Ancient Answers


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Do you live by love, or by fear?

It seems that my Logos bible software is no longer putting up slides with daily Bible verses, so I have to look elsewhere for illustrated Bible verses. I’m not artistic, so I can’t create my own Bible slides. Today I choose to reflect on 1 John 4:18 φόβος οὐκ ἔστιν ἐν τῇ ἀγάπῃ, ἀλλ’ ἡ τελεία ἀγάπη ἔξω βάλλει τὸν φόβον, ὅτι ὁ φόβος κόλασιν ἔχει, ὁ δὲ φοβούμενος οὐ τετελείωται ἐν τῇ ἀγάπῃ – There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love. The word κόλασιν is translated as punishment in most English versions, but it can also be more strongly translated as torment. The context of this verse is the final judgment. The sentence immediately preceding (verse 17) tells us “that we may have confidence for the day of judgment.” So it seems obvious that the fear that John refers to in verse 18 is the fear of punishment on the day of judgment.

The only other place in the New Testament where the word κόλασις occurs is in the parable of the sheep and goats (Mathew 25:31-46). At the very end of the parable Jesus sends the goats to “eternal punishment” κόλασιν αἰώνιον. But in the same parable Jesus also refers to the “eternal fire” – τὸ πῦρ τὸ αἰώνιον – that awaits the devil and his angels. Because Jesus in the parable sends the goats to the eternal fire and torment/punishment of κόλασις, the word κόλασις eventually came to mean “hell”, and that is still its meaning in modern Greek.

So, to go back to 1 John 4:18, fear has to do with hell and punishment. I translate the Greek, ὁ φόβος κόλασιν ἔχει, as “fear has torment in mind.” Or even, “fear has hell in mind”!

But the man or woman who lives in the love of God does not live in fear. And not only fear of punishment or hell, but fear of life! Have you noticed how fearful we have become as a society? We are afraid of terrorism, afraid of hackers, afraid of immigrants, afraid of viruses – but also afraid of vaccines to prevent viruses (figure that one out!) – afraid of the food and water we consume, afraid of going out at night or walking alone, afraid of being stopped by the police, afraid, afraid, afraid… And politicians exploit these fears and magnify them with their own fear-mongering and fake news.

I used to begin my morning by reading the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Guardian in order to get a good summary of real news – not the fake news pushed by others. I will continue to support and subscribe online to these newspapers, as well as our local newspaper, because I believe in the freedom of the press and the essential role that truth-telling newspapers have in a democracy. I trust these newspapers, but if the choice is between real news and fake news, I now prefer to spend  more time with the good news – the good news of Jesus Christ, that is. Not that I’m sticking my head in the sand to avoid knowing what’s going on, but because reading the good news gives me a better perspective when I turn to the New York Times or the Guardian.

There is a culture of fear that has grown disproportionately far beyond the real dangers out there. And fear separates us from our fellow humans. And ultimately fear separates us from God.

But isn’t it strange that the parable of the sheep and goats hardly scares anyone, while we lock our doors and our hearts to the countless fears that preoccupy us? We’re not scared of God because we’ve turned God into a meaningless “higher power” or “the man upstairs” – and these are the wrong reasons for not being afraid of God. We are missing the real reason for not being afraid of God: namely, that God is love and perfect love casts out fear. And perhaps it is love that is missing in our lives, real love – love not rooted in fear or self-interest, but love as God showed love in his Son, Jesus Christ. “For God so loved the world….” Think about how love can transform your fears into rational caution rather than irrational fear of everything that moves. Now read the whole passage in the First Letter of John that explains it all, better than I can.