The Fear of God

February 6, 2011

A friend asked about the need for the concept of "fear of God" in the Baháí Faith. Can one be a Baháí without it? More generally, do Baháís accept that there can be compassion and altruism without this "fear"? I found the simple answer today: no (read on for the references). But as with so many concepts, it seems important to dig into the words, exploring their literal and symbolic meaning both inclusive of and apart from our pre-conceived notions.

I grew up with two different poles to the "fear of God". On the one hand there was the dread of judgment and eternal damnation – a never-ending series of torments where the only change is the devising of new tortures. This Dantean vision well fits the American Heritage Dictionary's first definition of "fear": "A feeling of agitation and anxiety caused by the presence or imminence of danger." On the other hand was the softer "feeling of disquiet or apprehension" (definition 2) about the loss of love and approval by displeasing God, which was a fear based more on love than punishment. Both poles clearly fit within the "big tent" of Christianity. Indeed, I feel like I learned both concepts at the same time in Vacation Bible School when I was quite young. A third definition of "fear" is offered: "Extreme reverence or awe, as toward a supreme power." Again, this version of the word can certainly be found in Christianity as well, and all three have clear precedents in Judaism (I leave the web search to the reader).

The Dantean vision never resonated with me. It might have been appropriate for a particular age of the world, but not in today's world where superstition has been burned away. The second and third senses have always held me in line – although as a child it was more the fear of disappointing my parents that kept me in line than the fear of the Divine. So much for pre-conceived notions, now on to authoritative Bahá'í writings.

Bahá'u'lláh makes plain that "fear of God" plays an important role in humanity's ordered life:

"... Verily I say: The fear of God hath ever been a sure defence and a safe stronghold for all the peoples of the world. It is the chief cause of the protection of mankind, and the supreme instrument for its preservation. Indeed, there existeth in man a faculty whihch deterreth him from, and guardeth him against, whatever is unworthy and unseemly, and which is known as his sense of shame. this, however, is confined to but a few; all have not possessed and do not possess it." (Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, p 63)

But which sense is this? The explicit linking of "fear" and "shame" lead me toward the second definition, and it is interesting in-and-of itself. Shoghi Effendi elucidated this concept, in a letter written on his behalf in 1946, quoted in Bahá'í Education, A Compilation:

"You ask him about the fear of God: perhaps the friends do not realize that the majority of human beings need the element of fear in order to discipline their conduct? Only a relatively very highly evolved soul would always be disciplined by love alone. Fear of punishment, fear of the anger of God if we do evil, are needed to keep people's feet on the right path. Of course we should love God – but we must fear Him in the sense of a child fearing the righteous anger and chastisement of a parent; not cringe before Him as before a tyrant, but know His mercy exceeds His Justice!"

In another letter, dated 1940, Shoghi Effendi wrote that "Fear of God" "... often means awe, but has also other connotations such as reverence, terror and fear." So, as with Christianity, all definitions of the concept can be found within the Bahá'í Faith. But, for the Bahá'ís, the "fear of God" is utterly devoid of devils, hellfire, brimstones, etc. There are certainly passages in the Writings that use the word "hell" in its traditional context. But Shoghi Effendi interestingly states that "Heaven and Hell are conditions within our own beings" (High Endeavours: Messages to Alaska, p50). 'Abdu'l-Bahá goes further in linking "hell" to an inner condition rather than a physical reality:

"The root cause of wrongdoing is ignorance, and we must therefore hold fast to the tools of perception and knowledge. Good character must be taught. Light must be spread afar, so that, in the school of humanity, all may acquire the heavenly characteristics of the spirit, and see for themselves beyond any doubt that there is no fiercer Hell, no more fiery abyss, than to possess a character that is evil and unsound; no more darksome pit nor loathsome torment than to show forth qualities which deserve to be condemned." (Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Sec. 111)

Yes, the Bahá'ís hold to a concept of the Fear of God, but it is not rooted in eternal torment and Divine Retribution. Further, anecdotally speaking, "fear of God" is not prevalent in the daily discourse and worldview of the Bahá'ís I have known – acting out of love and compassion is much more so. I have found no other references expounding on the nature of this fear; in the absence of clear and authoritative interpretation, it is up to each of us to understand this notion, to let it shape our actions and our philosophies.


This is pretty dense to unpack immediately, but I did have a few quick reactions.

I had good Catholic teachers, including my Dad - I read Augustine, a Kempis, Lewis, Chesterton and Merton when I was still in grade school, so I didn't have the Dantean impression of Hell. Hell was just where you couldn't hang around with God, on some higher plane where you had the certainty that he was just over the river there.

Secondly, I don't know if I was the friend you mentioned, though I may as well have been. But "Fear of God" must be taken in the sense the authors of the King James Bible meant it. The word "fear" is used in its archaic sense - respect. Fearing your dad doesn't mean you're scared he's gonna pull out the switch, it means you think he's awesome and want to listen to what he tells you to do. "The Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" makes a heckuva lot more sense in that context. Gotta go back to the original Hebrew to tease that out.

Thirdly, my wife's dad is a deep student of the Christian bible, though of no identifiable sect or creed. He points out that there's really no mention of "burning in hell for eternity", just "unquenchable flames" in the Bible. So, your soul may get tossed in the fire, but it'll just burn up.

Finally, I was looking for a Joseph Campbell quote addressing this, and was felicitously redirected to a quote by Sir James George Frazer he uses in his book "The Mythic Image". I'll post it in the following comment since I don't know how much text this blog platform allows for a comment:

"By religion, then, I understand a propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man which are believed to direct and control the course of nature and of human life. Thus defined, religion consists of two elements, a theoretical and a practical, namely, a belief in powers higher than man and an attempt to propitiate or please them. Of the two, belief clearly comes first, since we must believe in the existence of a divine being before we can attempt to please him. But unless the belief leads to a corresponding practice, it is not a religion but merely a theology; in the language of St. James, “faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.” In other words, no man is religious who does not govern his conduct in some measure by the fear or love of God. On the other hand, mere practice, divested of all religious belief, is also not religion. Two men may behave in exactly the same way, and yet one of them may be religious and the other not. If the one acts from the love or fear of God, he is religious; if the other acts from the love or fear of man, he is moral or immoral according as his behaviour comports or conflicts with the general good."

- Sir James George Frazer (1854-1941), The Golden Bough, "Magic and Religion"

Good stuff. Yes, of course your question generated this. I didn't have a clear idea of where you were coming from with question about "fear of God", although the chain of previous comments led me to assume that the question came from a more negative than positive viewpoint. Still, not knowing, I tried to relate the concept to my own experience and pre-conceived notions.

I've always marveled at how Dante managed to make up (or codify?) this mythology, and pop culture assumes that there are people who believe that mythology. And then all the sudden, there are people who believe it. I have been told, too many times, that I will literally go to hell after I die. With the burning and torture.

What you express about the concept seems to me to have a resonance with the Baha'i writings. The Frazer quote is interesting. The first sentence seems rather limiting to me, in the same way the Emile Durkheim and Karl Marx seem too limited in their approach to religious sociology. Religion today is not just about satisfying a higher power. Frazer gets at this too -- it also about satisfying the inner power and the general good. Interesting starting point to a discussion, but not an ending point to it.