Those of us who are Fox News fans and were aware of the capture of Steve Centanni and Olaf Wiig who work as journalists for Fox were relieved to find out that both men were released by their terrorist captors in the Gaza Strip and are now alive and well and perhaps on their way back to the United States. While their ordeal was certainly scary and traumatic, it was revealed that as some point during their ordeal they were “converted to Islam at gunpoint” and this is something that is relevant to our Christian faith as well.
When I was reading the story of Steve and Olaf’s release, and Steve was commenting on the supposed conversion, I was struck by a comment he made: “We were forced to convert to Islam at gunpoint… Don’t get me wrong here. I have the highest respect for Islam, and I learned a lot of good things about it, but it was something we felt we had to do because they had the guns, and we didn’t know what the hell was going on.” Evidently the conversion to Islam did not take, and maybe I am speculating, but I believe the guns perhaps had something to do with it.
What is to be noted about this entire event is the irony missed by Christians in what happened. Any one of us would think regarding a gunpoint conversion, “that is just a stupid thing to do” yet many of us practice and live this kind of conversion every day. Whenever Christianity will emphasize Hell as a motivator for conversion, it is in fact practicing gunpoint conversion. Actually, it is even worse than a conversion at gunpoint, because the danger of death is much more imminent than that of a distant hell-bound future. The very doctrine of Hell therefore, while attempting to be a real incentive for non-believers and believers alike, miserably fails to be the motivator intended to be, mostly because the incentive is not immediate and pressing, therefore causing Christianity to become powerless in the face of new social, cultural and moral challenges; the “you will go to hell” message always fails since it appears primarily to be a perpetually futuristic promise that nobody really gets to experience (unlike a gun pointed to one’s head).
The problem appears to be the same problem that Scot McKnight recently pointed out, in that that fundamentalism is again beginning to grip Christianity in a new way, perhaps as a reaction to the growth and success of postmodern Christianity. What we see as progress and growth, neo-fundamentalists mechanically see as dangerous and antithetical. This is the very nature of all movements that lack grace and love, and without failing, as Scot McKnight rightly pointed out, they always attract “angry, defensive, and mean-spirited individuals.” Such a majority manifestation in the Church will lead to Christianity losing touch with culture and science and leading to the creation of “Christians who are not free in the Spirit but who will be rigid and intolerant.”
What inspired me primarily to write this was my five year old daughter Jade’s recent behavior. She has told me before that she loved me, but today, without being prompted, she crawled up in my arms as I was sitting on the couch, she put her little hands on my cheeks, looked in my eyes and said, “Daddy, I love you.” This was not in response to me telling her the same, but it came from her willing heart and that was what made my heart jump. This is a prime example of why Jesus put the child-like prerequisite on the entrance into the Kingdom of God. The ultimate innocence, love and clear heart; loving like the child that does not ask questions, make demands or asks the question “I love you, but it depends what love mean?”
So then, if such hears are demanded from us, why then do we continue to put our paradigms of Hell to the heads of our neighbors and demand conversion, or else? Why are we then surprised to see that many conversions are empty and meaningless? Are we not in fact letting eternal torment defining our faith, our relationships with friends and family? Has it not become the overriding factor in motivating us to do what is right?
I cannot think of one single instance in which Jesus claimed that being theologically accurate is more important than loving others; in fact, it we are going to be true to the first-century context of Christ’s message, we would be hard pressed to show that Jesus was every concerned with eternal torment. Not once has he used the point of eternal damnation as a motivating factor in one’s conversion. In fact, we see Jesus building relationships with those despised most by the fundamentalists of his days: homosexuals, prostitutes, women, tax cheats, thieves and politicians. This is the very nature of his Kingdom, a system of honest and genuine relationships energized by willing hearts rather than eschatological fears. Going back to the Song of Solomon would best illustrate the story of the Kingdom, in which a loving King pursued those in his Kingdom out of love, not our of vengeance and hate. Tim King bring this idea out best when he says: “God’s Story is the story of a King who came as a humble servant in search of a willing heart. It’s the story of a Lover who went to war with all the forces of darkness in order to rescue his fair maiden and bring her home. God’s Story is the Story of a Romance. A Romance to be embraced.”
 Steve Centanni, From a live Fox News interview
 Matthew 18:3
 Tim King, Furious Pursuit: Why God will Never let you go, p. 26.