Is Christianity Fuelled by Guilt?

The Mail & Guardian newspaper has a “Religion issue” over Easter where various columnists share their religious or agnostic approach.  This year Deputy Editor, Verashni Pillay, wrote “What’s a nice Christian girl to do?” about her choice not to date non-Christians.  It was a light-hearted article, but it did get the anti-religion crowd quite excited and there were various comments left on the site.

Lola wrote:

…I now understand that Christianity is founded on the tenet that we are all guilty. This injected an extremely unhealthy sense of shame and guilt into my life. This meant that I would stay awake miserably asking for forgiveness for things like lusting over guys in my teenage years. This has scarred me beyond belief and though I now have no connection whatsoever to Christianity, the intrinsic sense of guilt that fuels and justifies Christianity still haunts me and I am dealing with it every day….
My main problem is that it is a religion based on the fact that we are intrinsically bad and guilty, that we have deep shame that, by accepting a ‘father’ and ‘saviour’, we can purge. That just sounds extremely dismal and very very wrong.

And of course it is very wrong.  Christianity is not “based on the fact that we are intrinsically bad and guilty” and “that we have a deep shame and guilt”.  There is no “intrinsic sense of guilt that fuels and justifies Christianity”.

Or is there?  The problem is that “Guilt fuels Christianity” is the message that is out there about our faith.  It’s the message that we hear preached most loudly.  The fear of hell drives extreme anti-abortionists to violence and murder in the name of Christ.  The desire to punish sin in the name of Christ drives the extreme anti-gays to violence and hatred also. But this is religious bigotry and intolerance; let’s not pretend it is faith. 

Jesus didn’t send his disciples out to preach guilt, or shame, or hell.

He sent them out to preach Good News (Gospel), and to heal the sick.  He sent them to preach that the Kingdom of Heaven is near, not to tell people that hell is near.  He didn’t deny the reality of separation from God, of consequences of sin, of God’s anger against those who do evil.  But the evil that he (and the prophets) spoke about most was not the sins on which we focus so much, nor was it failure to obey religious ritual or to follow the rules, but exactly the opposite.  What enraged Jesus (and the prophets) most was the use of religious beliefs and practices to exclude people; making religious ritual the only way to God.  If you don’t do this, if you don’t believe that, you’re going to hell.

Whatever its cause, the world is in a mess.  You can blame religion, science or anything else, but the world’s in a mess.  And in spite of what the different sides in the arguments like to shout at each other, neither science, nor religion, nor humanism, nor anything else on this earth is guilt-free. 

One man responded to Verashni:

“I tell you, young lady, the world is in the state it’s in precisely because of what you believe.”

I’ve got news for him: we’re all in this together; we all share the blame.

Christianity doesn’t create the guilt and shame.  Nor does guilt and shame bring us closer to God; it separates us from him, just as it separates us from each other!  Peter’s guilt and shame after denying Jesus didn’t draw him back into faith, it cut him off; it separated him from God.  Jesus reached out to break the barrier that sin had created.

Albert Einstein is quoted as saying that our moral behaviour should be based on things like sympathy, education, and social ties.  We shouldn’t need religion. We are very poor indeed if the only reason why we do good is because we’re afraid of punishment and hopeful of reward after death.

And he’s right.  If fear of punishment is the only reason for our faith, how poor is our faith.  Let’s look at traffic control, for example.  The fear of being caught is what keeps most of us to the speed limit and obeying the rules (in South Africa at least).  The only time we reduce our speed to the speed limit is when we are approaching a speed camera or a traffic officer.  Slogans that appeal to our intellect or morality, don’t usually work.  The only thing that will reduce the death-rate on our roads is more active policing that actually ends in more fines and (ultimately) the real risk of licence suspension.  Fear of getting caught, in other words, keeps us honest; not, I’m afraid, an intrinsic desire to do the right thing.  But that fear doesn’t create in us a love for traffic officers and a respect for the law.  It keeps us in fear.

The same is true of our faith.  Guilt, and the fear of punishment, might keep us honest for a bit or keep us doing the right thing in parts of our lives, and some people do come to Christ out of fear of hell and death.  But such fear won’t sustain faith; it won’t grow our relationship with God, which is what Christianity is about.  The truth is that we all come to Christ for a variety of reasons—some better than others.  But few of them will sustain the relationship. 

You might, for example, have fallen in love with your spouse’s beautiful eyes, but you need more than that for the marriage to work.  The same is true of our relationship with God.  Whatever our reason for originally turning to Christ, it needs to grow and develop into love and delight at the one who loves us and freely welcomes us into his family.

Christianity is based on the fact of a loving caring God.  A God who, against all human logic, enters into a relationship with us and creates family out of us.  But how do we get this across to a cynical and angry world?  How do we convince those who only know Christianity as a guilt trip, as no more than God rescuing us from hell?

One of the problems, when you read most of the negative comments on Verashni’s piece, is that people out there don’t know the difference between religion (especially religion practiced in the most bigoted, racist, and negative way) and faith, this relationship with God.

For example, Grant Ledger responded,

“Religion is all about the control of humans over other humans. It is evil and should be resisted by all rational, critical thinking people….  People who feel they have a right to mouth off to disinterested parties concerning their imaginary friends need to be ridiculed and mocked for their irrationality. Religion is evil.”

Compare that with what Peter had to say on the day of Pentecost:

“Listen to these words, fellow Israelites! Jesus of Nazareth was a man whose divine authority was clearly proven to you by all the miracles and wonders which God performed through him. You yourselves know this, for it happened here among you.” 

Peter wasn’t talking about his “imaginary friend”.  He was talking about someone his hearers knew, and events they had seen.  So how do we talk about our faith?

Well, Peter had a story to tell, and he told it on the day of Pentecost.  He said, “God has raised this very Jesus from death, and we are all witnesses to this fact.” (Acts 2:32)

The woman at the well had a story to tell.  And she told the entire village: “Come and see the man who told me everything I have ever done. Could he be the Messiah?” (John 4:29)

Each of us, in different ways, has a story to tell.

Our faith might be strong and bold, like Peter on the day of Pentecost; it might be weak and guilt-ridden like the woman at the well.  We may be full of doubts like Thomas was, or have loads of questions like Nicodemus.  But, in spite of all those doubts and questions, all that guilt, Jesus has touched our lives.  And, in the middle of our doubts or our certainties, our questions and our guilt, we each have a story tell.

When we engage with those who tell us that religion is evil, that it’s just a guilt trip, it’s all a myth, which rational people should ignore, we won’t win any arguments; all we have is our story.

We don’t have to understand all about God; we don’t have to have answers to the pseudo-scientific questions people will throw at us; we don’t have to know the Bible better that they do.  In fact having all these things is sometimes a disadvantage because we think we’re supposed to use them somehow, like ammunition in our ‘encounters with the enemy’.

Henri Nouwen wrote:

“Each human being is unique and original, and nobody has lived what we have lived.  Furthermore, what we have lived, we have lived not just for ourselves but for others as well….  We have to trust that our stories deserve to be told.  We may discover that the better we tell our stories the better we will live them.”

“April 29”, Bread for the Journey, (1997)

What do you think?

(Adapted from a sermon preached at Prestbury Methodist Church, 1 May 2011)


Filed under Community, The News

8 responses to “Is Christianity Fuelled by Guilt?

  1. My view is that there are, in essence, two varieties of Christianity. One is a simple one, based on the teachings of the holy man and prophet, Jesus. These teachings include the words of the man, and his role-modeling…e.g., as found in the Beatitudes. Another is an approach–mostly based on the teachings of St. Paul (St. Augustine and St. Aquinas, to some extent, as well)–which departed somewhat from the former–which particularly stresses the supposed evil, “fallen” nature of man, and how the only way to address this is by means of faith (and perhaps with “works” playing some part too), is strongly patriarchal in character (and denigrating of females), and is very judgmental about anything having to do with human sexuality. It also recommends little question of one’s station in life–even slavery or an abusive marriage relationship, is strongly supportive of the status quo—including government initiated wars and imposed taxation, and is chock full of shame and blame. I consider that the second variety is dramatically problematic (probably toxic), and may arguably be considered a kind of con-job or “racket.” To me, spirituality is profoundly important, but I do not necessarily “buy” the “bearded dude in the sky” and jealous, often violent version of God, nor the ranting and raving of many “fundamentalist” or Roman Catholic preachers and theologians. PEACE!! ; )


    • Thanks for your comments.
      It is not a new argument, but it is fatally flawed. It allows us to pick and choose the bits we like or ‘approve of’ and leave out the rest. We end up doing just what we accuse Paul and the others of doing – ‘a kind of con-job’ you called it, that suits our own perspective. So Jesus becomes either a ‘role model’, a take-him-or-leave him kind of teacher – that ‘bearded dude’ from Palestine – OR the so-called Pauline version. Either kind or brutal, loving or condemning, a great teacher or a demanding despot.

      Like it or not, the New Testament (and the old for that matter) was not written by one person presenting a single view of God and Jesus and the universe. The Church – a gathering of imperfect sinful followers of Jesus much wiser than I – agreed on the canon of scripture which included Paul AND Matthew, James AND John.
      And together they paint a picture of a Jesus whose life and message present us with one who is far more than a homely role model, far more than a ‘bearded dude in the sky’, far more than any of our limited and crude understandings of him.

      I choose to follow wherever he might lead.


  2. kay

    This is a good read. I have just renewed my faith with god and I have been bombarded with “rules and regulations”. It lead me to always feel guilty and scared of everything. Leading me to think Jesus was a high bad wolf condemning everyone! Not so. The Christ I know knows that this will only draw you away from him. Christians need to really watch what they say. Christianity is not a religion its accepting god and knowing that you believe in him fully. For get abt different religions if its messing you up and just love god. He knows your heart. He doesn’t punish you for silly things like thinking bad thoughtswe are all human!!!!


  3. This is good stuff that needs to be out there. Christianity is not an empty faith that depends on ritualistic adherence to a set of customs and beliefs – it is essentially the Gace of God given freely to all who believe in the Supreme sacrifice of the Son so that we can have life abundant, here on earth as well as in heaven.


    • Thanks dear Flor, Nice to have you wondering around. Too true; it’s a living relationship. Blessings, Ian


      • Hi Ian, I try to keep up with fellow bloggers and friends out there as much as I can, given my busy, busy life. Still, God is good and knowing Him has been the best thing. God bless and keep writing – I enjoy your fresh point of view!


  4. Pingback: Just Imagine… | Οικογενειακή Γαλήνη & Θαλπωρή

  5. Pingback: Inadequacy, guilt and religious solutions « Cite Simon

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