Some years ago I was stationed with a priest who, while he often liked my homilies, would often critique my use of what he called “fear based preaching.” Perhaps I had warned the congregation of punishment for sin, or even let slip that certain things were mortal sins that would exclude one from heaven and land them in hell. I would often playfully remind the congregation that missing Sunday Mass was a mortal sin by saying, “Go to Mass or go to hell.” I would also warn that fornicators would not inherit the Kingdom nor idolaters nor adulterers nor those who practice homosexuality, nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God (cf 1 Cor 6:9).
Of course I was quoting Scripture and preaching out of a voluminous biblical tradition of warning texts. Nevertheless, the older priest would often wag his finger and say, “Ah that’s fear-based preaching…fear based!”
Perhaps it was, but so what? And yet many (not all) priests of his generation were of the mind that to warn at all or to incite any fear in the people of God was some “abusive” and bad pastoral practice. They seem to have been a generation in reaction to something before them. Perhaps they had grown up with what they thought was too much fire and brimstone preaching and not enough of a summons to higher motives rooted in love and mature spiritual reflection.
It is true, that the First Letter of John does set for a kind of goal for us that we be free of the mere fear of punishment and root our moral life in love:
There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. (1 John 4:18)
And yet, if this goal, good and important that it is, is meant to eliminate any appeal to ordinary fear of punishment, apparently Jesus never got the memo. Neither did St. Paul, St Peter, St. James, St Jude, the Author of the Letter to the Hebrews, and even John himself seems to have forgotten the “rule” from time to time.
For the fact is, the quote from First John sets for a goal for the spiritually mature. But that does mean that we are all there. In fact, people are at many different stages of spiritual growth. Surely the Lord, and the gospel and epistle writers knew this, as does every experienced pastor.
Frankly, many are still at a spiritual stage where the fear of punishment is both necessary and salutary.
Jesus certainly saw fit to appeal to the fear of punishment, loss, and hell. In fact, it is arguable that this was his main approach and that one would struggle to find very many texts where Jesus appeals more to a perfect contrition and a purely holy fear rooted in love alone as a motive to avoid sin. But over and over in dozens of passages and parables Jesus warns of punishment and exclusion from the Kingdom for unrepented sin and for the refusal to be ready. Here are just a few:
Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. (Matt 7:13-14)
The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth. (Mat 13:41-42)
“Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping.What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’ ” (Mk 13:35-37)
And take heed to yourselves, lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with carousing, and drunkenness, and cares of this life, and so that day come on you unawares. For as a snare shall it come on all them that dwell on the face of the whole earth. Watch you therefore, and pray always, that you may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man.(Luke 21:34-36)
“But about that day or hour no one knows…For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark;and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away…“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into.So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him. (Matt 24:36-44)
The lord of that servant shall come in a day when he looks not for him, and in an hour that he is not aware of, And shall cut him asunder, and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matt 24:51)
Then the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.“Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’“But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.(Matt 25:10-13)
“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…“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matt 24:41-42, 46)
Whoever looks on a woman to lust after her has committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out, and cast it from you: for it is profitable for you that one of your members should perish, and not that your whole body should be cast into hell. (Matt 5:28-29)
Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. (Matt 5:22)
And if your foot offend you, cut it off: it is better for you to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dies not, and the fire is not quenched. (Mk 9:45-46)
Friend, how came you in here not having a wedding garment? And he was speechless. Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness, there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. For many are called, but few are chosen. (Matt 22:12-14)
Then said Jesus again to them, I go my way, and you shall seek me, but you shall die in your sins: where I go, you cannot come….I have told you that you will die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am he, you will indeed die in your sins (John 8:21, 24).
by their fruits you shall know them. Not every one that said to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that does the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in your name? and in your name have cast out devils? and in your name done many wonderful works? Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’(Matt 7:20-23)
He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. (Mark 16:15-16)
“Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give youthis testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.” (Rev 22:14-16)
Dozens of other texts, parables and warnings could be added unto this list. But let these Suffice. The bottom line is that Jesus warned and appealed to the fear of punishment a LOT.
No one loves you more than Jesus and yet no one warned of judgment and Hell more than Jesus. He knows how stubborn and hard we are, and thus he is plain and warns with clarity and charity.
St. Paul and all the other Epistle writers have many warning texts as well that proclaim a salutary fear of punishment. A common example of the Pauline warning texts is this:
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Cor 6:9-10)
Translation: if one stays in serious and unrepented sin, they go to Hell. And thus, St Paul too, as well as the other Epistle writers all appeal to the fear of punishment.
Now why should we, who are summoned to preach and teach in Jesus’ name, reject a key strategy that he and his chosen apostles employed? And yet, it has been a consistent modern practice to all but ignore the substantial warning texts that occur throughout the preaching of Jesus and the Apostles.
Part of the reason for our rejection would seem rooted in the fact that we live in rather dainty times wherein people easily take offense. Further the “self-esteem” culture and its premises are inimical to speaking of people as sinners or in anyway rejected. Thirdly, many today have cast God in the role of doting Father, and Jesus as a harmless hippie. No matter how unbiblical the images of the Lord are, they are pervasive and people do not easily let go of them, even when confronted with biblical texts.
But, at the end of the day, those of us who preach are without excuse if we neglect or refuse a pastoral practice used extensively by Jesus himself. By our silence in this regard we mislead God’s people and become, in effect, deceivers who do not preach the “whole counsel of God” (cf Acts 20:27).
While it is true that we can help to lead God’s people from an imperfect contrition (rooted in fear of punishment) to a more perfect contrition (rooted in love for God), it remains a rather clear fact that many of the faithful are at different stages and are not yet at the perfect contrition stage.
For this reason the Church has always allowed that imperfect contrition was sufficient to receive absolution. The traditional act of contrition (which is to be preferred) says,
…I detest all my sins, not only because I fear the loss of heaven and the pains of hell, but most of all because they offend you my God who are all good, and deserving of all my love….
This act of contrition is to be preferred because it distinguishes perfect and imperfect contrition and properly notes that most of us have by sorts of contrition admixed. But this act of contrition also helps the penitent recall the journey we ought to make out of the fear of punishment to the deeper and more perfect motive of love of God and neighbor to avoid sin.
But for most of us, this is a journey that is underway, and some have made more progress than others. Meanwhile, the preachers of the Church do well to appeal to the fear of punishment among other motives to avoid sin.
Jesus and the Apostles never hesitated to recall the fearful results of sinful obstinance. And neither should we who Preach today. Fear of punishment is needed after all.