The Fear of Death, and the Death of Fear

Jun 16, 2024 | Christian Teaching

By: Stephen McAlpine

 Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Heb 2:14-15)

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about death recently, especially in the light of the deaths of young family members of people I know in Western Australia. One in particular has stuck with me, the death of the son of a friend of mine in a diving accident. Tragic deaths resulting in shock, grief and an outpouring of public love and concern. So many people affected.

And even yesterday, the two year memorial on Facebook of the death of another young man, the son of another pastor in Australia, pushed it in my face again.

I remember when my own children were born, and the realisation that with the joy of their birth came that accompanying fear: what if something should happen to them? How would I cope? Right there, mixed with the joy of new life, was lurking in the background, the worry about death.

Not even death, but the very idea of death!

What struck me about my two friends whose sons had died was not that they had no grief. That’s not possible and it’s not biblical. That’s why something such as Buddhism makes so little existential sense. The idea that somehow our suffering is an illusion is an insult to fathers and mothers who have had to bury their sons.

And it is not as if they did not fear the grief that rises like waves, and threatens to swamp them at inopportune times, or stands around the corner ready to mug them when they least expect it. Indeed, when my father died seven years ago, it took about three months for it to hit me. And then, guess what? That’s all it did. Hit me!

Constantly. At different times, and in different ways. Standing chopping vegetables at the sink. Taking the dog for walk. Bending over to get a cup out of the kitchen cupboard. Always there.

When it says in Hebrews that the role of Jesus was to break Satan’s power of death, it does not mean that Satan himself holds the keys to life and death, that’s God’s role through Jesus himself. We have to acknowledge that. Satan is not powerful in the way that God is powerful.

The Fear of Death

But the passage explains what the problem is – sin itself. Sin, our spiritual state before God, is what makes us fear death. Our deaths. Satan – as the one who led humanity into sin – now dangles the consequences of that over our heads, accusing us and tormenting us by the very thing he introduced to us. And it’s that sin that gives death its sting. Remove the sin, remove the sting. Simple!

Suppress it though we may, it is the uncovering of ourselves at death before a holy God because of the awful effects of sin that is our true fear. And this passage says that the fear of death is a slavery that shapes our whole lives, and that is wholly down to sin’s presence.

People may reject the existence of God, or the reality of sin, but their fear of death is their “tell”. They are holding the death card in their hands, and the fear in their eyes at the thought of death gives them away. There is an exposing day coming when death arrives for us that will, if we are still in our sins, result in the most painful and eternal sting possible.

Deny death all you like, but the constant striving to eke every bit of meaning out of this life while we have it, or to have as much pleasure as we can while we are physically able, or to experience as many trips abroad, study opportunities, meaningful relationships, is simply prove that we know that we are limited and that death is coming. And we fear it.

The Sting of Death

The Bible tells us that the sting of death is sin. It does not tell us that the sting of sin is death. Death holds no sting for those who do not sin. Which is why it held no sting for Jesus. Which is why he was raised from the dead. Death could not be his permanent domain.

When I read a passage such as that in Hebrews it reminds me that all too often in our complacency as Western Christians we think that our goal is to achieve really great things, usher in the kingdom alongside Jesus, or whatever. But these verses tell us that the primary benefit of belonging to Christ is that the universal fear of death – due to sin’s grip on us and what it will mean to die in our sins – will be shattered.

We are helpless and hopeless without Jesus. And with him? Yes we can serve him and do great things in his name, but the primary benefit is to us! Are we so proud that we would refuse to admit that? When asked by non-Christian why we are a Christian, why don’t we more often say:

“Because I feared death, and Jesus has rescued me from that enslaving fear by removing the source of my fear, sin.”

I mean it’s not as if, for all the seemingly sophisticated Western sensibilities, the cool detached rationality that we pretend to give off, that our secular nations are not gripped by the fear of death. Pandemic lockdowns anyone? A virus that was far less potent than many historical viruses, kept us in lockdown in some places for years.

Here we are living on a planet on which the most virtuous of us believe there are far too many humans, yet those same virtuous couldn’t bear the thought of people dying. I’m not sure we’ve unpacked that whole psychology fully, but when we do what I think we will find is that we are dead-scared of death.

For all our sophistication, and claims of freedom, we are weak, fearful and enslaved. And the prospect of death – however dim – proved it.

Christians need to lean into the radical removal of the fear of death in our apologetics. And the pandemic and its results can be a great launching pad for that.

For too long I’ve heard modern Christians slightly scorn the notion that Christianity is about going to be with Jesus in heaven when we die. Okay, so it’s more than that, but surely it’s not less. I hear lots about us getting on with the continuity project of advancing the kingdom of God, and how the goal of history is us aligning ourselves with Jesus and his goal for humanity and justice etc.

But let’s face it, if Jesus does not return in the next seventy to eighty years, everyone reading this is going to be dead. If part – a good part in fact – of your Christian hope is not that you are going to be with Jesus when you die, then you’re as much in the denial of death as what the rest of modern culture seems to be.

Don’t be embarrassed to tell people that one of your great reasons for becoming a Christian is that you will be with the life-giving, sin-defeating, death conquering Jesus when you die, as you await the resurrection. You may get a blank stare, but from what Hebrews 2 tells me, the person you are having a conversation with is absolutely terrified of death. They may try to hide it, but it is enslaving them. It is shaping absolutely everything about their lives.

Humans live in the fear of death, despite their denial of this truth. This fear leaks out of us in the way we live our lives. It enslaves us. How? Not simply because we fear it happening to us, but also because we fear the process of it happening to us. We fear the deconstruction process because we know it is inevitable, inexorable and insistent. We all die. And the older we get the more noticeable that is. If indeed we are fortunate enough to get older.

And for all of the attempts by humanity to diminish that fear, it enslaves us. It enslaves us to strive and strive and strive to wring every bit of meaning possible out of our lives in order to somehow feel better about the fact that we won’t last.

The Death of Fear

The good news of the gospel is not that we will be hermetically sealed off from the harmful and fatal problems of this world. Accidents, cancer, ageing, dementia, suffering – all the signs of death. The good news of the gospel is that we are no longer enslaved by the fear of death. Grief in the face of death is inevitable. But fear in the face of death, not so.

According to these verses in Hebrews, something has changed dramatically. Instead of the fear of death, we have the death of fear. It’s a total reversal. We are no longer enslaved by the fear of something. That fear has been killed. It has died. The fear that our world cannot articulate, even while it still holds, no longer has a grip on us.

And, inevitably, this bleeds back into our lives day to day. If the fear of death has been negated, and the death of fear is our new reality, then we can live life now very differently. We can seek the kingdom of God and not feel like we are missing out on all the other stuff. We can serve others and die to our own desires, because death is not going to destroy our hopes.

A fearful enslaved life, waiting for the inevitable sting due to sin is no longer our reality. Death’s sting is lost. Death will happen because in our humanity we belong to the fallen Adam. But death’s sting – sin – will not accompany our deaths because in our new humanity – we belong to the risen Christ.