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Genesis 3:8-10

And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.”

The serpent, Satan, had promised the man and the woman their eyes would be opened, and they would be like God, if they ate the forbidden fruit. The reality was that their eyes were opened, but they were not like God. They immediately felt shame and remorse for what they had done, and when they heard the Lord coming they felt another new emotion: dread.

The Bible tells us in many places to fear the Lord, but not to dread or be terrified of Him. What is the difference?

When Scripture tells us to fear the Lord, for example Proverbs 9:10a (ESV) The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, it is not telling us to be afraid of the Lord. The word translated fear might more clearly be translated reverence, respect, or awe.

An earthly example might be one’s attitude toward a car. Most people are not afraid when they see a car, but they respect the power of a car and do not walk in front of a moving vehicle. Imagine having the same sort of attitude toward God, but imagine how much more powerful God is than a car.

The man and the woman forsook their fear of God, disobeyed His commandment, and as a result they were now in dread of God’s wrath.

Many people today have the same view of God. They think God is sitting up in heaven, watching our every move so that when we mess up, He can smite us down. Some people believe that God is no longer an angry, vengeful God, but that He was in the Old Testament.

Whoever asserts that the Old Testament God is an especially wrathful God, or that He was an angry God in the Old Testament, is clearly ignorant of Scripture.

The God of the Old Testament is the same as the God of the New Testament. He is capable of great wrath, but is also loving and merciful. The God of the Old Testament is just as loving as the God of the New Testament. In fact, He spoke through the prophet Malachi, For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed (Malachi 3:6, ESV).

Conversely, the supposedly more loving and merciful God of the New Testament is still capable of wrath. In Acts 5:1-11, God struck Ananias and his wife Sapphira dead for lying to the Holy Spirit. Also, the most violent display of God’s wrath is the book of Revelation, which is in the New Testament. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans, Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off (Romans 11:22, ESV).

When Scripture says to fear the Lord, it means we should continue in His kindness, but be mindful that His wrath is against those who fall from it. If we accept His free gift of grace through faith in Jesus Christ, we have no good reason to be afraid of the Lord’s wrath, but we know if we reject the free gift, we will justly receive His fury in hell.

However, when the man and the woman fell, taking all their descendents with them, we see from this passage that the Lord was merciful and not violent. Instead of obliterating the man and the woman where they stood, He sought them out, asking, “Where are you?” Of course, God knew very well where His children were, but He asked for their sake. The man replied, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.”

The man and the woman were afraid of God, but they had no good reason to be. If God wanted to destroy humanity, He would have done so already. This fearful (and incorrect) view of God was the result of the fall.

1 John 4:18 ESV

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.