Yesterday afternoon I was talking to a friend about various topics in faith (because, yanno, we’re Catholic nerds that way), and the topic of fear and its power as a motivator of faith came up. I wanted to write on that topic today, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I have already pretty much said what I wanted to say. So today I want to repost what I wrote on the topic a couple of years ago:
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.