Apologetic Tip #25: Beware of Fear Baiting

“But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend; you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, “You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off”; 10 fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your GodI will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” (Isa. 41:8-10; ESV)

As an apologist, I often deal in the language of fear. My apologetics articles, lectures, and debates will, if I’m not careful, dwell entirely inside within the combative and fearsome rhetoric of “threats,” “attacks,” “war,” “assaults,” “battles,” “death,” and “danger,” etc. But, I’ve come to appreciate that apologetics is not entirely captured within the imagery of combat or even competition. Apologetics can also be seen in the imagery of a garden, a building-foundation, and economic investments (see, Isa. 61:11; Matt. 7:24-27; 25:14-30).

Spiritual warfare imagery and the competition imagery, however, are both very biblical, see Ephesians 6:10-17 and 1 Corinthians 9:24, and there’s nothing wrong with using them to illustrate apologetics. This imagery can help us understand how our Christian walk is not a lazy stroll through the park but a treacherous journey across dangerous territory. The language of fear is appropriate sometimes, but it also raises an important warning against fear-baiting.

Fear makes people pliable. When people get scared, they tend to feed off of each other’s fear, things get irrational, alarmism breaks out. People get combative and quarrelsome. That’s when feuds break out, church splits happen, mob mentality breaks out, and riots can occur. We apologists aren’t usually dealing with mobs like that, but we still may be exploiting that same primitive fight-or-flight response in people when we manipulate their emotions to the neglect of their intellect. We might be stirring them up to a frothing rage against some evil, or compelling them to run in fear to their nearest bunker. When we use that psychological tactic, however, we are aren’t being ethical.

Fear-baiting is unethical because it treats people like mere animals. When we are fear-baiting we are tricking their primitive psychology to get the desired response out of them. In other words, we are objectifying and manipulating them like tools for our purposes instead of dignifying them as people. This particular kind of manipulation works by emotionalism, exploiting their fight-or-flight response so they either flee to the nearest bunker or race to the closest battlefront. And of course, we are often ready to point them to whichever bunker or battlefront we choose. When people feel like their world and their way-of-life is in imminent danger, their felt experience presses them into gullibility, so they’ll believe what we say without fact-checking us. They’ll comply with our suggestions if we act like expert authorities on the matter.

Fair-baiting can derail courageous invitation by shutting down the person’s intellect and exaggerating their emotional response. When a fear-based emotionalism takes over, people’s neurochemistry shifts from the thoughtful and judicial functions of the frontal cortex to the terse work of “survival instinct” operating in medulla and the autonomic nervous system. Under the influence of blinding fear, people tend to make bad decisions, as they are too rushed, anxious, and foolhardy to wait for wisdom to settle in.

Compared to fear-baiting and emotionalism, people would make better decisions and could make better distinctions between truth and error, if they had a good balance of emotion and reason. Ideally, our passions and rationality would help keep each other in check. We can have a practiced and godly emotional life to reel us back in when we wander into intellectual doubt. That way, when intellectual questions are bothering us, we can feel, experience, and revel in the truths we know, so we don’t let an occasional doubt steer our whole ship aground. We can also have sound and sensible intellectual evidence pull us back from the cliff when our emotions are about to steer us off a cliff.

We apologists can still be honest about fearful issues, but we don’t have to reduce our strategy to manipulation. We can be pro-information without being alarmist. We can give invitations for people to agree with the Gospel, believe in Christ, and think things through for themselves. We don’t have to exploit people’s fear response just because there are genuine threats in the world. Instead, we should muster up the courage of Christ, because he has conquered death. And we too can stare down a whirlwind of dangers, trusting in him as we quietly remind ourselves and others, that his foundation will stand no matter what. There’s no place for fear-baiting when we have courageous invitations to offer instead.

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