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

If the gospel is true, why use fear to compel belief? September 6, 2012

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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