This article is part of the Questions and Answers series.
Q: Is fear a good thing or a bad thing?
A: Many times Scripture clearly views fear as a bad thing from which Christ has come to rescue us. The apostle John writes: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.”
On the one hand, we are told that Christ frees us from fear; on the other, we are told we ought to fear—and fear God, no less. It can leave us discouraged and wishing that “the fear of God” were not so prominent an idea in Scripture. We have quite enough fears without adding more, thank you very much. And fearing God just feels so negative, it doesn’t seem to square with the God of love and grace we meet in the gospel. Why would any God worth loving want to be feared?
I want you to rejoice in this strange paradox that the gospel both frees us from fear and gives us fear. It frees us from our crippling fears, giving us instead a most delightful, happy, and wonderful fear. And I want to clear up that often off-putting phrase “the fear of God,” to show through the Bible that for Christians it really does not mean being afraid of God.
Q: Why is the culture of fear so strong today?
A: With society having lost God as the proper object of healthy fear, our culture is necessarily becoming ever more neurotic, ever more anxious about the unknown—indeed, ever more anxious about anything and everything. Without a kind and fatherly God’s providential care, we are left utterly uncertain about the shifting sands of both morality and reality. In ousting God from our culture, other concerns—from personal health to the health of the planet—have assumed a divine ultimacy in our minds. Good things have become cruel and pitiless idols. And thus we feel helplessly fragile. No longer anchored, society fills with free-floating anxieties.
Q: Can fear be sinful?
A: This sinful fear of God is the sort of fear James tells us the demons have when they believe and shudder (James 2:19). It is the fear Moses wanted to remove from the Israelites at Sinai. It is the fear Adam had when he first sinned and hid from God (Gen. 3:10). Adam was the first one to feel this fear, and his reaction in that moment shows us its essential nature: sinful fear drives you away from God. This is the fear of the unbeliever who hates God, who remains a rebel at heart, who fears being exposed as a sinner and so runs from God.
This is the fear of God that it is at odds with love for God. It is the fear that is, instead, rooted in the very heart of sin. Dreading, opposing, and retreating from God, this fear generates the doubt that rationalizes unbelief.
Q: Is fear of God a dour or melancholy idea?
A: The right fear of God is not the minor-key, gloomy flip side to proper joy in God. There is no tension between this fear and joy. Rather, this trembling “fear of God” is a way of speaking about the sheer intensity of the saints’ happiness in God. In other words, the biblical theme of the fear of God helps us to see the sort of joy that is most fitting for believers. Our desire for God and delight in him are not intended to be lukewarm. As our love for God is a trembling and wonder-filled love, so our joy in God is, at its purest, a trembling and wonder-filled—yes, fearful—joy. For the object of our joy is so overwhelmingly and fearfully wonderful. We are made to rejoice and tremble before God, to love and enjoy him with an intensity that is fitting for him.
Q: Will there be fear in hell?
A: Hell—the destiny of all unbelievers—will be a dreadful place. Death is “the king of terrors” (Job 18:14), and hell will be the place of eternal death. It will be the ultimate sump of all sinful fears, heaving with a shared dread of holiness. There, like the demons who believe and shudder (James 2:19), its occupants will hate God and the exposing light of his glory. Before him there, “Every heart will melt, and all hands will be feeble; every spirit will faint, and all knees will be weak as water” (Ezek. 21:7). Just as the kings of the earth will call to the mountains and rocks “hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne” (Rev. 6:16), so in hell they will long to hide. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31), and all in hell will have done so, but without ever turning to him. They will be like the terrified sinners in Zion described by Isaiah:
Trembling has seized the godless:
“Who among us can dwell with the consuming fire?
Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings?” (Isa. 33:14)
Sin first made the world a place full of fear, and hell is its culmination: a place of unrelieved fears, and of sinful fear come to a head.
Q: Will there be fear in heaven?
A: In 1738, Jonathan Edwards preached a series of sermons on 1 Corinthians 13, a series he concluded with the observation, “Heaven is a world of love.”1 He could as well have said that heaven is a world of fear, for the love he described there is a fearfully ecstatic joy and wonder. Saints there, he said, will be “like a flame of fire with love.”2Where hell is the dreadful sewer of all sinful fears, heaven is the paradise of unconfined, maximal, delighted filialfear.
Right now, heaven is the home of this happy fear. “The pillars of heaven tremble” (Job 26:11). Why? For it is the dwelling place of “the Fear,” a God greatly to be feared in the council of the holy ones, and awesome above all who are around him. (Ps. 89:7)
There the “holy ones” delight to fear him, for they see him clearly. They tremble before him as the Creator:
You rule the raging of the sea;
when its waves rise, you still them.
You crushed Rahab like a carcass;
you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm.
The heavens are yours; the earth also is yours;
the world and all that is in it, you have founded them. (Ps. 89:9–11)
- Jonathan Edwards, “Charity and Its Fruits,” in Ethical Writings, ed. Paul Ramsay, vol. 8 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), 366–97.
- Edwards, “Charity and Its Fruits,” 379.
This article is adapted from Rejoice and Tremble: The Surprising Good News of the Fear of the Lord by Michael Reeves.