The late Sir Bertrand Russell declared: "Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear." Presumably he would have agreed with the ancient Greek historian Polybius that the purpose of religion is to keep the masses in check. And one must admit that in many cases they had a point. So much of what even passes for "Christianity" is based upon the fear motive! Every human being is conditioned by life itself to have fears of one kind or another. Almost no one is totally free from fears. Russell explained, "Fear is the basis of the whole thing — fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death." Those who, in the name of Christianity, "make merchandise" of people realize this. The late Jim Jones used this fact to control his followers, who, according to reports, lived in constant threat of life and limb. Jones himself was paranoid. But, as a writer for Newsweek observed: "The paranoia that was his weapon; he forged loyalty by convincing many members that without him they would be killed or imprisoned by the Ku Klux Klan, the CIA or any number of free-floating forces of evil. But as an extra safeguard, he encouraged intramural terror. Members were encouraged to inform on spouses or children who transgressed, and his supposedly classless society was set up according to a rigid and unforgiving hierarchy." While Jim Jones was later revealed to be an ecclesiastical charlatan, he was more or less typical of a whole genre of "charismatic" religious leaders who, through fear and intimidation, mesmerize the ignorant into submission. "It was as if all the zany strains of do-it-yourself religion and personality — cult salvation that have built up in America had suddenly erupted with ghastly force," continued the Newsweek report. The principles upon which Jones founded his sect were apparently altruistic and seemingly noble. Like most cults, the People's Temple started out idealistically. But something went wrong. Through his "messianic mix of religion and hatred" Jones carved out an ecclesiastical empire based, in the final analysis, upon fear. Things became twisted. Fear took over and death followed. "Fear," wrote Bertrand Russell, "is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand."
The Real Danger
To a degree Russell was right. But Russell, because of his disillusionment with organized religion, threw out the baby with the bathwater. He became a much-celebrated atheist. And that's the real danger of fear religion! How many millions of potential Christians have been "turned off" religion by exposure to the bloody facts of ecclesiastical history? How many have pointed to the senseless Crusades, the cruel and inhuman abuses of the Inquisition, and to the violence of the Protestant Reformation as evidence' that religion is a source of endless pain and suffering? And yet all of these damnable events were carried out in religious zeal — in the hope of gaining ground and converts to "Christianity"! However, as the apostle Paul might have put it, it was zeal, "but not according to knowledge" (as in Romans 10:2) — a misguided zeal which has resulted in the torture, maiming and murder of millions. For though the Inquisitors thought they were "saving souls from damnation" by torturing people into confessing Christ, for every forced "disciple" they made, they undoubtedly alienated thousands from at least their brand of Christianity! Fear and hatred have besmirched "Christian" religious communities for centuries. And our day still witnesses the rise, and the fall, of movements, sects, cults and churches founded upon fear and exclusivism, which appropriate the name of Jesus Christ to control the minds of men. Such religion is clearly not of Christ! The true God of real Christianity is the God of the New Testament whom Jesus came to reveal (Matthew 11:27; Luke 10:22), because the real nature of God was not understood in Old Testament times.
The God of Jesus
What kind of a God did Jesus reveal? When His disciples asked Jesus to show them the Father, He pointed out that if they had seen Him (Jesus), they had, in effect, seen the Father because "I and my Father are one" (John 10:30). Was He a harsh, brutal, cosmic "hanging judge"? A divine monster capable of unreasonable wrath and incredible vindictiveness? Not at all. Yes, God would punish. Yes, God would have vengeance upon His enemies. Yes, God would be vindicated in the final analysis. But Jesus also taught that to see Him, to know Him" was to know His Father. In short, we understand God by understanding and perceiving Christ! Jesus is His Father's Son in every sense of the term. He was a faithful Son in whom God "was well pleased." He reflected perfectly the sterling qualities of character displayed by His divine parent. To know Jesus is to know God! Jesus was not vindictive. He never required a "pound of flesh." He was not out for blood. He wished the suffering of no man. He was neither condemnatory nor judgmental. To a woman taken in the very act of adultery He said, "Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more" (John 8:11). He was accepting, loving, constantly "moved with compassion" (Matthew 9:36; 14:14; Mark 6:34). His great abiding commandment was to love — unconditionally and in any and all circumstances. This was to be the greatest sign of a true Christian: "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35, RSV). He "taught them as one who had authority" (Matthew 7:29, RSV) that means He knew what He was talking about. (It doesn't mean He yelled, screamed, and pounded His scroll!) To the weak and burdened, Jesus said, "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden" and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28). He said nothing of vengeful fear. He did not threaten or intimidate. He was meek, and rode into Jerusalem, not with a show of power, pomp and circumstance, but on an ass — the humblest of animals (Matthew 21:5). He made no attempts to overcompensate so He could somehow "prove" His masculinity, yet that didn't make Him effeminate in any way. He was simply a natural, unaffected, tenderhearted man. Yet He was also God in the flesh. And in Him could be viewed a perfect reflection of the character of God the Father.
Jesus and Hell
It is quite true that Jesus spoke of a real hellfire. He spoke of a fire that would burn up the incorrigibly wicked. But He did not imply it would be the fate of most of mankind! He was not constantly screaming, "Hellfire and damnation! Repent or you'll fry in hell for all eternity!" Neither did He proclaim, "Give your heart to the Lord and your pocketbook to the preacher and ye shall be saved!" This was not the message of Jesus, even though He spoke clearly both of hell (the Bible kind, not the kind that is commonly but erroneously believed in) and of repentance. Jesus brought a positive message of a coming Kingdom that would one day encompass the earth. He spoke of a time when the Spirit of His Father would be poured out on the nations — a message prefigured by the Old Testament prophets. He spoke of a time of rest, a time of peace. Jesus, in His now — famous Sermon on the Mount, taught: "Blessed are the peacemakers.... Blessed are the pure in heart.... Blessed are the meek" (Matthew 5:9 8, 5). He spoke of the Church as a community of brethren — a family, if you please. Of authority in the Christian community He taught: "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them [tyrannize — Goodspeed translation], and their great men exercise authority [dominion — KJV] over them. It shall not be so among you; but whosoever would be great among you must be your servant" (Matthew 20:25-26, RSV). He then pointed out that He did not come to be waited on, ministered to, or to be served: "... even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve" (Matthew 20:28, RSV). Jim Jones, and many others, lorded it over their congregations. They ruled with force and cruelty. They controlled with threat, fear and intimidation. And, in so doing, they violated the spirit and intent of Jesus' own instructions to His disciples.
The Apostles' Teaching
Later, the apostles also taught love, and against fear. "There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment" (I John 4:18). Jesus Christ never intended His brethren to live in a state of torment and constant fear! Christians have been called to peace — not to fear. Paul spoke of "the peace of God, which passeth all understanding..." (Philippians 4:7). He wrote that peace of mind should "fill the hearts" of Christians. And, again, there is no room for fear in a heart full of peace! Both love and peace are listed as fruits or products produced by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in Christians (Galatians 5:22). If you, as a professing Christian, lack a sense of peace and well-being in your life, it could be because you are failing to follow the leading of the Spirit of peace. Perhaps you are failing to "stir up the gift" (II Timothy 1:6) that is in you. Returning to the teaching of the Founder of Christianity, Jesus Himself, we find Him saying, "Fear not them which kill the body..." (Matthew 10:28). That is, Christians should not fear man! He went on to say, "... but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell [gehenna]." That is, whatever "fear" a Christian has should be directed toward God. And even that is not a morbid or neurotic fear. Rather it is a healthy respect for the power and majesty of God. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Psalm 111:10). It is a willing acknowledgment of the supremacy and sovereignty of the Creator. It is a submission to divine authority. But it is not the fear that "hath torment." If it were, it would contradict the other teachings of Christ and His original apostles! Neither is it the "fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation" spoken of by Paul (Hebrews 10:27). That is the fear of the damned! That is the fear of the incorrigibly wicked. That is the fear of the devil! For those who are "in Christ" — that is, in a relationship with God through Christ and the Holy Spirit" there is therefore now no condemnation..." (Romans 8:1). True Christians do not live in a state of fear. To be "in Christ" is to be forgiven. It is to be justified of past transgressions. It is to be accepted of God and considered "righteous." The natural response of a person in such a relationship with God can only be gratitude and love — not morbid fear.
Those who peddle fear in the name of God are misrepresenting Him. Those who seek to bring congregations into subjection to themselves, as opposed to God, by means of threat and intimidation, are misusing their authority and probably the Scriptures. The Bible shows that the relationship of Christians to each other should be that of a loving, nurturing family. The apostle Paul, for example, taught: "Do not rebuke an older man but exhort him as you would a father; treat younger men like brothers, older women like mothers, younger women like sisters, in all purity" (I Timothy 5:1-2, RSV). Here we see the family relationship of Church members. Here there is no room for tyranny. There is no room for "lording it over" one another. The Church of God, ideally, should be a loving family of God's own children. It should be a nurturing community. It should be a community of peace and harmony and of mutual cooperation. No one in it should be striving to force others to do things or see things his way, or to obtain a preeminence over them. The carnal, unconverted disciples of Christ, prior to their conversion, pursued such selfish aims and squabbled about who among them should be the greatest. This craving for self-importance and dominance is a mark of unconversion! A converted person leaves all such matters to God and concentrates on the service of love. The apostle John warned against a man named Diotrephes who "loveth to have... preeminence" or, as the RSV puts it, "likes to put himself first" (III John 9). Such men think that a man's spirituality is measured by his position in some arbitrary ecclesiastical pecking order, or vice versa. But such is not the case. True spirituality is not equated with authority, or position or status. It is measured by attitude, humility, and service. Above all, it is measured by grace! Of and by himself, no man is righteous. If anyone is considered righteous, it is strictly by the grace of God — not by anything he has done. There is no room in the true body of Christ for a Jim Jones. There is no place for intimidation and threats. There is no room for power struggles or the rule of fear. The God of love is not a God of fear. The God of mercy is not a God who delights in the suffering and death of His children. The God of the Bible is not any of the anthropomorphic aberrations of men. The God of the universe is not a cosmic tyrant oblivious to the sufferings of His human creation. The true God is not a divine hanging judge who has gallows from here to eternity awaiting the necks of mankind. God and God's way are love — not fear.