As a theologian, priest, and preacher, I often get asked: “Why isn’t the church preaching more fear of God anymore? Why aren’t we preaching more about the dangers of going to hell? Why aren’t we preaching more about God’s anger and hellfire?”
It’s not hard to answer that. We aren’t preaching a lot about fear because, to do so, unless we are extremely careful in our message, is simply wrong. Admittedly fear can cause people to change their behaviour, but so can intimidation and brainwashing. Just because something is effective doesn’t mean it is right. Fear of God may only be preached within a context of love.
Scripture itself seemingly gives us a mixed message. On the one hand, it tells us that “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” even as it tells us that virtually every time God appears in human history, the first words from God are always: “Don’t be afraid!” That phase, coming from the mouth of God or from the mouth of God’s messenger, appears more than 300 times in Scripture. The first words we will hear every time God appears in our lives are: “Don’t be afraid!” So we must be careful when we preach fear of God. Fear of punishment is not the real message we hear when God enters our lives.
Then how is fear of God the beginning of wisdom? In our relationship with God, just as in our relationships with each other, there are both healthy and unhealthy fears. What’s a healthy fear?
Healthy fear is love’s fear:
When we love someone our love will contain a number of healthy fears, a number of areas within which we will be healthily cautious and reticent. We will fear being disrespectful, fear despoiling the gift, fear being selfish, fear being irreverent. All healthy love contains the fear of not letting the other person be fully free. Reverence, awe, and respect are a form of fear. But that kind of fear is not to be confused with being frightened, intimidated, or dreading some kind of punishment. Metaphorically, love’s fear is the fear that God challenges Moses with before the burning bush: Take off your shoes because the ground you are standing on is holy ground!
How are we to understand fear of God as the beginning of wisdom? We are wise and on the right path when we stand before the mystery of God (and of love) with our shoes off, namely, in reverence, in awe, in respect, in unknowing, without undue pride, humble before an infinity that dwarfs us, and open to let that great mystery shape us for its own eternal purposes. But that is far different, almost the antithesis, of the fear we experience when we are frightened of someone or something that threatens us because the person or thing is perceived as being mercilessly exacting or as being arbitrary and punitive.
There is too a healthy fear of God that’s felt in our fear of violating what’s good, true, and beautiful in this world. Some religions call this a fear before the “law of karma.” Jesus, for his part, invites us to this kind of holy fear when he warns us that the measure we measure out is the measure that will be given back to us. There’s a moral structure inherent in the universe, within life, and within each of us. Everything has a moral contour that needs to be respected. It’s healthy to be afraid of violating any goodness, truth, or beauty.
We need to preach this kind of healthy fear rather than that God needs to be feared because of the punishment God might eventually deal out in some legalistic and exacting fashion. Whenever we preach this kind of fear, of a God who deals out hellfire, we are almost always also preaching a God who isn’t very intelligent, compassionate, understanding, or forgiving. A God who is to be feared for his punitive threats is a God with whom we will never find a warm intimacy. Threat has no place within love, except if it is a holy fear of doing something that will disrespect and despoil. To preach hellfire may be effective as a tactic to help change behaviour, but it is wrong in terms of the Gospel.
Fear is a gift. It is also one of the deepest, life-preserving instincts within you. Without fear, you won’t live very long. But fear is a complex, multi-faced phenomenon. Some fears help you stay alive, while others deform and imprison you. There are things in life that you need to fear. A playground bully or the arbitrary tyrant can kill you, even if they are all wrong. Lots of things can kill you, and they merit fear.
But God is not one of those things. God is neither a playground bully nor an arbitrary tyrant. God is love and a perpetual invitation to intimacy. There is a lot to be feared in this, but nothing of which to be afraid.
Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.