I wrote a Frank’s Cottage essay about a survey indicating the promise of Heaven is far more motivating than the fear of Hell in encouraging church attendance and prayer.
Kinda makes sense, right? The tasty carrot is better than the nasty stick, goes the thinking.
Then I heard from an old friend, Tim Callaway, who’s doing university research and stumbled upon statistics that indicate a very different story.
These stats are by no means a definitive indicator, but they are consistent. In the 1930s and ’40s, surveys of 100 to 200 students somewhere in North America (sorry, this ancient stuff has no further details) consistently indicated fear of Hell was far more motivating to become a Christian than the love of God. In many of those years, the numbers were so lopsided that the love motivation was less than 10 per cent.
Huh? The huge difference between then and now is so puzzling that I bounced this disparity off a pastor buddy, Ross Carkner, to get his feedback.
“I wonder if the change has more to do with the nature of society at large,” Ross emailed me. “I think in the 1930s and ’40s, there was a different mindset. The world had just come through one war and was posturing or in the middle of another. The planet was covered in gloom.”
Between the wars and the ruined dreams of the 1930s Great Depression, Ross wondered, “If there was a sense that all you could do was make the most of what you had. This was the builder generation. Work hard and you might get by. This is very different than the baby boomers … the builders were set on making the most of what they had, the boomers were about getting more.”
This makes sense to me. As Ross put it, “I think against that kind of a backdrop, perhaps the builders were open to hearing that ‘things could get worse’ [i.e. the nasty stick of Hell], while the boomers wanted to hear about how ‘things could get better’ [the tasty carrot of Heaven]”.
If this assessment is accurate, then it comes with a subtle suggestion: many people’s ideas about God depend on the world around them. That’s not surprising, but then I remember something I read in the Bible: “Jesus doesn’t change—yesterday, today, tomorrow, he’s always totally himself.”
I also think of a Bible story about Jesus defending a woman who was brought up on charges of adultery. He told her accusers, who wanted to stone her to death (fooling around on your spouse was serious business in the ancient world), that anyone who’d never done anything wrong could go ahead and throw a stone.
Eventually, all of the woman’s accusers walked away. That left Jesus to do nothing more than tell the woman to go home and don’t commit adultery again.
For me, this event is a powerful example of who God is. And when I realize that he doesn’t change, I see that the ultimate picture of God is incredibly positive. And that’s a picture I want to keep, no matter what happens to me or to the world.
So if you believe in God, what’s your ultimate picture of him? And does it motivate you to do something about your spiritual life?