Church Part 4: The Theology of Fear

Part 1: Out of Place
Part 2: Believing the Right Things
Part 3: Imperfect Understanding

I love scary movies. Those movie moments of pure terror stick with me. Samara crawling out of Noah’s TV in The Ring. The “sloth” victim waking up in Se7ev. The six spirits identifying themselves to Father Moore in The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Lisa and Jenny discovering the entire population of Snowfield has disappeared in Phantoms. The lights going out in Pitch Black. The egg hatching from inside Kane’s chest in Alien. The twins in the hall and REDRUM from The Shining. Here’s Johnny.

I get frightening. Scary makes sense.

Neural pathways transport data to a place in our brain called the amygdala. The amygdala sorts through the stimuli and tells us what is significant and prompts our emotional response. This is home to our fight or flight instincts. Because of the amygdala, we feel fear and panic. It causes our hearts to race and our breathing to quicken. It makes us sweat and leaves a metallic taste on the tongue. Our skin tingles and we experience inescapable dread.

Fear is an excellent motivator. It is the art of self preservation.

When we’re in danger, we seek safety. Either we freeze in panic or we lash out in defense of ourselves and others. The things that scare us also prod us into battle.

Terror provokes and demands a reaction.

That’s the allure of horror movies. We get to experience the anxiety and trepidation without real danger. The characters on screen might not have escaped with their lives intact, but we survive as the credits roll then go out for ice cream and laugh about how we almost peed ourselves. We get to be scared without making any decisions to preserve our well-being.

Fear is a fantastic catalyst, but only if the danger is present and perceivable.

Scary movies rarely inspire change. No one stayed home from the prom because they watched Carrie, and that movie didn’t end school bullying. People still take showers, even after watching Psycho. I may not think of fava beans and chianti in a positive light after Silence of the Lambs, but I don’t worry that they might one day accompany an entrée of my liver.

I love scary movies, but they don’t inspire long term changes in my habits. I know that Freddy doesn’t haunt my dreams, so I am not leery of sleep. I am not paranoid about a possible rage virus turning North Idaho into a zombie paradise. The frightening moments in cinema never give me reason to fear my real life. (There is one exception. I sat shaking in my car for 15 minutes after watching Event Horizon before I was calm enough to drive out of the theater parking lot.) The motivation to react disappears once the movie ends.

Fear works if you want someone to do something now, but it is rarely effective in making a lasting difference.

Fear has become the church’s crutch.

Have you noticed this?

Rather than delivering truth in love and presenting a message of hope and reconciliation, many Christians take truth and turn it into a weapon – preaching a message of fear.

Many groups are predicting that the world is going to end in 2012 or whatever date happens to be in vogue. (A few passionate believers are warning the world that the date of the rapture is October 21, 2011 after their original prediction of May 21st passed without incident.) Others tell people “you’re going to Hell.” Some stand on street corners and hold up ridiculously offensive signs. They pass out tracts that are vaguely threatening and warn of the dangers of sin.

They all seem so angry.

Rather than trying to save the unsaved or love the unloved, this message of fear paints outsiders as enemies.

When was the last time you asked your enemy for advice? Or sat with them over a cup of coffee and talked about life?

In war, you would want to scare your enemy. Instilling fear in your opponent and a liberal dose of trash talking might help you win a game of basketball. But how many lives have been changed for the better because of scare tactics?

I’ve shared a story here before about a church in Boise that approached a group I was hanging out with one Saturday night. It was a cruise night and we were down town, so this band of militant Christians probably thought we were as morally devoid as every other pagan flooding the streets of B Town. They were handing out tracts and were offended when we declined their offers. They insisted that we would go to Hell if we did not accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior.

They either ignored us or didn’t believe us when we told them that we were Christians – that we were all on the same team. The confrontation ended with them stomping off and telling us to go to Hell.

There are so many things that are wrong with that strategy of ministry. It’s sad and disgusting. I call it manipulative.

Yet, when I talk to people who aren’t Christians, it seems they’ve all had a similar experience. They’ve all shared a story about someone using fear to manipulate them into a relationship with Jesus.

I think we can all sense that this is wrong, yet this is a tool that some churches have come to rely on.

Why do some people cling to such a horrible strategy?

It is used because they don’t understand the effects of fear. Psychologists (most of them) will tell you that the best way to overcome your fears is to face them. My hiking partner throughout my teen years was deathly afraid of heights. He overpowered his phobia by climbing various mountains in the Northern Cascades. He faced what frightened him by standing on top of a precarious peak with the world below him, by traversing trails etched into a hillside that dropped into a deep and perilous valley.

A girl I work with is irrationally afraid of mismatched straws. When I order coffee at the drive-thru stand a block away from our office, I ask them to give me two straws with two different colors so that I can walk by her desk with the Bobbsey Twins of straws protruding from my cup. I email her pictures of radically different straws bunched together. I hint that I have straws with me when I call her extension. I think she’s making progress in conquering her phobia.

The effects of fear are (or were) powerful for these two people because their source of alarm was clear and present. It was there. Something they could see, feel, or tangibly grasp. It was something that could be defeated.

Once you have adjusted to something that previously scared you, it begins to lose its power. That is why fear as a motivator is a bad long term plan. Fear loses its sway. The influence fades and the call to action is gone. Once my coworker overcomes her fear of mismatched straws, I can no longer use those straws to motivate her into professional compliance.

No matter what beliefs you have about Hell, its power to frighten people fades over time. It starts as a big place of constant burning and torture. We want to avoid it. The fear drives us to obey all the rules that the church tells us will help us escape the fate of fire and brimstone. Then it begins to lose its charm. It becomes that place where sinners go, and eventually it evaporates from our consciousness. We stop thinking of it as a place of weeping and teeth grinding. We stop thinking of it at all. The fear is gone, and no longer inspires.

The strategy of fear is used because they don’t understand the fear of God. They know the Bible tells us to fear God, but fail to grasp how to execute that command. To fear God, they treat Him as if he is a creature to be reviled like Nosferatu. The Bible also tells us that those who fear God are those who trust in His love.

You can’t have it both ways. God can’t be a monster and be filled with love.

C.S. Lewis had a better perspective on fearing God. When the kids in his book The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe first learn of Aslan, Susan asks if he is safe. When they meet Aslan, they discover that he is both good and terrible. The idea wasn’t that Aslan was as vicious as a common predator or devious like the book’s villain, the White Witch. One couldn’t be both good and bad – that would be an insurmountable contradiction. Terrible meant that he was uncontainable and wild. He inspired respect and reverence. The kids knew that he was safe enough to hug, yet dangerous enough to carve out their digestive tract with a flick of his claw.

That is called awe. It is being in the presence of something bigger than yourself. Something so amazing that your vocabulary is insufficient in describing its greatness. So, powerful that it defies understanding.

You are afraid. Not because you fear your safety, but because you realize there is no room for carelessness.

I experienced this from the edge of a rock on top of a mountain. We were above the tree line and alpine meadows with panoramic vistas everywhere our eyes turned. Once on top of the mountain, I walked out from the safety of the fire lookout and scampered across massive boulders to find the one with the best view. From the edge of that rock was a seven hundred foot vertical drop. I was afraid.

It wasn’t a fear of heights type of fear. It was an understanding of the potential perils around me. Good enough to stand there and enjoy the scenery, yet dangerous enough to know that one misplaced step could send me plummeting into a fall that I most likely would not survive.

The fear of God is not the plot of a horror movie. It is a healthy respect.

The strategy of fear is used because they don’t understand the power of love. Fear is the absence of love. The writer of 1 John wrote, “There is no fear in love … perfect love drives out fear.”

Fright (true terror) and love cannot coexist. They are complete opposites.

The Bible also tells us that God is love. If love and fear are opposites and love is the very definition of God, then God has nothing to do with fear and loathing.

Preaching with a message of fear is ultimately empty because God is not there.

People should not follow God in fear that He will smite us if we make a mistake or have a bad hair day. People shouldn’t worship God because he is terrifying. People should never be manipulated into belief.

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