Did the Biblical authors use manipulation tactics to win over converts? If not, why is the church doing so today?
A few days ago I participated in a discussion with an atheist skeptic who claimed this,
“(The Biblical authors were) Manipulating an entire population of ignorant, vacuous, archaic, bigoted savages with promises of eternal life/salvation to those who strictly follow the commands of the church, and eternal suffering for those who don’t.“
I answered by challenging him to provide historical examples of manipulation (particularly cases of fear mongering) throughout the Scriptures. He never replied. But did the authors of the Bible manipulate the “entire population of ignorant, vacuous, archaic, bigoted savages”?
I find this claim strange for multiple reasons. The first reason is that there simply is no missionary text throughout the Gospels or Acts that uses Hell as a threat. None at all. The claim of manipulating an entire population with eternal suffering if they didn’t sign onto the New Covenant is unsupported in regards to the Bible. Hell as an evangelistic tool is the product of modern preaching misinterpreting Jesus’s afterlife references.
Secondly, regarding the multiple mentions of Hell in the NT, it’s important to obtain some historical context, most importantly that of the nature of Hell, which I cover in this post. In summary, Hell is a state of shame and exclusion, not literal fire or torture. With this in mind, the doctrines of Heaven and Hell were taken for granted as a matter of fact in an honor-shame based culture. Seeing Hell as the eventual destination of evildoers was a basic doctrine most everyone knew of. Jesus wasn’t teaching something new, He was reinforcing a commonplace consequence of those who clung to evil. And even still, Jesus never brought up Hell directly at the evildoers themselves. They weren’t the audience.
There was also no appeal to being rewarded if one knew Jesus. When the reward was referenced it was always incidental, never as a means to an end. Jesus Himself is our treasure and reward and this is seen throughout the Scriptures. Any additional reward we may acquire in Heaven is measured by loyalty.
Those who make the claim of manipulation aren’t addressing Christ or His disciples, they are sadly addressing the modern church.
With respects to my skeptic friend above, acts of manipulation and coercion aren’t too far off from what the modern church has repeatedly committed. A few examples I’ve personally experienced have been a hardened coercion to tithe, a misguided allure to earthly pleasures to convert, and a glamorizing of the Biblical text to make it sound inoffensive.
The first common act of manipulation I’ve tackled elsewhere, the second one finds its place mostly among the youth. As a younger person myself I completely understand the attraction to earthly pleasures. Good music, sports, crush pursuing, you know the deal. Honestly, I’d be hard pressed to find fault in any of these (just don’t run after every girl you see), but I do have a problem with the allure of these things to draw in an audience. The question is, are we saying that Christ isn’t enough? That the allure of Jesus is only for the old and mature? I’d wholeheartedly disagree with such a premise. There’s nothing more alluring than a movement of the Spirit out of a complete surrender to His will.
Another common manipulative tactic (even if it’s unintentional) is avoiding or glamorizing parts of the Bible often seen as offensive or even disgusting. A quick example would be Malachi 2:3, which blatantly says,
“Behold, I will corrupt your seed, and spread dung upon your faces, even the dung of your solemn feasts; and one shall take you away with it.“
It’s easy to see why verses such as these are avoided. Of course, it is wise to refrain from more mature passages in a family friendly setting, but I’m afraid verses such as these are avoided altogether. Many Christians have turned away because they realized “the Bible isn’t a nice book.” I would argue here that an argument of outrage is unreliable and that an objective look at the context is needed, but the avoidance of the difficult parts does ask a few troubling questions. Are we manipulating the truth? Are we presenting the Bible as something it’s not? Isn’t the Bible a “love letter from God”? Or are we forcing a modern sentimentality into an ancient text written in a collectivist society?
If only we would realize there is no need for fear, earthly pleasures, or sanitization to spread the Gospel. The Gospel is enough. Christ is enough. If we will seek His face first I guarantee others will too.