John Bunyan: Is it Good to Fear Hell?

Around the time God converted me at the age of 21, I remember embracing the reality of hell. It terrified me right into the arms of Jesus Christ. I truly sensed fleeing from the wrath to come. So, the first time I read A Treatise of the Fear of God (1679) by John Bunyan (1628-1688), I latched on to his discussion about the terror of hell as a prelude to embracing Christ. 
 
Recently, I took a closer look at Bunyan’s treatment of this topic. In distinction from the Christian “grace” of godly fear, he discusses the natural fear of sinners who can fear God in some sense but not in a godly way. For example, the light of nature prompts men to act in a civil manner towards others out of fear for God. In this way, Abimelech kept his hands off Abraham’s “sister” wife after God warned the king. Bunyan also discusses the servile fear of sinners (slaves) as opposed to the filial fear shown by God’s children. The former stirs up the terror of God (and hell) prompting one to run from him (e.g. Isa. 2:10-21) and never turn to him through Christ. 
 
Next, Bunyan relates a “godly” fear shown by sinners, not yet Christians, experienced temporarily. It concerns the fear of damnation in those coming to Christ. It makes a man judge himself and fall down at God’s feet crying out for mercy (e.g. Acts 2:37; 16:29-30). While he lacks clarity in his discussion, we can conclude Bunyan means limits this godly terror of hell to the regenerate. Such an individual has undergone “an effect of sound awakenings by the word of wrath” and experiences a fear “wrought in the heart by the Spirit of God,” at a “first conversion” or “first awakening.”  This terror turns the sinner, by the work of the Spirit, towards God in Christ. 
 
For Scriptural support, Bunyan appeals to Romans 8:15 claiming that this godly fear of hell occurs through the “spirit of bondage” that carries the sinner from slavery to sonship. Once we become children of God, we do not receive that spirit “again to fear,” as we no longer need it. He claims this fear comes “as a spirit of bondage” with a terror of damnation occurring before the Spirit as a “spirit of adoption” comes upon us. This spirit of bondage convinces us of our sin and our “damnable state. . . before we believe.”  
 
This fear “greatly differs from that which is wholly ungodly of itself,” because in it the “sinner” begins to “judge himself” before God causing him to “cast himself down” at God’s feet for mercy. While this fear comes from one without “faith in Christ” and still “under the law,” it contains the “essence and habit” of the eventual Christian grace of fearing God and grows “into a more sweet and gospel current and manner of working.”
 
The terror of hell goes away when the Spirit, as the spirit of adoption, reveals and applies “the sweet word of promise of life and salvation by Jesus Christ.”  Thus the spirit of bondage no longer operates, since it involves the fear of damnation. We can certainly agree that the regenerate experience a terror of hell in a positive manner that drives them to Christ for relief. However, Bunyan’s exegesis of Romans 8:15 must be called into question. Paul there clearly sets forth the spirit of bondage in an entirely negative sense as the fear of slaves not of sons. It is the very servile fear of which Bunyan spoke earlier and that which drives sinners from and not to Christ. 
 
Still, we can commend Bunyan for treating the fear of hell that drives us to Christ who then delivers us from that terror. He also helpfully considers the Christian’s ongoing struggle with of falling back  to the terror of hell under the temptation of the devil. Bunyan, with great pastoral sensitivity, seeks to bring relief to Christians prone to falling prey again to the fear of damnation. He skillfully sizes up the devil saying: 
 
Satan is always for being too soon or too late. If he would have men believe they are children, he would have them believe it while they are slaves, slaves to him and their lusts. If he would have them believe they are slaves, it is when they are sons, and have received the spirit of adoption,. . . And this evil is rooted even in his nature – ‘He is a liar, and the father of it’; and his lies are not known to saints more than in this, that he labours always to contradict the work and order of the Spirit of truth (John 8).
 
Likewise, Bunyan avoids bringing imbalanced comfort to the children of God whose sin cannot dissolve their relationship with the Father.  Bunyan also deals at length with God’s fatherly “rod” of discipline for those who fall “foully into sin.” He will bring affliction to his children in love but never with the intent to drive them back to their former terrors of hell from which they have been delivered.
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