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In Defense of Fear and Hate

Douglas Groothuis, Professor of Philosophy, Denver Seminary

The concepts of fear and hate need some examination, given how absurdly abused they are in common culture. Supposedly, any idea based on fear is irrational and all hate is hateful. But appropriate fear and appropriate hate are necessary parts of a good life. Let me explain.

Ideas are often rejected because “they are based on fear.” I have never understood this, since in our dangerous world many people, events, ideologies, and things are fearful and should, not surprisingly, be feared. God is the chief object to be feared, as I will argue. Ideas and people are also castigated for “hate” and for being “haters.” If you take a stand on traditional morality, for example, you may be hailed as a hater of those outside your “heteronormative” viewpoint. (I sometimes sense hate in these denunciations of hate.) But again, many things are hateful and should be hated.I will not give a detailed list). A charming expression of sympathy in the southern United States is, “I hate it for you.”

I am going to argue, against the age, that neither fear nor hate are wrong in themselves. (Neither is love always good in itself, since one may “love” hateful things, such as pornography or torturing animals.) Fear and hate can be wrongly applied, of course. Those who hate everyone of another race or everyone of another political party are wrongfully hateful. Those who fear UFO attacks or the evil effects of fluoridation in water supplies are paranoid. Further, there are those who use fear to manipulate people against reality. For example, when congresswoman Alexandria Octavio Cortez says that unless we take radical action immediately, the world will be destroyed by climate change in twelve years, her fear-mongering should be ignored. Examples of “bad fear” and “bad hate”—as well as “bad love”—could be multiplied at length. But on to defending good versions of fear and hate.

Appropriate Fear in a Dangerous World

Fear is appropriate in a perilous world. I fear getting into a car accident and being thrown from my car or smashing my head against the windshield. Thus, I put on my seat belt. Fearing eye problems (I have had a few retinal issues), I am regularly examined by an optometrist. I consult medical experts out of fear, not because I want to catch up on their lives or make new friends (although that might happen). I encourage my friends to heed the same fears concerning their physical well-being. These concerns need not be hypochondriacal. They are examples of proper self-care of the bodies God has given us.

When I was in first grade, during the height of the U.S. Cold War with the USSR, the school conducted air raid drills. We clambered under our desks to practice avoiding death by bombs. (How effective that might have been is another matter.) People around the country constructed bomb shelters. This was driven by the legitimate fear of a nuclear attack on the United States by the USSR. The country was on the very brink of war during the thirteen days of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962.

We may fear evils—which pose a threat to body, soul, and society--and act accordingly. But we may also fear what is good and act accordingly. In education, students worry about receiving bad grades from a good teacher. Their grades (at least ideally) indicate how close they came to attaining a proper standard administered by a fair teacher. So, the fear of the teacher (in this sense) motivates students to do well, to avoid bad grades and to achieve good grades. Instead of ducking under a desk to prepare for a bombing raid, students spend more time at their desks studying to avoid displeasing their teacher. I tell my students, “Fear of the professor is the beginning of good grades.”

The Fear of the Lord

Although it is anathema to a watered-down, subjective, feel-good, and gutless religion, we should fear God. The Proverbs tells us that, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7; see 2:5; 5:12; 9:10; 15:33; Psalm 111:10). The sage of the book of Ecclesiastes concludes his matchless receipt of wisdom with this:

Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).

We ought not fear God because he is evil but because he is perfectly good, as well as all-powerful. He keeps score and judges rightly—in time and in eternity. We are accountable to our God, the Creator and Lord of the universe.

We do not hear it much today, but people used to be commended for being “God-fearing.” They recognized God as the highest authority, who would hold them accountable. They wanted to please him by their actions, so they controlled their desires and tried to put others first. Thus, a non-Christian could be God-fearing.

But some may object. Didn’t Jesus reveal the love of God and didn’t he want us to love him in turn? Indeed, he did. But Jesus also said this:

I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him (Luke 12:4-5).

This is not Jesus “meek and mild,” but Jesus the prophet issuing a warning. He knew his Old Testament, apparently. But he goes on:

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows (Luke 12:6-7).

Jesus is not contradicting himself. We should fear God in the sense that God is a just judge. But God is also providentially concerned about all his creatures. Jesus himself is the ultimate evidence of God’s love. As he said:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son (John 3:16-18; see also Ephesians 2:1-10).

Whoever believes in Jesus as Lord and Savior need not fear punishment, since Jesus, the Lamb of God, substituted himself for us on the Cross in the ultimate act of love. However, the Christian still ought to fear God in the sense that we do not want to displease God, nor do we want to stand before God on the Judgment Day with many regrets (1 Corinthians 3:12-15).

The Fear of God and Holy Hatred

There is a connection between the fear of God and holy hatred. “To fear the LORD is to hate evil; I hate pride and arrogance, evil behavior and perverse speech” (Proverbs 8:13). Besides wanting us to fear God, Jesus also hated a few things. In speaking to the church at Ephesus, Jesus says, “But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate” (Revelation 2:6). We are not told anything more about the Nicolaitans (although two church fathers said they were licentious heretics), but their practices were hateworthy, according to Jesus.

Jesus also wanted his followers to hate some things. It may surprise some readers to read these words of Jesus:

If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:26-27).

Jesus used hyperbole to make strong points, as did other Jewish teachers of his day (see also Matthew 5:27-32). Jesus affirmed that parents should be honored, but our love of God must come first. As he said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment (Matthew 22:37-38). He went on: “And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:39). Sometimes, devotion to Christ can bring divisions even in families, as he warned (Matthew 10:16-21).

Jesus famously (and outrageously) also told us to love our enemies (Matthew 543-44), even those involved in hateful activities and with terrible characters. Yet by hating their behavior we are loving them, since their behavior is bad for everyone, both themselves and others. In love, we should want the best for them.

These reflections on fear and hate are not meant as contrarian bombshells lobbed onto the field of contemporary culture. I offer them as points of reflection in the hopes that we find our moral bearings in a world adrift in mindless groupthink, clichés, slogans, memes, and talking points.

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