Hi and welcome back! Lately, we’ve been talking about evangelism. Evangelists sure like to threaten their marks with eternal torture! They do it to score new recruits for their groups, but there’s a double-edged blade lurking within their conceptualization of their product as fire insurance. Today, let me show you how this concept works in evangelicals’ broken system.
(Evangelists sell only one product: active membership in their groups.)
Simply put, fire insurance is a conceptualization of what evangelicals sell. They want people to join their groups, but precious little about their groups appeals to many people these days. So they push very hard on their product — membership in their groups — as a way to protect oneself from harm.
Harm covers a lot of ground, of course. I’ve heard many evangelicals claim that their product protects people during their finite lifetimes. They think having a cosmic daddy gives them a leg up on everyone else by providing them with help that non-believers simply can’t access.
But more than that, evangelicals think their product will protect them from the worst, most monstrous harm of all: eternal torture in an imaginary afterlife defined by flames. They call this afterlife Hell. And they think their loving, merciful god is totally fine with people going there (or that he actively sends people there).
In a very real way, then, by maintaining active membership in the correct Christian group, evangelicals can ensure their safety from that grotesque fate.
They’ll be fine. See, they’ve purchased fire insurance!
The History of a Bad Idea.
I first ran across the phrase “fire insurance” in this context in that book we reviewed a while ago, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience. This 2005 book mentioned it in the context of “cheap grace,” a snarl term I mostly see out of Calvinists disapproving of other, supposedly-lesser forms of Jesus-ing. The book’s author, Ronald J. Sider, wrote (p. 56):
Cheap grace results when we reduce the gospel to forgiveness of sins; limit salvation to personal fire insurance against hell; misunderstand persons as primarily souls. . .
What an interesting phrase!
In recent years, I’ve seen it in many places. However, I don’t remember anyone using the phrase when I was Christian. We certainly considered our product in that light, yes, but we didn’t call it that.
So I headed for Google Books to see when the metaphysical sense of the phrase gained popularity with evangelicals.
Prior to the 1980s, the only use of the term “fire insurance” I could find involved actual, well, fire insurance — you know, the real kind that people buy to protect their assets.
A book in 1986, The Dangers of Growing Up in a Christian Home, uses the term to describe safety from Hell, though:
When I was growing up , it seemed like getting saved was a form of fire insurance.
But this 1986 book is a lone outlier, as far as I can tell. Every other source I could find in Google Books used the phrase in its traditional, real-world sense.
Fire Insurance: Gaining Popularity.
By the 1990s, a few more evangelicals were describing their product in terms of fire insurance. And by the 00s, this usage of the phrase begins to overtake evangelicals’ use of the term to mean real, actual insurance. It even shows up in Thor Ramsey’s 2008 evangelical comedy guide (and just wow, cuz there’s an interesting combo of words):
Making fun of evangelicals isn’t something that makes me feel guilty, because a joke is often just a rebuke with a punch line. [. . .]
This idea of Christian health insurance deserves some exposure, if you will. It’s about as helpful as the long-standing evangelical idea of “fire insurance,” meaning that some people convert just because they want to avoid hell. Mostly we blame the hellfire and brimstone folks for this tactic, which probably doesn’t happen much anymore. Ironically, all the hellfire and brimstone preachers have died and gone to heaven.
I liked the “rebuke” bit. It reveals the author’s overinflated ego, if nothing else.
For non-evangelicals, a rebuke is a very Jesus-flavored reprimand that’s supposed to bring about serious changes in behavior in the target. Often, the evangelicals delivering these reprimands act like Jesus himself told them to do it. You’ll also encounter rebukes in terms of demonic possession/oppression, because evangelicals think their reprimands annoy demons extra-lots (in reality, they remind me of Southerners talking about how they totally chased Bigfoot away from their campsite).
So this guy thinks his work affects naughty evangelicals like rebukes supposedly affect demons. Yeah, this guy’s got himself some big brass danglies.
That said, he’s not wrong at all about Christian health insurance or why evangelicals push their product as metaphysical fire insurance.
And Now: Modern Usage.
By the time I got to the 2010s, I found myself hard-pressed to locate any evangelical sources using the term fire insurance to mean actual insurance. By then, evangelicals only used it in the metaphysical sense. And usually, they did not approve at all of the idea, but they knew the reality of its necessity. Indeed, they unabashedly pushed their product as a way of ensuring safety in the afterlife.
Here’s an example of their internal struggle. In his 2013 book Evangelical Theology, Michael F. Bird frets about “reducing evangelism” to fire insurance. Hilariously, he then immediately does exactly that:
I am very conscious of reducing evangelism to some kind of offer of fire insurance for young people. Sign this card, walk down this aisle, or say this prayer, and you won’t suffer the flames of hell. But something has to be said about the exhortation to “save yourselves from this corrupt generation” (Acts 2:40). If salvation is from judgment, and if the final judgment is meted out in hell, then salvation is from hell–pure and simple.
Later in his book, he tries to expand on this idea a bit more:
Still, we must address what exactly is the range of referents in the “salvation” that makes up soteriology. At a popular level, and as Hart complains, it seems little more than fire insurance against hell and a ticket to a heavenly paradise. Yet biblical conceptions of salvation are far broader than this. [. . .] In the Scriptures salvation can mean deliverance from enemies, physical danger, death, disability, demonic powers, illness, poverty, injustice, social exclusion, false accusation, shame, and of course sin and its consequences.
Unfortunately for Bird, these “broader” meanings tend to focus on Jesus as a safety net in people’s actual lives, not just their afterlives. He’s definitely not helping his case by adding disaster insurance to metaphysical fire insurance.
Bristling At Reality.
If we need hell in order to scare people into God’s Kingdom, then we’re emphasizing the wrong thing.
Jesus didn’t need to say much about hell in order to share the Gospel. Why do we?
The way we see Michael F. Bird and Thor Ramsey discussing “fire insurance” mirrors what I encountered in many other places. Overall, evangelicals bristle about the idea of their product being reduced to just metaphysical safety from Hell. They criticize Christians who proudly declare that they sell fire insurance. One 2011 author refers to this whole conceptualization as “perversion.” Another writer in 2015 unilaterally declared, “I’m calling for an end to Fire Insurance theology as the central thesis of Evangelicalism!”
(Ah, good. The rest of the tribe will get right on that, boss.)
However, even the sternest critics of fire insurance as a concept still think of their product in that way. They don’t disapprove of that conceptualization overall, and they certainly won’t be dropping sales tactics based around threats of Hell.
No, they just wish people would convert to their faith for nobler reasons than simple frantic self-preservation, and they wish the people who do convert for that reason would branch out into doing all the other stuff they think TRUE CHRISTIANS™ should do.
But people rarely even consider gentler reasons to convert when Hell enters the picture. They certainly won’t care about anything past their own safety, once they’ve gotten clear of the threat looming over them.
Love Cannot Coexist With Fear.
Jesus is not just fire insurance, He is the beginning of a whole new relationship with God.
A relationship He died for!
Notice that “just” in there? Yeah. Jesus most certainly does represent fire insurance for these guys. They only want him to be more than that for the marks who purchased product based on threats of Hell.
And it doesn’t work that way.
Once terror storms into any relationship, love leaves it by the back door. Love cannot coexist with fear. The moment someone gains compliance from a mark through threats, they will never again successfully request compliance through love. Fear — and self-preservation — immediately replace all potentially-nobler considerations and all rationality.
We see this strange pushme-pullyou relationship evangelicals have with their fear-based sales tactics all the time. They know that officially, it’s supposed to be their god’s great love that draws people to his worship. Officially, they know Christians are supposed to convert and then set themselves to self-improvement and community service. In their minds, they can draw in customers through sheer terror, then switch them over to love-based compliance.
That’s not how human beings work.
(Relationship means compliance with the speaker’s demands, incidentally. Facebook Lad up there is demanding that his followers start obeying him, now that they’ve purchased his product.)
Why Evangelicals Sell Fire Insurance.
If there’s no danger of Hell, then why are we [Christians] even doing all of this?
— a guy I encountered on YouTube years ago
(I think “this” referred to his religion’s rules)
More times than I can remember, I’ve seen (and been front-and-center for) this downright-surreal dance that evangelicals do between terror and love.
When evangelicals try to score a sale, you see, almost always they’ll begin with a quick feint: they’ll deploy some lovey-dovey catchphrase they’ve learned over the years. JeSuS WuVs YoU!
But when that doesn’t work, because it never does, they dive straight into threats of Hell.
They go straight to threats of Hell so quickly because they know such threats work. Not to put a fine point on it, but those threats are almost certainly what compelled them to purchase an evangelist’s product!
Often, evangelicals try hard to hide the fact that they converted primarily to gain safety from Hell. But read between the lines, and you’ll see the truth. Look for the “big gun” they pull out when all their lovey-dovey feints have failed. This is the ultimate reason why they’re Christian and will remain so, no matter what else happens.
I have yet to see any evangelical’s big gun turn out to be their imaginary “relationship” with Jesus. It is always the threat of Hell. Jesus represents fire insurance for them. Ultimately, they’re happy to use threats of Hell if it means scoring sales.
And the Bonus Extra Perk of Fire Insurance.
Remember all the stuff I just said about evangelicals’ love-hate relationship with the conceptualization of their product as fire insurance?
One part of that conceptualization that they love is how well it lends itself to bait-and-switch tactics — and to attacks on their enemies.
They like to accuse people who’ve left their ranks of having Jesus-ed incorrectly somehow. Heck, I literally experienced this exact false accusation last night! And obviously, one of the most incorrect forms of Jesus-ing involves becoming or staying a Christian because of fear.
See, even though these exact Christians utilize almost nothing but threats to sell their product, even though they deliberately push people to perceive their product as a way to ensure safety from Hell, and even though almost all of them converted and stick around because they’re all terrified of Hell themselves…
Nobody is ever allowed to admit to having been swayed by these threats!
As far as anybody outside the culture should ever be able to tell, evangelicals converted because JeSuS WuVs YoU, not because they were scared of going to Hell. Hell? Oh, yeah, it totes exists, for shur man. But it was Jesus’ love that captured their purchase. They barely even think about Hell! Seriously!
And if anybody does mention having a fear of Hell, they’re just Jesus-ing all wrong!
No Way to Win in a Broken System.
One way to spot a broken system is recognizing that there’s literally no way for its players to win the game.
In this case, evangelical leaders fully approve of and push fear-based tactics to make sales and keep customers’ butts in the pews. These same leaders then push hard for the flocks to become compliant followers.
But they sold their flocks their product based on its provision of safety from Hell. The flocks have no real reason to comply with any further demands. They’re already safe. What else matters but that? Nothing, really. If their safety ever comes into question, they can just mouth an apology for misbehavior at the ceiling and all will be well again.
However, if Christians sell their product without ever resorting to threats of Hell, they will make far, far fewer sales.
(I know of no Christian groups selling their product entirely on what they will demand of customers after purchase, like join us and you’ll get to dedicate your life to charity and sacrifice for others! I suspect such groups would make even fewer sales, though they’d probably enjoy far greater levels of post-purchase compliance.)
So soulwinners can score almost no sales or no sales at all. For their own part, customers can purchase evangelists’ product as a way of ensuring safety from Hell, but they cannot ever admit to self-preservation as their overriding concern in purchasing it. Officially, customers must comply with their leaders’ further demands, but there’s no real reason for them to do so. Since obedience involves huge outlays of resources and behaviors they don’t want to practice, they generally don’t bother. Their all-but-guaranteed disobedience provides those leaders with a rich source of criticism later.
It’s downright crazymaking!
And that’s the point, really, of all of it.
“Fire Insurance” In the Age of Christian Decline.
I think there’s a mighty fine reason why it’s only been in the past 10-20 years that we’ve started seeing fire insurance used in this way.
In the 00s, Christians began their decline. For years beforehand, they’d been losing much of their credibility and clout, but in the 00s they began losing their stranglehold on culture itself. People began to question Christians’ claims and tactics — and exposing their hypocrisy. And people began to feel much safer in outright rejecting Christians’ demands.
Until that decline, evangelicals made sales despite themselves. But that success ended once people could freely reject their pitches. Of course, they still make occasional sales — but it’s to other authoritarians mostly, especially from other flavors of Christianity. And more and more, those sales get made on the basis of fear.
I think it’s just becoming more and more obvious that evangelicals’ entire end of Christianity builds itself from blocks made of control-lust and manipulation — not love. Never love.
It’ll be interesting to see if any of them figure out why they must sell their product this way — and if they realize what that fact indicates about their overall claims. I’ll be keeping an eye on this bit of infighting, for sure.
NEXT UP: Evangelical leaders still can’t get the flocks on board with personal evangelism.
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