Fearmongering: The cheapest kind of preaching

“Men’s hearts will be failing them from fear” (Luke 21:26).

“Wherefore comfort one another with these words” (I Thessalonians 4:18).

When I was a kid–sometime in the early 1950s–I recall attending a revival meeting with my grandmother in Birmingham.  The preacher scared the living daylights out of everyone with his prophecies about the future, his warnings about Russia and Communism, and his forecasts about what was about to happen.  Later, as Grandma and I walked down those dark streets to her apartment, every plane going over seemed to be carrying an atomic bomb with our address on it.

Scary preaching is foreign to the New Testament.

The great apostle actually thought teachings of the Lord’s return and the believers’ victory over and escape from this world should comfort us.

But listen to the typical prophecy preacher.   So many will use passages about the Lord’s return and the end times to strike terror into the hearts of the faithful.  They speak of the martyrdom of millions of the faithful, of the havoc to be wreaked throughout the world by the Lord’s death angels, of the Beast and the Antichrist and the desolation of abomination.

Matters of which they understand little.

God’s final warning!  The end is near!  Signs of the time!  The Antichrist is alive and living in New York City at this moment.  The United States in Bible prophecy!  Nuclear war predicted in Bible prophecy!

Sound familiar?  If you’ve observed the religious scene for the last few years, you’ve heard it all.  Turn on the television and you can hear it today.

There’s a reason for this.

Fear-mongering is a well-calculated plan to get religious but ignorant people into their organizations or onto their mailing lists, and motivated to open their bank accounts.

After all, fear works. Fear motivates.

Well-founded fear motivates us to protect our families from hardship, from disease, and from criminals.  We take out insurance, support the police, and install locks on our doors.

Those are all proper responses to genuine fear.

But what about the terror of the unknown?  The fear of the economy collapsing, of lawlessness running wild, of pandemics and genocide? Of nuclear war, of divine judgement, of disasters on–don’t miss this–a biblical scale?

Is there a proper role for “warning people of coming catastrophes?”  There is, if and only if, you know such a calamity is coming and can back it up.

Had you known, say, on August 22, 2005, that Hurricane Katrina would devastate the Mississippi Gulf Coast and flood the City of New Orleans and take over 1800 lives, you would have been justified in running up and down the streets and highways urging people to get out and save themselves.  True, some would have called you a nut and doomsdayer…for one week.  But after August 29, they would have seen what a wonderful and wise person you were.  And CNN would have made you a celebrity.

But we didn’t do that because we didn’t know.

The simple fact is that most prophecy experts of past generations did not know what they were talking about.  They had their scenarios and their charts and their prophecies did not come to pass.  But never fear, because in the wake of each departing, humbled generation of prophecy experts, a new crop of self-appointed prophets appears, all of them with their immense Bible insights (“revealed only to us”) and their certainties and pride.

As a young preacher, I heard sermon after sermon identifying the European Common Market with the 10 horns of the beast in Revelation 13.  The Balfour Declaration of 1917 giving official status to Israel, or the UN action of 1948 making that nation a reality were definite signposts of prophecy.  No doubt the Lord Jesus was returning in “this” generation.”  The preachers said it.  And they were certain.

And it didn’t happen.

Scaring people for a living in the name of Jesus for cash.

Lord, help us.

Fundraisers know fear is a great motivator.

You’ve gotten letters from both political parties, I imagine.  They are scaring you with scenarios of political disasters if the other guy is elected, if the other party has its way.  “The criminals will win, all the jails will be thrown open, social security will be canceled, and all our jobs will go to Mexico.”

The only solution for this dreaded apocalypse, of course, is for concerned citizens like you to send them large cash gifts.

I can recall those letters from Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority with the same type of scare tactics and the identical solutions: Send money.

What is a responsible pastor to do?

I’ll tell you what many an irresponsible pastor has done.  They have chosen to remain silent on the subject, but invite in those “prophecy experts” to preach their opinions and interpretations to their church members. This way, the pastor feels he is not taking a position on the matter and if there are divine repercussions for spreading heresy and falsehood, the wrath of God falls on Prophet Heartburn, not him.

Like Pilate, he is washing his hands of the matter.

I’m not sure it works that way, but I’ll happily leave the judging to the Righteous Judge (see Genesis 18:25).

What does Scripture say? 

The parable of the wise and foolish virgins speaks to this (Matthew 25:1ff).  I wonder if it has ever occurred to the prophecy experts (said tongue-in-cheek) that it was the foolish virgins who expected the return of the bridegroom so quickly that they needed to do no long range planning.  It was the wise virgins who planned for the long haul, who were ready whether the bridegroom returned quickly or long after they were expecting him.

What if you had told the first century believers that two thousand years would come and go and Jesus had not returned, as He promised?  Would they have been discouraged, unmotivated to be faithful?  Would they have felt the Lord had reneged on HIs promise?  And yet, according to 2 Peter 3:8, a thousand years with the Lord is as one day, and one day as a thousand years.

You’ll never hear–in my opinion–a prophecy preacher saying, “I have no idea whether Jesus will come back this year or a thousand years from now.”  What they say tends to be more along the lines of “I’ve quit looking for the signs and started listening for the shout.”  That sounds spiritual, but after listening for the “shout” for 20 years, for 50 years, does he get tired and grow discouraged?

The evangelist who was preaching the 1951 revival when I came to Christ told the church, “I believe the 1948 Pontiac I’m driving will last me until Jesus comes back.”  And I’m fine with that.  He was not making prophecies, merely expressing his hope.

Living in hope of the Second Coming is good, necessary, and called for repeatedly in the Word.  “If we believe that Christ died and rose again, even so those who sleep in Jesus God will bring with Him” (I Thessalonians 4:14).

Everything depends on the Return of Christ.  I believe it. In fact, I’m staking everything on His Coming.  But I’m not making any predictions as to when it will happen.  And I worry about those who are.

Our false interpretation of Bible prophecy actually discourages the people of God and amuses the outside, unbelieving world.  And that is serious business.

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