What people ask me: Isn’t Christianity based on fear and guilt?
I once had the fascinating experience of visiting some of England’s cathedrals with my children. While they were too young to fully appreciate the history and images carved in stone, they could “feel” the atmosphere of a cathedral. My daughter particularly talked about the spooky cathedrals and the beauties. The scariest often featured images or carvings of souls being dammed up and falling into the pit of hell. Fear and judgment were the central motives.
It was sometimes difficult for me, as a theologian, to make much connection between what the children were seeing and the Christian gospel.
So in that spirit, may I apologize to all of you who have been turned off by Christianity because you have experienced a culture of fear and judgment in the church. Fear and judgment are not central tenets of Christianity. The word “gospel” literally means “good news,” and that is (or should be) the central theme of the church.
When Jesus came to earth to pay the price for our sins that would otherwise lead us away from God, it was an unparalleled act of love. The gospel is a story of rescue, and that is very good news. Moreover, it should be noted that the The subject Jesus preached about more than anything else was “the kingdom of God,” and the fact that its eternal benefits were now available to all if they chose to accept it.
Jesus was not shy about the reality of God’s judgment and our ability to disqualify ourselves from the destiny God intended for us, but the whole tenor of his teaching was the “good news” of God seeking to restore a broken relationship. with us and his creation, and to give us a future. As such, it is the theme that should characterize the culture of the Church.
…some of that fear and judgment may have washed over you and pulled you away from Christianity.
It is worth thinking for a moment how these medieval horrors, some still perpetuated in the main churches, came to infiltrate the church.
The fifth-century theologian, Saint Augustine, is partly to blame. He wrote some profound things, but he also had a well-developed hatred of his own sinfulness – and that came out of his theology. Augustine promoted the idea that everyone is born a sinner and that some people were predestined to judgment and hell. Only a minority had been chosen for salvation.
His ideas were picked up by the institutional church, not least because they strengthened the level of control the church had over society. As a result, fear appeared in many cathedrals in England and Europe.
The 16th century Reformation resulted in the separation of the Protestant Church from the Roman Catholic Church. You might think this would have resulted in a softening of the “fear” aspect of the church culture. Alas, that was not the case. The teaching of the reformer John Calvin (particularly as it hardened in the hands of his followers) enshrined the idea that God had predestined certain people to hell. As such, both the Catholic and Protestant branches of the church are guilty of overemphasizing fear.
And some of that fear and judgment may have trickled down to you and pulled you away from Christianity. If so, I am deeply sorry. What you should have encountered was “good news” and hope. The central reality of Christianity is God and his love for you. God was ready to sacrifice himself to win you back to him.
This is the gospel story…and this is the message I want to leave with you.
All of the above does not mean that God does not judge. He does, and we should be deeply grateful to him. It would be terrible if there was no justice at the end of time. And it would be disconcerting if there were no moral standard that guarantees what is “good”. The yardstick by which God measures what is good and what is just is himself. Anything that does not match his characteristics must be judged by God and killed, because it opposes all that he is. God will not allow cruelty, selfishness and evil to go unchallenged in his kingdom.
The good news, of course, is that Christians are the ones who allowed Jesus to pay the price for their sins, which would otherwise exclude them from the presence of God.
And that’s good news.