I come across fear and manipulation quite often from religious people. More often than not, this fear manipulation drives people away from a congregation. I understand that many are attempting to bring people to Jesus, but the ways they are presenting the gospel just pushes people away.
Should someone be afraid of hell? Yes, in the sense that it is separation from God’s love. Many are just manipulated to fear hell to remain obligated to an institution’s standards. Often I see attendance, tithing, and participation upheld as methods of fire insurance. Some tactics are outright and unmistakable while others are very subtle. At best, these tactics only manipulate people into a sense of salvation by external compliance but does nothing to help them develop a deeper spiritual relationship with Jesus. Also, this places people in a conundrum where they can be continually manipulated. This may be unintentional, but the result is the same. Many are made to constantly question whether they are truly saved and are convinced that they have to vehemently work while fighting against themselves and the rest of the world to maintain that salvation. When a real relationship develops with Jesus, however, fear of hell dissipates because we are fervently in love with him. Our status with God becomes unmistakable and hell threats no longer hold any weight.
Through the gospels, it seems Jesus mostly speaks of hell to the religious people. It is as though to say those that are pursuing religious rules as their means of righteousness are the ones who are in danger. In Matthew 5:22&30 Jesus mentions hell but is stating how high the standards are to avoid it by religious rule following. If we’re honest with ourselves, it seems impossible–which is exactly the point, it is impossible by our human means of righteousness and rule-based obligation. Ironically, I can’t find any passages where Jesus walks up to a “sinner” and threatens them will hell to save their souls. Instead, he shows them love and lets them choose by that standard!
So why is fear usage so prevalent in the Bible and religion? There are a few points, as I’ve come to understand them, that might clear up some of the confusion.
The Lord said, “Because this people draws near with their mouth and honors me with their lips, but they have removed their heart far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment of men which has been taught;–Isaiah 29:13 (emphasis mine)
It seems that men defined what fear should be and then held it over others’ heads as the means to relate to God.
There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear has punishment. He who fears is not made perfect in love.–1 John 4:18
We see in this verse that love and fear cannot coexist. So what about all the things mentioned about fear in the rest of the Bible? My personal belief is that fear in this context is a reverent awe of God in that he is something beyond our human comprehension. It’s kinda like standing at a great height and getting a bit weak in the knees and queasy multiplied a few thousand times. In addition, the Old Testament people feared God’s antidote for sin–his wrath, but his wrath for our sin today has already been expelled on Jesus. Now, we can live in reverent awe and “excitement” as I believe Paul to convey in Philippians 2:12.