Fear and the Powers
Machiavelli caused no little consternation in sixteenth century Italy when he wrote pragmatic advice for ruling in The Prince, particularly the dictum “it is better to be feared than loved.” It seemed so harsh, wrong, and anti-Christian.
The sentiment is surely anti-Christian, but in its particular domain, is it wrong? Has not the historical record generally demonstrated how, indeed, those rulers who were feared tended to rule longer than those who were beloved? Is not fear the primary currency dominating national and global politics, ideologies, and movements?
We may blush at Machiavelli’s advice to rulers in The Prince, but we would be foolish to deny its accuracy, at least in terms of how the world works. Let none be deceived: in Christ, perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18); thus, in Christ, we love, and do not count being feared as greater than being loved. Yet so we may be as shrewd as serpents while seeking to remain innocent as doves, we do well to wonder why, in the present constitution of the creation, it might be better to be feared than to be loved.
To understand such things we must consider what really motivates human behavior: why do we do the things we do? We would like to believe our altruistic and good behaviors are motivated by love and considering the interests of others, and often attribute our evil, immoral, and unhealthy behaviors on our sinful nature or any given panel of pathologies.
How we understand our sinful nature reflects an uncritical holdover from Calvinism. We may protest the excess of “total depravity,” but can we imagine a different story which explains man’s predisposition toward sin? We can through the Hebrews author’s conception of Jesus’ redemption in Hebrews 2:14-15:
Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, he likewise shared in their humanity, so that through death he could destroy the one who holds the power of death (that is, the devil), and set free those who were held in slavery all their lives by their fear of death.
According to the Hebrews author, all of humanity remained enslaved by their fear of death; the behaviors they manifested on account of such fear empowered the Evil One over them. This same story plays out in every successive generation as people grapple with their mortality, and the fear of death remains a very potent weapon. How much compliance can be obtained through the threat of violence and death? How many people suffer acts of depravity and profound evil in the hope they will not suffer death? How many evil acts have been perpetrated by people seized with the great desire to avoid death?
It is not merely the tyrant who understands the value of the fear of death; the Evil One and his forces use it well for their purposes (cf. Ephesians 6:12). The indifferent “let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” is fueled by the unrelenting reality of death; it represents fear turned into acquiescence (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:32). People prove willing to invest highly in causes, corporations, governments, institutions, and organizations in the vain attempt to maintain some kind of joint participation to create an immortal legacy: they might die, but their efforts remain since the institution endures. Even so, death comes to human endeavors as much as it comes for humans as it has ever since the Tower of Babel (cf. Genesis 11:1-9). If we are willing to see it, humans invest untold hours and energy in their lives in the fear of death, seeking some way to resist the dark descent into the night.
And yet, as the Hebrews author relates, Jesus broke the power of the Evil One by taking on humanity, suffering death, and overcoming death through the resurrection from the dead (Hebrews 2:14-15). Paul spoke of Jesus as having overcome the powers and principalities through His death (and ostensibly His resurrection), parading them in triumph (Colossians 2:15). By overcoming sin and death through His death and resurrection, Jesus has also broken the power of the powers and principalities over this present darkness. But if such is the case, how can the powers and principalities remain our persistent foe (Ephesians 6:12)? From whence comes the power which enables the Evil One to dominate over the present order of things?
While there is likely far more going on in the spiritual realm than we can understand, the unsettling answer, at least in part, is ourselves: we enable the Evil One and the powers and principalities over this present darkness. We do so when we give into our fears and allow what we fear to dictate the way we think, feel, and act.
And such is why, in the present order of things, it is better to be feared than to be loved: people are much more easily motivated to think, feel, and act in the ways you desire when appealing to fears than to love. Tyrants understand love may last for a season, but love among people proves fickle; if they fear what you will do to them, or even better, are persuaded to fear one’s opponents, they will prove more loyal to you and to your purposes.
Fear is a profoundly primal motivator. Fear is why individual people might be rational and reasonable, but groups of people are capable of committing the most egregious and heinous acts against fellow human beings. Fear distorts and twists the image of God in us and in others: when motivated by fear, we think the worst of others; we easily demonize and dehumanize them; we give into the ugliness and evil deep within us. People persistently motivated by fear degenerate into unreasonable animals, unrecognizable to those who used to be friends with them, or perhaps even to themselves at a previous time. We have seen how even people who profess godliness will justify or rationalize all sorts of immorality and ugliness when they are successfully induced to fear someone else: no matter how bad the guy is on our side, it would be worse if the guy on the other side won. Whenever the people of God toy with the power of fear to motivate and persuade, they delude themselves into thinking they can accomplish God’s will with Satan’s tactics, and often prove blind to how effectively they do the work of the Adversary for him.
Whenever people give into fear, prove motivated by fear, or seek to manipulate others through fearmongering, Satan rejoices, and the powers and principalities over this present darkness gain strength and dominance. The forces established by those powers and principalities inflict all sorts of distress, grief, pain, and oppression upon others, all in the name of doing to others so it is not done to them, lest those who are currently benefiting from the oppression would suffer the same oppression themselves. Thus it has been since mankind was expelled from the Garden of Eden; thus it will be until the final day of resurrection.
Yet in Christ it must not be so (Matthew 20:25-28). Jesus broke those powers and principalities by suffering the evil without responding in kind. Jesus manifested love where there was fear. In Christ we have nothing to fear, because nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ; if we are rejected, persecuted, mocked, derided, abused, oppressed, injured, or even killed, we have not been separated from the love of God in Christ, and in Christ we will gain the victory if we endure such things, entrusting ourselves to a faithful Creator, and do good (Romans 8:31-39, 1 Peter 4:12-19). In Christ fear can have no currency, for perfect love casts out fear; we have been loved by God in Christ, and if we thus love others, there is no ground left on which to fear anyone or anything. We ought not fear the fears of the world, for in Christ we have victory over fear so we might not be ruled by it.
Wherever there is fear there is the work of the Evil One and the powers and principalities over this present darkness. Where there is the love of God in Christ there is love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, redemption, and hope. May we be sustained in the love of God displayed in Christ, overcome fear through faith and love, and obtain the resurrection of life!
Ethan R. Longhenry