By Kim Michaels
Was Jesus a hellfire and brimstone preacher?
It is the Christian religion that has given rise to the concept of a “hellfire and brimstone preacher.” It is thus relevant to ask whether Jesus himself was such a preacher? For some the obvious answer will be a ”No,” but let us take a closer look.
Again, it is easy to see the contrast between Jesus and those who represented the established religion of his time. If Jesus had been like them, there would have been no conflict between them. The very fact that the established religion saw Jesus – among many other preachers of alternative forms of spirituality – as one who had to be silenced with all means demonstrates that Jesus was seen as a threat. Why was Jesus a threat to a well-established religion that even had the military backing of the Roman empire? Might it be because the established religion was based on fear, whereas Jesus preached a message based on love?
Fear is an emotion, a mental condition, meaning that it is something that takes place inside the psyche of individual human beings. As modern psychology has demonstrated, fear is closely linked to control. The greater the fear, the greater the need to control one’s environment, including other people, in order to alleviate the fear. And those who are driven to control others out of fear will often use fear in their attempts to control others.
A brief look at history will demonstrate a basic dynamic, namely a power struggle between the general population and a small elite seeking to control the population in order to secure and maintain special privileges for themselves. The members of the elite are afraid of loosing their power over the people, and although they often have physical power, they know it is not enough. As various revolutions have shown, once the people refuse to comply, the elite will always lose. Thus, members of a power elite also seek to control the population through fear. The historian Arnold Toynbe talked about a creative minority seeking to free the population from the control of a dominant minority.
The basic dynamic is that the dominant minority can have great military power, but they are so vastly outnumbered that they cannot control the population through force alone. Thus, they must seek to suppress the population’s desire for freedom, and the most effective way to do this is through fear that makes the people feel powerless. An honest look at history will demonstrate that one of the most effective ways to induce fear into a population is indeed religion. History has several examples of a dictatorial state apparatus working in close cooperation with a religious apparatus, thus attaining the elusive goal of being able to control people’s outer actions through force while at the same time controlling their minds through fear. Unfortunately, Christianity became one of these examples, as we will discuss in more detail later.
In Jesus’ society, the dominant minority was made up of the Jewish religion and its hierarchy, which was in close cooperation with the Jewish king who was in alliance with Rome. As a result, the population was divided into the “haves” and the “have-nots” with no middle class, and the majority of the people clearly felt suppressed and powerless. This leaves a simple conclusion. Either Jesus was part of the dominant minority or he was part of a creative minority seeking to set the population free from the power elite. It is rather difficult to see Jesus as part of the dominant minority or as loyal to its control of the people. Rather it is much easier to see Jesus as a kind of spiritual revolutionary who aimed to set the people free from the control of the dominant minority. This is, of course, underscored by the fact that the dominant minority had Jesus killed because they saw him as a threat to their power over the people. Yet how could the teachings of Jesus seem like a threat to an elite that was backed by the Roman empire’s inexhaustible military power? How could a sandal-clad, unarmed man walking around in Galilee possibly seem threatening to those in power? Might it be that Jesus attacked the very foundation of their power over the people?
What must a fear-based religion do in order to control the minds of the people? It must define a problem so severe that it induces fear, giving people the urgency to seek for a solution. It must then present itself as the exclusive way for people to solve the problem and alleviate their fears. In terms of the Jewish religion, it had done the following:
- It had defined God as a remote being in the sky, a judgmental being who was constantly evaluating people based on their actions, judging them as being in accord with his commandments or being sins.
- Those who acted according to the commandments would be rewarded by a future life in heaven, whereas those who sinned would be punished by a future existence in hell.
- The key to entering heaven was to have the sins – that all human beings had committed – absolved.
- The absolution of sin was the exclusive privilege of the priests of the Jewish religion, who had a monopoly on performing animal sacrifices in the temple.
For those who accepted this belief system as giving an accurate rendition of reality, it was clear that the key to one’s future existence was to be on the good graces of the priesthood of the outer religion. And depending on the individuals’ propensity toward fear, the priests could indeed have total control over a person. If you believe that whether you go into God’s kingdom or end up in a fiery hell depends on the external religion and its priests, then that institution has almost absolute power over you. And this seems to have been the beliefs of most people at Jesus’ time. The conclusion is clear. The Jewish religion of the time was a fear-based religion in which the religious leaders had considerable control over the minds of the people through fear.
Enter Jesus. Did he preach a fear-based message and directly compete with the established religion? If so, he would have had only one option, namely to preach a true hellfire and brimstone message and seek to make the people more afraid of him than they were of the religious establishment. Clearly, this was not Jesus’ approach. In fact, he seems to have done the exact opposite. He seems to have directly challenged the establishment’s claim to exclusivity by preaching a love-based message and by disobeying some of the basic pillars of the established belief system.
Jesus’ message of love
It can be somewhat difficult for a person who has grown up in a modern Christian religion to see Jesus’ message as a love-based message. The reason is, of course, that after Jesus’ time, the Christian religion was indeed turned into a fear-based religion. It is an undeniable historical fact that the Catholic Church of the middle ages was indeed an institution that sought to control people’s minds through fear. It was also closely aligned with the kings and noble class of the feudal society, likely extending the life of that elitist system for centuries. And, of course, this fear-based element is still clearly visible in some contemporary Christian churches with their hellfire and brimstone preachers. Thus, it may take a mental retooling, a new perspective, to see how truly love-based Jesus teachings are. This can be accomplished by looking beyond one’s own situation and trying to imagine how Jesus must have seemed to the people of his time, people who had clearly grown up in a fear-based belief system.
One of the pillars of a fear-based religion is that it presents God as a remote being who is beyond the reach of most people. The people of Jesus’ time clearly believed that their God could not be reached by them individually, which is why they needed the external religion and its priests to mediate between themselves and God. So how did these people look at the following statement from Jesus:
20And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation:
21Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you. (Luke, Chapter 17)
In these short statements Jesus is attacking two of the pillars of a fear-based religion. The people of his time obviously believed that the key to entering the kingdom was to faithfully observe the tenets, the rituals and the rules of the external religion. If you did so, you were pretty much guaranteed to enter the kingdom, which they obviously saw as a location far away from themselves. Yet Jesus is clearly saying that observing an external religion is not enough to get you to the kingdom. And in the second part Jesus is basically saying that we will never find the kingdom of God as long as we are looking for it outside ourselves. This was revolutionary stuff to the people of Jesus’ time.
As modern Christians we now have two basic options. We can either reason that Jesus was wrong and didn’t know the first thing about how to enter the kingdom of God. Or we can use our intuitive faculties to seek a deeper understanding of what is hidden behind these outer words. What was Jesus really trying to tell us here?
Remember, that the basic claim of a fear-based religion is that you cannot enter the kingdom of God by your own, inherent powers. You are somehow fundamentally deficient, and thus you can enter the kingdom only through the external religion. It is only through this belief in your own powerlessness that fear of an external authority comes into the picture. If you believe that you have the powers within yourself to secure your entry into the kingdom, why would you fear other people or an earthly institution? You might still fear that you would not qualify to enter the kingdom, but you would not fear that external forces could keep you out of it.
Now let us look at another basic pillar of a fear-based belief system, namely the idea that God is a judgmental God. Imagine how people who firmly believed in the Old Testament God would have reacted to the following statement by Jesus:
For the Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment unto the Son. (John 5:22)
It seems Jesus is directly challenging the Old Testament image of the angry and judgmental God in the sky, the God who visited plagues upon Pharaoh, who told the Israelites to massacre the men, women and children of their conquered enemies and who threatened to smite people with this or that if they did not obey him. In fact, the angry God of the Old Testament could very well be seen as a being who is seeking to control people through fear. Or perhaps this God is the invention of an institution who is seeking to control people through fear. Yet can one love such a God?
Some modern psychologists say that there are only two basic emotions, namely love and fear and that we cannot truly love something if we also fear it. It is clear that the established religion of Jesus’ time wanted people to fear God, as that fear would naturally be transferred to the institution that had placed itself as the only mediator between the people and their angry God. Yet it is equally clear that Jesus did not want people to fear God. If he did why would he have made the following statement:
35Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying,
36Master, which is the great commandment in the law?
37Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
38This is the first and great commandment. (Matthew, Chapter 22)
Can you really love the Old Testament God with all your heart, soul and mind? Yet Jesus clearly do want his followers to love God this way, and thus Jesus’ God cannot be the remote, angry being in the sky. Also, if Jesus had preached a fear-based message, why wouldn’t he have said, “Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind?”
Jesus also seems to have wanted people to understand that God’s love for us is not a conditional love but an unconditional one. Otherwise, why would Jesus make the following statement:
Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. (Luke 12: 32)
Imagine how revolutionary this statement must have seemed to a person brought up with the Old Testament image of the angry and judgmental God in the sky. What is Jesus actually saying here? Is he not saying that receiving God’s kingdom is not a matter of observing the external, fear-based religion, a religion whose main means for reconciliation with God was animal sacrifices? Instead, of all these external observances, Jesus seems to be saying that God truly wants to give us his kingdom, which means that the only condition we need to fulfill is that we must be able and willing to receive it. Yet this is not an external but an internal condition.
Again, imagine how this must have seemed to the leaders of the established religion of Jesus’ time. If the people had started believing what Jesus was saying, their fear of the external religion would have evaporated as the morning dew under a rising sun. Is it any wonder they started seeing Jesus as a direct threat to their power over the people, a power clearly based on fear?
Jesus’ wanted people to think
What is one of the main effects of a fear-based religion? It is precisely that it causes people to stop thinking about spiritual matters. Why so? Because a fear-based religion sets up a culture in which people are scared into following the interpretations, doctrines and dogmas presented by the leaders of the established religion. This is clearly seen in the scriptures, of how the scribes and Pharisees continually sought to trap Jesus into going against their interpretations so that they could accuse him of various offenses, especially the capital offense of blasphemy.
We human beings tend to have more questions about life than any doctrine can answer. In a fear-based religion, such questions are discouraged or even actively suppressed. The general attitude is that the official doctrines tell you everything you need to know about God, life and salvation. If you have questions that the doctrines cannot answer, then there is something wrong with those questions. If you will not be satisfied with doctrine, then there is something wrong with you. Yet if all people had accepted this approach, Jesus could never have attracted any followers, as they would have stayed within the fold defined by the dominant religion. They would have been afraid to think about what Jesus said.
How do they leaders of a fear-based religion arrive at their interpretations and doctrines? Obviously, they can do this only by using the intellect and by resolving matters based on fear. Those who seek to control others through fear must themselves be trapped in fear—otherwise why the need for control? The leaders of a fear-based belief system clearly do not want people to think, because that might cause them to see the inconsistencies or contradictions in official doctrines. Yet was Jesus such a leader?
Again, if he had been, why would he have been such a threat to the established religion. But we can find many clues in Jesus’ words and actions that clearly show that Jesus wanted people to think. Yet beyond thinking, Jesus also wanted people to use their intuitive faculties. We have already mentioned that Jesus denounced the lawyers for having caused the people to lose the Key of Knowledge. And through modern psychology it has become clear that fear is one of the primary psychological factors that causes people to either shut off or doubt their intuitive faculties. Fear causes people to cling to what is known, and the intellect is far more predictable than intuition.
Yet it is clear that Jesus wanted people to go beyond intellectual interpretations and use their intuitive faculties—he wanted people to think outside the box. As an example, take the following parable:
31Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field:
32Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof. (Matthew, Chapter 13)
Obviously, this parable is hard to understand even for modern people, but think about how it must have sounded to people in an ancient agricultural culture. The mustard plant is a weed that often grows wild in grain fields. It is big and bushy and can quickly crowd out valuable crops, and when there were no pesticides to control it, it was clearly seen as a threat. Why would Jesus compare the kingdom of God to a despised weed? Is it not plausible that Jesus wanted people to think outside the box? The real message here is not that the kingdom looks like a plant, but that the kingdom is so far outside of the orthodox, fear-based mental box that people cannot see the kingdom or cannot see it as something of value. Thus, until people are willing to look outside their mental box, they will never discover the real kingdom.
And then take the following quote:
7Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you:
8For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. (Matthew, Chapter 7)
It is clear that Jesus wants us to seek, and what could this mean? Does he perhaps want us to seek for something beyond the mental box created by a fear-based belief system that is dominated by an elite who seeks to use fear to control the population? And is it not clear, based on what we have discussed, that Jesus want us to seek with more than the intellect, namely our intuition? Is it not also clear that Jesus believes that when we do seek in this way, we will indeed find answers? How could Jesus be so sure? Was it because Jesus believed in his own promise?
Jesus’ promise of the Comforter
How could Jesus be so sure that if we are willing to look beyond a fear-based mental box and seek truth with our intuitive faculties, we will indeed receive an answer? He seems to have based this on a mechanism that he himself created, a mechanism that would be able to give us answers to any questions we have. Consider the following quotes:
16And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever;
17Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you. (John, Chapter 14)
But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you. (John 14:26)
But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me: (John 15:26)
Is it not rather peculiar that the Christian institution has largely ignored the Comforter, even though Jesus clearly considered it extremely important? Why would an institution that claims to represent Christ ignore or downplay a mechanism created by Christ? Could it be because that institution has become the exact same kind of fear-based religion as the one that had Jesus killed?
Look at the Catholic Church of the dark ages. Jesus clearly created the mechanism of the Comforter in order to give us a way to understand his teachings. That is why he said, “he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.” Yet can you see a person go before the Spanish inquisitors and say that the Comforter had told him something that contradicted Catholic doctrine? The person would have ended up burning at the stake.
The stark historical reality is that for centuries the official Christian institution was a fear-based religion that sought to control what people thought about Christ through doctrines that were enforced by the threat of death. People were not allowed to think, and they were not allowed to seek any understanding of Jesus’ message outside the official doctrines. Can you see that this can be based only on a desire to control people’s minds? Doctrines are predictable because they are defined by an earthly institution. The Comforter is unpredictable because it cannot be controlled by an earthly institution.
We will later take a closer look at what exactly the Comforter might be, but for now the point to be made is that Jesus would never have talked about a Comforter if he had wanted to create a fear-based religion. He would have given us clearly defined doctrines instead of something that might give us unpredictable answers.
Did Jesus want to start a religion like the one that had him killed?
It is obvious that it was the leaders of a fear-based religion who had Jesus killed. This is obvious because only fear causes people to feel so threatened that they think they have to kill someone. Given that Jesus so often challenged the leaders of the established religion, it seems obvious that he must have known that it was not a true form of religion. It is therefore obvious that Jesus did not intend to start another fear-based religion. Which means he must have intended to start an entirely different kind of spiritual movement.
It is historical fact that for a large part of its existence, the Christian religion has been a fear-based religion. Given that this clearly cannot be in alignment with Jesus’ intent, we who are Co-Creative Christians are determined to develop an approach to spirituality that is not based on fear but based on a deeper understanding of Jesus’ message and intentions.
We are also determined to understand why Christianity became a fear-based religion and how we can help bring it back in alignment with Jesus’ intentions. We are not thereby seeking to condemn those who may prefer or have a need for a fear-based religion. We are simply seeking to make it clear that there is an alternative.
As Co-Creative Christians we recognize a basic dynamic of life. The basis for progress – the very reason why we are not still living like cave dwellers – is that we ask questions and expand our understanding of life. If a society stops asking questions, that society will stop its progress. And history clearly demonstrated that this will led to the downfall of that society, as was clearly seen in the Dark Ages and with other civilizations.
We hold that religion or spirituality to be a force for good, which means it must encourage people to ask questions and seek to help them find answers. This is clearly what Jesus intended when he told us to seek and when he gave us the Comforter. Thus, it is not in accordance with Jesus’ intent that Christianity became a tool for hindering progress by suppressing knowledge and stopping people from asking the kind of questions that lead to progress.
What kind of questions lead to progress? Questions that go beyond what is already known and thus cause people to think “outside the box.” As Co-Creative Christians we are determined to leave behind Christianity’s legacy of hindering progress. We believe that Jesus’ inner teachings are so profound and timeless that they can survive any kind of questioning. We believe that it is only by asking any and all questions that we will be able to rise above Christianity’s fear-based past and turn Christianity into the kind of love-based religion that will have relevance to people in the modern world.
Thus, we are committed to considering any and all questions with an open mind. We will not ignore the difficult questions, we will not brush aside questions by thinking “It’s a mystery” or that we are not supposed to know certain things about God or Jesus. We live in the modern age, the information age, and it has taught us that knowledge is not dangerous and that progress cannot be stopped We believe in the saying that “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” and thus we are committed to attaining greater knowledge. With all our getting, we are willing to get understanding.
We are supposed to know and we can know—by using our intuitive faculties, the Key of Knowledge and Jesus’ own Comforter. Yet it all begins with our willingness to ask questions—even if other Christians will not ask those questions. What is that to us—we will follow Jesus into the kingdom of knowledge.
Copyright © 2010 Kim Michaels