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In considering the matter of the fear of God/gods and human response, Thucydides has an interesting observation in Book II The Peloponnesian War. He is describing a circumstance of people flooding into the city of Athens. He first describes the breakdown in public order:

[52]An aggravation of the existing calamity was the influx from the country into the city, and this was especially felt by the new arrivals. [2] As there were no houses to receive them, they had to be lodged at the hot season of the year in stifling cabins, where the mortality raged without restraint. The bodies of dying men lay one upon another, and half-dead creatures reeled about the streets and gathered round all the fountains in their longing for water. [3] The sacred places also in which they had quartered themselves were full of corpses of persons that had died there, just as they were; for as the disaster passed all bounds, men, not knowing what was to become of them, became utterly careless of everything, whether sacred or profane. [4] All the burial rites before in use were entirely upset, and they buried the bodies as best they could. Many from want of the proper appliances, through so many of their friends having died already, had recourse to the most shameless sepultures: sometimes getting the start of those who had raised a pile, they threw their own dead body upon the stranger’s pyre and ignited it; sometimes they tossed the corpse which they were carrying on the top of another that was burning, and so went off.

The breakdown in public order led to a breakdown in moral order:

[53] [1] Nor was this the only form of lawless extravagance which owed its origin to the plague. Men now coolly ventured on what they had formerly done in a corner, and not just as they pleased, seeing the rapid transitions produced by persons in prosperity suddenly dying and those who before had nothing succeeding to their property. [2] So they resolved to spend quickly and enjoy themselves, regarding their lives and riches as alike things of a day. [3] Perseverance in what men called honor was popular with none, it was so uncertain whether they would be spared to attain the object; but it was settled that present enjoyment, and all that contributed to it, was both honorable and useful.

He then addresses the issue of fear as a restraint upon human behavior:

[4] Fear of gods or law of man there was none to restrain them. As for the first, they judged it to be just the same whether they worshipped them or not, as they saw all alike perishing; and for the last, no one expected to live to be brought to trial for his offences, but each felt that a far severer sentence had been already passed upon them all and hung ever over their heads, and before this fell it was only reasonable to enjoy life a little.

Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War (Medford, MA: London, J. M. Dent; New York, E. P. Dutton, 1910).

This is interesting not just for the observation about the relationship between fear and restraint (why not do whatever I desire when it makes no difference in terms of punishment), but also the matter of “faith” in gods/God. I wrote a couple of days ago about the question of a crisis of faith following a great loss.

This people are experiencing a crisis of faith and have become atheists in practice if not in theory. They are living as if there is no divine judgment. Since it is the duty of a god to protect me from the vicissitudes of life, what is the point of faithful relationship to the god, if the god will not protect me from this world. That idea is so deeply engrained in us, that we effectively believe – even among professing Christians – that if some difficulty befalls us, that we God has failed.

But Christianity sees trouble as ultimately stemming from a decision of God. In a polytheistic society, there are multiple divine agents. Thus, one should worship the god/goddess who best be able to protect and advance my interests among the other gods. To get across the sea, it does little to have the help of a god who has no power over the water.

They gave up on worship, because the gods could no longer sustain their duty of protection. Gods operate like politicians who can get votes only so long as they have the capacity to provide some benefit. And that benefit must be immediate and tangible.

Why then would God fail to deliver to protect one against trouble. If there is trouble, why not a judgment upon Egypt which does not touch Goshen?

The promise is not a delivery in this age, but a delivery from this age:

Galatians 1:1–5 (ESV)


1 Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— 2 and all the brothers who are with me,

To the churches of Galatia:

3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5 to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

The obvious rationale to permit trial in this age is that trial in this age sets our hope elsewhere. The book of Ecclesiastes begins with the observation that this world is utterly vain – it will not persist nor will it satisfy. The book ends with the admonition:

Ecclesiastes 12:13–14 (ESV)

13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.

This is interesting, because it is so countercultural. The disposition described by Thucydides is the human default: The job of a god is to protect me from the vanity of this world. If the god fails in that task, there is no basis to fear that god. But Ecclesiastes says: The world is in fact vain. But the vanity of the world should lead to the conclusion to in fact fear God.

But there is also a coherence between Thucydides and Ecclesiastes, the gods of the Athenians could not fulfill their promise. They were “hired” to do a job, which they could not do. Like the Egyptian gods systematically destroyed the plagues, the Athenian gods were shown to be no gods.