Fear of God: Hell

'I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: fear him who, after your body has been killed [lit after he has killed], has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.' (Luk 12:4–5)

In 1985 David Pawson, a Bible teacher from the UK, asked God if there was anything missing from the church in the UK, and God said, 'Yes, the fear of me.' So I think it would be good for us to do a biblical study on the fear of God.

Hellfire preaching

The church seems to have moved away from the hellfire preaching of previous centuries as if it's no longer right to speak about such things. This has happened despite the fact that Jesus taught that when he returns to judge the world, those who are unworthy of eternal life will be thrown into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Mat 25:31–46).

Pro 16:11 tells us that honest scales and balances belong to the Lord. That is true spiritually as well as physically. If we only teach about God's love and never teach about his wrath, his anger and the fear of him, our teaching will be unbalanced.

I have in front of me a copy of one of the most popular evangelical tracts used in this country, and what is its theme? God loves you (Joh 3:16).

Nothing is said about his wrath, anger against sinners, hell or eternal punishment—all of which are biblical doctrines; it only speaks about his love. It does say that if a person continues to go their own way it will lead to spiritual death, but that is as far as it goes.

Reality of hell

In our opening text Jesus told his disciples not to be afraid of people, who could only kill their bodies but could do no more. They were to be afraid of God, who had authority (Greek the right of one who rules over another) not only to bring their earthly lives to an end, but also to throw them into hell. 'Yes, I tell you,' said Jesus, 'fear him.'

The Greek word translated 'afraid' and 'fear' in that passage is phobeomai. It comes from the Greek word phobos from which we get the English word 'phobia'. It means to become fearful, afraid, terrified. But why should anyone be terrified of God? Because he has the right to terminate their lives and throw them into hell, that is why.

People often joke about hell, but hell is real. Hell is the place of eternal torment Jesus spoke about and warned about (Mat 5:29–30;18:8–9; Mar 9:43–8). Hell is so bad that God sent his Son to die a horrific death to save us from it.

Pro 16:6 says:

Through love and faithfulness sin is atoned for; through the fear of the Lord evil is avoided.

Through the love and faithfulness of our Lord Jesus Christ sin has been atoned for. Because we fear God, who has authority to throw us into hell, we avoid doing evil.

Punishment on earth

That we should avoid doing evil because of fear is also taught in the New Testament. Rom 13:1 tells us that the governing authorities on earth have been established by God and we should submit ourselves to them.

There are good governments and bad governments, but the principle of government has been given by God to keep law and order. Without government there is anarchy, crime abounds and the innocent suffer. That is not God's will.

Governments are God's servants, agents of wrath, to bring punishment on wrongdoers (Rom 13:4). If we commit a crime and are caught and punished, God is punishing us through his servant, the governing authority, for doing what is wrong. So if we want to be free from fear of governing authorities we should obey the laws of the land in which we live (Rom 13:3).

Perfect love drives out fear

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: in this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. (1Jo 4:16b–8)

This passage of scripture puzzled me for many years. Jesus told his disciples to fear God who had authority to throw them into hell, and yet 1Jo 4:18 tells us that those who fear God have not been made perfect in love. The answer to this apparent contradiction is found in the definition of love the Bible gives a few verses further on:

…this is love for God: to keep his commands. (1Jo 5:3a)

If we love God, we will keep his commands and have no fear of him on the day of judgement, because he only punishes those who do wrong. Therefore 1Jo 4:18 could be paraphrased as follows:

There is no fear in keeping God's commands. Keeping God's commands drives out fear, because fear of God comes from the fear of punishment. The one who fears God is not keeping his commands.

Rom 13:3 says that if we want to be free from fear of governing authorities we must do what is right. Similarly, if we want to be free from the fear of God we must do what is right.

Redressing the balance

In 1985 God told David Pawson that what was lacking in the church (in the UK at least) was the fear of him. Perhaps we've emphasized the love of God too much in recent years and now need to teach the fear of God to redress the balance.

Both the love of God and the fear of God are biblical doctrines. The church needs to teach the whole of the Word of God (Act 20:26–7) and not just its favourite truths, or the doctrines it thinks people will find attractive.

Michael Graham
January 2005
Revised January 2021

Scripture quotations taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Anglicised edition). Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica (formerly International Bible Society). Used by permission of Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, an Hachette UK company. All rights reserved.

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