Hell, H1N1 and the rhetoric of fear

Bethany Keeley-Jonker

I had a good discussion with my students a few weeks ago after we read Jonathan Edwards’ classic sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  If you haven’t read the sermon in a while, you might remember the feeling of simultaneous boredom and terror from being assigned the reading in high school or college, or perhaps you remember the stand-out image, of God dangling us like a spider over a fire.  Many of my students thought that the fire and brimstone approach was probably not the best approach to evangelism, and wished Edwards would have spent more time explaining God’s love and how to avoid hell.

This got me thinking about different strategies for presenting the gospel to others.  Is one strategy better than another for helping others to understand the story of God’s love for us, and our great need for God?  Then I remembered the work that some of my colleagues do in health communication, trying to understand how people respond to various persuasive strategies. There’s a lot of research on how to get people to understand, believe and act on health information that will make them healthier. In some sense, information about spiritual health has a lot in common with information about physical health, though we cannot gather scientific evidence about God the same way we can about H1N1. In both cases, the goal is to deliver information to people that we hope they will act on.

One strategy examined by Health Comm research is “fear appeals.” Jonathan Edwards' sermon shares this strategy with a “this is your brain on drugs” kind of health ad. Research on the effectiveness of these kinds of appeals varies. It seems that some degree of fear is effective in getting an audience’s attention and motivating change, but too much causes an audience to feel threatened and avoid the source of fear, through denial or discrediting the source. I can see how this applies to delivery of the gospel. If somebody is shouting at me about damnation I will likely ignore them and assume they are crazy even if their words might be true.

Research suggests that people are more likely to change as a result of fear appeals if they are delivered with an efficacy message: one that tells you what to do and assures you that you can actually do something. Fear appeals also seem more effective for high-information audiences, those who already know about the threat and how to respond. This might explain why Jonathan Edwards’ sermon was so effective in his time. It was preached in a church to those raised with Christianity; that might also explain why it seemed so risky to my modern students.  Finally, direct experience and testimony seem to have more weight than the experience of strangers.  This suggests that personal testimonies from friends will have more impact than an impersonal tract or video.

Are fear appeals a good approach to evangelism, then? My students thought that many would be put off by it, and I tend to share their discomfort with it as a strategy. I also think that the people who are most likely to understand and take to heart the gospel message long-term might be those who already have an intrinsic understanding of the wages of sin in their lives. They don’t need to be told the problem, only the solution. Invoking a strong emotion like fear seems manipulative and makes me suspicious, but others might argue that using legitimate emotions toward a goal as lofty as salvation is justified.  Even though in some cases fear can be effective, it shouldn’t be the only tool or even the favorite one in our rhetorical tool boxes for sharing our faith.