Ezechiel 34:11-16 / Matthew 25:31-46
And these shall go into everlasting punishment: but the just into life everlasting.
There can be unhealthy and pathological reasons to avoid behavior which is nonetheless to be avoided. While a child, I was subjected to the bus safety film And Then It Happened, and I recall vividly my rather high level anxieties on the ride home at the end of the school day, as well as having more than a little difficulty falling asleep that night. The premise of the movie is fair enough. It tells the stories of two exemplary bus drivers, both of whose buses fall victim to accidents, in one of which the bus driver herself loses her life. The notion is that a series of misbehaving by various children on the bus, each of which seeming to the child to be of little consequence, nonetheless produce a dangerous, even deadly synergy, producing accidents, injury, and death.
Now, bus safety is a worthy goal, as is promoting responsible behavior while riding the bus. Even so, is the best means of producing such behavior the encouragement of anxiety and fear? Likewise, might not many children have had the reverse reaction and considered the presented consequences as too dramatic to be believable? Moreover, what can be said of this (in)famous bus safety film might well be said of other well-meaning, but unfortunate attempts to promote right action through fear, whether the subject is drug use, fornication, or poor dental hygiene.
For many who have no faith, as well as for many Christians today, the threat of eternal damnation seems precisely to belong in this sort. Depart from Me, you cursed, into everlasting fire, which was prepared for the devil and his angels, strikes the modern ear as at best exaggerated, at worst a grotesque parody and inversion of a loving God, who would surely direct our behavior by promoting the good, not by kindling fear of pain and disaster. Such a fear, the servile fear that does what it does out of fear of punishment, not for love of the good, these critics regard as unworthy. That these words come from our Lord Jesus Christ himself seem to do nothing to dull this criticism.
However, we do not that some things are dangerous, some this disastrous, ruinous of our good and our happiness. While we ought best to move from servile fear, we do so not by ceasing to fear altogether, but by embracing filial fear. Filial fear moves us to desire to do everything we can to behave in a way worthy of, and thus pleasing to, the one we love. It acts not to curry favor with a false face, nor become untrue to itself out of a pathological desire to please, but seeks to avoid whatever would grieve the one we love.
Even so, that filial fear is both healthy and holy, the fear which God reminds us is the beginning of wisdom, does not exclude the reality of the ruinous consequences of a life poorly lived. To fail to see the needs of those around us, to be unmoved by the plight of the hungry and thirsty, the stranger and the naked, the sick and the prisoner, and to fail to see what such lack of love has to do with relating rightly to God, is already to have made oneself a horror. It is to become a mockery of God whose image, without being altogether lost, is all the worse for being borne by a hardened heart. That God consigns such as these to the fiery pits of Hell is only right, only just. That God warns us of the doom waiting for those who persist this way is not fear-mongering; it calls us back to truths that even the most loving son or daughter ought never to forget.
Loosen, we beseech Thee, O Lord, the bonds of our sins; and mercifully turn away from us whatsoever we deserve for them.