Bertrand Russell, in an essay entitled “Why I am not a Christian’’ states that one of his reasons for rejecting Christianity is that religion is, after all, based on fear. “Religion,” he says, “is based primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown, and partly . . . the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing – fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death.”
Religion, in Mr. Russell's view, feeds on man's weakness. It is man’s attempt to wrap a kind of protective covering around himself, to enable him to live in this world which is so inhospitable and keep a sense of well-being perhaps even to enable him to keep his sanity. Religion is a detour – because man takes the path of religion he is slow to face his real problems and solve them with good English common sense. It is a kind of womb, we might say, which man refuses to leave – because he is afraid.
But now, when I take this statement of Mr. Russell’s and compare it with the statement of St. Paul's, I am led to wonder if they are really talking about the same thing at all. St. Paul says, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21) I must confess that this statement is one which has always made me a little uneasy. And I think what makes me uneasy about it is its utter candor and fearlessness. How can he say it? How can he say that Christ is after all the entire meaning of life for him, and that death is no real worry?
The answer lies of course in the fact that something had happened in Paul's life which made the whole question of fear suddenly irrelevant. Paul had been claimed by Christ. It was not, he tells us, that he hadn’t been religious. He had been overly so! It was not that he was looking around for someone or something to hang on to. It was not that he was looking for something to calm his fears even. It is simply the fact that one fine day he had been claimed by Christ, and that had made all the difference. He did not choose it – he was not shopping for a religion – as though it were a matter of looking over the alternatives and then picking the one he could be most comfortable with. But Christ chose him, and that was the end of the matter.
Fear is transcended and peace and joy are restored to us. This is what God has done for us in Christ.
And when he tries to describe what it was like, he says that it was like dying – and all the fears which he had “in the flesh,” as he put it, died too, and in Christ he was reborn, created anew, and placed in the world to follow Christ, come what may. Therefore he can say that to live is Christ and to die is gain.
And he goes on in this passage, writing from prison where the possibility of death was near, to talk about his own living or dying with utter candor. “Which I shall choose,” he says, “I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with – Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I shall remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus because of my coming to you again” (Phil. 1:22-25). For Paul, the problem of fear, at least the kind of fear that Mr. Russell is talking about, seems rather irrelevant.
So I wonder if we can’t say that it may well be true that religion is based on fear – I don't know whether this is so or not. That is a question we can leave for the anthropologists and psychologists to argue about. But this has little or nothing to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Granted we all have our fears: fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. And there is enough truth in what Mr. Russell says to give us cause to stop and think. But God in Christ calls us to a different kind of life – he calls us out of fear to a life which is beyond even the questions of life in which the entire issue is forgotten.
Christ did not come to hold us in a state of perpetual fear so that we will feel the need of him only to the degree to which we are afraid. He came to set us free from all that – to set us free even from the burden of religion. He came so that we could walk in joy and peace, and enter into life in all its fullness. The angel who announced his birth said, “Fear not, for behold I bring you glad tidings of great joy, for unto you is born this day a savior” – not a new doctor of religion, but a Savior. Fear is transcended and peace and joy are restored to us. This is what God has done for us in Christ. It is a great gift, and to him belong all honor and praise and glory.
This is a chapel sermon Gerhard Forde preached on September 27, 1962.