Pastoral Fearmongering, Manipulation, and Hell
Preaching about hell is manipulative. It’s a scare tactic. It’s fearmongering. Isn’t that what people say?
“For most of its history,” says journalist A. C. Grayling, “Christianity has been an often violent and always oppressive ideology—think Crusades, torture, burnings at the stake, the enslavement of women to constantly repeated childbirth and undivorceable husbands, the warping of human sexuality, the use of fear (of hell’s torments) as an instrument of control, and the horrific results of its calumny against Judaism.”
But today Christians are more consumer-savvy. They know how to market themselves by jettisoning the unpopular bits, like a new product or politician. Grayling continues,
Nowadays, by contrast, Christianity specializes in soft-focus mood-music; its threats of hell, its demand for poverty and chastity, its doctrine that only a few will be saved and the many damned, have been shed, replaced by strummed guitars and saccharine smiles. It has reinvented itself so often, and with such breath-taking hypocrisy, in the interests of retaining its hold on the guillible, that a medieval monk who woke today, like Woody Allen’s Sleeper, would not be able to recognize the faith that bears the same name as his own.
This, anyhow, is the transformation one non-Christian has observed among Christians. It reflects our modern discomfort, our squeamishness, in publicly affirming any number of Jesus’ unpopular teachings, such as the fearful picture of the future that Jesus painted. Could it also reflect how Christians too readily capitulate to cultural standards?
WHY WE SNEER AT FEAR
Our society dislikes being motivated by fear. We resent it. Fear, after all, is an unreliable guide. It seems beneath us. It seems primitive, even animal-like. It seems too instinctual to be reasonable.
“Phobias” are what we call unreasonable fears. So we refer to hydrophobia, an irrational fear of water, or arachnophobia, an irrational fear of spiders. Phobias are to be pitied and they’re to be dismissed. If you call my understanding of homosexuality “homophobia” then you don’t have to consider what I say. Phobias are beneath being taken seriously.
Fear is powerful, we admit. But it’s also irrational, and leaves us open to being manipulated. It leaves us vulnerable. So we don’t like it.
Ironically, everyone knows that fear is useful! So we employ it.
From the dawn of time we’ve done this. So Aesop’s fables warned of the fates of those who were lazy. Sayings and maxims of Confucius and Ben Franklin contrast the prosperity of those who do right with the poverty of those who do wrong. Parents tell young children not to do this or that because it will hurt them, or not to have those friends because they will lead them into no good. Teachers tell Johnny that if he can’t read he can’t work; and if he can’t work he can’t have the stuff he wants, and the life he wants.
We feign cynicism toward scary claims, but the real truth is that fear sells!
You want your kids safe so you buy a certain car. You want your health protected so you get insurance and vitamins. You want your looks preserved so you buy an ab machine. You want financial security so you invest. You want to sleep soundly, which means you need to sleep safely, so you buy a house alarm.
And it’s not just Madison Avenue that knows this. The city I live in, Washington, DC, knows the utility of fear. Fear might be decried—“We have nothing to fear, but fear itself!”—yet it’s constantly employed.
Just picture a dark television screen. Then an unflattering black and white photograph appears, and a deep voice speaks ominously, “If Bob Smith gets into office, murderous prisoners will be released, jobs will evaporate, our country will be undefended, old people will starve, the sun won’t rise, and it will be winter always but never Christmas!” Then the screen switches to a color photo of a candidate smiling, being warmly greeted by happy people. The voice changes from ominous to warm and confident. It affirms the candidate. End.
WHAT IF THERE REALLY IS SOMETHING TO FEAR?
Of course, it’s good to teach our children not to be scared by shadows, and to be wary of those who use fear to sell us something. But what if there really is something to fear?
What if our actions do have consequences and not all of those consequences are good? And what if there is a relationship between what we do and what we get? Are we allowed to talk about that?
Our society tolerates warnings of objective dangers: “The bridge is out ahead. Detour right.” We value educated medical warnings: “If you don’t stop smoking, it will kill you. So stop.” We speculate about how some action will affect our environment or economy. We’re quick to warn about terrorist threats.
But what about spiritual matters? Matters of God, our souls, and the afterlife? Is fear an appropriate motivator in such matters?
We may resent the idea, but our resentments have never been an infallible guide to falsehoods, have they? Just because we resent something doesn’t mean it’s not true!
JESUS SHOWS US WHAT TO FEAR: HELL
Jesus knew there was something to fear: spending eternity in hell. He told his disciples,
If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ (Mark 9:43-48)
Elsewhere, Jesus said,
I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes I tell you, fear him. (Luke 12:4-5)
Jesus exhorts us to fear hell. And he warns us to fear God, who has the power to cast us into hell.
PASTORS: DON’T BE AFRAID OF FEAR
It’s an illusion to think that we can live without fear in this cursed and fallen world. Everybody fears something; it’s just a question of what.
Pastors, don’t be lured into the culture’s standards of what to fear and not to fear. Don’t be fooled by the culture’s sneering at fear. They’re afraid, too. Instead, follow Jesus in warning others about the fearful future that awaits those who do not repent of their sins and trust in Christ.
 A. C. Grayling, Against All Gods (Oberon, 2007), 24.