Who Are the “Cowardly” in Revelation 21:8?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Thursday, August 26, 2010 at 10:48am
Question: In Revelation 21:8, why is “cowardly” in the list of people that will not enter heaven? What does this word mean? What is John getting at?
Answer: This well-known verse says, “But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death” (ESV, throughout). Thus it seems clear that the “cowardly” indeed will not enter heaven.
Who are the “cowardly”? The Greek word is “deilos,” which is from a family of words that occur only rarely in the NT. This is the adjective; it is found here in Rev. 21:8 and in the parallel accounts in Matt. 8:26 and Mark 4:40. These texts are reporting the incident where Jesus and His disciples are in a boat in a great storm, and the disciples cry out, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.” Jesus rebukes them thus: “Why are you afraid [deilos], O you of little faith?” (Matt.), or “Why are you so afraid [deilos]? Have you no faith?” (Mark).
The noun “deilia” is used just once, in 2 Tim. 1:7, “For God gave us a spirit not of fear [deilia] but of power and love and self-control.” The verb “deiliao” is also used just once, in John 14:27b, “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid [deiliao].”
The basic meaning of the adjective thus is cowardly, fearful, timid, fainthearted. In these and in Christian writings in general the word does not refer to specific and usually mundane fears such as fear of water, fear of spiders, fear of heights, or fear of speaking in public. Rather, the word is used in a context of persecution, where one has to choose between taking a stand for Jesus and denying faith in Him. C. Spicq says this: “When Rev. 21:8 places the fainthearted and the unbelieving in the lake of fire, it has in view Christians during times of persecution who, out of a fear of suffering, renounce their faith. It is a commonplace that human courage and cowardice are revealed in the face of death” (“Theological Lexicon of the NT,” Hendrickson 1994, I:301).
In effect, then, such cowardice is similar to or even the same as unbelief. Rev. 21:8 lists the cowardly and the faithless together. In the texts of Matthew and Mark, Jesus equates the disciples’ fear with a lack of faith. The issue is whether we will continue to trust in Jesus and in God’s sustaining power even in the face of persecution and death.
God’s people have always been commanded to live boldly and not to be afraid of our enemies. As Moses exhorted the Israelites in reference to their physical enemies, “Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the LORD your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you” (Deut. 31:6). And God kept His promises: “He led them in safety; so that they were not afraid, but the sea overwhelmed their enemies” (Psalm 78:53). David exhibits this spirit of boldness: “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (Psalm 27:1).
This attitude of boldness, courage, and faithfulness is the point of Rev. 2:10, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (ESV). “Be faithful unto death” surely can mean simply “Hold on to your faith as long as you live.” But it can also mean, as someone has said, “Keep believing in Jesus even if it kills you.” J. B. Phillips translates it, “Be faithful in the face of death.” The Weymouth NT says, “Be faithful to the End, even if you have to die.” In this kind of situation, as the first part of Rev. 2:10 shows, the cowardly are those who renounce their faith in Jesus in order to avoid persecution and even martyrdom. (See Matt. 20:28.)
The bottom line is that this cowardice that condemns one to hell is the opposite of continuing to confess the Lordship of Jesus in the face of trials. Making the “good confession” that Jesus is Lord is necessary for salvation (Rom. 10:9-10). We must continue to make this confession throughout our Christian lives, especially when our faith is challenged. It is well known that the early Christians were often forced to make a choice between pagan gods (such as Caesar) and their Christian faith. Those who held fast to their faith in Jesus through the power of the indwelling Spirit were the opposite of the cowardly. In 1 Cor. 12:3 Paul speaks of this contingency and of the necessity of trusting in the power of the Spirit to remain faithful: “Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says ‘Jesus is accursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (ESV).
Even today, in some anti-biblical cultures such as communism and Islam, Christians sometimes have to choose between cowardice and courage at the risk of their very lives. As of now, in the American culture, we have not yet come to this; but Christians are often called upon to take more subtle risks for Christ’s sake. Sometimes we must choose between faithfulness on the one hand, and such things as social popularity and acceptance, the respect of the intelligentsia, good grades in a college science course, or even our job. May we be faithful in these relatively small things now, so that we may be prepared to confess Jesus as Lord even in the worst of circumstances.