The Fear of Death
Noted skeptic Robert Owen visited with Alexander Campbell on the latter’s farm prior to their famous debate in 1829. As they walked about the estate one day, they came to the family cemetery. Owen paused and remarked: “There is one advantage I have over the Christian – I am not afraid to die.” Campbell then asked: “Have you any hope in death?” After a moment, Owen replied negatively. “Then,” rejoined Campbell (pointing to an ox nearby), “you are on a level with that brute.”
Those who claim they have no fear of death are “whistling in the graveyard.” It is a fact beyond dispute that every culture, no matter how primitive, or how sophisticated, evinces the fear of death.
Natives in South America place arrows around the sick to ward off the “Grim Reaper.” Here in America we dress our deceased and cosmetize them elaborately, so as to make them appear as lifelike as possible. Our vocabulary of euphemisms (e.g., “deceased” for “dead”) reveals more than we care to admit.
Someone has observed that much of human fear, in the final analysis, is the fear of death. Some fear flying. It is not because there is any intrinsic fear of the experience itself; it is because we wonder if the plane will stop flying – before it reaches its destination! We fear being “terminal” before we reach the “terminal.” We dread going under the surgeon’s knife, because we know we might not wake up – at least in “this world.”
It has been said that there are two things which man cannot view with a steady gaze – one is the sun, the other is death. When we contemplate this final earthly experience, we flinch.
Bildad, one of Job’s friends, described death as the “king of terrors” (Job 18:14). David once said that the “terrors of death” had fallen upon him. He further described his emotions as those of “fearfulness,” “trembling,” and “horror” (Psa. 55:4-5).
In the Odyssey (XI:488) Homer has Achilles exclaiming: “Say not a word in death’s favor; I would rather be a paid servant in a poor man’s house and be above ground than a king of kings among the dead.” Solomon expressed a similar thought when he said that “a living dog is better than a dead lion” (Eccl. 9:4).
Death is biblically described as an “enemy” (1 Cor. 15:26). The term “enemy” is the Greek echthros, related to echtos, “hate.” Death is a hated thing – because of what it does to us, and to our loved ones.
One of the reasons for Christ’s redemptive mission was to deal with this enemy called “death.” Paul says death will be “abolished,” i.e., rendered inactive (1 Cor. 15:26). The writer of Hebrews puts it like this:
“Since then the children are sharers in flesh and blood, he [Christ] also himself in like manner partook of the same; that through death he might bring to nought him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; and might deliver all them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Heb. 2:14-15).
“Death” is depicted as a master who enslaves – that horrifies us. With all our medical skill we cannot stop death – nor will we ever be able to master, by human achievement, this fatal visitor.
The Brighter Side
There is, however, another view of this distressing matter. Because of our confidence in the integrity of the Scriptures, as the inspired revelation from God, we, by faith, are privileged to look beyond the chilling experience of death. We entertain a reasonable hope that there is a better existence.
When Paul penned his letter to the church in Philippi, he was under house arrest in Rome, awaiting the disposition of his case before Caesar (Acts 28). He did not know how the matter would end. Would he be released? Or would he be executed? It was “up in the air.”
As he contemplated his situation, he weighed the advantages of both possibilities. If he was allowed to live, it would he a blessing to his Christian brethren. He would still be there to instruct and encourage them – a very “needful” thing (Phil. 1:24). On the other hand, if only his personal interests were considered, to “depart and be with Christ” was a reality “very far better” (v. 23).
The term “depart” translates the Greek analuo, literally to “loose up.” It pictures the loosing of the human spirit, up and away from the body, to be in the presence of the glorified Savior. The word stands in contrast to kataluo, to “loose down,” a term descriptive of the decomposition of the physical body after death (cf. 2 Cor. 5:1).
Let us consider, for a moment, why it is “very far better” (note the intensity of this expression – a triple comparative) to die as a Christian, than to remain in this life. A Christian’s death is “very far better” than life on earth because:
(1) For the faithful child of God, death introduces him into the very presence of the blessed Savior himself. To the penitent thief, the Lord promised: “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk. 23:43). To be absent from the body, Paul wrote, is to be “at home with [pros – face-to-face with] the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). Home, sweet home!
(2) Death “in the Lord” terminates all earthly ills – no more sickness, sorrow, or pangs of dying. This is difficult to appreciate because we are cumbered with these problems daily, but it is a thrilling reality.
(3) To die “in Christ,” i.e., in a state of fidelity, is better because it releases us from an environment of rebellion against God, and the consequences that have followed in the wake of that tragedy. Job characterized the realm of the dead as that where “the wicked cease from troubling” (Job 3:17). Though his view of this matter was limited, his language depicts the state of the godly dead.
(4) Those who die in the Lord are introduced into a realm of supreme “blessedness,” i.e., happiness. “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord. . . that they may rest from their labors; for their works follow with them” (Rev. 14:13). The original term for “blessed” is markarios, used in the NT for that “distinctive joy” of those who are in a relationship with Jesus Christ. It occurs no less than seven times in Revelation (1:3; 14:13; 16:15; 19:9; 20:6; 22:7,14).
While it is the case that as long as we are in the flesh, and constantly harassed by death, there will always be some degree of “uneasiness,” in view of the victory accomplished by the Lord, we can approach the inevitable with spirits that are more tranquil. For this we are profoundly grateful.
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.