18 August 2021

Fear-based evangelism: Carrot and stick. Mostly stick.

Four years ago I got to talking with a regular at my church about evangelism. She wanted to know how I shared Jesus. Not to pick up any pointers or anything; this was an orthodoxy test. She wanted to make sure I wasn’t steering people wrong. Some people love to appoint themselves as heresy hunters, and she’s one of ’em. (She’s also not entirely sure anyone’s doing Christianity right but her.)

So I talked about how I usually tell people about Jesus: First I find out what they believe, if anything. Most of the time I find out they’re already Christian, or believe themselves to be. If they’re not churchgoers, I encourage ’em to go: I try to plug them into a church. Doesn’t need to be mine, but it does need to be a fruitful church. ’Cause they’re more likely to experience Jesus for themselves when the people of their church know him personally.

SHE. “And what do you tell them about hell?”
ME. “Not much. They don’t usually ask.”
SHE. “You don’t warn them about hell?
Me. “I don’t need to. I’ve already got ’em interested in going to church.”
SHE. “But you’ve gotta warn ’em about hell!”
ME. “Why?”
SHE. [gonna burst a blood vessel over my perceived stupidity] “Because that’s where they’re headed!”
ME. “Oh, they know that. That’s the one thing they definitely know about us Christians: We think they’re all going to hell. I don’t need to repeat that. Not that they always believe in hell anyway.”
SHE. “They have to believe in hell. The bible says…”
ME. “Well yeah, the bible says. But half the time they don’t believe what the bible says. You know how people think nowadays: The bible’s an ancient book, written by old dead white guys…” [brown guys, but few people realize that] “…and seeing is believing. That’s why I’m trying to get ’em into a church: I want ’em to see stuff. Not that they will, but I don’t just want ’em to take my word for it. Even if I quote buttloads of bible at ’em.”
SHE. “If they don’t believe the bible, they can’t be saved.”
ME. “Well, lucky for them neither I nor God believe that.”

Pretty sure I didn’t convince her I’m not going about it totally wrong.

But the reason I share Jesus this way is ’cause I used to do it her way. And I didn’t get anywhere.

The type of evangelism she prefers is old-timey hellfire and brimstone. Warn people they’re going to hell—the final hell, gé’enna, with the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and its angels—and make it clear hell sucks, and they don’t wanna go there. Terrify them with the idea that God is filled with wrath towards sinners, and wants to send every last one of them into fiery hell, and he’s never ever letting ’em out; they’ll burn forever. And once they’re nice and scared, offer the solution to the problem: Jesus. God may wanna burn you like a little boy frying ants with a magnifying lens, but Jesus just wants to give you a great big hug and let you into heaven.

I call it carrot-and-stick evangelism: Heaven’s the carrot; hell’s the stick. But be sure you preach about 75 percent stick, lest they think there are no dire consequences for rejecting heaven. It’s a common dark Christian practice.

It also has the undesired effect of creating plenty more dark Christians.

God’s kingdom runs on grace. Fear tactics definitely don’t.

Fear’s a powerful motivator. Right behind public speaking, most people’s greatest fear is death. Not necessarily because we fear a painful or wasting death; it’s because we fear what might happen after we die. Most of us don’t know what comes next.

True for Christians too. And no, it’s not because we don’t know our bibles, as many a know-it-all Christian will object: The scriptures say very, very little about the afterlife. That’s because the LORD is not the God of the dead of the living. Mk 12.27 Death is temporary. Jesus is the resurrection and the life, Jn 11.25 and his kingdom isn’t about afterlife but new life. We won’t stay dead! So it makes little sense to go on and on about paradise when our destiny is New Jerusalem.

But despite what Jesus is trying to teach us, Christians insist on knowing something about death and paradise. We wanna have all the answers—even if we have to make most of those answers up, and borrow ’em from Christian mythology instead of bible. Or borrow from near-death experiences, and claim that’s all part of God’s plan.

Pagans aren’t unaware of Christian mythology. (It’s all over popular culture.) They know we believe in a heaven and hell. What they worry about, is it might not be true: When we die, everything goes black, ’cause there is no afterlife, and this life is all their is. And here they are, wasting it on boring jobs and video games.

Or they fear there will be something after death… and it won’t be at all what they wanted. Something awful, like getting reincarnated as bacteria. (Hey, if everybody gets reincarnated, and we could potentially wind up as some other species, statistically it’s gonna be bacteria. We’re totally outnumbered.) Or they’re going to the bad afterlife: If the destination is determined by karma, the vast majority of us are screwed. We don’t have enough to appease whatever gods assign us to Valhalla or Naströnd.

Carrot-and-stick evangelists terrify us with the bad afterlife, then promise us the good afterlife. And there’s a really simple, easy-to-follow method of getting there: State “Jesus is Lord” aloud, believe God raised him from the dead, and you’re golden. Ro 10.9 Just ay the sinner’s prayer! For “whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life,” Jn 3.16 KJV and you too can become a “whosoever.”

The problem is this. The carrot part of the pitch? It’s not the whole story.

Jesus doesn’t merely offer us paradise. Lk 23.43 He offers us his kingdom. And his kingdom doesn’t consist of lounging around in our heavenly mansions in our heavenly bathrobes, eating Tree of Life apples and wondering what’s new on HeavenFlix. It’s all the stuff Jesus speaks of in his Sermon on the Mount. It’s loving one another, serving one another, and contributing towards the heavenliness of New Jerusalem.

But instead of explaining the good news of the kingdom to people, we leapfrog it and start talking about the bad news: Hell. And spend way too much time on the bad news. So much so, our “gospel presentation” is mostly, if not all, bad news. Fear, not grace.

Fear-based evangelists defend their modus operandi by arguing two things:

  1. Well it’s true.
  2. And it works.

IS IT TRUE? Actually, often, it’s not. Most dark Christians have this warped idea of how salvation works, in which the persons of the trinity do not desire to share the same will like the scriptures describe: The Father is so outraged at sin, he wants to wipe out humanity and kill us all, and the only thing stopping him is his bleeding-heart Son. And the way they present this story, and overempahazise God’s wrath and rage, turns our loving God into the bad guy. It’s almost as if he doesn’t just hate sin, he hates us. He wants us dead, and burning in hell! Sure looks like hate.

Any theology which flips God a whole 180 degrees, and makes him our enemy instead of our Father, is blasphemy. And yeah, dark Christians will defend themselves by claiming God’s not the bad guy; we’re the bad ones, ’cause we sin. Which is fair. But they still set up the chess pieces so that we’re on the one side and God’s on the other: He’s not our friend, but our foe. Who wants to put us in hell so we burn forever.

This whole idea of pitting the persons of the trinity against one another, does not accurately describe God at all. Like I said, it’s blasphemy. Because God sent his Son to earth to die for us, save us, Jn 3.17 build a relationship with us, and offer us the kingdom. He doesn’t wanna destroy anyone; he wants to save the world. 1Ti 2.4 Not all will repent and turn to him, but whoever will, he’ll make these folks his children and grant us his kingdom. Jn 1.12 So this vengeful angry God idea? Wrong idea.

DOES IT WORK? Well it does make more dark Christians.

God’s kingdom runs on grace. When we don’t show people this grace—when we only show ’em fear—they get the idea fear is what Christianity’s about. It’s about God’s wrath, and escaping it. Appease him, lest he smite thee.

It frequently means people are gonna end up in fearful, legalistic churches. They’re not gonna develop a healthy relationship with Jesus, where they grow in love and grace and good fruit. Instead we’re gonna see a bunker mentality, where this wicked, corrupt generation frightens them, and they regularly lash out at it. Instead of sharing God’s grace with it, they constantly denounce and hate it, tell its people they’re going to hell, and elect politicans who are just as graceless as they.

Worse: Dark Christian churches have the bad habit of trying to disguise their fleshly behavior as “fruit”—though properly, it’s fake fruit. And since such people aren’t gonna inherit God’s kingdom, Ga 5.21 it means many a dark Christian, whether they pray the sinner’s prayer or not, aren’t saved. They have no real relationship with Jesus, don’t really follow him, resist the Holy Spirit who’s trying to steer them right, and are still hellbound. Their heavy fixation on hell, is a sign of where their hearts are.

Like I said earlier, pagans are quite aware of what’s in Christian mythology. They’ve heard about God’s wrath, and hell. Dark Christians have been mighty successful at getting that word out. It’s all some of ’em ever preach. That’s why many a pagan, and many a person who’s slightly curious about Christianity, is never ever gonna set foot in a church. Because they want nothing to do with dark Christianity… and they’re pretty sure we’re all dark Christians. Even those of us who appear not to be: They’re pretty sure we secretly are.

And have we really freed anyone from hell if we get ’em to surround themselves with Christians who teach nothing but fear, hate, and hypocrisy? When they still bite and devour fellow Christians who “aren’t Christian enough” Ga 5.15 and shun people whom Christ died for?

“But hell is real, and they’re going there.”

Fear-based Christians’ usual excuse for overemphasizing hell, is that Jesus taught about hell. “There are more than 160 warnings about hell in the New Testament, and more than 70 of those warnings came from Jesus himself,” quotes one website. I’m pretty sure those 70 warnings from Jesus go down a bit when we remember the gospels tell the same stories as one another, but whatever.

True, Jesus teaches about hell. As did the apostles. You’ll find the subject all over the New Testament. But you’ll also find neither the apostles, nor Jesus, really talked about the subject with unbelievers. Either Jesus spoke with Pharisees—who already believed in hell—to warn them they were headed that way; or the apostles wrote to fellow Christians, to warn them they were headed that way. And of course to remind them we shouldn’t want people to go to hell any more than God does.

Now look at how they shared Jesus with unbelievers and pagans. Primarily the apostles talked about Jesus and his kingdom. Simon Peter’s first sermon in Acts 2 refers to hades (which the KJV translates “hell”) once. Ac 2.31 But Peter never warns people away from hellfire; only from “this twisted generation.” Ac 2.40 Paul’s first sermon in Acts 13 doesn’t mention hell at all. Not once. Not even after people overtly rejected the gospel. Ac 13.46-48

The apostles didn’t deem it necessary to bring up hell when they shared Jesus. ’Cause it wasn’t necessary. Still isn’t.

Like I said, pagans already know about it. And don’t always believe in it. Using it as a stick? You may as well use a pool noodle. It doesn’t scare them. The fact we go on about it, only makes ’em think we’re angry and hell-fixated. Gotta tell ya: They’re not wrong.

And if they are scared of hell, they need to be freed from that fear, by embracing Jesus. But once they do embrace Jesus, y’notice a lot of them are frequently still terrified of hell, still worry they might be going there and that the sinner’s prayer didn’t take; still fear that God doesn’t actually have their back, and might turn on ’em at the last minute and toss ’em in the fire. Those fears are a real phobia, and as such we have no business whatsoever exploiting it. Bring ’em to Jesus but don’t cure their fears, and you’ll have turned ’em into unhealthy Christians. Fear cannot be their motivation for following Jesus. Fear twists. Love restores.

God doesn’t save by fear, 2Ti 1.7 but by his grace. 2Ti 1.9 Scaring people away from hell doesn’t proclaim the God of grace. It only exposes our own lack of grace. Our lack of fruit. Our works of the flesh. Fear-based evangelists seldom truly know the Jesus they proclaim. Sometimes because they’re immature and haven’t been taught any better—or have, but reject it, ’cause they like the results. Sometimes because they resist the Spirit and refuse to learn better: “My way works!” and people praise ’em for the large numbers they draw. Instead of Jesus, they pursue human acclaim—and they’ve received their reward, and won’t get another once Jesus returns.

Don’t follow them. Follow Jesus. It’s God’s kindness which leads us to repentance and eternal life. Ro 2.4 Start new believers off right by proclaiming this God.