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I have many times witnessed christians trying to convince or convert atheists or people of other religions to christianity as well as all sorts of arguments and quarrels regarding christianity. I'm sure you've witnessed some too...

Among other things, I've noticed christians persistently using two arguments that I find hard to reconcile with the rest of Christianity / Jesus' teachings:

Appeal to personal Gain

I'm sure you've heard someone say "Start believing in God and Jesus Christ, that way you will be saved and after death you'll go to heaven and be happy for eternity".

Sounds great, the trouble is, if this becomes the sole or main reason for faith, is that faith really worthwile? It seems to me that this argument reduces christianity to a simple trade: Do something that is asked of you and in reward you will be happy forever. I'd think that a real faith would be based on something more... sincere.

I don't understand how can someone venerate Jesus for his act of ultimate selflessnes and love (the crucifixion) but at the same time try to lead people to Jesus by appealing to their desire for personal gain.

Inducing fear

A.k.a. the age-old "If you don't listen, you will go to hell". This is similar, usually used along with the former argument, but it's a bit more drastic. My concern about this argument is essentially the same: If someone believes simply because they want to avoid hell, is that a sincere faith?

It troubles me even more considering that Jesus himself used this argument, although perhaps in somewhat less threatning way (The weeping and gnashing of teeth, "Fear that who kills the soul in hell").

I've heard people say that fear of God is a "good kind of fear", referring to a couple of verses in the Old Testament, but that doesn't really help since fear of God isn't necessarily the same as fear of hell (or is it?) and also (in my experience, anyway) fear is an obstacle to faith or love, that works against them. How could I possibly truly love God while having fear he might as well let me burn in hell? I don't think I could.

Why are these arguments used?

Are they valid or do people use them just to draw attention to themselves?

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5 Answers

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These two lines of reasoning are, as you've presented them, problematic as you suggest. Ideally, they'd be used together and be founded in the true message of the gospel.

First, the few details to be cleared up:

I don't understand how can someone venerate Jesus for his act of ultimate selflessnes and love (the crucifixion) but at the same time try to lead people to Jesus by appealling to their desire for personal gain.

Good point. Firstly, though, personal gain isn't bad. It's great. We're wired to want the best for ourselves - and God's given us plenty of things to enjoy. Personal gain and selflessness are not necessarily mutually exclusive - however, in this fallen world, we often must sacrifice personal gain in order to show selflessness. Secondly, there is no comparison between the earthly gain we sacrifice and the heavenly joy we inherit. The latter is so great, so wonderful, that we should want to do anything to attain it. Additionally, keep in mind that the default state of mankind before sin was to be in the presence of God. Made in the image of God, we want to get back to that state, but we can't. Faith in Christ offers us a chance to do that.

Of course, you're right - both of these reasons are alone insufficient, and lack the true message. That message is this: that despite our sinful state before God that should place us in hell according to his justice (appeal to fear), God has sent his Son to die for us and give us the inheritance of Christ and eternity with him. (appeal to joy)

So the real reason anyone should want this faith is out of gratitude - sheer gratitude. Even if God had simply saved us from Hell, but not given us anything else, we'd be so eternally grateful because Hell is so eternally terrible that we'd want to give him everything. But he's not only given us mercy, but grace, so our gratitude abounds, and our faith is sincere.

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How God saved his people should also produce a sense of awe. Just the incarnation itself is impossibly magnificent, adding substitutionary atonement multiplies the display of (as Chesterton put it) "His insane magnificence and His insane meekness" whose unity in Christ is also transcendent. A heart that is even slightly alive would respond "My lord and my God." –  Paul A. Clayton Jun 5 '13 at 11:26
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That's a good point there about selflessness not being mutualy exclusive with personal gain. Thanks for an interesting answer... –  kralyk Jun 5 '13 at 13:06
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I can't do any better than C. S. Lewis's sermon The Weight of Glory (my apologies for basically simply quoting this and moving on, but this is at the crux of the matter). This is expounding on what Thomas Shields has already said, but I do love the way Lewis says it.

If you asked twenty good men to-day what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you asked almost any of the great Christians of old he would have replied, Love. You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance. The negative ideal of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point. I do not think this is the Christian virtue of Love. The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire. If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

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Fear of The Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Whenever one goes to confession they're asked to recite the act of contrition a normal form of which includes something along the lines of:

because I dread thy just punishements.

But ends with saying I'm sorry because:

but most of all because I have offended you who are All Good and deserving o all my love.

And that's the end of wisdom or at least the better part of wisdom.


Also, it's not a 'good kind of fear' the word my fairly liberal minded, but probably correct pastor uses is revere. It's giving God the respect He deserves. Not being overly familiar with Him to the point you feel as though you can box Him in. And accepting that God alone has the ability to judge us justly at the end of our earthly life.

Some people don't want to give this ability to God because they dogmatically cling to an argument that a loving God would abandon justice for mercy. And, whereas it was revealed (privately) to St. Faustina that Mercy is God's greatest attribute it would not be a loving act (and therefore not an act of God) to take away our free will which gives us the ability not to choose to seek Him and not to desire to live with Him forever.

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Promises of wealth and threats of hell are not only ineffective means of evangelism, they don't even address what is at stake in conversion.

Allow me to quote from two Christian sources before making my case. First, the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican is relevant here.

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

Secondly, here is a quote from The Defense of the Augsburg Confession, one of the early documents of Lutheranism:

Likewise the faith of which we speak exists in repentance, i.e., it is conceived in the terrors of conscience, which feels the wrath of God against our sins, and seeks the remission of sins, and to be freed from sin. And in such terrors and other afflictions this faith ought to grow and be strengthened.

If you try to evangelize someone who "feels the wrath of God against their sins," someone who understands their need for mercy of their sins, the work is very easy. Those other promises, especially wealth, aren't even a motivator.

If you try to evangelize someone like the Pharisee, who has no conviction of sin, can only see the greater sins of others, then you have a bigger problem. If you get them to make some kind of spiritual gesture because of the promise of wealth, or because of the promise of avoiding an arbitrary and undeserved hell, it is fair to ask whether there were a true conversion.

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I liked the last answer offered by Pterandon, but I'd like to expand on it if I might. Ultimately, the questions seems to be what's the most effective way to appeal to the lost. In this age of moral relativism, bringing up sin or hell as a "stick" has little impact since most people (adults, at least) are more likely to believe in space aliens than the truth of the bible - the authority underpinning "sin" and "hell".

So what are we left with as a carrot?

Prosperity might be an effective pursuader, but it's entirely unbiblical (IMO) and ultimately will only produce poor-quality believers.

What I'm trying is the idea of completeness. It's the idea that we're going to remain lonely, empty and ultimately unfulfilled without God in our lives; that even if we have everything we could ever dream of, the weight of our incompleteness without God will continue to bear down on us. Thus you see beautiful, young, rich people like Angelina Jolie desperately trying to redeem their souls and find completeness in doing good.

So while the bible may have lost credibility as the source of TRUTH, when I stand there in front of someone who's seeking answers, I can tell them honestly that I've found fulfillment in the life I get from my relationship with God. The bible they can dismiss, but when I look them in the eye and tell them what I've seen, felt and heard, they can't dismiss that.

Religion is the construct people make up to feel closer to God, but Jesus' offer is always the same: "Follow Me" or "Come unto Me". And in doing that, not just once but every day, I find fulfillment, joy and peace that's not contingent on the circumstances of my life.

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Actually, when asking the question I wasn't interested in an efficient way to appeal to the "lost" at all, I'm not looking to convert people. I was merely interested whether these two often used arguments hold to some scrutiny, that's all, so I'm not going to upvote your answer... Having said that, your answer does contain some interesting thoughts therefore I'm grateful for it nonetheless ;-) –  kralyk Jun 14 '13 at 21:17
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