The Fear Of Death

It is written:

Hebrews 2:14-15-Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, 15  and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.

Death is not a pleasant subject.

Blanchard has written:

“At 6.21 a.m. on 21 April 1992, Robert Alton Harris became the first man in a quarter of a century to be executed in a Californian gas-chamber. He had been sentenced to death almost fourteen years earlier but, by the expert use of every legal process open to them, his lawyers had succeeded in obtaining four stays of execution, the last one at four o’clock that morning, when he was already strapped into the death chair. When the final appeal failed, Harris asked prison officials to make a note of his last words and to release them after his death: ‘You can be a king or a street-sweeper, but everybody dances with the Grim Reaper.’ 80 It was an interesting final flourish, but it hardly broke new ground; death, after all, is the ultimate fact of life. Fred Carl Kuehner calls it ‘the most democratic institution on earth’ and adds, ‘It allows no discrimination, tolerates no exceptions. The mortality rate of mankind is the same the world over: one death per person.’ 81 Death comes to young and old, good and bad, rich and poor, educated and ignorant, king and commoner. It has no age exemption, no colour bar, no sex discrimination and no preference for time or place. About 100 human lives came to an end in the time it took me to write that sentence. It is said that the fourth-century B.C. Greek ruler Philip of Macedon had a servant with a standing order to present himself at the door of his master’s tent every morning and announce, ‘Philip, remember you must die.’ The king clearly had his reasons for this unusual command, but most people try to avoid the subject if at all possible. King Louis XV of France is alleged to have forbidden his servants to mention the word ‘death’ in his presence. Elizabeth Kuebler-Ross, who has majored for many years on the subject of death and dying, recalls that when she asked the staff of a 600-bed hospital to identify which of their patients were at a terminal stage of life, so that her students could do some research with them, nobody would admit that there was even one. There is a powerful denial dynamic at work here. Sigmund Freud noted, ‘No one really believes in his own death,’ 82 and Alex MacDonald writes, ‘If the nineteenth century tried to conceal the facts of life, the twentieth has tried to conceal the facts of death.’ 83 Death is the last taboo. We are stubbornly reluctant to face up to our own mortality, and have invented a truckload of terms to avoid the dreaded ‘D… word’. We say that someone has ‘passed away’, ‘passed on’, or is ‘no longer with us’. More crudely (and to avoid being serious) people speak of those who have ‘kicked the bucket’, ‘snuffed it’, ‘cashed in their chips’ or ‘popped their clogs’, and are now ‘six feet under’ or ‘pushing up the daisies’. There is a growth industry in euphemisms employed to sanitize the subject. Some hospitals in the United States refer to a death as ‘negative patient care outcome’, undertakers are ‘grief therapists’, the funeral home has become the ‘slumber room’, the cemetery is the ‘memorial park’ and the gravestone a ‘horizontal marker’. It is hardly surprising to find an almost universal reluctance to get to serious, personal grips with the subject of death, not least because it points so powerfully to human mortality, to what Alister McGrath calls ‘the trauma of transience’. 84 Nor is this unsettling sensation limited to the weak, the sick or the elderly, as McGrath shows in this moving personal testimony: ‘When I was about twelve or thirteen, I used to lie in my bed on winter evenings, gazing out through the bedroom window at the night sky. I had become interested in astronomy and knew the names of most of the major constellations, as well as some facts about some of their stars. Although I was always impressed by the beauty of the night sky, I nevertheless found it made me feel rather melancholy. Why should something so beautiful make me feel so sad? Because I knew that the light from some of those stars had taken thousands of years to reach the earth. And I knew that I would be dead and gone long before the light now leaving those stars would ever reach earth. The night sky seemed to me to be a powerful symbol of my own insignificance and mortality. I found it unbearable.’ 85 As time trickles on, the pressure mounts. Writing in the Daily Telegraph in 1994, Mary Kenny put her own feelings into print: ‘Once you hit 50, death hovers ever nearer as friends, family and contemporaries are picked off one by one by the grim reaper. The thought is detestable, and always has been. Yet curiosity about how we die and what happens afterwards remains central to our concerns.’ 86 Malcolm Muggeridge wrapped his concerns in a maritime metaphor: ‘Now the prospect of death overshadows all others. I am like a man on a sea voyage nearing his destination. When I embarked I worried about having a cabin with a porthole, whether I should be asked to sit at the captain’s table, who were the more attractive and important passengers. All such considerations become pointless when I shall so soon be disembarking.’” (John Blanchard, Does God Believe in Atheists? 7791-7841 (Kindle Edition); Carlisle, PA; EP Books USA)

While death remains in so many ways the greatest mystery of all, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ have given hope to those who follow Him. Recently, I was reminded of this in a strange way: through a dream.

My dreams are often strange and unpredictable, but often times I believe they are sent by God to prepare me for challenges or obstacles that I will face. Elihu reminded Job that dreams serve this purpose of God:

Job 33:14-30-For God may speak in one way, or in another, Yet man does not perceive it. 15  In a dream, in a vision of the night, When deep sleep falls upon men, While slumbering on their beds, 16  Then He opens the ears of men, And seals their instruction. 17  In order to turn man from his deed, And conceal pride from man, 18  He keeps back his soul from the Pit, And his life from perishing by the sword. 19  “Man is also chastened with pain on his bed, And with strong pain in many of his bones, 20  So that his life abhors bread, And his soul succulent food. 21  His flesh wastes away from sight, And his bones stick out which once were not seen. 22  Yes, his soul draws near the Pit, And his life to the executioners. 23  “If there is a messenger for him, A mediator, one among a thousand, To show man His uprightness, 24  Then He is gracious to him, and says, ‘Deliver him from going down to the Pit; I have found a ransom’; 25  His flesh shall be young like a child’s, He shall return to the days of his youth. 26  He shall pray to God, and He will delight in him, He shall see His face with joy, For He restores to man His righteousness. 27  Then he looks at men and says, ‘I have sinned, and perverted what was right, And it did not profit me.’ 28  He will redeem his soul from going down to the Pit, And his life shall see the light. 29  “Behold, God works all these things, Twice, in fact, three times with a man, 30  To bring back his soul from the Pit, That he may be enlightened with the light of life.

Recently, I had a dream of a cousin and of a friend who had passed away. They told me that soon I would be with them again in the land of faceless day, the Paradise that God has prepared for His people till that Day when He makes the new heavens and the new earth (2 Corinthians 5:1-7; 2 Peter 3:13). What stands out to me is the way that this made me feel. I was not afraid, but was anticipating the journey to be with them again. My cousin and my friend were so vividly dressed and looked as they did when I knew them in life. However, they were both in good spirits and good health. What a blessing to see them so well!

What a hope that I have, even in the face of death!

Thanks to Jesus, I have that hope.

Indeed, Paul himself discussed this when he wrote:

2 Timothy 4:6-8-For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. 7  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8  Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing.

Look at the word “departure” that Paul uses.

“The Greek word for departure has nuances of taking a tent down, analogous to the soul leaving the body in death, since the earthly body is like a tent, not a permanent dwelling. Another nuance is that of letting go the anchoring lines of a ship as it leaves the dock. After many journeys, it is upon just such a long voyage that Paul was now setting out. Accordingly, death was not desperately viewed as an end but simply a departure from the flesh to dwelling with God. Calvin had a distinctive interpretation of this passage: “The time of my dissolution is at hand,” suggests that “death is nothing else than a departure of the soul from the body—a definition which contains a testimony of the immortality of the soul” (p. 259). “This mode of expression… beautifully lessens the excessive dread of death by pointing out its effect and its nature” (Calvin, p. 260). He is talking about his departure from life. He understood this as being released, the release of his life from his body in death. He does not seem to have a grim or defeated or inwardly despairing picture of himself. He sees himself as having lived a purposeful life, now living out a purposeful death, in another of many events of witness (marturia). As if already ticketed for a journey, he stands waiting for the hour of departure, ready for the anchor to be hoisted.” (Thomas C. Ogden, First and Second Timothy and Titus INTERPRETATION A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching170-171 (Kindle Edition); Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press)

For the child of God, death is a transition from one realm to another.

On another occasion, Paul wrote:

Philippians 1:23-For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.

Again, the word translated here as “depart” is a derivative of the word used in 2 Timothy 4:6 (and translated as “departure).

Barclay provides this for us:

“‘My desire is to depart’, says Paul–and the phrase is very vivid. The word he uses for to depart is analuein. (1) It is the word for breaking up a camp, loosening the tent-ropes, pulling up the tent-pegs and moving on. Death is a moving on. It is said that in the terrible days of the Second World War, when the Royal Air Force stood between Britain and destruction, and the lives of its pilots were being sacrificed, they never spoke of a pilot as having been killed but always as having been ‘posted to another station’. Each day is a day’s march nearer home until, in the end, camp in this world is finally dismantled and exchanged for permanent residence in the world of glory. (2) It is the word for loosening the mooring ropes, pulling up the anchors and setting sail. Death is a setting sail, a departure on that voyage which leads to the everlasting haven and to God. (3) It is the word for solving problems. Death brings life’s solutions. There is some place where all earth’s questions will be answered and where those who have waited will in the end understand.” (William Barclay, The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians (The New Daily Study Bible) by, 33 (Kindle Edition); Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press)

Thanks to Jesus, we can have that confidence in the face of death. For the Christian (i.e., the believer in Jesus who has repented of sin and been added to the church when baptized-Acts 2:37-47; 11:26), death is what brings the people of God together with the Lord.

But for the one who sin’s ready, death will bring about a terrible transition:

Luke 16:22-23-So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. 23  And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.

Choose wisely: for in the end, “everybody dances with the Grim Reaper.”

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.

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