The Fear of God in Unbelievers (Yerah Elohim) (eight of nine)

 The Fear Unlike Any Other

Although unbelievers and believers suffer from similar fears, there is one fear that is dealt with differently between Christians and non-Christians. Let’s consider the unbeliever’s and believer’s perspectives on fearing God.

God's finger upon a person

Most of our fears relate to our surrounding, future, or relationships. But there is a fear, unlike any other fear. It’s a fear of God. The unbeliever has an impersonal fear of God. In Hebrew, it is identified using the phrase “Yerah Elohim” translated “the fear of God.” Yerah is the word for “fear” and Elohim is God’s name referring to his transcendence, great power, and authority to judge. Fearing God more resembles a panic-stricken fear in that it includes the sense of condemnation (Jn 3:18-20). Adam and Eve first felt this fear shortly after they sinned against God. Sin broke their relationship with God and out of fear they hid from God. They were fearful of his judgment, which overtook their confidence in his forgiveness (Gen 3:8, Rev 6:15-17).

Everyone fears God

It may appear that some unbelievers have no fear of God. The Greek philosopher Seneca claimed he didn’t fear what he did not know. He didn’t know what death was like so he didn’t fear it. He didn’t know God so he had no fear of God either. Those who refuse God’s lordship over their lives commonly reject any idea of an all-knowing and all-powerful God, of any judgment in the afterlife, or even of an eternal existence after death (Ps 55:19, Rom 3:12, 18).

People who hold high ranking positions in government or business often seem not to have any fear of God (Lk 18:4). People who have a seared conscience lack a proper fear of God (Lk 23:40). People who continue in sin sometimes fear the consequences of hell but aren’t fearful enough (or capable) to repent of their sins (Heb 10:26-27, 31).

The fear of hell or of any punishment isn’t enough to produce faith in God. Evangelistic strategies that emphasize the fear of going to hell or of facing judgment rarely produce lasting converts (though there are a few exceptions). To place the fear of God into an unbeliever by adding to their fears the fear of eternal hellish torment can’t generate a heartfelt love for God, an unselfishness lifestyle, or even a genuine conversion.

A better method

A more effective approach to evangelism is to share your hope in Christ’s love for you. This has the potential of making them envious of what you have (in a good sense) and desirous to pay the price for salvation (total surrender to God’s will). Peter encourages his readers to speak of their hope and not their fears when speaking about salvation (1 Pet 3:15). Replacing the fear of God with hope in a future designed by a merciful God produces saving faith in and a love for God.

If we charted the progression of biblical terms related to fearing God, the following continuum would be produced. Where terror is a synonym for the worst of experience of fear and worship is a term for the healthiest expression of fear. Synonyms that relate to fear line up on a chart as follows:Chart on Fear of God

On the left side of the chart, we find terror, dread, trembling, and astonishment in God’s presence. There is an awareness of God’s justice but it doesn’t generate closeness to God. These types of fears push people away from God because they’re impersonal. No one wants to know a God who is perceived as terrifying and causes them to shake in their boots. Raw fear of God is a terrible thing. God’s unmediated presence is scary and such an experience makes people’s legs buckle underneath them. No one is attracted to a dreadful God.

On the right side of the chart, the terms show a healthier view of God. Here he is seen as a being we reverence, are devoted to, is trustworthy, and is worthy of worship. The impersonal term God is traded out of the more personal word Lord. When God is feared in the sense he is valued and honored, he is revered for who he is. Intimacy develops. Joy and peace are experienced and positive and good feelings are associated with God’s presence. God is satisfying to the soul who knows him as their personal Lord. A loving and forgiving God is most attractive to the poor in spirit.

In the center is the word awe. Biblically speaking, God is awesome to both the unbeliever and the believer. A healthy fear of the divine develops when a person moves from impersonal wonder to Man and waterfallpersonally valuing God. Both Jacob’s and Moses’ encounters with God were of this nature (Gen 28:16, Ex 3:2-6). A person can be awestruck (impersonal) or they can be awe-inspired (personal). The experience of awe (whether it is fearful or amazing) depends on how the awesome person is perceived. Are they a threat or welcoming? Are they unruly or considerate? Are they demonic or divine?

Three responses to your witnessing

When speaking to others about salvation in Christ unbelievers might respond to the gospel in one of three ways. They might be …

  1. Callus to a Gospel presentation and show no fear of God. In this case, they are hiding from God.
  2. Honest in their response, wanting to push God away because they fear judgment, seeing no hope of forgiveness. This person realizes their sinful plight but has yet to be awakened by God’s Spirit to Christ’s person and work.
  3. Open to the Spirit of God drawing them towards the right side of the chart. This person is becoming aware of Christ’s majesty. They will be amazing with the goodness of the gospel message and awe inspired by the possibility that they can know more about what Jesus did and who he is. They will show a desire to revere him and, by God’s grace,  will eventually worship Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

Man prayingIt’s important when sharing your faith not to fear any of these responses. Each one reveals where that person is in relationship to Jesus Christ. Identifying their response helps you know what to say next and to know what the other person needs from you to properly respond to their fear of God. Pray for God’s wisdom to lead them to a perspective where they will hunger for God and take the next step in their spiritual journey (Rom 8:14-15).

Personal Time: Read a number of the Scripture references. What has been your experience when you tell people about Christ? Are they terrified or do they seem not to be frightened of God? Are they interested but not willing to make a commitment? Or, can you sense God’s Spirit drawing them to Jesus as seen in their hunger to know more about Christ? Is disinterest in the gospel always a sign of hiding a fear of punishment or have we, as witnesses of Christ, contributed to their lack of interest in the gospel? How does worldliness also distract people from what is really important, such as properly fearing God? If someone responded to your gospel testimony positively, what words would you say next to explain clearly the essence of the gospel message? Discuss the power of praying for anyone in either of the three responses described above.

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