eternity. They even have a book, the Bible, where all these threats are written down. They also remind people that a life worth living has Jesus in the center of it. Having troubles in your life? Addicted to drugs or alcohol? Marriage on the rocks? Are you racked with guilt? Believing in Jesus brings peace, comfort, joy, and deliverance. Again, atheism has nothing to offer here. The atheist says shit happens. Life isn’t fair. Bad things happen to good people. Good things happens to bad people. No one is promised a skate through life.
As a pastor, I saw countless people on their deathbed bow their head and pray and ask Jesus to save them from their sin. Their conversion was sincere and I had no doubt that they genuinely became a follower of Jesus. In a matter of days, weeks, or months, they died, but the good news is that on resurrection day they will be given a glorified, resurrected body and will live for eternity in the Kingdom of God. All’s well that end’s well, right?
The problem is, when people are young and full of life, they rarely think about death. They think that death is a half century or more away, so a pastor or priest using fear of death or hell to motivate them to believe in Jesus does not work. This is why many sects zealously work to inoculate people with the salvation vaccine when they are children. It is much easier to scare a 6 year old with threats of hell than it is a 16 year old. Some sects use infant baptism to seal a child’s eternal fate. Whether through making a decision to believe as a child or being baptized as an infant, Christian sects hope that these acts will carry the person all the way through life to the grave.
When these youthful Christians get older, they will either continue in the religion of their tribe or they will abandon it and choose a different religion or no religion at all. For those who choose a different religion or become an atheist/agnostic/humanist, threats of judgment and hell no longer deliver the desired result. Perhaps they doubt that the Christian God their pastor or priest talks of exists. Perhaps they wonder if there really is a heaven, a purgatory, or a hell. Perhaps they wonder what kind of God would allow the suffering, disease, pain and death that can be seen everywhere they look. For these people, the Bible and the proclamations of their pastor or priest no longer satisfy them intellectually.
But Bruce, shouldn’t a person, just to be safe, believe in Jesus? That way, when they die they will go to heaven. Let me ask you Christian friend, do you really want to cheapen your faith this way? Do you really want to reduce it to fire insurance and a time share in heaven? Shouldn’t it mean something when a person says I am a Christian? Can one really be considered a Christian if they are not a follower of Jesus?
While I completely understand the fear of death, having, at one time or another feared death myself, I can not bring myself to the place where I am willing to ignore, reject, or repudiate what I know to be true in order to placate this fear. I may fear death because I know that I will soon die, but I do not fear God and his judgment or hell, because I do not believe this God or hell exists. I have weighed the Christian God and the Christian Bible in the balances and found them wanting. Believing to the contrary requires faith, a faith I do not have.
The Christian commenter hopes to go to heaven some day and hopes to see their grandfather walking the streets of pure gold. I wish I could have such hope, but I don’t. My parents and grandparents and others that I love are dead, and I have no hope of seeing them again. I accept that his is part of living, of knowing, of feeling. Instead of wistful thoughts of what “might” be, I am far more concerned with enjoying the life I have and trying to end the real hell many people live in every day of their life. (and for some people, it is religion that has brought a real hell to their life and community)
[Editorial Note: This article is written from the premise that the Bible is not the authoritative last word for faith and practice. If you are not one of those readers, please be understanding of the intended audience and refrain from commenting on whether the Bible should be taken as such. Please show some respect for the writer and others of their faith or own belief/nonbelief by discussing the topic, rather than questioning whether the topic is one that even should be discussed or attacking the author. We try to be supportive of everyone coming out of abusive theology and Religious Trauma Syndrome. For more info on the site please visit – Is NLQ an Atheist Website?]
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Bruce Gerencser spent 25 years pastoring Independent Fundamental Baptist, Southern Baptist, and Christian Union churches in Ohio, Michigan, and Texas. Bruce attended Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. He is a writer and operates The Way Forward blog. Bruce lives in NW Ohio with his wife of 35 years. They have 6 children, and nine grandchildren.
NLQ Recommended Reading …
‘Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich
‘Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland
‘Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce