Tag Archives: cosmic conflict

Questions and Answers (9:4)

Lou: Now here’s a challenging question for you. “You know of course, Dr. Maxwell that you are labeled a proponent of the ‘Moral Influence’ theory of the atonement.” I don’t know whether they mean that as a compliment or as a criticism. Would you please distinguish for everyone the difference between the Moral Influence Theory and the Larger Moral View that you are sharing in this book?
Graham: Now that’s very thoughtfully asked, and the answer may not be what is expected. What is the difference between the Moral Influence Theory, as it is called, and the Larger Moral View? Well, a lot depends on what people mean by the “Moral Influence Theory.” As I have asked people through the years, I don’t often get the same answer twice, so I’m not entirely sure what the questioner is asking. But I can still say something about it. The classic view of the Moral Influence Theory goes back to a man by the name of Peter Abelard in the Eleventh Century. He taught the point of view that Christ lived and died, not to make to make it possible for God to forgive us, but to demonstrate His love and so to win us back. The whole emphasis was on love. Now there are some who feel that this great controversy view that we represent is also simply to emphasize God’s love. But it’s actually so much more than that. So I would suggest that to call this larger, great controversy view the Moral Influence Theory is utterly erroneous and inadequate. Because in the larger, great controversy view, we recognize the issues before the universe, the questions about our God: Is it true that sin results in death? Is it torture and execution at the hands of a gracious God? Is it true that the obedience that springs from fear produces the character of a rebel? Theologians like Peter Abelard never, ever dealt with those issues. The great controversy view is far larger than any other. But there are those who sometimes caricature, perhaps, our understanding of the plan of salvation as the Moral Influence Theory.
Critics of the Larger Moral View generally do not acknowledge a great controversy over the character and government of God. And more than that, they do understand that what went wrong in the universe is a legal problem. In their view, we’re in legal trouble with God and He is legally bound to destroy us in His righteous justice. Fortunately for us, in that view, Jesus died to make it legally possible for God to forgive.
I believe that what went wrong in the universe was instead a breakdown of trust and trustworthiness. That meant trust and trustworthiness needed to be restored. Christ had to come to answer all these questions, not with words only, but with painful, costly demonstration. This is a far larger view and should not rightfully be called the Moral Influence Theory.
There is another aspect of this that is very significant. Is sin only a legal problem, or does sin affect you morally? Do you not only need to be forgiven, but also have a new heart and a right spirit? There is a moral aspect in the great controversy view.

Lou: I am hearing you say that the larger view includes aspects of the Moral Influence Theory, but that it takes in so much more.
Graham: It takes in so much more. That’s why I prefer “the larger view.”
Lou: I have heard the expression, “The demonstrative theory,” or “The demonstrative view of the atonement.” How do you feel about that label?
Graham: Well, I’m worried about any single label. Things are too readily and easily classified, so I’m always looking for synonyms. That’s why we have used “the larger view” quite a little in this book. There’s truth in the language of “demonstrative theory.” When a person has been accused of being untrustworthy, denials will not take care of it. Only by demonstration of trustworthiness can trust be restored. The fact that demonstration implies evidence—I like that. But I’d rather not simply call it “the demonstrative view” because some folk who use that term also have a rather narrow understanding of the issues at stake in the great controversy.

Questions and Answers (9:3)

Lou: Jesus is love personified. In Luke 11:37-52 He was invited to dine in the home of a Pharisee. He seemed to be right at home in accepting the invitation. No doubt It seemed like a good opportunity to show His love for the Pharisees. But was it still love when He pronounced woes on the Pharisees and the lawyers just before dinner?
Graham: I wish we had a video of the look on His face and the sound of His voice. I am sure there were tears in His voice when He said what He did, because He was addressing His own children. And it’s very clear in Scripture that God does not want anyone to be lost. But when people’s behavior was gross and unacceptable, He was honest with them, like a good physician. You would like the doctor to tell you the truth and to do whatever needs to be done. And so He gave them the unvarnished truth for their own sakes. This is the One who gave His life for them a little while later. So there’s a time for denunciation, but it had better be done with tears in the voice.
Lou: What if Jesus suddenly appeared at your home? Would you be afraid?
Graham: I’ve often wondered about that. I think the blood pressure would rise and the pulse would quicken and I’d hope my vascular system could handle it. But I would be saying to myself, “There is no need to be afraid.” But to have such an awesome Person come in, you’d be bound to react, wouldn’t you? I love the way that John “fell at His feet as though dead” (Rev 1:17). But Jesus immediately says to him, “Get up, and don’t be scared.” Over and over in the Bible when Ezekiel and others have fallen at His feet, He says, “Get up, don’t be scared” (Gen 15:1; 21:17; Exod 20:20; Jdg 6:22-23; Ezek 2:1; Dan 10:5-19; Luke 1:11-13; 26-30; 5:8-10). He doesn’t want us on the ground, and He doesn’t want us to be scared.
Lou: Well now Graham, what if the Father, God the Father, appeared at your home instead? Would you feel any different?
Graham: That would be a beautiful test case! If I should be more afraid of the Father than the Son, then I’m not living up to what I’ve been saying tonight. I guess I’d be saying to myself, “If you’ve seen Me, you’ve seen the Father” and “God is just as loving as His Son.” I hope when that day comes, that my conviction will be lived to the core, that there is no need to be more afraid of the Father than of the Son.
I love to picture arriving in the hereafter and meeting Jesus first, the Son. And He says to me, “Would you like to meet the Father?”
Would I say, “Well, if You go with me, I’d be willing to go?”
Would He say in response, “You can go by yourself?”
I think it’s much more likely that Jesus would say, “Are you still a little scared?”
“Well, I’m embarrassed to say so, but yes.”
“Then I’ll go with you.” And then I’ll go in with the Son to see the Father, and the Father’s face will be just as kind as that of the Son.
You see, some folk have died a friend of the Son but still a little afraid of the Father. But they’re safe to save nevertheless. They’re willing to listen. I think there will be many happy surprises in the hereafter, when people discover that the Father is just as gentle as the Son. So we will have a lot of happy surprises in eternity.

Questions and Answers (9:2)

Lou: Someone has raised a question about hell. “Where did the idea of hell come from? It seems to be so prevalent throughout Christianity.”
Graham: One of the first Christian documents that describes hell is the Revelation of St. Peter which is in the New Christian Apocrypha. It’s a very detailed description that precedes Dante’s Inferno by many centuries. If your prevailing sin was lying, you might be hung by your tongue over a hot flame. If some other organ of the body was your instrument in sin, you might be similarly tortured, it’s very detailed.
The real origin of the belief in hell, however, is Satan’s lie in the Garden of Eden: You will not surely die” (Gen 3:4, NIV, ESV). You see, if human beings are all immortal but not all are going to be saved, then some are going to be immortally lost. That would mean they have to go somewhere else. Everyone either goes to heaven or to some other place, such as a place of sulfurous flames. In that scenario God would have no choice, since the soul is immortal anyway. I believe that a combination of the immortality of the soul, and Satan’s caricature of a vengeful God, has produced the doctrine of hell. And there is no teaching that has turned more people against God than the doctrine of eternal torment in hell.

Lou: “Could the word `wrath’ have been translated differently in the Bible? Could there have been a better word than ‘wrath’ used?”
Graham: That’s an interesting question. It brings up the limitations of human language. The Greek word for wrath is orge, which did mean wrath, even fury. In revealing Himself to us, God is limited to our human language with all the hazards that pertain to that. So we have to study the Bible in its entire context to fully understand. But that raises the question, “Why would God use the word ‘wrath’ at all, if He does not wish to be understood as angry?” It would seem that He has been willing to leave the impression that He is angry with us.
I would explain that in terms of a father’s conversation with his little girl. He has tried everything under the sun to persuade her not to help herself to cookies at three in the afternoon, and none of it has worked. So he finally puts this little youngster in front of him. And she is looking completely cute and innocent, even in the midst of iniquity. And he says, “Look, if you do that one more time, Daddy’s going to be very, very cross with you.” She’s too young to know what “cross” means. She can’t look it up in the dictionary. But she knows what “cross” means by the look on his face and the tone of his voice. It makes the father feel like a bully. Here’s this little, tiny child with pigtails, and he’s saying, “Daddy will be very, very cross with you.”
A little later, when he thinks he has impressed her adequately; he finds her tiptoeing around the corner, reaching up, and taking another cookie. And it’s so cute, he wishes he had his camera ready. But then he realizes this is the time for some stern discipline. So he puts this helpless little girl in front of him. She puts her hands behind her and assumes that cute little posture that little girls can. And the big brute says, “Daddy told you that if you did that one more time, he’d be very, very cross.” For that to work you have to look cross and sound cross. You’ve got to go through with this thing for her sake.
When it comes to the Bible, I think it’s a matter of communication. God is dealing with children. The whole human race has acted like immature children. So He has to say, “Do that one more time and I will be furious with you! And how I wish I didn’t have to say that.” So our own human experience helps us to understand the Scriptures. Parents and teachers are in the best position to read the Bible sympathetically, it seems to me.
Lou: You remind me of a friend of mine who asked his little girl as he took off his belt; “You know what’s going to happen now?” And she chuckled and said, “Your trousers are going to fall down.” He couldn’t keep a straight face, so he had to leave the room for a bit because he was trying make the message stick.
Another question. “Why don’t Bible translators use “reverence” instead of “fear.” It seems like that would help some.”
Graham: Well, that would involve interpretation, and this enters into the whole philosophy of translation. Should a version render the original literally? None of them does all the time. Such a version would be quite unreadable. So the question is, how much shall we interpret? And there’s always a certain amount of hesitation about that. When a man like Dr. Taylor (author of The Living Bible) does a sincere job of paraphrase, he gets into trouble for doing it. People feel he has interpreted too much. There is always a tension between precisely representing the original and making it clear in the English. So the Revised Standard Version, which is very conservative, simply reads “fear” and leaves it up to the reader to determine from the context whether it’s terror or reverence. That’s why I like using more than one version.

Questions and Answers (9:1)

In the original lecture series done in 1984 at the Loma Linda University Church, Graham Maxwell spoke for about a half hour each Friday night followed by written questions and answers from Lou Venden and also from the audience. The next several posts contain questions and answers from the ninth presentation, “There Is No Need to be Afraid of God.”

Lou: I love the way you put that, to imagine our Heavenly Father sitting down and talking with us. It certainly is beautiful.
Graham: If we believe that Jesus is God, He did exactly that all those years He was on earth. And if we have seen Him, we have seen the Father. Do we really believe the implications of that? Or do we think that when we get to Heaven, even Jesus will be different? No more quiet chats by the river of life?
Lou: Why is it so hard for us to really grasp this and to experience it?
Graham: Well, I can think of at least two reasons. One is our own natural limitations. It seems almost unbelievable. The other reason is that there is an adversary who is determined that we not recognize this. He wants us to have a different picture of God. That’s been his whole campaign, and he’s won so many believers that it doesn’t seem fair. His evangelism, “bad news-ism,” has been so very successful.

Lou: I have a number of questions that relate to the previous chapter, but also tie in to this one. The first is concerned with wrath and punishment. “Do you think the concept of wrath and punishment has a useful purpose? Can it help us to remember the importance of remaining in harmony with God’s truthfulness and trustworthiness?”
Graham: God has obviously used such language many, many times. Wrath and punishment have been useful to Him. But it’s sad that he had to settle for that. When Israel was noisy and irreverent, God had to strike a little fear into their hearts. And in the midst of their terror was a measure of reverence and respect. But when our reverence is based on fear only, the moment the thunder dies away the reverence evaporates. Jesus really demonstrated this in His lament over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-44; Matt 23:37). There was no thunder, no lightning, and no earthquake. He simply wept quietly over the city. And many despised Him for it. I do love it, though, that the children were never afraid of Him. They would sit in His lap and according to one description they would “reach up and kiss that pensive face” (Ellen White, Steps to Christ, page 11).

Lou: Is it wrath and punishment what you are speaking about when you talk about emergency measures? Or is it the picture of a teacher standing on the desk throwing the chalk and the erasers to get our attention?
Graham: Both would be emergency measures; they are not God’s regular way of doing things. There is a whole chapter on God’s emergency measures coming (Chapter Eleven).

Lou: This same questioner went on to ask, “Do you feel comfortable so extensively re-reading passages like Revelation 14:10 in the third angel’s message?”
Graham: It’s significant that the last great message from the angels to this earth is about the destruction of the wicked. That’s very strong language. It’s God’s last message of warning just before the end. Things must be really desperate for Him to raise His voice that loud. It would be like a father walking with his son up in the mountains, and the son is getting closer and closer to the cliff. At first the father says, “Son, stop right where you are.” But he doesn’t hear. He raises his voice, but the wind is blowing it away. So finally the father at the top of his lungs shouts to the boy, “Stop where you are!!” A nearby group may say to themselves, “Listen to that heartless Father, bellowing at his poor little boy.” When they get closer and learn the whole situation they say, “Forgive us; we misunderstood.” I think many of us may owe God an apology. I’m glad He’s raised His voice. We needed it.
Lou: So Revelation 14:10 is warning us how dangerous the cliff is.
Graham: This is the strongest language in all of Scripture. But I like the fact that the one who wrote that is the same person who wrote, “There is no fear in love. Perfect love casts out all fear” (1 John 4:18). So we can understand that God is love and still understand the need for earthquake, wind and fire.

How Sinners Die the Second Death

Having said this, doesn’t the Bible warn us that sinners will experience God’s wrath and be burned forever? How about Revelation 14:10? “Yes, he also shall drink of the wine of God’s wrath . . . and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone . . . for ever and ever” (RSV). At first glance, that sounds like the fiery furnace of Nebuchadnezzar all over again. Fortunately, the preceding sixty-five books of Scripture have prepared us to understand this awesome language. As we saw in the last chapter (based on Rom 1:24-28; Hos 11:7-8), God’s wrath is simply His turning away in loving disappointment from those who do not want Him anyway. This turning away leaves them to the inevitable and awful consequence of their own rebellious choice. And as He lets them go, He cries, “How can I give you up? How can I let you go?”

Revelation 14:10, however, uses the word “forever.” How long is forever? Jude 7 may be helpful. “Sodom and Gomorrah . . . serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire” (RSV). That sounds like “forever fire” to me, but that fire went out millennia ago. So “forever” in biblical terms need not last forever in today’s terms. Also in Exodus 21:6, there is a reference to the servant who would serve his master “forever,” but that “forever” might only last until the next jubilee or, at most, as long as this life shall last. So we need to understand the biblical meaning of forever. It offers no support for the eternally burning fires of hell.

What about the fire itself? Many times in the Bible God’s glory, the brilliance that surrounds His divine person, is described as having the appearance of fire. Look at Exodus 24:17: “Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain” (RSV). It wasn’t devouring fire. It looked like it. There are many other places in Scripture where we find the glory that surrounds God is life-giving glory. Adam and Eve could live in its presence. Lucifer used to, as he walked among the stones of fire (Isa 14:15). It is energizing, life-giving glory. It is only because we are, by our own choice, out of harmony with God that what should be life-giving is destructive. God longs to heal us and doesn’t want to lose a single one.

Someday, every one of us will come face-to-face with God, whether we are saved or lost, at either the second coming or at the third coming. Do you think we will be afraid? What if we should be among the lost? We would look up and see Christ there in His human form. Will He be angry with us? Or will He be crying, “Why will you die? How can I give you up? How can I let you go?” Like a physician, God is there, eager and ready to heal. But He cannot force us to be well. If we do not trust Him, if we are not willing to listen, He cannot heal the damage done. What else can God do if we have come to the place where we have persistently refused to listen or even rejected His offers? If we have refused to trust, we have refused to let Him help us. What else can He do but sadly give us up, the same way that He gave up His Son on the cross, and we will die? Even in the death of the wicked there is no need to be afraid of God. The choice is still ours.

One reason many people are afraid to die is because they are afraid of God. They know that when they die they will come face-to-face with some great Power. It is an awesome thing to meet this Person called God. Is it really possible to die unafraid of God? According to the Bible, yes. Hebrews 2:15 tells us that the mission of Jesus is to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (NIV). I believe that the fear of death is actually the fear of God, the fear of the judgment. Is it possible to know God well enough that one can die unafraid? Look at John 8:32: “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (GNB). It is the truth about God that makes it possible to die unafraid. And every dying patient deserves to know that. People who know the truth about God can die unafraid, knowing that in their next moment of consciousness they will be in the presence of the kind of God we so much admire.

Just before Jesus Himself went out to die, He tried to sum up the ideal quality of the relationship God desires to have with His children. He said, “God wishes to deal with you as His friends.” Look at John 15:15.

No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing. But I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you (RSV).

Jesus here contrasts servants with friends. The servant does not know what his master is doing. The master gives orders and the servant accepts and follows them without understanding why. But Jesus and His Father want us to know and to understand them as friends. God has had a few such friends through the years. One of the most notable was Moses: “Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face-to-face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exod 33:11, RSV).

God welcomes just the kind of conversations about Him that we are having in this book. In fact, He would welcome us to have the same kind of conversation directly with Him! And in my imagination, I can see Him seated in a chair across from me. We know that He is the Infinite One whose words hung the whole vast universe in space. We know that He is the One who is worshiped with awe by all the brilliant angels. Yet as He sits there across from us, He values nothing higher than our freedom. He invites our inquiries. He does not want us to be afraid. Surely such a God deserves our deepest reverence, awe, wonder, and worship. Surely He deserves to be believed when He says, “There is no need to be afraid.”

How God Judges at the End

The Bible makes it plain that there is nothing arbitrary about the judgment. There is no arbitrary standard by which we are measured. There are no arbitrary decisions made. The choice is actually ours. Look at John 3:19: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light” (RSV). You see, if we have turned down the truth, we have not been won to trust and we don’t have a willingness to listen. Because of this, God has not been able to help us and to heal us. We don’t have a new heart and a right spirit (Ezek 36:26). We are not the kind of people who would be safe to admit to the hereafter. There is absolutely nothing arbitrary about that.

If any one hears my sayings, and does not keep them, I do not judge him. He who rejects me and does not receive my sayings has a judge; the word that I have spoken will be his judge on the last day (John 12:47, 48, RSV).

The sayings of Jesus are the truth and light that He brought to this earth. While all judgment has been given to Him (John 5:22), there is another sense in which He does not judge at all (John 8:15). You see, in the end we are not judged by Jesus or God, we are judged by the truth. It is a matter of them simply diagnosing our condition. It is a consequence. It is a result. There is nothing arbitrary about it at all. And then what God does to those who have turned down the truth (which means He has not been able to heal them) is not arbitrary either. For what does God do to those who reject the priceless truth about Him? What else can He do in a free universe but sadly give them up? As we noticed in the previous chapter: “Because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie . . . God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct” (Rom 1:25, 28, RSV). God sadly gives people up to what they chose to do anyway. In the end-time judgment, God simply recognizes the choices we have made, diagnoses our condition, and announces the results.

In those awesome words of Revelation 22:11, one day God will look at his people, some who have rejoiced in the truth and some who have turned it down. On that day He will say, “Let him who does wrong continue to do wrong; let him who is vile continue to be vile; let him who does right continue to do right; and let him who is holy continue to be holy” (NIV). Just go on doing what you are doing. Go on being what you are. There is nothing arbitrary about that. There is no need to fear God for that reason. We have made our choice and we are reaping the results, both good and bad.

Facing the Judgment

The first angel of Revelation 14 suggests a most serious reason why we might become afraid. He says that the hour of God’s judgment has come (Rev 14:7). Those are awesome words that strike many people with fear. How thoroughly will we be judged? How much does God know about us? Hebrews 4:13 suggests that He knows a lot: “There is nothing that can be hid from God; everything in all creation is exposed and lies open before his eyes. And it is to him that we must all give an account of ourselves” (GNB). Put that together with the words of Solomon in Ecclesiastes 12:14: “God is going to judge everything we do, whether good or bad, even things done in secret” (GNB).

How can you face a judgment at the hands of someone so well informed and be unafraid? Well, unafraid of what and unafraid of whom? The same John who warned us in Revelation 14:7 that the hour of God’s judgment has come, is the one who explains how it is possible to face the judgment without fear. In one of his letters, John uses the word “fear” with the meaning of “terror” in the face of the judgment. But notice what he does with that terror:

God is love, and whoever lives in love, lives in union with God, and God lives in union with him. Love is made perfect in us in order that we may have courage on the Judgment Day. . . There is no fear in love; perfect love drives out all fear. So then, love has not been made perfect in anyone who is afraid, because fear has to do with punishment (1 John 4:16-18, GNB).

John’s point is surely crystal clear. If we really know the truth about God, there is no need to be afraid, even of the final judgment. And why is that? Is it only because God has given all judgment to the Son? John 5:22 says: “The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son” (RSV). Many find that comforting, because they feel they are much more likely to receive merciful treatment at the hand of the Son than of the Father. But is that true? I’ve heard some say with real gratitude, “I have no fear of the judgment because I know I have a Friend in court.”
And I ask, “Who is that Friend?”
Then comes the warm response, “Why, Jesus, of course.”
“You mean the Father is no Friend of yours?”
“Oh, I didn’t mean that.”
“Then what did you mean when you said that you were happy to have a Friend in court and Jesus is your Friend? Is the Father no Friend? What of the Holy Spirit?”

Some derive comfort from the thought, as they consider the final judgment at the hands of One who knows us in such detail, that Jesus will be there interceding with the Father in our behalf. Does that mean that the more Jesus pleads with the Father, the more likely we are to receive merciful treatment? Think what that implies about the Father! Is the Father less loving and less forgiving than the Son? Do we think that He is exacting, unforgiving, and severe? Are we even willing, in expressing our doctrines, to support Satan’s charges against our God?

Remember Jesus’ words to Philip in John 14:7, 9: “If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. . . . He who has seen me has seen the Father” (RSV). If you really knew this to be true, you would never say, “I am grateful that I have a Friend in court, and I mean Jesus not the Father.” You couldn’t say that, could you? Remember Jesus’s words in John 16:26: “I need make no promise to plead to the Father for you. For the Father himself loves you” (Phillips). Or as Goodspeed’s translation put the same text: “There is no need for me to intercede with the Father for you.” According to Jesus Himself, the Son does not love us more than the Father, or understand us better than the Father. Neither is the Son more sympathetic than the Father. If we have seen the Son we have seen the Father.

According to Romans 8, all three members of the Godhead are for us; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. If all of them are for us, then who is the one who is against us? Against whose charges do we need to be defended (Rom 8:26-39)? You see, whether we are judged by Father, Son, or Holy Spirit, we have no need to be afraid of God. But that is not the only reason to be unafraid. When we understand how the judgment is conducted and what determines whether we are saved or lost, we will have even further evidence that we don’t need to be afraid.

Why God Raises His Voice

We might ask “Why didn’t God speak more softly?” We know that He prefers to. That’s what He does when talking to His friends, as in the still, small voice with Elijah at the mouth of the cave (1 Kings 19:12). But when people are hard of hearing, God will raise His voice. And how grateful we should be that He is willing to raise His voice when we need it! Now did He speak too loudly at Mount Sinai? Did He terrify them too much? I would say not. Forty days after the fire, the earthquake, the lightning and the thunder died away, they were dancing drunk around a golden calf in a fertility cult ritual.

Surely those of us who have taught little ones, or have children of our own, know how difficult it is to gain proper respect so that learning might occur without fear. What a delicate thing it is to accomplish both! Whenever God raised His voice He got reverence, but there would also be some terror. When He talked softly they would despise Him as later generations despised gentle Jesus. So God has had to go back and forth on this through history.

Imagine that you are a grade school teacher with forty years of experience. You have never raised your voice in forty years to your little pupils. It is the last day of fall quarter, and there is a rap on the door. The principal says, “The building is on fire. Please line up the pupils and get them out the door.” So you step back into the room with your usual dignity and in your usual quiet voice, you say, “Students, the building is on fire. Please line up and we will go out that door.” But it is the last day before Christmas vacation, and let’s say it is the period after recess, and there is a tumult in the room. The little ones don’t see you standing there.

Would you say at this point, “Well, I am not going to sully my reputation by shouting for the first time in forty years. I have given them a chance. Let me just go home and save myself.” Or would you, dignified you, be willing to shout to the students for the first time? What if, to your horror, they still don’t notice you? Would you be willing to climb up on the desk, throw the chalk and some erasers, until with terror the children finally see you? Then, once they have slipped into their seats and you have slipped into yours, you say, “Children, don’t go home and tell your mothers I am angry with you. I am not angry with you. I love you and I don’t want you to be hurt. But the school building is on fire. So in this quiet moment while I have your attention, would you quickly line up the way we’ve practiced and go out that door?”

Now which approach shows greater love? Would it be not terrifying them briefly? Would it be not raising your voice? Or would it be better to run the risk of being feared? Wouldn’t it be better to be obeyed for the wrong reason momentarily? It seems to me that God has taken that risk over and over in Scripture. We should be prepared to say, “Thank you God, for raising your voice so many times. It must mean that you really love us.”

There’s More Than One Kind of Fear

What, then, does the Bible mean when it says that we are supposed to “fear” God and be His “God-fearing” people? You can even find that in the first of the Three Angels’ Messages, Revelation 14:7: “Fear God and give him glory, for the hour of his judgment has come” (RSV). Not only does this verse tell us to fear God, it even gives us a good reason to fear Him, the Last Judgment. So before we go any further, we need to understand the biblical meaning of the word “fear.” If you will forgive the Greek, it’s pronounced phobos, from which we get the English word “phobia.” But the biblical word doesn’t always mean terror. Sometimes it means respect or reverence. Look at Psalm 128:1-2, for example: “Blessed is everyone who fears the Lord. You shall be happy, and it shall be well with you” (KJV). Surely the Psalmist isn’t saying, “Happy is everyone who is scared of God.”

So the biblical word “fear” has another meaning. Blessed is everyone who reveres and respects the Lord. You will be happy if you do and it will be well with you. Note, for example, Proverbs 9:10: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (KJV). Does that mean that being terrified of God is the beginning of wisdom and learning? No, there again the context determines the meaning of the word. So the translation in the Good News Bible is to be preferred: “To be wise you must first have reverence for the Lord.”

Where there is no respect there is no reverence, and very little learning can take place. Think of the lengths to which God has gone through the centuries to gain people’s respect and hold it long enough to tell them more truth about Himself. Perhaps the most famous example is the one provided at Mount Sinai. God came down to speak to His people. Did they all line up quietly to listen? No. They were noisy. They were complaining. They were fussing about the food and the water. There was no respect for God. So God could not speak to them softly that day. Instead, there was thunder and lightning, fire, smoke, and an earthquake. And God said to Moses, “Put a fence around that mountain. Don’t let the people come too close to me” (based on Exod 19:12-13). Today we sing “Nearer, Still Nearer,” but on that day no one wanted to get close:

The people were afraid and they trembled; And they stood afar off, and said to Moses, `You speak to us, and we will hear; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.’ But Moses said to the people, `Do not fear; for God has come to prove you, and that the fear of Him may be before your eyes, that you may not sin.’ (Exodus 20:18-20, RSV)

Notice the use of the word “fear” with both meanings in the same sentence. “Do not fear,” at the beginning of the sentence, means the same thing as “There’s no need to be afraid.” But further on, “That the fear of Him may be before you” uses the word with the meaning of “reverence.” So the very same Hebrew word can carry different meanings in the very same sentence. Notice also that Moses could stand in the middle of the earthquake and the fire and say that there is no need to be afraid. Why? Because he knew God, and he knew why God was raising His voice on that occasion.

What Fear Does to Freedom

If God really were the kind of person His enemies have made Him out to be, arbitrary, vengeful and severe, there would be no freedom under His government. Any professions of love and trust on our part would be compromised by our fears. How could God be satisfied with expressions of love from children who are afraid? Would you parents be satisfied with such expressions of love from your own children? When you consider Satan’s perversion of the truth in this matter, it’s no wonder millions of people have turned away from God,.

Satan has crafted a picture of God that has made God look even more cruel than old King Nebuchadnezzar and his burning fiery furnace. In the book of Daniel (chapter 3), Nebuchadnezzar built a very large idol and ordered the nation’s leaders to bow down at a given signal and worship his god. Anyone who refused to worship the image was to be thrown into the burning fiery furnace. Readers of the story recoil in horror at how Daniel’s three Hebrew friends, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, got caught up in such cruel tyranny. In the words of Nebuchadnezzar, “You either submit to my god or I will throw you into the burning fiery furnace” (based on Daniel 3:14-15).

Many, somehow, find it possible to accept a God who is described as doing the very same thing as Nebuchadnezzar. They see God saying to us, “On your knees, worship Me, or I’ll throw you into a burning fiery furnace.” Actually, this portrayal of God makes Him even worse than Nebuchadnezzar. Nebuchadnezzar was willing to settle for a simple act of submission: “On your knees!” God asks for much more, our love and our trust. He is caricatured as saying, “If you will not love and trust Me, I will throw you into the burning fiery furnace. And I won’t burn you as briefly as Nebuchadnezzar did. I will burn you forever and forever.” Does that picture of God make sense? Is it acceptable? I love Ellen White’s words on this. “Such thoughts destroy human reason.”

Of course, gentle Jesus would never say such a thing, would He? So is it the Father who is the fearsome one who would issue such a threat? And if the Father is the fearsome member of the Trinity, is that why the Son came to die? Was it to assuage, appease and propitiate the wrath of the offended member of the Trinity? Is this why Jesus had to go up quickly on resurrection Sunday—to intercede with the fearsome member of the Trinity? Could the Father never find it in His own heart to forgive His rebellious children unless He were begged to do so by the most sympathetic member of the Three? I hope no one reading this chapter believes any of this! But can you see the impact our understanding of the death of the wicked has on our picture of God and our understanding of the plan of salvation? That’s the reason for this chapter, to explain that there is really no need to be afraid of God.