Does Fear Belong in Christianity?

Despite the Gospel often referred to as ‘good news,’ many people associate other feelings with Christianity. One of the most common reactions is fear. It’s understandable, as we tend to present the ‘good news’ with an ultimatum. If you choose NOT to follow this good news there’s a steep price to pay. Namely, you’ll burn forever.

Now it’s not usually said in those terms, it’s usually couched in language that shows our concern to save others from burning forever. But that simply communicates the same fear in a friendlier way. We’ll be sad if they burn.

Is this what Jesus had in mind?

Notice what we find from the Apostle John in the New Testament:

“And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world. Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love.”

1 John 4:17-18

According to this logic, we should pursue God out of love rather than an avoidance of fear. We run toward Jesus rather than away from hell. And if we hold onto a fear of punishment (for us or others), it may reflect a lack of experiencing the love Jesus has in mind for us.

In my experience, most Christians don’t think Jesus is good enough without also having a consequence to back it up. This way of thinking is common now, but it didn’t exist in the early church. Fear-based theology gained prominence when the Roman Emperor Constantine became Christian and Christianity suddenly became the religion of the state. It was then necessary to find ways to get lots of people to fall in line (rather than inspiring a fringe community to live differently). The profound story of the death and resurrection of Jesus no longer seemed enough for this new purpose. So they got really creative with imagery of hell and consequences to scare people into following along. Guys like Dante were really good at it.

The sad part is that it worked. In fact, it continues to work today in as much as it guilts people into certain behaviors. Fear is a powerful motivator.

Yet I submit to you that fear is a terrible reason for following Jesus. Many of the most apathetic and disinterested Christians I know are motivated by fear. It doesn’t work well, especially not over time.

You know what works better? Love. Following Jesus because you are captivated by His example and the way He invites us to reimagine the world. The best part is that you don’t need to scare people if they are drawn to Jesus in this way. Even better, Jesus really is that good.

What if we spent less time scaring people and more time showing them the profound beauty of Jesus?

I think we’d have more people actually committed to living like Jesus.

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Jeremy Jernigan

Speaker | Author | Founder of Communion Wine Co. https://linktr.ee/JeremyJernigan