Thank God this controversy came up on reading week, so I have the time to blog out all of this turmoil. If you haven’t been in the blogosphere for the past week or so, Rob Bell’s new book (which, I think, has yet to be released) has people claiming that he’s a universalist who denies the existence of Hell – and with that, perhaps the authority of scripture and even the existence of God, at least according to some people. While this has been soundly debunked here by someone who’s actually read the book, it still has a lot of people talking. I was directed to an article that compiled several of the more conservative responses to Bell, and found this quote to be somewhat positive and interesting:
This conversation should lead Christians to redouble their prayers and evangelistic efforts, Harris stressed. Also joining the discussion, Pastor Kevin DeYoung East Lansing, Michigan, reminded the public of why God’s wrath is necessary. “We need God’s wrath to keep us honest about evangelism,” he said. “We need God’s wrath in order to: forgive our enemies; risk our lives for Jesus’ sake; live holy lives; understand what mercy means; grasp how wonderful heaven will be; be motivated to care for our impoverished brothers and sisters; and be ready for the Lord’s return. “Believing in God’s judgment actually helps us look more like Jesus. In short, we need the doctrine of the wrath of God.”
My first thought on reading this response is that it is very mature in the midst of flung accusations and condemnations, seeing the potential of discussions like this to spur us on to greater response to God. Amen, and amen! But something about Kevin DeYoung’s comment rubbed me the wrong way. Does anything about his comment jump out at you as somehow wrong? Let’s look at it again:
“We need God’s wrath to keep us honest about evangelism,” he said. “We need God’s wrath in order to: forgive our enemies; risk our lives for Jesus’ sake; live holy lives; understand what mercy means; grasp how wonderful heaven will be; be motivated to care for our impoverished brothers and sisters; and be ready for the Lord’s return. “Believing in God’s judgment actually helps us look more like Jesus. In short, we need the doctrine of the wrath of God.”
What he’s saying is that the wrath of God is useful. I’ve never thought of wrath as useful before, but I suppose he’s right. What bothers me is that he seems to be implying that fearing the wrath of God is why we do everything that we do as Christians. We are Christians because we’re afraid that God will get mad and send us to Hell to be forever tortured. By this logic, God’s primary tool to show us His love and bring us into relationship with Him, and help the world, is negative reinforcement. Even the prison-happy folk behind the American (and increasingly, the Canadian) justice system don’t use negative reinforcement to enforce positive behaviour. It’s one thing to say that we’ll send to you prison (or Hell) for doing something terrible; it’s quite another to send someone to prison (or Hell) for not doing something nice.
But hang on: that’s exactly what Jesus did. (Thanks Ryan for pointing this out):
Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me. (Matthew 25:41-43)
But did Jesus say this as a primary motivating factor? Deterrence works some of the time, but it really is the lowest, most basic way to correct behaviour. This speech comes to us at the end of Jesus’ ministry, shortly before he was arrested and killed by people who refused to believe anything he said. When you contrast this speech with one from the beginning of the gospel (Matthew 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount), you don’t find it to be a repetitive threat – “follow me, or else” – but rather a long series of ethical teachings based on nothing but His authority from God and the plain truth of it. We do good not because we’re afraid of being punished, but because it is good. Though we are inclined to evil selfishness, our evil is more like a knee-jerk, default reaction; I don’t struggle with my sinful nature because I am afraid of what will happen if I don’t manage to get it under control (I can’t, and me and God both know it), but because I know that what is good is better than what is evil; because I love and serve a God who is good, and I try to emulate Him.
Am I off base here? Can we really say that we need a wrathful God watching over our shoulder in order to perform the most basic Christian tasks? DeYoung emphasizes the stick in this article, but perhaps he emphasizes the carrot elsewhere. But in my experience, when you motivate someone with the stick, the relationship between you and that person is damaged. There’s a reason we look down on, or pity, someone who is “whipped”. God rescues His people from oppression, and it seems that using oppression (the constant fear of eternal conscious torment) to do so is illogical and counter-productive.