Is fear of “eternal conscious torment” (for ourselves or others) really the only thing that will motivate us logically or spiritually to give, to live, to love, to share the heart and life and message of Jesus? Is it the only thing that will convince unbelievers to believe – to really take Jesus seriously?
In evangelical circles it seems we have quite the “stick and carrot” afterlife one-two punch.
First the stick. Scare the hell out of people. Make them afraid, very afraid. Then, after we have their attention, we can carefully move on to the carrot of heaven.
I guess when considering this essential approach I’m having a hard time moving past Mt. Sinai. Mt. Sinai was a tangible demonstration of firey wrath that did quite literally scare the hell out of the people – and taught them the “fear of the Lord to keep them from sinning.” Yes it did. For forty days. Then with the mountain still smoldering in flames of holy judgment these same people “sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play” – and reverted to what they thought was true, bullish religion in clear violation of what the Voice had just said, even while they could still see and hear the crackling of the flames. All through the law it’s stick and carrot, carrot and stick. And the people went to “hell” anyway, with only a remnant returning after smoldering in Babylonian “purgatory” for seventy years.
But now the carrot and stick will work because they are fortified with vitamin E for “eternal”? Really? The “good news of God” that Jesus proclaimed as he went into Galilee was just the same old news? Just now enhanced with the word “eternal” – with the fortified stick and carrot still appealing, when all is said and done, to our basic self-interest in avoiding pain (especially eternal pain!) and securing pleasure (especially eternal pleasure!)? A rewritten insurance policy. Eternal security with at least an understood temporal security clause we generally want to claim (I keep religiously making the payments, and things will work out well for me down here too!). Now all that remains is to debate what it takes to get that insurance policy issued to us.
Is this all the “new covenant” is – this “new covenant” that would not be like the “old one”?
Or is there something far deeper, far more transforming at work here? Perhaps it’s fair to say we all need the elementary kick in the collective consciousness that we are not in charge, that there will be a resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment, that we answer to Someone greater than us. But it’s equally fair to say that those realities are, ultimately elementary. There is a maturity to move on to beyond them, like the platform that an orbiter leaves when it launches. In fact, running with that analogy, what is it that has drawn people to the space program these past five decades or so? The launching pad or the vision of orbit? Is it not the dream of exploration, of touching the stars?
Is this not where the genuine, ultimate motivation is for believer and unbeliever alike? Yes, we need the launching pad – we’ll never get off the ground without it, so beware anyone who would tamper with the “elementary teachings of Christ” who thus would dismantle the platform from which the journey begins. But equally beware those who only seem to know how to camp on the launching pad, offering repeated diatribes on why the launching pad is so important. People need to see us flying. They need to see us defying gravity and touching the face of God.
Is this not what John is getting at when he describes the perfect love that drives out fear, because fear involves torment/punishment?
Is this not what Jesus pictures when he says, “And I, when I am lifted up will draw all men to myself”?
Is this not the shift Paul makes as he moves from the judgment seat of Christ where he knows the “fear of the Lord” and thus persuades men – to the love of Christ that compels him and that entrusts him with a ministry of reconciliation to all creation? (In fact, a careful reading of 2 Corinthians 5 is quite a case study of Pauline motivation for life and ministry – and “hell” never even puts in an appearance).
It’s certainly easier for us to scare the hell out of people rather than to fly. Looking at Jesus’ example, he certainly took the time to scare the hell out of earthbound religious people who were domineering and controlling and dismissiveof or downright abusive towards the outsiders he came to fly with. Isn’t it instructive that most, if not all, of Jesus’ hellfire and brimstone talk was reserved for the insider earthbound religious crowd? But then, the stick and carrot was their native tongue. Sweets to the sweet.
Among the rest he did a kingdom walk that seemed to defy gravity, turning water into wine, directing the weather, multiplying food for the hungry, restoring sight to the blind, giving hope to outsider sinners, and inspiring would-be disciples consigned to hell by the religious crowd to dream that, yes, they too could fly.
I think I’ll fly.