Things I am asked: Isn’t Christianity based on fear and guilt?

I once had the intriguing experience of visiting some of the cathedrals of England with my children. Whilst they were too young to fully appreciate the history and imagery carved into the stone, they could “feel” a cathedral’s atmosphere. My daughter particularly spoke of spooky cathedrals and nice ones. The spooky ones often featured pictures or carvings of souls being dammed and falling into the pit of hell. Fear and judgement were the central motifs.

It was sometimes difficult for me, a theologian, to make much connection with what the children were seeing and the Christian gospel.

So, with this in mind, may I make an apology to all of you who have been put off Christianity because you have experienced a culture of fear and judgementalism in the church. Fear and judgementalism are not the central tenets of Christianity. The word “gospel” literally means “good news”, and it is this 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 keep us from God, it was a peerless act of love. The gospel is a rescue story, and it is very good news. Furthermore, it’s worth noting that 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 everyone if they chose to accept it.

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Jesus was not shy of speaking about the reality of God’s judgement and of our ability to disqualify ourselves from God’s intended destiny 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 of giving us a future. As such, this is the theme that should characterise the culture of the church.

… some of that fear and judgementalism may have trickled down to you, and put you off Christianity.

It is worth pondering a moment, how these medieval horrors, some still perpetuated in mainline churches, came to infiltrate the church.

The fifth century theologian, St Augustine, is partly to blame. He wrote some profound stuff, but he also had a well-developed loathing of his own sinful state – and this came out in his theology. Augustine promoted the idea that everyone was born sinful, and that some people had been predestined for judgement and hell. Only a minority had been chosen for salvation.

His ideas were taken up by the institutional church, not least because it bolstered the level of control the church had over society. As a result, fear came to be featured in many of England and Europe’s cathedrals.

The sixteenth century Reformation had the result of splitting the Protestant church away from the Roman Catholic Church. You might think this would have resulted in a softening of the “fear” aspect of the church’s culture. Alas, this was not so. The teaching of the reformer, John Calvin, (particularly as it became hardened in the hands of his disciples) enshrined the idea that God had predestined some people to hell. As such, both the Catholic and the Protestant branches of the church have been guilty of an overemphasis on fear.

And some of that fear and judgementalism may have trickled down to you, and put you off 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 prepared to sacrifice himself to win you back to himself.

That is the gospel story… and that 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 profoundly grateful that he does. It would be terrible if there was no justice at the end of time. And it would bewildering if there was no moral standard that guaranteed what “good” was. The yardstick, by which God measures what is good and what is just, is himself. Anything that falls short of his characteristics has to be judged by God and killed off, for it stands against all that he is. God will not allow cruelty, selfishness and evil to remain unchallenged in his kingdom.

The great news, of course, is that Christians are those who have allowed Jesus to pay the price for their sins, which would otherwise disbar them from God’s presence.

And that’s good news.