“But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters, and all liars … their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” (Revelation 21:8 NIV)
I have always wondered why the cowardly were excluded from the Kingdom of God and condemned to the Lake of Fire. The unbelieving are also so excluded from the future Kingdom. Being fearful or doubting does not seem to carry the same moral umbrage as murder, lying, sexual immorality and the rest. In 1 Thessalonians 5:14, we read,
“Encourage the timid.” (NIV)
Last month I mentioned a book by Paul Berman entitled The Flight of the Intellectuals. Mr. Berman’s book included an analysis of leftist intellectuals and their abandonment of the cause of human rights in the Muslim world. At the same time, they attack Israel which has a better human rights record by far. Berman concludes that these intellectuals fail to speak out against these human rights abuses because they lack courage. He even notes the amazing response towards those who call for courage: they are accused of reflecting a right wing fascist orientation. Courage in the face of evil is not a right or left matter. Berman points this out and notes that failure to stand up against Islamic fascism is the real evil. Berman is a man of the left, so his criticism is all the more telling. I recommend his book.
Cowardice is a Grave and Terrible Evil
In reflecting on the last section of Berman’s book, the text of Revelation 21 came to mind with immediate insight. I saw in a flash that the evil done as a result of cowardice is grave and terrible. Berman says that the reason for the intellectuals’ withdrawal is that those who have stood up in the past now have body guards and have to be very wary; they are targets. Some, especially those with Muslim backgrounds, have to live in hiding. In Berman’s interpretation, it is the videos of stonings, beheadings, bombings and torture that are behind the intellectuals’ withdrawal. Better (and safer) to bash Israel!
Intellectuals are not necessarily people of courage. It is easy to stand up for human rights, the oppression of women, the withholding of equal rights, when those who are the object of the protest are not vicious and violent. People can protest against the Baptists for believing in male headship in the home! Standing up for human rights in France is much easier than in Myanmar (Burma). We commend the scores of Buddhists who lost their lives protesting against the oppressive Burmese government; the rivers ran red in that country. Being against the war in Afghanistan is easy; it takes no great courage. However, it takes great courage for the Afghans to stand up for human rights, to denounce the oppression of women and Taliban barbarism in the face of the very real chance of retribution from Islamic extremists. One shudders to think what may happen in Afghanistan should the Taliban regain power. Will the United States allow this to happen? The jury is still out. Many who shouted, “Hell, no, we won’t go,” during the Vietnam War were not the idealists that some claimed. All too often, they were just the spoiled or indulged cowards of that generation. An ideology can easily be embraced to justify one’s cowardice. Belief and courage go together and are the two crucial characteristics of people who will stand up for right at the risk of their lives.
Rescue Those Being Led Away to Death
The Bible says, “Rescue those being led away to death, hold back those staggering toward slaughter. If you say we knew nothing of this, does not he who weighs the heart perceive it. Does not he who guards your heart know it? Will he not repay to each person according to what he has done?” (Proverbs 24:11-12)
The evil done through cowardice is incalculable. We take the Holocaust as one example. It is as if these verses in Proverbs were written as a commentary on the Holocaust. There were some courageous people who did just what Proverbs exhorted. Some lost their lives in the process, but thousands of Jews were saved by such courage. However, the greatest number of the citizens of Germany and other Nazi allied and conquered countries were silent or cooperative. I am not speaking just of churchmen who demonstrated for Hitler (yes, this did happen significantly). I am speaking of church people who simply embraced cowardice. Hitler’s terrible work depended on this cowardice.
The United States and some of its NATO Allies are fighting a terrible war in Afghanistan. It is very difficult to win, but it can be done with sufficient will and courage. However, easier tasks, whereby hundreds of thousands could have been saved, were rejected. It was the lack of political courage in Western political leaders. For example, it would not have required great military might to have stopped the slaughter in Rwanda. The U.N. would not act. It would not take great military might to stop the slaughter in Darfur. The genocide goes on in spite of President Clinton’s promise after Rwanda of “never again.” One author catalogued the events of massive slaughter and genocide. He asked why these events were allowed to happen. His conclusion was a lack of political will and courage. It was shortsighted self-interest, for in most cases he noted that slaughter could have been easily stopped. Proverbs 24:11-12 should be our foundational foreign policy.
Paul’s exhortation to encourage the timid is probably referring to those who have weak constitutions. It may refer to those who are overcoming psychological fears from the traumas of life. Holocaust survivors are often timid and afraid when a seemingly innocuous sound echoes back to them an event from their life in the camps. For such people, we are to show boundless love and compassion. The subjects in the Revelation passage are surely those who are willing to renounce Yeshua during persecution and those who allow others to be lead away to death without doing anything.
The Surprise of Who Will be Courageous
How much Anti-Semitism is rooted in this human cowardice? It is so easy to make Jews the target and not to face the reality of real evil. In times of terrible challenge, those who respond with courage are often people of no great attainment or success according to worldly standards. They are often meek and humble people like the famous Dutch Ten Boom family. Some of those who will stand up in the face of evil and fight are the very ones that Paul calls timid. The moral character of people is often not revealed until a time of trial.
When I consider the terrible evil rooted in cowardice, I can well understand the words of Revelation. The kind of cowardice that is willing to save one’s own skin at the expense of the slaughter of many is a grievous sin. The cowardice that will deny Yeshua is also a heinous sin. Our faith gives us courage in the face of the most profound moral choices. Our example is Yeshua, who laid down His life for us and brings His courage into our hearts by His indwelling.
“Messiah in you, the hope of Glory.”