I was given my first Bible (New Testament with Psalms and Proverbs only, to gain a complete Bible would have cost money and as usual I had no pocket money that day) in 1972, in my first year in High School, by the Gideons International. Having been raised in a nonreligious home we did not have a Bible anywhere around and neither did we ever go to church, so I had known therefore nothing of the story of Jesus. I began reading this little Bible at once, for the first time, truly curious as to its contents. I really had no idea what to expect.
Starting with Saint Matthew, I read the story for the very first time. I remember reading that when Christ healed a person that He then told the one healed not to shout it about but to "go and show yourself to the priest," which I pictured to be a Catholic priest, then knowing nothing of the Levitical priesthood. Of course, what I knew then of Catholicism could all have been gleaned from "Fr. Mulcahy" of M*A*S*H. There were these men called "priests" who dressed a certain way and who led people in pious prayers. I also remember reading of how the "bad guys" seemed to be closing in on Jesus, arresting Him and so forth, and I was wondering just how He was going to escape. After all, in all the stories, the good guy, almost killed off by the bad guy, then somehow escapes and instead captures the bad guy and either kills the bad guy or at least brings him to justice. To my complete surprise and astonishment, the bad guys killed Him, all the way dead and buried, the end. No, not the end, for then He came back to life, and that completely blew me away. In short, these events all unfolded for me exactly as they did for the disciples/apostles of old, with no expectation of what was to come.
On reading Saint Mark, and then the first 8 or 10 chapters of Saint Luke, it became obvious that the same story was being told over and over again, albeit obviously from slightly different perspectives. Saint John started with some cryptic words about the Word being God ("God is a Word? What in the world could that possibly mean?") and with some further hasty skimming it quickly became clear that this too was yet another retelling of the same story, from yet another perspective. Anyway, another book was beckoning me. REVELATION! At least that what it was called in my free Gideon's Bible edition I was reading (which I still have after all these years as a sort of reminder of "there but for the grace of God go I"). The very title seemed to have the glow of an end-of-the-book-end-of-the-world significance to it. I couldn't wait to read it! It too blew me away with bizarre and psychedelic imagery which I again couldn't make the faintest sense of. Much of it seemed rather violent and menacing, oceans turned to blood and fish dying (what an ecological disaster that would be!) and so forth. But then, near the very end, like the sun peeping out from behind the passing storm clouds of ultimate darkness, there came that final glory of the New Heaven and the New Earth and every tear being wiped from their eyes. It almost made all the previous violence worth it.
It is at this point that there comes a rather strange verse which I wish to comment on in this article. As I originally read it, it went thus: "As for the cowardly, however, and the unbelieving, and the depraved, the murderers, the immoral, those practicing magic arts, and idolaters and all liars - their lot is in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur. This is the second death." The Catholic Douay reads scarcely any different, allowing for its use of more archaic English: "But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, they shall have their portion in the pool burning with fire and brimstone, which is the second death." That the depraved (abominable), murderers, immoral (whoremongers), liars, and practicers of magic arts (sorcerers) should be damned, who can doubt? And it is such common knowledge that God places such a premium on believing that even the damnation of unbelievers is at least not unexpected, but the cowardly (fearful)?
No one would argue that a cowardly person is the least worthy of respect. Cowards are obviously contemptible, easy to disdain, hard not to despise. Few things could possibly be more embarrassing than to be revealed to be a coward. Pathetic, really, pitiable even. But damnable? Worthy of eternal damnation to the lake of fire and sulphur, where they are to be tortured day and night forever and ever, and from which the smoke of their torment is to ascend forever? That seemed to me most particularly severe and altogether uncalled for. Is there not a distinction between being merely pathetic and contemptible, versus being actually evil and malicious?
It kind of reminds me of a joke I used to have at the time: "The penalty for suicide [attempted or successful] is death." The cowardly are afraid of everything, so why not have all their worst fears therefore realized? What could be more amusing? "Let's scare the fearful!" National Lampoon could easily run a long ways with this idea. But whatever comedic sense one could make of it, no one would for a moment seriously claim any possible moral basis for such a policy, or even any morality in the person who would actually have enjoyment from, and laughter at, seeing a coward meet up with his worst fears. Seeing it in the Bible was therefore quite a shock, and even made it difficult for me to take it seriously for a season.
At that time, there was in my small circle of acquaintances a kid my own age who was the most perfect coward I have ever seen. He was afraid of everything. He would come late to school so that everyone would already be in their classes when he came on the scene so as not to have to be near them in the halls. After school he would skulk from hiding place to hiding place all the way home, hoping not to be seen by anyone. He had peculiar noise he would make whenever he felt threatened, an "eeeeh" sound he would make with each breath. So for example, if someone nearby made a sudden move he would leap at once to the furthest corner, his fingers working near his face and his eyes scanning the horizon for some means of escape, and saying "Don't hurt me. Eeeeh. Eeeeh. Eeeeh." The sheer mortal terror that would show on his face would be comic if it weren't so serious. It wasn't a joke. He really was afraid.
Other kids, to what limited extent they knew of him at all, made fun of him. One thing they would do is raise their arm suddenly, as if getting ready to punch him, and then all they do is scratch an (imaginary) itch on their head. That would be enough. He would be cowering in a corner exactly as I described. I however felt pity for him. For a few short weeks I spent some considerable time with him, first of all overcoming his fears of me and allowing him to fully realize that I will not hurt him but can be trusted. Then I began trying to help him psychologically, with whatever few dribs and drabs of Freudian psychology I had picked up by then. I don't know if I achieved any permanent good or not with him. His family soon moved away and I have no idea what became of him. For me however, this guy shall always epitomize and personify cowardice.
All the same, the manifest irony of threatening the coward with eternal fire and brimstone is obvious. He already has much to fear, and now an additional fear. But actually there is a kind of sense to it. Since fear is the one thing a coward truly understands, why not indeed point out the supreme and most valid object of fear, namely God and His Judgment. So what then? Shall the coward stop being afraid? If he could succeed in conquering his fear, would he not also cease to be threatened by such dire threats of Divine Judgment?
This points up the real problem with being a coward, in the sense intended at the scriptural passage. The fundamental problem is not that he has fears, but that he fears the altogether wrong things. As our Lord pointed out, "Fear not those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul, but rather fear Him who can destroy both body and soul in Hell." The coward, in the sense intended by the passage in the Apocalypse is therefore he that fears those who can only kill the body more than he fears the Lord.
With a coward, the real "authority" is therefore he that can (and might) create the greatest harm. The bigger and badder the bad guy, the more the coward will listen to him, and do whatever is told. This is what makes the coward a card carrying member of the Kingdom of Darkness, as the coward is controlled and directed by whoever leads in sheer evilness.
Look what evil cowards work in society at large. Think of the gangster protection rackets. "Pay us money so that nothing bad will happen to you." The coward pays up, fearing the loss of …what? His tires may be slashed? His dog poisoned? Maybe even his house burned down? He will pay anything not to find out. All it takes is a few such cowards to get this started, and with the money so collected it becomes possible to enlarge the gang with new members who can terrorize only all the more people, find more cowards, and even make paying cowards of those who formerly ignored them when they were only starting out. The coward feeds the evil, and the evil thereby grows.
Getting back to the situation with my cowardly High school "friend," it is only lucky for me that no bully told him to do any injury to me, for the threat of a punch to the face would have been enough to oblige him to do so. Here I had thought he was harmless, but in fact he was as much a subject of the evil one as any devil worshipper could ever be. It is fortunate for me that his family moved away before this could happen, for otherwise he might have turned on me the moment it served his cowardly purposes. Because I was known to be perfectly harmless to him, for that reason I was almost nothing to him.
There is another aspect of cowardice. There are those who might be physically brave and yet who can still cower before certain special individuals. I speak here of those who are or can be blackmailed. To be blackmailable is to be at the utter control of whoever it is that is blackmailing you. And even before that there is the bare fact that what makes a person blackmailable is some secret sin which they fear will be found out (and the knowledge of which the blackmailer promises to sit on if paid enough or complied with, a promise typically broken sooner or later no matter what).
In this (somewhat) indirect sense, cowardice is about being blackmailable, about having some secret sin, such that its revelation to society at large, or to certain individuals, is something you will do anything to prevent. Such sins are in themselves cause for entry into Hell, even if not ever used by any blackmailer. For even those sins truly not known to anyone are nevertheless known to God, and also to the demons who provoked them and watched them occur, and one is depending upon the mercy of God not to permit the demons to provide that information to anyone.
Of course, it is an altogether different matter if the "secret" is nothing sinful, such as a surprise party you are planning for someone, or the fact that you are a Christian in a society where Christians are promptly carted off somewhere to be killed upon discovery. In such cases one just has to trust in Providence, do no wrong in protecting the secret, and be ready to be "found out" if God so decides that now is your time.
Then there is what I call the pretended coward. We see these in, for example, the Novus Ordo apparatus, and also in politics. They say that they "want" to do the right thing, but "can't" due to some threat that no one else would ever have taken seriously. Think of John Paul II or Benedict XVI "thinking" of freeing the Catholic Mass, only to be "intimidated" by vague and ill-defined threats from some nameless group of "cardinals." They tell him "if you permit all priests to say the Tridentine Mass as the SSPX requests, there will be a big split." Yeah, right. Of course they are the ones planning to split. A real man - a real Pope - would stand up to them saying, "Why wait? Split now. We don't need you." But of course the whole thing is engineered. The leader doesn't want to seem to be the "bad guy" so he puts up these creeps to provide such a blatantly phony threat which he can then "cower" before and back down and let the nonsense and destruction continue unabated. Sound familiar?
So, between being "at the service" of evil, being blackmailable for some secret sin, or even feigning cowardice in the face of evil so as to get away with doing evil things that otherwise would obviously be inexcusable, and without any accountability ("It's not my fault I did these bad things, they made me! The Devil made me do it!"), one should be able to see just was is so truly damnable, truly evil, and malicious about cowardice, just how evil it actually is.
Finally, a discussion about cowardice would be incomplete without making at least some comments about its opposite, bravery, or courage. Bravery is not about "feeling brave," as that in fact is actually foolish and vain arrogant pride, and not a virtue and most certainly not the opposite of cowardice. This false bravery jumps into danger just for the sheer show-off aspect of it, or for the adventurousness of it, or what not. Indeed, such foolhardy "bravery" can even itself have its roots in cowardice, since one takes the dare because they are afraid of being thought of as a coward. Those who do this sort of thing lightly or recklessly are violators of the commandment against murder, for they toy with their own life. Sooner or later the danger catches up with them and they make themselves ideal candidates for the Darwin Awards.
Real courage on the other hand is about valuing something truly worth valuing more than one's own life. It is a perennial "lesson" one finds characters learning in numerous children's stories, but the point is truly germane. The cutesy creature with wings is afraid of heights and so she never flies very high. But then comes the time that someone she truly cares about has their life on the line and they can only be rescued by our cutesy creature flying as high as necessary to perform the rescue. Even here she flies no higher than truly necessary, but also no lower than necessary, and much higher than she ever "braved" on her own initiative ever before.
Oftentimes we wonder how well we would stand up to the sheer torture and threat of torture as did the holy martyrs of old. "Threaten to feed me alive to the lions and I would probably say anything to escape such a death" we could easily feel, but that is only how we are in our own limited selves, without the actual grace of the moment, which needless to say, is only provided at the time it is needed. When the time comes, we will see that the issue is our love for God, and overwhelmed with that love nothing can scare us.
As Sacred Scripture points out, "Perfect love casts out all fear." Love is what finally motivated the cutesy creature to fly high despite how scary and dangerous that is. Love for whomever she was rescuing from otherwise certain death. And love is the real key to all true bravery and courage, love for another, love for the Truth, love for God. As for cowards, they have no such love and so fear everything, and that is also why cowardice is so damnable.