I can remember watching the movie Defending Your Life as a kid, which starred Albert Brooks and Meryl Streep. They are shown scenes from their life and those moments dictate whether they go to Heaven or Hell, and I thought that was what Judgment Day was going to be like. I remember thinking I didn’t want to end up going to Hell.
Of course, life isn’t a movie, and I doubt that’s how Judgment Day is going to go. But the fear of eternal condemnation is a strong motivator when you read passages like Romans 3:23, “23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and, 3 chapters later, Paul writes, “23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
It is fear of dying in that sin, and being condemned to Hell that is the initial motivation for being baptized and taking on Christ – especially when compared to the promise of eternal life and Heaven if we obey the gospel message.
And fear is still a big motivator in maintaining that faith after baptism. Paul writes in Philippians 2:12
12 So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling;
But if that fear is so much a part of our thinking, then why can we not change and do better? Why do we continue in sin, even though we fear that judgment? Certainly one answer is that the desires of the physical world overcome those fears to produce action. We strive to overcome these desires every day. Even Paul acknowledged that this was a struggle as he wrote in Romans 7:14-17
14 For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. 15 For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. 16 But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. 17 So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.
We also must acknowledge, though, that there is another motivating factor in the transformation of our behavior besides just fear – love.
God sent His sin because He loves us. And in doing that, He gave us an example to follow. In hanging on that cross for our sins, Jesus set forth a pattern by which we can shape our lives. And the Holy Spirit is constantly trying to show us the correct path to walk.
We are right to picture God as a judge who will sentence us to death for sinning because He is a just God. But we are also right to picture Him as a loving Father who wants His children to come home. Together, both motivate us towards the righteousness necessary to spend eternity with Him in Heaven.