Should fear play a role in our evangelism?

My mentor, who was an expert on the theology of Jonathan Edwards, once wrote a little chapter in a book called “Justifying a Scare Theology.” Of course, if anybody was the master of scaring people with his theology, it was Jonathan Edwards. Edwards’ sermons on hell would curl your hair. When he gave his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” people actually passed out in the church while they were listening to this terrifying description of God’s judgment.

Let me answer this from a biblical perspective. The warnings that accompanied the preaching of Christ and the Apostles often stirred up fear because they warned about the last judgment and God’s wrath that would definitely be poured out. When Paul says that in our sin we are piling up wrath against the day of wrath (Rom. 2:5), that is not a comforting thought.

In eighteenth-century America, we had the idea that man is very bad and God is very mad. In the nineteenth century, the idea became that man is not so bad and God is not so mad. Now people look down upon hellfire and brimstone preaching.

I preached a couple of weeks ago at Saint Andrew’s on a passage where Jesus gave a warning about the last judgment. It was a terrifying text—one of what we call the “hard sayings” of Jesus. I mentioned in the sermon that, in my whole life, I’ve only had two people tell me that they were motivated to listen to the gospel and come to Christ because they were terrified of going to hell. Right after the service ended, somebody came up to me and said, “I’m number three,” and then five minutes later, another person came up to me and said, “I’m number three.” And I said: “No, you’re number four. I just met number three a couple of minutes ago.”

This is the way Jesus preached. This is the way the Apostles preached. This is the way the great preachers of all time preached. They tried to awaken people to the clear and present danger of the state of their soul if they remained impenitent.

So, my answer to your question is yes, it is justifiable and important to include that element in the full measure of our evangelism. If we don’t warn people of where they’re headed, then we don’t really care for them.

When I was in college and studying the Puritans, I had a professor who said that Jonathan Edwards had to be a sadist because he had this seemingly sadistic enjoyment of warning people about hell. I said to that professor, “It seems to me that if he were sadistic, the sadist would say to people, ‘There is no hell,’ and then giggle on his way home for having fooled them into plunging headfirst into eternal damnation.”

 

This transcript is from an Ask R.C. Live event with R.C. Sproul and has been lightly edited for readability. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, just visit Ask.Ligonier.org or message us on Facebook or Twitter.