Christian for Love, or Christian out of Fear?

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Are you a Christian because you love God, or are you a Christian because you’re scared of Hell?

A pastor named Rob Bell wrote a book that raised people’s hackles because they felt it espouses “universalism,” the idea that nobody’s going to go to Hell. I ran across this topic here, and it got me thinking. Not about Rob Bell, his book, or the existence of Hell—frankly, because I think the whole discussion is a distraction from the primary issue.

I have no patience with the sentiment “I believe in God, but I’m not really religious.” Or “I’m more spiritual than religious.” Cop-out! If you believe in God, that God is creator of all and above all, then it makes no sense to act as if that belief doesn’t matter. When the stakes are so high—Heaven and Hell, eternal life and eternal death—how can you stick your fingers in your ears and ignore the call to act, saying “la la la I can’t hear you?”

On the other hand, being “religious” because you’re scared of going to Hell is a pretty poor version of Christianity. If that’s all your faith is based on then it’s bound to do one of two things: get twisted into some hideous distortion of true holiness (how often do we see that happen?), or fall to pieces entirely. Holy living should be a response born of gratitude to the One who gave us everything, love for the One who continues to pour out goodness on us, even amid the pain and difficulty of this fallen world. And by love, I mean a conscious decision to act, not some touchy-feely, ephemeral happy place.

When you love someone, you try to get to know them, to understand what they want, what makes them tick. When you love someone, you look for ways to make them happy, you look for ways to deepen your relationship with them. When faith becomes an act of love, the discussion of Hell, its existence or lack thereof, is….well, perhaps not completely irrelevant, but certainly beside the point.

Hell is the absence of God. Look around the world. Everything beautiful in this world, everything that makes it worth living, is from God: love, cuddles, creation, skies and outdoors and fresh air and friendship and music and all the things that make our hearts skip a beat. To be separated from all that? If that doesn’t give you the shudders, then I don’t know what will.

I don’t think much about Hell, end-times or the apocalypse, because it scares me, and when I’m scared I focus on fear instead of on my true job as a Christian. My true job is love. I’m trying to learn to live in such a way that I am acting out of love for the One who made me, acted out toward the people and the world He created. I have a long way to go; I’m well aware that I’m not guaranteed a place in Heaven just because I say I believe in God. Actions speak louder than words, and fear is not a good long-term motivator. Besides, it’s not like I have any control over the apocalypse (or lack thereof). God’s the editor of the final markup, not me. Thank…well, thank God.

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8 thoughts on “Christian for Love, or Christian out of Fear?

  1. My own sense–and I could be off-base here–is that many people who say “I’m not religious” are actually saying “I’m not institutional” –i.e., I don’t believe that what I believe needs/wants/requires a set of doctrines, a community to share it with, a set of rituals, etc. (Whether they are correct about that belief or not–I think that’s the belief.)

    Just my thoughts.

    Are you familiar with the blog “Experimental Theology”? He talks a lot about universalism, from a very sound Christian basis…I enjoy his writings a lot. (http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/)

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post!
    –Jenn
    (a Christian out of love, or more to the point IN love, who isn’t afraid of Hell)

    • Jenn, I know there are people who don’t like institutions, and I get that, even though I think it’s off base (no human institution is perfect but that doesn’t make it not worthwhile, as government demonstrates routinely). But I think it’s all too easy for that to turn into a compartmentalization of faith, one that allows people to ignore God when making decisions, and that’s the part that drives me nuts.

      I’m not familiar with the blog. I”ll check it out. I like it when you comment; you’re always thinking your way through things. You keep me on my toes. 🙂

  2. Oh, I’m not saying “I don’t like institutions” should be used as an excuse for wishy-washy and uncommitted faith. But I come at faith from a non-institutionalized background (I grew up almost completely unchurched), and in my own experience and conversations with people who DID grow up completely initiated into the “your faith=what your religion celebrates” model, it seems like it’s much more difficult to separate the two concepts than for those of us who consciously selected an institutional model later in life. Does that make sense? (And also hopefully avoid assumptions and judgment, which I’m also trying to do?)I don’t see the two as necessarily related at all, and I tend to look at institutional religion as a good way to live and experience the inner faith, not the sine qua non ONLY way to experience it. (Which makes me sort of a heretic, I guess. But of the same variety as Eckhart and Marguerite, which puts me in good company.)

    • That does make sense.

      “I tend to look at institutional religion as a good way to live and experience the inner faith, not the sine qua non ONLY way to experience it.”

      I can agree with this, b/c if all you do is go to church you’re missing the whole faith=breathing thing. You know, it has to happen all the time, not just an hour once a week. But I do also think that it’s a lot harder to have completely self-motivated faith, by which I mean outside of community. I think people who try to pursue faith outside of community have a lot harder job. I will never forget the outpouring of love and support that surrounded us when Julianna was born. For that reason alone I’ll never leave the Church; that was the time when people showed that their faith was real, independent of scandal or liturgical bickering.

      It’s interesting, what you say about people who grew up in an organized religion not being able to move beyond the basic ritual level. (Am I interpreting you correctly?) You’re absolutely right about that. You have to go looking for understanding and depth beyond the basic level of what you get on Sundays.

  3. I think at different times in life I am a Christian out of love and others I am a Christian out of fear. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with either. Hell is separation from God, and I believe that is something to fear and it’s okay that sometimes we have to cling to that to keep us on the right path. but I also agree that it is more ideal to live the Christian life out of Love for our God and our Savior and I strive to do that more than the other.

  4. evanscove

    Fear or love? Probably both are involved. On the one hand, we should respond out of love to God since He is our creator, our “Father who art in heaven,” our Redeemer. God became man and entered into our suffering so that we might be saved. Such love invites love in return. But at the same time, God will not force us to love Him, and we have the choice of rejecting Him. After all, love has to be freely willed and given, or it is not love. And choosing to reject God results in our eternal separation from Him, and while I don’t believe in a literal “lake of fire” or pitchfork-wielding demons, I still believe that being separated from Him for eternity would not be pleasant at all.

    In today’s first scripture reading at mass, Moses tells the Israelites that they can choose either blessing (by following God) or curse (by rejecting God). The choice is theirs–and ours.

    And as I examine myself, I have to admit that fear and love are both motivating factors.

    And I agree with you about the “spiritual-but-not-religious” fad. This Lone Ranger spirituality seems to stem largely from people wanting to have things on their terms rather than submit. (As Catholic author Peter Kreeft remarked in a speech, the song of everyone in hell is “I Did It My Way”!) Yes, it’s understandable that some get disillusioned with the hypocrisy, corruption, and interpersonal strife (politics) that accompany any organization, but as St. Paul wrote, no one is an island. And we are commanded in the New Testament to be actively involved in the Church, Christ’s mystical body. Sorry, but the Christian life was never meant to be a solo operation. And as an added benefit, it’s been shown that having the strong social and emotional support of an organization such as a church is a tremendous boon to our psychological and physical health.

    Good points to bring up. I always enjoy your posts!

    Evan

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