15 May 2010

Fear of death

I was praying this morning for a friend who, recently, asked me whether there were any sufficient reason to suppose Christianity true.  My friend's immediate motive for asking is the fear of death.  When this person wrote to me asking me this, I responded, as Christians do, with reasons for believing in God - and for believing in eternal life.

I don't know what effect, if any, my answer may have made, but in prayer this morning, I thought that it might be this person was thinking of faith as a means to be free of the fear of death.  And my own reaction to that thought was, immediately, that I, who consider myself a person of faith, certainly fear death.  Indeed, I thought, "Well, of course I fear death; who wouldn't?"

Some, I think, do not fear death.  Some, perhaps, even long for it.  There are, I suppose, two sorts of person who do not fear death: those who have been perfected in faith, whose faith has almost the nature of sight; and those at the other end of the scale, who have embraced complete despair.  The latter I dare not make an observation regarding, and the former I can only long one day to be like.  Most of us are, I think, somewhere in the middle.

I should be clear that I am distinguishing between fearing death and fearing dying.  To fear dying - at least to view the pains of dying with very negative feelings - is not difficult to understand.  Every beast appears to be so made as to seek to avoid pain, and man is, if more than a beast, still, not less.  This is, surely, what lies behind the commonly expressed wish to die suddenly, to be taken unawares, even to die in one's sleep, with no warning.  To a person with cares for others this may not be a very defensible wish; it is at least a very understandable one.  No agonies, no disgusting failures of the body, no overcoming of the body's horror of its own damaging.  Just a quiet, unnoticed slipping away into...

...into what?  Here, I think, is the root of the worst sort of fear of death.  It is not, as is commonly thought by a certain kind of Christian, a fear of appearing before a judging God, even, perhaps, a fear of the torments of Hell.  That kind of fear can be bad, I grant, although in a day not known for Jonathan Edwards-esque sermons - indeed, not known for sermons much at all, I think the fear of judgement may be less frequent than might be healthy.

The fear of death that, I think, is the worst is the fear of annihilation.

On the surface of it, this seems odd - and I have had unbelievers tell me, on occasion, that it is precisely their certainty of annihilation that keeps them from fearing death.  Well, it may be so, and it may be that not all share my feeling - or it may be that such persons have made a bargain with despair.

I do not know, but I am certain that for me, at least, the fear of death that I knew before I was a Christian was precisely that fear of non-being.  Anything - even Hell - seemed - perhaps is - better than that.  I know I am not alone in this.  C. S. Lewis expresses the same view somewhere - perhaps in Surprised by Joy.  And my friend - the one I was praying for this morning - expressed something of the same fear.

One cannot become a Christian in order to receive the benefits of Christianity.  Christ cannot be a means.  He is an end - indeed, the end - or He is nothing.  Yet it is well known that faith, if it does not remove the fear of death, it removes the fear of annihilation.  Death still looms.  Death threatens.  It no longer enslaves, for it has been conquered (Hebrews 2:14-15):
14Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil;

15And deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.
For we know that death is not the end.  And if we are faithful unto death, then judgement, though terrible, is not the last word (I Corinthians 15:54-57):
54So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.

55O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?

56The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law.
57But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.


John from Canada said...

It seems to me that the crux of the question is really more about love than life. It seems to me to be a key aspect of being a human being to believe that love, somehow, is something that ought not to come to an end, and death is a sort of outrage against love. I suspect lack of belief in being loved (or being lovable) is the fundamental core of human despair. Christianity is, in its essence, a love story: "God so loved the world..." and of course in Christianity we have a foundation for the hope that death is not the end of love. But if one doesn't know or believe the Christian message, what basis does one have for that hope? Hence (I think) your friend's question.

John Thayer Jensen said...

Thank you so much for this, John. I think this is so right - and makes prayer for the departed, and by the departed, so precious to me.