Aristotle once said, “one cannot love whom he fears.” The Bible claims that the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7), yet also that, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). So which is it? Do we love God, or fear him? Basic reason says that it cannot be both. Or can it?
Modern critics often like to pounce upon passages like these, usually pitting two verses taken out of context against each other. Some of the best examples of this kind of irresponsible criticism appear in Self-Contradictions of the Bible by William Henry Burr (a book endorsed by militant atheist Sam Harris). Published in 1860, this book offers over one hundred examples of alleged contradictions in the Bible, much like the one I’ve provided here. Most of these examples grasp at straws, while others ignore the context of the passages considered. All of them can be reconciled by investigating the passages under consideration.
We all know what it means to love God, but what is it to fear him? Biblical authors used the word “fear” (Hebrew yare’) in a variety of ways. Some of its uses include reverence or awe (Psalm 33:8), which is how we should interpret the passage in Proverbs. It is connected to righteous living (Exodus 1:17, 21; Deuteronomy 10:18-20; 25:18; 31:11-12). It describes the respect given to one’s parents (Leviticus 19:3) and also applies to religious worship (Joshua 22:25, where the ESV translates the term as “worship”).
While we often think of “fear” as a negative emotion associated with apprehension and terror, this is not how the term in the Hebrew Bible should be understood. When examined in context, the term means to offer respect, honor, reverence, or worship. A great example is the opening verse of Psalm 112, which says, “Blessed is the man who fears the Lord, who greatly delights in his commandments.” Naturally, a person cannot delight in something that induces fear and dread.
To fear God in the biblical sense is to give him the honor and respect he deserves. It means to have a deep reverence for him and his awe-inspiring majesty and holiness. This does not conflict with the love we have for him. If anything, it deepens it. That such a God would choose to love such minuscule and error-prone creations is something to celebrate.