The Bible refers to the “fear of God” as a good thing.
In Deuteronomy, the Israelites are commanded, “Fear the LORD your God and serve him… “(10:20)
David prays “Teach me your ways, O LORD, and I will walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name” (Ps. 86:11).
In Proverbs, it says, “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised” (31:30).
Jesus warns, “But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him” (Luke 12:5).
Multiple questions arise.
1) Textual questions: Are the above Biblical writers talking about the same sort of mental state? Whether they are talking about the same thing or not, what do they mean? Is what they are talking about close in meaning to what we mean in ordinary English if were to say that a person ought to fear another person?
2) Textual-to-Normativity Question: Given that we can accurately grasp what the above writers are referring to, what sort of normativity is being ascribed? Is it prudential or moral (or both or something else)? Given that we grasp which sort of normativity is being ascribed, are the statements true? Why?
3) A-Specific-Normativity Question: This question makes specific what was described in (2). Suppose that they are making moral statements and suppose that by “fear” they mean “being afraid of”. Is it indeed true that it’s a morally good state off affairs to be afraid of God?
Against a positive answer to the question in (3), Russ Shafer-Landau criticizes,
Fear of God has been a traditional way to get people to do their duty. But when it is effective, it undermines moral character, rather than supports it. People who deserve our praise and admiration are those who do their duty for its own sake. They do what is right because it is right, rather than from ulterior, self-interested motives. This is an attitude of direct respect for morality (The Fundamentals of Ethics, 2010, p. 60).
One might draw from Shafer-Landau’s reflections the conclusion that fearing God may actually be a bad state of affairs because it undermines moral character, and it undermines moral character because it moves people to do right actions for wrong reasons.
Beyond Shafer-Landau’s criticism, it is puzzling why fearing God is a good state to be in. A child who feels perfectly safe in the love of his parents does not fear them. A wife who feels secure in the love of her husband will not fear him. These are both analogies for how God (or Jesus) is supposed to be with us (or the church).
(We could even ask whether fear of a person is compatible with being fully secure in that person’s love. Hence, it may turn out that two supposedly good moral qualities are incompatible.)