Recently, a young woman explained her reasoning to me for converting to the Christian faith.
“It’s real simple,” she said. "I realized that hell is real and if I didn’t ask Jesus into my life, I’d burn for eternity!”
The whole conversation saddened me over faith reduced to a “scared straight” scenario.
If you recall, "Scared Straight" was a 1978 documentary filmed at Rahway State Prison. The movie employs life inmates to berate, scream at and terrify juvenile offenders in an attempt to "scare them straight" and avoid prison terms.
The tactic is also popular among religious folk like my new friend. I first noticed the technique with an evangelist named Hal Lindsey. If you were born before 1960, you’ll likely remember that Lindsey co-authored a 1970 best-seller with Carole C. Carlson titled “The Late, Great Planet Earth.”
Reviews from the Christian church were mixed. Some of us laughed and some of us tried to ignore him.
However, when the Yom Kippur War of 1973 sent gas prices soaring, many of us wondered if the Lindsey scenario was creeping into the nonfiction section. Many began taking Lindsey so seriously that, like my young friend, they ran scared-straight into the baptismal waters.
Had we been a little smarter, I’m wondering if we might have seen how religious history was on a repeating track with Lindsey’s approach. He was using the scared-straight technique used by centuries of religious thought.
It’s a thought expressed on the old bumper sticker: “The good news is, Jesus is coming back. The bad news is, He’s ticked.” (OK, the sticker doesn’t say “ticked” but this is a family newspaper.)
The real problem with Lindsey and people like him is that they characterize the Christian faith as a war between good and evil. Indeed, they demand that the faithful make a choice between spending eternity in a bottomless pit of eternal fire or going to church three times a week. Yes, the Baptists are still going to church on Wednesday night.
The fault in this thinking is that it forces faith into an all-or-nothing proposition. Faith isn’t that way at all. Real faith is relation-based, not fear-based.
Faith is more like this: When I met my wife at a Southern Baptist Conference Center, I didn’t introduce myself by saying, “Marry me or you’ll burn.” If I had, she would have dowsed me with the nearest fire extinguisher.
God doesn’t use that approach either. He doesn’t need to scare us into loving him. That’s because God is not trying to save us from this world. After all, he created this world for us.
Jesus made the same point quite well, saying, “God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help.” (John 3:17, The Message Paraphrase)
God is all about helping us make it through our times of hurt and pain. He’s not about inventing painful situations just so he can play the superhero.
I suppose there’ll always be fortunes to be made by capitalizing on demise, death and destruction, but I will continue to place my faith in my relationship with our creator.
The Lindsey star eventually faded. The counterculture of the 1960s never became the main culture, and Lindsey’s predictions crumbled with the Berlin Wall.
These days, Lindsey is 89 years old, living in Tulsa. He’s still doing video, but nowadays he’s predicting the final jihad that will come any day now. Same scared straight program, just a different station.