Why are Christians So Fearful?

I don’t scare easily, but I recall like yesterday how terrified I was.

It happened in the mid-1980s when I worked in Yaoundé, the capital city of Cameroon, about 250 kilometers from the coast. I was the manager of the Imprimerie Adventiste, the denominational publishing house and printing plant for the French-speaking part of Africa. That day I had gone for some business to Douala—the port city at a 40-minute flight from where I lived. When I had finished my mission and returned to the airport, I missed the last flight of the day back home.

I had no desire to spend the night in a hotel, so I decided to look for a cab. I bargained with a driver, offered him half of what he asked—and with that he was more than content. We began the journey of about 4 hours. Soon we were outside the port city of Douala, where the jungle began. It was pitch black.

Then, totally unexpectedly, the driver reduced speed and turned into a narrow, dark forest path.

“Don’t worry,” he said.

But I did. “What are you doing,” I shouted. “Go back.” He drove on for about a kilometer. I did not know what to do. This is not going to end well, I thought.

But then, there was a small shack. The driver stopped the cab. Inside the shack were several barrels of gas. From one of the barrels he filled his tank. He then explained that an uncle of his worked as a truck driver for Shell. He transported barrels of gas, and every now and then a barrel just happened to fall off his truck…

I breathed a sigh of relief—but I had never been so scared.

There was one other time when I was also very afraid—but that was a very different kind of fear. It was when I had just heard the diagnosis of prostate cancer. What did that mean? What treatment options did I have?

Both times it ended well. I came home in one piece that night after a long drive through the forest. And I was declared “clean” after a successful prostate cancer treatment and the necessary check-ups.

Diffferent kinds of fear
I think it’s safe to say that we all have experiences of fear. There is a long list of phobias that can make life quite uncomfortable. Topping the list of most frequent phobias in the United States are arachnophobia (fear of spiders) and ophidiophobia (fear of snakes). These kinds of anxieties are followed by a fear of heights and a fear of flying. Claustrophobia (panic when being in an enclosed space), agoraphobia (entering open or crowded places) and mysophobia (extreme fear of germs) are also high on the phobia list.

While each of these phobias can be experienced as a major impediment, other sorts of anxiety appear to cut even deeper into the human soul. The cry of anguish of the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch receives a piercing echo in the fear for the future of countless men and women.

Will there perhaps, before too long, be another world war, this time fought with nuclear weapons? Will there be enough food and clean water on our planet for a growing population? And what about our personal future? Many fear for their own physical wellbeing, or fear the loss of their partner, or are afraid their children will make wrong choices. Elderly people fear the moment they can no longer drive, or detect the beginning of Alzheimer’s disease and the onset of dementia.

And, whether we acknowledge it or not: most of us fear death.

Faith and fear
Through the prophetic voice of Isaiah God told his people of old:

Fear not, for I am with you; look not anxiously, for I am your God. I strengthen you, also I help you, also I sustain you with My holy right hand! (Isaiah 41:10).

These words were not only directed to the prophet’s contemporaries but also to God’s people in our day and age.

But are all Christians—and more specifically: all Seventh-day Adventist believers—able to repeat with confidence the words of Psalm 56:12: “In God I trust, fear I know not, what can any man do to me?” Unfortunately, that is not the case.

The faith of many—maybe most—Christians is mixed with fear. And that is not as it should be, for the gospel is not a doomsday message but is “euangelion” or “good news.” It is about love, salvation, deliverance, forgiveness, freedom and peace in Christ, and eternal life. Jesus underlined this with his famous statement: “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:1).

Jesus was not referring to being afraid in the dark, or to the fear of flying. And He did not speak of depressions and the kind of anxieties that may require the help of a therapist. Jesus comforted his disciples, who were afraid that the entire kingdom-story would end in a fiasco. He was speaking of things for which theologian Paul Tillich coined the term ultimate concern.

The judgment
I once had a conversation with a physician who for a number of years had worked as a family practitioner in a small town in the Dutch Bible Belt. At least half of the area where he worked belongs to denominations of a very conservative variety of Calvinism, with the doctrine of double predestination as an essential aspect of their faith. They are convinced that, from all eternity, God has already decided who will go to heaven and who will eternally burn in hell.

The doctor told me he was not a believer, but that he had been very surprised to meet so many patients who were frightened to die. He asked me: “Should people who believe in the message of the Bible not face death without any fear?”

Many Seventh-day Adventists live in fear of the judgment. They do not fear the eternally burning hell fire, since Adventists have, from early on, accepted the doctrine of annihilationism: the second death. But our teachings about judgment have caused many to doubt whether they can ever be sure of their salvation.

The obsession with perfection has jeopardized the spiritual life of too many of us. It has imprisoned believers in a cage of legalism, with the constant fear that there may be sins that have not been forgiven, shortcomings perhaps unwittingly overlooked, and so never confessed.

The heresy of last generation theology has hundreds of thousands of church members worldwide in its nefarious grip, leaving them wondering whether they are worthy to belong to the small remnant that will eventually make it to the kingdom.

The investigative judgment
The investigative judgment teaching in particular has robbed Adventist believers of inner peace.

After the “disappointment” of 1844 the doctrine emerged that, since that date, a pre-Advent judgment has been in sessions, during which “the books” are meticulously inspected. This “investigative judgment” will determine who will participate in the “first resurrection” at the second coming of Christ. Many ask the unnerving question: “What will happen when my name comes up? Will our heavenly Judge give me the green light and declare me as “righteous”?

Periodically this topic is revisited in our Sabbath School quarterlies. It is presented as a key doctrine of Adventism and, to their credit, usually the author reminds readers that with Jesus Christ as our High Priest and Mediator, there is no reason for anxiety.

Yet, in many minds there remains a deep-seated fear that we can never be sure that we are good enough.

The doctrine of the investigative judgment is still very much part of the official beliefs of our church. But, in spite of all frantic efforts from the higher regions of the church to preserve this doctrine, it seems that the I.J. (as it is often abbreviated) is losing support and few pastors nowadays preach on it! The conviction is growing that the biblical basis for this doctrine is extremely slim.

Will this traditional Adventist teaching disappear? History teaches us that denominations are not easily inclined to officially abandon a particular doctrine. But they may simply cease to talk about it—even while it remains in the official documents. This is true of the doctrine of predestination in a number of Reformed denominations in my country, and it may well happen in our church with regard to the I.J.

If it does, it will deliver many from a deep-seated fear.

The end
Perhaps an even greater source of fear is the frightening end-time scenarios, the historicist interpretations of Daniel and the Revelation crafted by our pioneers—particularly in Ellen White’s Great Controversy. The incessant emphasis on such topics as the time of trouble, the seven last plagues, the papal Antichrist, the Sunday-laws, the mark of the beast, the shaking, the close of probation, and Armageddon has for many totally eclipsed the “blessed” hope of the “glorious appearing” of our Lord Jesus Christ (Titus 2:13).

It seems, when I glance through the Facebook postings of conservative Adventists that the complicated schedules, with lines that indicate historical periods, intersected with dates, are as popular today in Adventist circles as they were when the pioneers developed their prophetic charts.

Speaking in the context of the period prior to his return, and the dreadful events that may then be expected, Jesus admonished his disciples: “Do not be frightened” (Luke 21:9). The last-day events will indeed cause widespread fear (and not just among Adventists), but this fear should give way to faith and hope: “When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28). The words of Isaiah sound as if they were written in our twenty-first century:

Do not call conspiracy everything this people calls a conspiracy; do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it (Isaiah 8:12).

There is no doubt that we live in serious times, and that the future of this world is under threat. Believers in Christ can expect major difficulties in the final phase of the history of our planet, before they are redeemed.

But any anxiety about what might come should be absorbed by the assurance of our Lord: “I am with you always, until the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

Trust in God
The apostle Paul gave Timothy a clear signal about how to deal with fear:

The Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline (2 Timothy 1:7).

And remember the powerful testimony of the Psalmist of how we may find the inner strength to overcome fear: “In God I trust and am not afraid. What can man do to me?” (56:11). Faith that is grounded in the good news of the gospel refuses to give in to fear.

The gospel is a message of love. Love always has the last word:

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us, so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment . . . There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear . . . (1 John 4:16, 17).