Who Are the “Cowardly” in Revelation 21:8?

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.

Be Sociable, Share!


Who Are the “Cowardly” in Revelation 21:8? — 23 Comments

  1. Jesus said that those who are persecuted in his named will be blessed. Jesus wants his followers to profess their faith and to share the gospel. He knew that his disciples would be persecuted and even killed for their beliefs. It was clearly going to happen because of what happened to him.

    Peter denied Jesus three times. He denied Jesus out of the fear of bodily harm. He was forgiven for this and strengthened his faith later. Luke 22 talks about this.

    We will all likely be tested at some point in our lives. It is important that we stand strong with our faith and that we do not fear in this situation. If you find yourself in a situation like this, remember the words of Jesus and that he has asked us to not fear. He will give you the strength that you need if you ask. He will never leave you alone in a fight against Satan.

  2. Hello sir I’m a follower of Christ but I have fear of going to hell Because of lack of faith Trust doubts and lack of love for the Lord?

    • Weak faith is not the same as lack of faith; weak love is not the same as lack of love. You should concentrate on making your faith and love stronger. Follow a routine or pattern of Bible reading and prayer daily.

  3. I m a believer i accept jesus as my saviour. My husband is a unbeliever.. i try talking to him but he stands for his hindusim.. i wake up early morning and pray ..read bible …n listen to christian songs.. i was anointed by his holy spirit n i do speak in tongue… but my husband against me… he forces me to follow the temple and pray to his god… i do act infront of him… i dont pray to his god… i always think jesus in my heart… m i coward… will i be thrown in fiery lake.. i m secret christian… i believe one day jesus will touch himmm…. someone pls answer my question. Tq in advance

    • What you are describing is exactly what is being referenced in the verse. You are acting out a lie to keep your husband from persecuting you and at the same time are showing a lack of faith. In times such as this, you should not act contrary to your own beliefs, but should take a stand for God. There is nothing to fear when it comes to God. The worst thing that could happen is that you are physically injured because of your faith. The disciples all died because of their faith. They were all blessed due to this. By professing your faith and not fearing the retribution from your husband, you will be demonstrating your faith in a way that is much greater than words coming out of your mouth. Jesus wants you to love him with all of your heart and there is no better way to show this than by not fearing your husbands persecution and maintaining your belief system.

      I am not saying this as to judge you. It is not my place to do so. I am just pointing out that what you have described is exactly what John was referring to.

      The good thing is that you have the power to stand up to your husband and to profess your faith. If you show your faith, others will see this and they will know that you are a true follower of Christ. This will help others with their own faith. Hiding your faith is the wrong thing to do. Be proud to be a follower of Christ.

  4. I wonder whether “cowardly” also meant people who give up on life through suicide out of fear or disappointment and unable continue their lives?

  5. @Clint don’t worry about that, buddy. Always remember Matthew 7:6, it says “Do not give dogs what is holy; do not throw your pearls before swine. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.”

    • People commit suicide for a variety of reasons; this may sometimes be a factor. It would be a huge mistake, though, to think that cowardice is always involved in suicide. It is much more complicated than that.

  6. Then what if a person has cancer, and is in great pain, and thus is afraid they are not going to heaven? Lots of us who suffer long term pain have doubts and wonder where God is. But if you’re crying out to the Lord you’re still a believer, aren’t you?

    • Just remember: God looks upon the heart. He can discern between these momentary doubts and the deep-seated faith from which the cries originate.

  7. Jack thank you so much for answering my question. This definitely makes me feel so much better and I’m glad to know this is not the type of cowardice this verse is referring to. Thank you so much!

  8. What if I am afraid of fighting (physical fist fight) and getting hurt? I am a Christian and know I’m saved but live in a very rough neighborhood with very tough way bigger than me guys who fight all the time and are extremely vivacious and mean, actually very evil people, they would literally kill me and at the least paralyze me or break my neck, make me lose my eyesight or break my bones etc and I know they can easily do it and don’t dare fight any of them and am afraid to because I know I will get severely hurt or killed, does this make me a coward and is this the type of cowardice this verse is referring to?! I have also “backed down” and walked away many times when threatened by them or trying to be made to fight them, is the the type of cowardice this verse is referring to?! Will I go to hell for this and am I a coward and is this what this verse is referring to?! Someone please help and tell me and answer this. I don’t want to have to go and stand up to these guys and be severely permanently hurt and probably killed to keep from being a coward so I won’t go to hell and not make it to heaven. Someone please answer and help me on this asap.

    • Rest assured that this is not the kind of “cowardice” this text in Revelation is referring to. We know this simply by comparing it with the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 5:38-39.

  9. I did a search on this question because I often feel cowardly & the verse Rev 21:8 worried me. Not that I would not confess my faith no matter what, but that I am generally cowardly & working on that. Thank you & God bless.

  10. Is cowardly also not mentioning what we
    know about the Gospel or The Lord because we are hoping for a better opportunity where it looks like the person
    might be more open to receive Christ and
    because partly we want them to keep on accepting us as friend or associate in the

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *