Sunday, February 17, 2013

What Does the New Testament Say About Fear?

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I have recently finished reading the New Testament and I am collecting my thoughts about what I read in this series of posts. Today I am writing about what the New Testament says about fear. Other entries in this series:
  1. Slavery
  2. The Apocalypse
  3. Women
  4. Violence
  5. Sexuality
  6. Obedience
I'm guessing we have all heard the phrase "God fearing". I've always found the idea of fearing God curious, because he is supposed to be a God of love. I've heard plenty of times that the fire and brimstone stuff was all from the old testament, but Jesus came in and established a new order based on love instead. Is this the case? Does the new testament abandon the idea of fearing God and instead put forward a kind and gentle God? Simply put, no. Let's take a look at what the bible says about fear.

First, let's take a look at 1 Peter 1:17Colossians 3:22Philippians 2:12-13, and Revelation 14:7. All four of these verses very specifically say that you should fear the God. Again, I find this a confusing message unless I think from the perspective of "might makes right". If you are of the mindset that might makes right, then you will fear whoever has the most power and therefore following them will be the most logical thing to do. If you don't fear someone, they must not be very powerful, and therefore there is no reason to do what they say. With this metric, there is a direct relationship between how afraid you are of someone, how much you should follow them. With this in mind, saying that you fear God is the same as saying that follow God. This is also the only perspective from which I can make sense of Revelation 2:10 which says you should not fear Satan or the pain he is about to cause you. Why the hell would I not want to fear such a thing? Because with this mindset, fearing Satan leads to following Satan.

What about dealing with other people? What do we do with other people who don't follow God? Jude 23 suggests that we "show mercy with fear". I think what this means is we are supposed to teach them to fear God, and once they do that they will of course follow him, might makes right after all. Furthermore, in 1 Timothy 5:20, Paul is instructing Timothy how to be a church leader, and tells him that if people keep sinning he should rebuke them in public. That way everyone who witnesses it will stand in fear. Again, fear is seen to be a tool used to get people to follow. Those two verses seem to pretty clearly point to using fear as a teaching tool, but 2 Timothy 2:25 seems to go the other way. It says that you should correct your opponents with gentleness and God will lead them to the truth. This sounds great to me, but it does seem to be in opposition to the other verses here.

As I have outlined here, the new testament spends plenty of time telling us we should be afraid, but what does it do as far as giving us reasons why we should be afraid? One specific example is Acts 12:23, God is showing off his power and kills someone for not giving him glory. But this is just one example among many, just look back at the last week's worth of posts that I have done for more. The example I just gave is one place where someone was punished for not obeying God, is this threat implicit in any other time we are told to obey? Why is God so violent, isn't the whole point of that to encourage us to follow him so we aren't on the wrong side of God's wrath? And why is there so much talk about when the end will come? It's all about getting people to convert while they still can. When you think about it, the entirety of Revelation is all about getting new converts through fear. Follow God or these things could happen to you, make sure you are among the people who get the seal from God or you will be devastated by God.

There is one more verse I want to explore here, 1 John 4:18 which says the following
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.
This I find absolutely hilarious and honestly have no idea how to square it with the rest of what I have written here. I think I have laid out a pretty good case that the God described in the New Testament is absolutely a God of fear. If there is no fear in love, then how can the God described here be a God of love? Why would a God of love want you to fear him?

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  1. I was taught in first grade not to fear God...and my Father taught me, "You have nothing to fear but fear itself."...That was after I killed a huge chicken snake my mother couldn't confront, but I really didn't want it stealing her eggs. Never know where life's lessons are going to come from.

    1. It sounds like your dad was awesome!

    2. Daddy was awesome...and so was the only saintly nun I ever knew who soothed my fears of what I was being taught by teaching me never to fear God....two fantastic teachers.

  2. Great point about the "might makes right" model. It's not an "I choose to obey because I love," but rather an "I choose to obey because otherwise I will be severely punished." It is truly the proverbial gun-to-the-head situation.

    I think there is a lot of truth in 1 John 4:18, and so I've often brought up this fear/love point in debates. Their best reply is normally to turn to the parent example, something like:

    When you were a kid, you loved your dad, but you were also afraid of getting punished by him.

    But that falls short. You don't "actively" fear your dad's wrath unless you had done something wrong, or were thinking of doing something wrong, and that fear is, as 1 John 4:18 says, because of the potential punishment. But, as forgiven Christians, there's no potential punishment, so there should be nothing to fear. But fearing God is a consistent message in the bible. Here's an except from a post I did to that effect:

    "The fear of God is a fairly consistent view throughout the Bible. There are at least 130 Old Testament (OT) and 19 New Testament (NT) references to the fear of God (searching fear+God and fear+lord-God). In fact, in Genesis 31:42 and Genesis 31:53, the word “Fear” is used in place of the word for God.

    Compare this to the 29 OT and 39 NT commands to love God (searching love+God and love+lord-God). That is a fear-to-love ratio of 2.19 overall, 4.48 for the OT and 0.49 for the NT. It is clear that God promotes fear over love, and that the NT is a departure from the original message."

    1. The gun to the head analogy is great too.

      Comparing fearing God to fearing your father is definitely an interesting way to defend this point. You are right that you don't fear your dad unless you have done something wrong. What would it say if you were always afraid of your father, even when you didn't do anything wrong? My best guess for that situation is that your father is abusive, probably a drunk too.


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