Now this question is very well addressed to us as well; especially those of us who live in this modern age, so often marked by things like presumption. Further, with the rise of militant atheism, there is even a contemptuous dismissal of the fact that we will ever answer to God or anyone for anything we do.
Even among believers, there are many who have all but set aside any notion that we will ever face a judgment of any significance. The error of “Universalism” is dismissive of the notion that judgment will result in anything but Heaven for the vast majority, especially me.
Yes, even those who faithfully attend Mass every Sunday, have often to come to this non-biblical notion and pay little regard to the day of their judgment. For this, the preachers of the Church are largely to blame. And when blogs like this, where we regularly discuss these issues, discuss them, many write to me saying they’ve never heard this from their pulpits. A few others, react with a kind of anger or dismissiveness.
Thus the question, the rebuke of the “Good Thief” Have you no fear of God? is an important and poignant one for us today. Somewhere we have lost balance and erected a kind of “no fear” zone which is ultimately unbiblical and unsound.
Now granted, fear is not usually perceived of as a good thing, at least at an emotional level. It is not something to which we usually say, “Isn’t that nice.”
But fear, especially understood as respect and reverence, is an important and noble virtue. And, as we shall discuss, even servile fear, understood here is kind of fear of punishment, serves as an important foundation for the higher and more noble “Holy Fear” that is rooted more in reverence, respect and love for God.
And thus, while fear can be complex, it is important to get it right and restore proper balance, for Scripture speaks of it often at many different levels, and Jesus makes great use of it in his counsel to us.
In considering fear, let’s begin at the top with the “Holy fear” of the Lord. Holy Fear is distinct from servile fear in that servile fear has to do with punishment, where is Holy Fear is rooted in love.
Among the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit is Holy Fear. The Holy Fear the Lord is to hold God in awe, to be amazed at his glory, and his wisdom, his beauty and truth. And this awe, this Holy Fear draws us into a deep love for God which seeks union with him, so as to share in His awesome glory and majesty and to delight with wonder in it. And thus, we fear to offend him in any way, or to act in any way that might harm our union with him. And we do this, not so much out of fear of punishment, but simply because we love him so much, hold him in such reverence, awe and respect. Yes, this is a very great gift from God the Holy Spirit, the gift of Holy Fear!
Of this Holy Fear Scripture says,
- 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. (1 John 4:16-18)
- For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” (Rom 8:15).
But honestly, most of us cannot, and do not begin with this sort of fear. For this Holy Fear presupposes the kind of deep love, awe, and wonder that comes more often with spiritual maturity. Note how the Scriptures above speak to this reality of deep love and presuppose it for us to be free from the fear of punishment.
No, most of us begin with, and must be schooled in, a less perfect form of fear, but a fear which the Lord nevertheless counsels. Many theologians call it “servile fear,” since it speaks of the kind of fear that a servant might have of being punished for disobedience.
It is popular today to be dismissive of the sort of fear and see it as the relic of a immature faith, and not befitting of people who have come to an adult faith.
Some of the modern rejection of servile fear has resulted from the arrogance of the modern age, wherein it is common thinking that we moderns have attained it to a kind of maturity that our puerile ancestors did not have. After all, we have been to the moon, and have technology. So, not only are we smarter, we are some how more mature are well. They had “simplistic” and “childish” faith (e.g. “pray, pay, obey”), whereas somehow we have come of age, and are more mature and sophisticated; or so the thinking goes.
Of course the arrogance and error of this thinking (that tended to predominate especially in the 60s and 70s), becomes evident as we see how our culture has devolved to a kind of teenage fixation. Many in our culture never grow up, and the majority seem to remain rooted in a kind of teenage thinking, of which I have written more here: Modern Culture: Stuck on Teenage?
Thus, to presume that we can utterly reject servile fear as a relic of an immature faith and time, must be rejected. Not only is the height of arrogance, but also must be reject simply on the evidence. We are not mature, if anything we are far less mature than those who went before us, who generally knew how to take responsibility for their actions and assume adult responsibilities such as making commitments and keeping them, not making so many excuses, and by accepting consequences of decisions.
Thus, for all our braggadocio, about maturity, the fact is, many of us are nowhere near what it takes to be totally free of servile fear and fully capable of a mature Holy Fear rooted in love of God.
So, we need to rediscover a place for servile fear as necessary for most of us in our initial stages, and, even if we have developed a deeper Holy Fear rooted in love, to appreciate that there is still need to the preaching tradition to appeal to servile fear as well, for not all have passed on to mature faith (cf, Heb 5:14, 1 Cor 3:2).
Still not convinced? Jesus uses it. So do the Apostles he commissioned. Consider,
- Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Mat 10:28) (N.B. He is referring to himself here, for he is the only one who has the power to cast into hell).
- Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. (Mat 5:22)
- [Jesus says] But as for those enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slay them before me. (Luke 19:27)
- And Jesus was saying to them, “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world. “Therefore I told you that you will die in your sins; for unless you believe that I AM, you will die in your sins.” (Jn 8:23-24)
- Then he [Jesus] will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. (Mat 25:41)
- Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Mat 7:23)
- “Later the [foolish virgins] also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’ “But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’ “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour. (Matt 25:11-13)
- “If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it
is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body cast into hell. (Mat 5:29)
- And the King (the Lord) said to him, ‘Friend, how did you come in here without wedding clothes?’ And the man was speechless. “Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ “For many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matt 22:12-14)
- Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor those who commit homosexual acts , nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God! (1 Cor 6:9-10)
- But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. (Rom 2:5)
- If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Heb 10:26-31)
Honestly, I could multiply texts like these tenfold. The point is, I hope, clear. Jesus and the Apostles he commissioned to preach in his name had frequent recourse to the fear of punishment, judgment and hell, to servile fear.
Why? Because not all are at a place were loftier appeals will have any effect. Very often children must first be schooled in the discipline of punishment. Only later when discipline has had its proper effect can appeals to loftier concepts such as love, loyalty, enlightened self-interest, the common good and simple love for God and the truth, be motivating.
We grow in stages and the preaching and teaching of Scripture, and the Church rightly respect this and will appeal to many motives to convince us unto repentance. This must include the lesser fear of punishment as well as the greater motive of Holy Fear.
It will be granted that appeals to fear cannot and should not be our only focus. Clearly appeals to love of God and neighbor must also be included, along with appeals to reason and enlightened self interest as motives for keeping the commandments. The mercy and love of God can and must be preached.
But the point here is that things have gone out of balance and we need to recover that balance by pulling back in the other direction. Hence this blog post and I pray the voices now of many others who sense the current lack of balance.
Some will argue that fear based arguments simply do not hold the sway they once did. Perhaps. But why is this so? Perhaps the steady diet of cross-less Christianity, mercy without repentance, and universal salvation, a sort of sin without consequences, have deceived many. This sort of preaching and teaching is unbiblical and it is a lie.
All the more reason we must reacquaint the faithful with the true Scripture and the real Jesus. All the more reason we must work to inculcate a proper fear of judgment and consequence for unrepented sin.
Given the current climate referencing fear may NOT be effective at first and cause some to scoff and wonder if “Father is in a bad mood.”
But, my own pastoral experience is that people are at first surprised, and do sometimes scoff, but as I build the evidence for them over time in sermons and teachings, they gradually adjust to the biblical world view again. It is a process.
And once we get our own house in order, then our faith can once again begin to influence a culture that has inoculated itself from proper and healthy fear.
Yet all the inoculations in the world cannot ultimately erase the truth that Scripture affirms: So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God. (Rom 14:12) and again, [Jesus said] But I tell you that even for every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment. (Matt 12:36). Yes we will answer to God. And that is worth having some salutary fear about it.
And thus the question of the Good Thief rings true and poignantly today: Have you no fear of God?