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Angela Tilby: We should rethink the fear of God

15 November 2019


AFTER All Souls’ Day and Remembrance Sunday, I have been uncomfortably aware of a discrepancy between the Latin texts of the requiem mass and the more reassuring tone of most remembrance services.

Sung requiems are popular at this time of year, especially the settings of Maurice Duruflé and Gabriel Fauré. Although both these composers omit the ferocious Dies Irae, their music graphically portrays the fear of death and impending judgement. And this is where the discrepancy is most obvious. While the choir sing desperately, “Save me from eternal death. . .”, we hear on All Souls’ Day that our loved ones are safe with God, and, on Remembrance Sunday, that the sacrifice of those who died in war was not in vain.

We need to hear these things, but the requiem texts tell us something different, which is that the prospect of judgement after death is fearful. In fact, I can’t think when I last heard a sermon about judgement, even though it is the main scriptural source of belief in an afterlife. In the book of Daniel, God judges nations, peoples, and souls, vindicating the just and punishing the evil. Judgement manifests God’s nature as holy, just, and good. The wicked are not safe from God: they will get their comeuppance. And the righteous are assured of life: they will shine like stars in the heaven.

These days, we are hypersensitive to the atheists’ jibe that a condemning God is simply unbelievable. So, we settle for an agnostic vagueness about the afterlife which does not prevent our railing about the fate of those whom we consider evil, for whom no hell is bad enough to pay for their crimes.

The life of the world to come is part of the Christian hope, part of what the resurrection means. Perhaps, to understand it, we need to rethink the fear of God as well as the love of God.

I have never forgotten a conversation in a school English class, when the sceptics were mocking the notion of judgement after death and some believers were arguing for it. The teacher, a Miss Clay, was a thoughtful scholar, much respected by her pupils. She argued that, at death, we would all find ourselves coming before the face of God — but what we found that face to be would depend on the state of our hearts, since God was both utterly holy and utterly loving.

I found this compelling at the time, and I still do. It was many years later that I discovered that it had resonances with Orthodox teaching about death and judgement. I find that it enables me to take both death and life seriously: there is, indeed, all to play for in this vale of tears. I will have her wise words in mind as we approach Advent.

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