At first glance, it would seem the Bible has very little to say about cowardice. Some translations do not even contain the word, while in others it is found only once in Revelation 21:8, in which the coward is condemned to hellfire along with murderers and sorcerers. Other translations use the word fearful in place of the word cowardly, but could it be that these words are synonymous? If so, what does that mean for us, who have all been fearful at one time or another? Are we “the cowardly” of which Revelation 21:8 speaks?
In the Greek, the word translated “cowardly” in Revelation 21:8 implies fearfulness and timidity. The dictionary also defines coward as someone who lacks the courage to do difficult, dangerous, or unpleasant things. A coward consciously shies away from unpleasant situations, doing whatever he can to save his own skin—enslaving himself to fear. Cowardice is sometimes linked to a guilty conscience: “The wicked flee though no one pursues, but the righteous are as bold as a lion” (Proverbs 28:1). Scripture has much to say about being a slave to fear and contains stories of some godly people who gave in to fear.
Peter is a good example of someone who once showed cowardice or enslavement to fear. Peter’s three-fold denial of Jesus to save his own life revealed a fear that was still surrendered to men rather than to God (Luke 22:54–62). Later, during the time of the early church, Peter once decided to refrain from eating with the Gentiles out of fear for the “circumcision party”—the Judaizers (Galatians 2:11–13). His fear of being criticized by his Jewish brothers kept him from obeying God, who had commanded him to accept the Gentiles into the community of believers, freely eating and drinking with them (Acts 11:1–17). Despite Peter’s cowardice on occasion, Jesus loved him and continued to call him a disciple (Luke 22:31–32; John 21:15–22). With Jesus’ forgiveness and the gift of His sanctifying Spirit, Peter learned to live a life of great faith and boldness despite facing persecution (1 Peter 4:12–19; John 21:17–19).
Joshua was the man who led Israel in the conquest of Canaan; given the many battles he faced and won, no one would ever call him a coward. Yet Joshua must have struggled with fear, for the Lord tells him over and over to “be not afraid,” “be of good courage,” etc. (Joshua 1:9, 18; 8:1). It was an encouragement against cowardice that Joshua passed along to the Israelites (Joshua 10:25).
There are numerous places in Scripture where God tells His people to “be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified . . . for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6). This is a command, not a suggestion. How could God expect us not to be afraid? It is because He promises to strengthen us and be with us. His power and presence are ours (2 Timothy 1:7; Psalm 37:27–28; Matthew 28:18–20). Perhaps at times we play the coward, enslaving ourselves to fear just because we do not take God’s Word seriously; we do not believe He is actually with us or will strengthen us. While it is natural to experience fear, we are commanded not to let fear control us; instead, we are to cry out to the God of peace, who has promised to be with us and will help us in time of need (Philippians 4:5b–9; Isaiah 51:12).
Jesus is our best example of facing fear without letting it control or keep Him from obeying God (Luke 22:42–44). If we are God’s children by faith in Christ, we do not have to fear the condemnation mentioned in Revelation 21:8 (see Romans 8:1). However, the statement that cowards will be consigned to the lake of fire reminds us that fearful living is not the mark of a disciple of Christ. We must come to God with our fears, asking Him to work His perfect peace within us (Philippians 4:6–7; Psalm 145:18). He wants us to ask, and He will not let us down (Matthew 7:7–10; Isaiah 41:10; 2 Timothy 4:17; Psalm 18:32–34).