Intimidation by Divine Wrath

Some Christians resort to an argument of intimidation by divine judgment and wrath when the going gets tough. I read this most recently in a comment on YouTube, in which the writer simply quoted Bible texts implying first that people were wrong, and second that God was going to do something about it.

Those texts didn’t specify that I was wrong, or that my accuser was right; taken out of context as they were, they didn’t specify the topics on which God would get you if you were wrong; they simply suggested that people who were wrong might well be in trouble.

This method is intended to make the person who is less sure of himself give in because of the fear of divine retribution. On the surface, the person using it is so absolutely certain he is right, that he believes the other person will flinch, being less certain. But there’s another element to it. He must also believe that the other person secretly knows he is wrong and is simply holding onto a position out of sheer perversity.

Our hypothetical debater believes that the atheist with whom he is arguing is really a closet theist who refuses to acknowledge belief in God because he doesn’t want to obey. Perhaps if he is threatened with judgment enough times he will come to acknowledge how wrong he is. The more liberal Christian, in his view, truly knows that fundamentalism is true, but has been deceived by the spirit of the age. Again, he will flinch if confronted with the potential wrath of God.

This isn’t a conservative/liberal type of approach, however. Many very conservative Christians are attacked by other seekers of absolute certainty who regard them as liberal, or just plain wrong in some other way.

I’ve heard this approach to debate many times. Sometimes it comes in the form of “doubting your salvation” because your theology isn’t correct, at others in the more direct form of telling you that you will have to face God’s judgment.

What I was thinking today, however, is that despite its surface appearance, this approach doesn’t come from a position of supreme confidence, but rather one of profound doubt, but doubt which cannot be admitted. Those who believe that they have to have certain doctrinal positions correct in order to be right with God, or to gain some eternal reward can become quite tense about the possibility of being wrong. After all, the penalty for an error here runs all the way to eternity in hell!

And please don’t remind me of salvation by faith. I had a young man question my salvation after he had spent an hour preaching to me about salvation by grace through faith without works of any kind. Then because I didn’t quite understand the words that he did, he said he was concerned about my salvation. I guess it wasn’t just grace and faith, but also a full theological understanding of them!

Being both uncertain and terrified of the penalty of being wrong, such people would have to get into the habit of never thinking they are wrong. I, on the other hand, have been wrong so many times, it is certainly no remarkable event. I suspect the people who have used this on me cannot imagine that I am unconcerned with being wrong, and that I’m simply waiting for someone to actually show me that I am.

I think this one works a bit like an insult. When someone you don’t respect insults you, you are hardly hurt by it. When someone threatens you with something you do not fear, it also doesn’t concern you.

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One Comment

  1. Thank you Henry for my early afternoon smile –

    It has often struck me how hard it is to move away (=repent) from a position of confessional or doctrinal security. If one has spent one’s whole life in an inner dialogue with a particular tradition – but of course ignoring those parts of the tradition that are of necessity self-contradictory – it is indeed difficult to face the consequences of potential failure of the intellect (such as it is).

    Yet why is it that I still love the Scripture as I do – because lurking in the shadow of that wing of my history is the love that dares to speak its name to me and in me and accompany me as Gospel even in all my potential confusion. That’s how I must learn to write parable or story or poem –

    And when the tradition shows its faults – as all do – still it too had enough of the pointer left in it to point and to allow itself to be corrected…

    it is enough.

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