Fear is part of life. It is an emotion we all know. We fear a hundred disparate things. Fear is a currency; we use it to manipulate others. Our politics -and arguably our media and economy – are driven chiefly by fear. And despite its ubiquity, fear is still a horror: it causes us to sweat and panic during the day and lie awake and curse our existence at night.
Fear is part of Christianity. Christianity needs fear.
Israel trusted the Pharisees to teach them how to please God and avoid Gehenna. (I am weak on first-century Jewish theology; please correct me if you can.) So the Pharisees claimed to have authority to declare who was righteous and worthy and who was not. They were metaphysical brokers who dealt in eternal life and death. In a culture where the layman had little to no access to the agreed-upon revelation of God, the layman had to rely on his religious instructors, like the Pharisees, and do everything he could to please them: he had no other alternative.
In Matthew 23 Jesus lambasts the Pharisees for their abuse of power. I think his most damning denouncements are “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces” and “You travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves”. Jesus sees the problem: the Pharisees are playing god and making people miserable with their demands. Jesus seems to want to free people from this oppression (23.2-12) but likewise relies on the fear of hell to “make a proselyte”. In Matthew 10.28 he instructs his disciples not to fear, describing God’s love, but adds that rather than fearing those who can kill only the body they fear him – presumably God – who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
I argue that Christianity needs this metaphysical fear, the concept of hell, to persist. If there is no hell, no damnation for the general populace, there is no reason to turn to religion; likewise, there is no reason to evangelize: no one needs to “be saved” from ultimate torment. Christianity is not unique in needing fear for its purposes but neither is it exonerated for this, especially since many of its adherents mistakenly believe fear is absent from their message of creation, fall and redemption. Consciously or not, Christians blithely damn the world to hell unless it follows their particular instructions (varying from group to group).
I do not claim the presence of fear in Christianity operates to obfuscate its falsehood; I claim it makes people miserable and impedes open inquiry to Christianity’s claims. If I doubt, if I do not believe, can I ever know God and be saved? Or must I believe first and try to understand later (fides quarens intellectum)? Best to not doubt, to not ask questions, to not push God’s buttons and ensure the salvation of my soul.
Questions: A) Can fear be avoided: is the structure of the universe such that fear will be a partial motivation in every decision (e.g. fearing poverty, I go to work)? B) I am getting at the interplay of ethos and logos in argumentation in this post (a theme considered in “Miracle?”). Is it possible to divorce the emotional response of fear from the proposition of hell in Christian dialogue? What alternatives do people have – Christians or not – to using fear in argumentation (i.e. manipulation by fear)? C) Do I miss the point – does Jesus’ message somehow transcend and avoid using fear?