Is Christian morality based on fear?


Some people characterize Christian morality as primitive because they view it as relying on threats of punishment in hell and promises of reward in heaven. It is true that the Bible teaches there is an afterlife with rewards and punishments for earthly conduct.1 But it also teaches that morality is based on love, not fear. God instructed the Israelites to love foreigners because they were once foreigners themselves and ought to empathize with them.2 (Contrary to popular belief, the command to love one's neighbor as oneself is not unique to the New Testament, but first appears in the Old Testament in Leviticus 19:18.)

That the basis of morality is love, not fear, is most clearly and fully expressed in the book of 1 John:

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 Jn 4:7-11)

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. 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 Jn 4:16b-18, emphasis added)

This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world. (1 Jn 5:2-4a)

Punishment

If Christians are to be moral because of their love of God and not out of fear, then why are curses for disobedience and prophecies of punishment found so frequently in the OT, and why does Jesus mention hell so often in the NT? There are several reasons:

1. God is just: he is morally obligated to punish those who do wrong and don't repent, regardless of whether fear of punishment motivates people or not.

2. God uses punishment to teach moral lessons. God doesn't want to punish anyone, and would much rather that we willingly did what is right,3 but if necessary he will use adversity to discipline people.4 Ideally, the chastisement causes the person to examine themselves, realize their wrongs and willingly change their ways. That is, for those who have an underlying motivation to do the right thing, God's punishment/discipline can help them improve morally without causing fear to be their primary motivation.

To understand how this can be the case, consider the following situation: Joe habitually cuts off other people in conversation without realizing he's offending them. One day someone tells Joe that he's being rude. Joe is upset about it, but then makes an effort to not cut other people off. One can imagine that if Joe has an underlying desire to be good, his changing his ways is motivated by that desire more than the desire to avoid the "punishment" of someone telling him off.

3. Although fear of punishment isn't the ideal motivation for not doing wrong, it does serve as a last-resort motivator for those who aren't motivated by other things. If someone doesn't love God and doesn't care about "good for goodness' sake," is it not better for them to at least do the right thing to avoid punishment rather than to do wrong?


Rewards

Is there anything wrong with a Christian being motivated by the rewards in heaven that Jesus mentioned? At first blush, the idea of doing good in order to receive a reward sounds materialistic, probably because most of the time when we talk about this concept we're talking about an actual material reward. But consider the volunteers who say they volunteer because it makes them feel good to help others. They're getting a reward, only it's emotional rather than material. Yet very few people would say it's wrong for them to be motivated by their satisfaction in helping others or argue that the only truly altruistic act is one that is unpleasant and from which the doer receives no satisfaction, not even the satisfaction of having done the right thing. Therefore having a motivation for being altruistic is not necessarily wrong and does not necessarily mean the act is not truly altruistic.

There are non-altruistic motivations, though. The Bible condemns false altruism, e.g. giving to others because one expects the money to be returned or hopes to look generous.5 How does this sort of motivation differ from that of a Christian who is motivated by receiving a reward in heaven or praise from God?

It seems to me the real difference is between having a focus on earthly (e.g. material) things and having a focus on godly/moral things. Someone who gives in order to be repaid, praised or otherwise gain materially or socially is concerned with their own well-being on Earth, as opposed to having a truly altruistic concern for others. It could be argued that someone who gives solely to receive praise and/or reward from God is also concerned with their own well-being (albeit in the afterlife) rather than others' well-being. However, if someone is genuinely seeking to please God -- if they are seeking God's praise as an indication that they have pleased him, rather than seeking a higher social status in heaven -- they should know that God is pleased when they have the right attitudes (in this case, love for others) and then act on them.6 In other words, ideally the person seeking praise or reward from God is really seeking to please God by caring for the disadvantaged and having a genuine concern for others.

Possibly, Jesus' teaching about rewards in heaven was meant as a first step to get his followers to focus on spiritual rather than material things. Someone with a material focus would likely respond to the logic in Luke 12:33: "Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys."


Footnotes

1. Lk 12:33-34, 1 Cor 3:12-15. See also Degrees of punishment in hell. (Back to article)
2. Ex 23:9, Dt 24:21-22 (Back to article)
3. Ezek 18:23, 32 (Back to article)
4. Heb 12:5-11, Pr 3:11-12 (Back to article)
5. Mt 6:1-4, Lk 14:12-14 (Back to article)
6. Mt 6:1-4, Hosea 6:6, James 1:27, 2:14-17 (Back to article)


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