Updated: Apr 30, 2021
“He’s a God-fearing man,” you've heard.
Israel will “learn to fear the LORD”, Moses said (Deut. 17:19).
When I was unchurched, I thought Christians thought this meant we should be afraid of God, as in terrified of him, because He’s scary and could crush me – and that He even kind of wants to!
No wonder I didn’t want to know Him. The explanations I eventually heard in churches weren’t any better: that it is in fact about terror, but perhaps also respect or submission.
Some argued for the terror view because the Greek word for "fear" (φόβος, fob´-os) in the Bible is where the word phobia comes from, which is actually a common fallacy called the root fallacy (see D.A. Carson's, Exegetical Fallacies).
Have you ever experienced or witnessed a phobia in action?
Phobias cripple their victims with a paralyzing dread of specific threats.
Are we really supposed to be Jesus-phobic?
This confirmed my first hunch. God does want us to see him sort of like a threat or predator, just one that loves us.
I wrestled with this idea for a while.
Others said we should fear God because He has the power to throw us in hell. In other words, he's not just a threat or predator.
He's the greatest predator. After all, isn’t this what Jesus said in Luke 12:5?
I was also a great admirer of Johnathan Edwards, and nearly obsessed with his famous sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God", which is still required in certain English courses, even in secular schools.
The sermon's focus is how we should be utterly horrified of God as if he was an infinite nightmare.
It was so moving that, according to written accounts, the people were wailing and screaming, even lifting their feet off the floors, out of fear of hell.
It's included in so many secular readings, not just as a sample of historical, American literature, but as an example of beautiful and potent literature.
Many pastors in Protestantism are similarly influenced in this line of thought, and they're spreading these thoughts to all their parishioners.
Though some deny this harsher view of "fear".
Others say it has more to do with awe, respect, or submission. Often these are also couched in the feeling of dread. I accepted this as the truth because it was so popular (and I didn't know of other views).
But it seemed like it didn't fit because it:
Was counterintuitive to my and other's experience of walking with the Lord
Contradictory to many passages in the Bible
Contradictory to the usage of "fear" in the Bible
Thankfully, there is another solution.
When you’re putting a puzzle together and have too many pieces that look alike, what do you do?
You have to set them apart then try them out. One by one.
That’s what this question is like: we have lots of evidence with various theories, so we need to try each theory to see which fits best into the context. One by one.
We have to investigate the language, culture, history, and influences of first-century Judaism while considering the possibilities of what "fear" means:
Or something else
Which one fits the context best?
An Ancient Figure of Speech
There are a few sides to this puzzle piece that we can tease out.
Here's the first side.
"Fear" in the Bible can certainly convey emotional anxiety, even of God.
There are plenty of passages that record people's horror of God, such as his mighty works to rescue his people from Egypt.
But this isn’t always the case.
Wives are instructed in 1 Peter 3:2 to fear their husbands (though sometimes this is softened in translations with respect). Then four verses later he tells them to, “not fear anything” (vs. 6).
How can they "fear" their husbands while simultaneously"not fear anything"?
The laws of logic programmed into our minds should ring alarms over this; particularly, because of the law of contradiction (that something cannot be true and not true simultaneously).
"Fear" either has multiple meanings, or Peter is contradicting himself and telling wives to live in terror of their spouses while they pursue a fearless existence.
Or, maybe, "fear" is a complex word used in many different ways that don't all refer to terror (or the other popular theories).
Here's another example.
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear,” John wrote after saying “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8, 18).
If we’re consumed by the love of God, which “casts out fear”, how can God tell us to fear Him?
Think about it.
That’s like a cop taking our license away, telling us to drive home, then giving us a ticket for driving without a license.
We must be missing something.
Turns out, "fear" does mean many different things in the Bible because it was used in numerous ways, some of which are respect and submission, but not all of them.
One of those ways was an ancient figure of speech.
When God rescued the Israelites, they “saw the great power that Yahweh used against the Egyptians, so they feared Yahweh and trusted in Him” (Ex. 14:30).
It's not outside the realm of possibilities to see how the catastraphic power of YHWH's intervention could simultaneously win the Israelite's trust, but also shake them up.
Certainly this was the reaction to the surrounding nations who heard of this story, who "melt away before" God and his people (Josh. 2:9).
It's also possible that "fear" here is being used in the style of Hebrew parallelism (which is notoriously prolific in the Bible), making it practically synonymous with its partner in the sentence, "trusted".
Similarly, after being rescued by God, the Psalmist said that “many will see and fear, and put their trust in Yahweh” (40:3).
I can see how deliverance can produce trust, but how can it produce fear?
If someone rescued you from drowning to save your life, would that invoke adoration and trust in you, or anxiety?
Probably adoration. If it instead made you afraid of the person, wouldn't you look more than a little paranoid?
This is also Hebrew parallelism, which is when similar ideas are paired up for emphasis.
Here's another exmaple.
The Psalmist said, “Yahweh helps them and delivers them; He delivers them from the wicked and saves them” (37:40).
Is he saying that YHWH, in addition to helping them, also delivers them? And that in addition to helping and delivering them, he also saves them?
These are all communicating one thought.
He helps them by delivering them, which is perfectly, synonymous with saving them (as any Hebrew lexacon will show).
In the same way, fearing God and trusting God overlap in usage in the two examples above.
If "fear" can denote trust, it makes some of the pieces fit snugly in place.
It makes sense that we should “serve Yahweh with fear, and rejoice with trembling” (Ps. 2:11) if we can fully trust Him, but less so if we’re horrified of him.
It makes sense that "fear" would deter jealousy (Prov. 23:17), but only if "fear" means we can trust God to provide for us because jealousy of others comes from fear of missing out on something we don't have (but they do), which is always a symptom of not trusting God to provide for us.
But if "fear" means dread, or even respect, or submission, it doesn’t fit as well.
It doesn't make sense to serve God with terror and happiness, or to get rid of jealousy of others with anxiety of God, just as it doesn't make sense to say that respect or submission to God produces happiness or neutralizes jealousy.
It can be forced into place with exegetical manipulation, but that's just like trying to smash a cardboard puzzle piece in a spot it only fits into on two or three sides, instead of all four.
It needs to match every side.
How Kindness Produces Fear
Here's another side of this puzzle piece.
God told Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, and when his knife was about to pierce Isaac’s chest, God's angel stopped him and said, “Now I know that you fear God” (Gen. 22:12).
Was this because he was afraid God would do something bad to him, like stab him to death, if he didn't do the same to his son?
That sounds more like a moody mobster from some movie than the God of Abraham.
Common sense suggests that it makes more sense to think of this as trust, rather than terror. That's also what the context points to. Consider some of its details:
Abraham's love for his beloved son was pitted against a commandment of God
God prevented Abraham from hurting his son because it wasn't what God was after
God reveals that it was designed to test something about Abraham
God provided a ram to offer instead, to make the point clearer
Abraham named the place, "Yahweh will provide"
God promised Abraham a son, whom he would miraculously have in his old age. He also said that this son would be the seed by which all the future nations of the world would come from and be blessed by.
It was an extravagant promise, but God swore that he would do it.
But Abraham had to wait nearly two decades for him.
Then when he finally has the promised son, he is understandably thrilled. Just exuberant. That is, until God says, "I'm not telling you why, but go sacrifice your son on that hill".
Abraham must have thought two things:
Either this God is a devil in disguise who's just out to tease and torment me, in which case there is no fulfillment to wait for.
Or, this God really does want to bring about a new world through Isaac, in which case the child he promised me will still somehow be the seed by which God brings about and blesses the nations.
The story indicates that he landed closer to the second thought, so he must have reasoned that Isaac would somehow be okay.
This is, in fact, what the Hebrew readers concluded about this episode. Jewish commentaries on this passage say that Abraham must have believed that God would raise Isaac from the dead if he did kill him.
This very interpretation is repeated in the book of Hebrews as well.
Speaking about Isaac, the author says what Abraham thought about Isaac: "He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead" (Heb. 11:19).
God wanted to test his trust in him to take care of him. He
Paul also summarizes the account of Abraham with him believing in God, "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness" (Rom. 4:3).
It's further helpful to know that the Greek word behind "believed", which is usually thought of in purely cognitive terms of believing the validity of truth claims, can just as well mean trust and allegiance, even loyalty.
Therefore, Abraham’s allegiance to trust and follow God was tested against the promised child he had waited so long for, and treasured so much.
But he passed.
And it is this which is called "fearing God".
This concept of loyalty is only evident when someone trusts God so much that they follow His instructions, no matter what: “fear Yahweh your God…by keeping all His statutes and His commandments” (Deut. 6:2).
If we trust God to take care of all our needs, we will then be free to do whatever he wants.
That’s how God’s love can produce fear, if "fear" means trust and loyalty.
We’re faithful to Him because He was first faithful to us.
This isn’t just submission or respect. You can submit to someone you don’t trust if they have a gun to your head. This entails following God because His ways are best for our happiness.
Here's another example that only makes sense if "fear" can also mean trust or allegiance.
When the Israelites were about to inherit the promised land, God said the abundance of gifts were given to them so “that you may learn to fear Yahweh” (Deut. 14:23).
Did He bless them to scare them?
Or to make them respect Him?
Or to make them submit to Him?
Or to lead them to trust and love Him so they would want to submit to him?
Which piece fits best?
What About Submission?
It's true that submission to a superior can be implied by "fear".
Animals fear humans because we have dominion over them (Gen. 1:26). So the Corinthians received the church leader Titus “with fear and trembling” (2 Cor. 7:15).
But when it comes to fearing God, it’s not simply submission because He’s bigger than us; it’s volunteered service out of love because He’s better for us.
Nor is it simply awe, respect, or submission. We can be in awe and respect of a hurricane without trusting it, just as we can submit to a superior without being devoted to them.
These pieces don’t fit all the evidence.
But here's how the piece argued for here does. God shows His powerful kindness by Jesus’ sacrifice, which leads us to trust Him to take care of us. This is the fear of God.
By rescuing us, He demonstrates His invincible devotion to us, so we are seduced to devote all we are to Him. This is the fear of God.
So long as we see that He is more powerful and kind than anyone, we won’t be tempted to betray our allegiance for another. All this is the fear of God.
It's radically different from simply being afraid.
What About Jesus’ Threat of Hell?
“I warn you whom you should fear: fear the One who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell” (Lk. 12:5).
Sounds pretty straightforward, until you read the next verse.
“Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten by God. Even all the hairs of your head are numbered. Fear not; you’re more valuable than many sparrows” (vs. 6-7).
What does God’s compassion have to do with hell?
Unless He’s contradicting Himself, He’s using "fear" as trust, in which case the threat of hell is actually a promise of vindication against one’s persecutors: “Anyone who messes with you has to deal with Me. So don’t fear”.
This flows smoothly into the next verse where He argues for God’s devotion to our safety.
Protection, not threats, invoke trust and loyalty in the Bible, which is the above meaning of fear.
If this is the case, He’s making a pun off of the dual meaning of "fear" (which was common in the Bible), saying “You don’t need to fear people, in the sense of being afraid of them, if you fear God, in the sense of trusting Him.”
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be afraid of what God can do if we oppose Him – we certainly should be.
It means that the expression, "fear of God", isn’t about that.
It’s more complex and beautiful than that.
It’s about reciprocating fidelity.
And instead of contradicting God's love, it compliments it quite well.
So we don’t need to pretend that God is a monster wanting to hurt us, or a kidnapper with a gun in our face. We don’t need to cower from the God who cherishes us.
We don’t need to tremble from the God we trust. We can run towards Him without restraint or hesitation because He wants us to feel safe with Him.