The phrase “fear of the Lord” appears ten times in the Book of Mormon, half of them in quotations of Isaiah (2 Nephi 12:10, 19, 21; 21:2-3). The fear of the Lord has an interesting effect on those in the Book of Mormon. After king Benjamin’s address, the multitude “had fallen to the earth, for the fear of the Lord came upon them” (Mosiah 4:1). During the conversion of Lamoni, when Ammon, Lamoni, and the queen “had sunk to the earth,” the servants of the king who were there “began to cry unto God, for the fear of the Lord had come upon them also. . . . And it came to pass that they did call on the name of the Lord, in their might, even until they had all fallen to the earth” (Alma 19:14-16). Alma, recounting his own conversion to his sons, recalls that “we all fell to the earth, for the fear of the Lord came upon us” (Alma 36:3). In the Book of Mormon, the fear of the Lord is an overwhelming dread that so overcomes people that they fall to the earth. This is reflected also in the Isaiah quotations:
“O ye wicked ones, enter into the rock, and hide thee in the dust, for the fear of the Lord and the glory of his majesty shall smite thee” (2 Nephi 12:10 = Isaiah 2:10).
“They shall go into the holes of the rock, and into the caves of the earth, for the fear of the Lord shall come upon them and the glory of his majesty shall smite them” (2 Nephi 12:19 = Isaiah 2:19).
“To go into the clefts of the rocks, and into the tops of the ragged rocks, for the fear of the Lord shall come upon them and the majesty of his glory shall smite them” (2 Nephi 12:21 = Isaiah 2:21).The Book of Mormon depicts God as an object of legitimate fear, awe, and dread. Jacob notes that “with one glance of his eye he can smite you to the dust!” (Jacob 2:15), and Moroni says “ye would be more miserable to dwell with a holy and just God, under a consciousness of your filthiness before him, and ye would to dwell with the damned souls in hell” (Mormon 9:4). Abinadi reminds his listeners that they should “behold, and fear, and tremble before God, for ye ought to tremble; for the Lord redeemeth none such that rebel against him and die in their sins” (Mosiah 15:26).
The Egyptians experienced something like this fear of God. In their daily temple liturgy, the high priest, who entered the presence of the god on a daily basis, opened the shrine and saw the face of the god. He immediately threw himself on his belly and pleaded:
I am on my belly for fear, fearing thy dread . . . lest I fall dead, slaughtered this day. (P. Berlin 3055 11/8-10, in Rituale für den Kultus des Amon und für den Kultus der Mut, Hieratische Papyrus aus den Königlichen Museen zu Berlin 1 [Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1901], Tafel XI.)
In modern times, this fear of the Lord seems to have left us. We substitute instead the notion that God is tolerant and inclusive. For many modern people, “God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.” (Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005], 165.) This is not a Book of Mormon attitude.
It is no coincidence that the first words out of angel’s (Genesis 21:17) or God’s mouth (Genesis 15:1; 26:24; 46:3; Joshua 8:1; Judges 6:23) are usually: “Fear not!” The visit of a divine being is in general a terrifying experience. Joseph Smith, after God and Jesus appeared to him, said that “when I came to myself again, I found myself lying on my back, looking up into heaven. When the light had departed, I had no strength” (JS-H 1:20). Falling to the earth is the normal reaction to a divine visitation.