Are we supposed to fear God? (part 1)

Photo by graur razvan ionut. Courtesy of
Photo by graur razvan ionut. Courtesy of

There was a day in which it would have been easier to answer “Yes” — as when preachers routinely harvested frightened souls with threats of eternal damnation.

One thinks, for example, of Jonathan Edwards’ classic sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, in which the wicked and unrepentant are likened to loathsome little spiders dangling by a mere thread over the pit of hell. “[God’s] wrath toward [them] burns like fire,” Edwards insists, and it is only by divine restraint that they wake up in their beds instead of brimstone.

Today, we hear much less about divine wrath, as if it were out of fashion or even socially inappropriate to talk too much or too insistently about sin and its consequences. We hear much more about the wonders of God’s love and grace, a far more palatable message. Sometimes, however, the message almost portrays God as our cosmic therapist: our personal well-being is top priority, and God has just what we need to live happier and more fulfilling lives.

So, back to the question: are we supposed to fear God?

The biblical answer is yes.

But for Christians, it is a fear tempered by amazement and gratitude for the grace we have already received.

As we’ve seen in recent posts, Paul tells the Corinthians that one day we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ, to be “paid back for the things that were done while in the body, whether they were good or bad” (2 Cor 5:10, CEB).

If we’re honest with ourselves, that should be a daunting prospect, for we have our dirty little secrets. But we’re probably more afraid of being found out by our fellow humans, despite these words of Jesus: “Don’t be afraid of those who kill the body but can’t kill the soul. Instead, be afraid of the one who can destroy both body and soul in hell” (Matt 10:28, CEB).

This, from the one who died on the cross to rescue us from that very fate.

Paul goes on to say, “So we try to persuade people, since we know what it means to fear the Lord” (vs. 11a), specifically linking fear to judgment. Even the apostle of grace realizes the seriousness of standing before the judgment seat. This should give us pause. How can someone who makes so much of the unmerited grace of God still speak of fear?

As we will see in an upcoming post, fear is neither the only nor the most important motivation of Paul’s work: love is. But before that, we must consider the role that fear might play in the Christian life. That will be the subject of Sunday’s post.