Despite the tendency of most have to avoid thinking about their own mortality, perhaps this year is one where people en masse cannot circumvent facing their inevitable death. Much like the confines of a funeral home, the current global pandemic and the looming, global economic repercussions of widespread shutdowns are forcing people to dwell on these things, which I believe is fundamentally a good thing. The prospect of death forces us to ask the existential questions of what comes afterwards and what things are of greatest importance while we yet live. I have already written on how one can die well, so I will simply focus on another area of interest for today, which is the question addressed in the title: When will we learn to stop fearing death?
For the one who is not in Christ, there is no real hope for you to not fear death until you have placed your trust in Christ. You may play at certain niceties, yet all of them shall betray you in the end. You will not fade into the energy of the universe, become some lesser or greater being through reincarnation, be at a state of peace or rest, nor shall you even fade into the recesses of non-existence. You shall die, just as everyone else, and either have Christ as your advocate, or have Christ as your prosecutor. What’s more than this is that despite the claims of some, you shall not enter into some state of purgatory, where you can gradually atone for your sins, receive the prayers and offerings of the living, nor come to some greater state of sinlessness as the fires of purgation cleanse you. You shall die, just as everyone else, and immediately stand before your Maker on your way to eternal life or eternal death (Heb. 9:27).
For the atheist, agnostic, and practitioner of false religions alike, you must trust in Christ and Christ alone for the salvation of your soul. Only Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is able to atone for the guilt of your sin and cleanse you of all unrighteousness. It is not Christ plus something. No works of your own, no sacramental system, nor anything else shall save you in place of or in addition to Christ. Only Christ’s sacrifice on the cross shall make you acceptable in the Father’s sight. It also is certainly not the Christ of your own concoction. We must receive Him as He is and not as we imagine Him to be. He is either who the Scriptures claim Him to be, or He is nothing at all. Only the biblical Christ is able to free you from the wrath that is to come. Death is but the entrance into this great and terrible reality for the one who rejects Christ as He is revealed in the Scriptures or trusts in some other work than His finished work upon the cross.
Yet despite having these essential facts correct, there are many a genuine Christian who still greatly fear death. These are the ones who, of all people, should hold no fear of death—and yet what has been revealed as a result of the current pandemic is that many a Christian are tremendously afraid of dying. I tend to believe the reason for this lay in the fact that somehow, many have taken exception to the reality that they must die. They have neglected the great truth that all our days are numbered (Ps. 139:16). They have not prayed to learn of the brevity of life so that they might grow in wisdom and watch their ways before the Lord (Ps. 39:4-5, 90:12). Instead, the brunt of their focus has been on building houses in a world that was never promised to be our home. It has been on amassing that which brings comfort and ease rather than, to express the sentiment of Spurgeon, learning to kiss the wave that slams us into the Rock of Ages.
So much of the modern Christian’s angst and fear regarding death is naturally encompassed by their abject fear of suffering. The two naturally coincide simply because they are part and parcel to the broken, sin-ridden world we have been promised—and that seems to be the very thing which shocks us most: God never promised Christians “easy”, but He has promised us suffering. We are heirs to the promises of God—and yet we tend not to believe all of them. We have inherited the curse of our federal head, Adam, and therefore know with great certainty that this brief life of ours shall be filled with incredible anguish of the soul, much pain, and our inevitable death—yet we do everything within our power to avoid these sure promises. We seek to reduce our suffering, so much so, that even that which is seen as an inconvenience to us has become an affliction. We have trained our minds to think of a mere disagreement as persecution, a slight difficulty as opposition, and a firm hand as abuse.
In much the same way that a wayward child ought to submit himself to discipline, the race of men ought to submit themselves to the curse of the Fall. We must, therefore, simply embrace the reality that we inherited Adam’s guilt for no small reason. In similar manner, we must appreciate that the invariable result of the curse brought upon us through Adam is that One greater than Adam would come. Indeed, even the Fall of Adam was appointed of God to bring about His intended result. Adam, therefore, was a pattern—one for sinful man that he is born in the likeness of Adam—yet the most important of which being that he was a pattern of the One to come (Rom. 5:12-14). Whereas through Adam, sin and death entered the world, through Christ, justification and life came (Rom. 5:18). One man’s disobedience brought all into conformity to the fallen state, wherein the end is eternal death. The true and better Adam’s obedience brings those who trust in Him into conformity to a state of grace, whose end is eternal life.
In some sense, we have known nothing but a life marred by the Fall. We await these glorious promises to be fully realized, living in the midst of a world that continues to bear the consequences of sin. Yet if many of us were completely truthful, unlike the Son of Man, many of us have made a place to lay our heads (Lk. 9:58). In other words, we are comfortable living in this broken age. We are contented, not in a godly sense, with the amenities of a world that inevitably falls grandly short of its purpose. To put it as clearly as possible: many have not truly believed that dying is gain, namely, because we have not embraced the sentiment that to live is Christ (Phil. 1:21). If faced with the choice, a rather large number of us would find it difficult to sympathize with the apostle Paul being torn between remaining in service to the church or dying to be with Christ (Phil. 1:22-23). Perhaps then, for Christians, it is not so much a fear of death itself as a fear of what we stand to lose when we no longer have the comforts of this fleeting age.
If then we are to be free of a fear of death, even a particularly nasty death, we must bear a singular focus on Christ and not the pleasures of this world. We must truly be able to say in our heart of hearts that no matter how it comes, no matter the cost—to die is gain because we will go to be with Christ. It is easy to run this mental exercise and assuage our conscience by affirming that death truly is gain—that we would die happily through suffering much. Any person can say these words and many a good Christian can even earnestly mean them, only to find they still yet treasure this age when the moment comes to test their resolve. One true test of this is to ask if you have a twinge of sadness over missing the good things of this earth. Would you miss being able to see your daughter walk the aisle in marriage to a wonderfully godly man? Would you miss seeing the wife of your youth grow to be a woman who is worthy of much honor in the church for her humble service? Would you miss seeing the Lord bring those to faith whom you bear a great burden of the soul over? The secret delights of our hearts, though not always bad things, are still far less worthy of our affections than Christ. All the delights of heaven, though unsurpassably great things, are still not more worthy of our affections than Christ.
Here then is the honest point of reflection for the Christian who fears death, or its handmaiden suffering, in this life: how much do you treasure Christ? If you treasure Him more than anything else, you would gladly suffer and die—even now—of whatever form the Lord has appointed you. What I’m trying to call the church to see is that we should be a people who can live out what is depicted of the apostle Paul. As the church, I believe we have a mandate to live that reality out before an unbelieving world for the explicit purpose of making God known, so His glory reaches the ends of the earth. It isn’t so we can sit, huddled together and hunkered down, but so that we can share the hope that is within us, which is that Christ has delivered us from our greatest adversaries, sin, death, and Satan. It is that we might be able to demonstrate we have nothing to fear, since fear itself has been defeated.
The Christian can say with confidence that we will only endure hardship, suffering, disease, and political turmoil for so long. They can bring this news to the one who does not have it, and garner their own affections for the return of Christ. The Christian can affirm that one glorious day, Christ will return and bring in an age of unparalleled peace and prosperity—yet that that true treasure of this great day is Christ Himself. It is in light of this great practice of making Christ Himself the treasure of our hearts and the hope of our days that we can take consolation now. Regardless of what may come, we can be confident that God who remains in front of His people, leading the battle-charge against our greatest adversaries: sin, death, and Satan. He not only protects us and dwells among us, He wages holy and just war against the great enemies of the church. He contends for His people and causes them to be at rest in the midst of calamity. Even in the face of death itself, He gives grace to handle their passage from this life to the next with a grace and poise befitting a lowly servant being granted an everlasting crown of righteousness.
If we know this is the case and we truly believe it, we ought to be a people who reflect an unparalleled air of peace about us as the world descends into pure chaos. Whatever form of suffering might be had—however cruel our death—we alone can say to the world that to die is gain. We alone have the only sure place of safety and refuge in God. We alone can say that we will not die until the sovereign Lord has appointed it—and since that is the case, we alone can have incredible confidence in the midst of any kind of distress, not only because of the fact that He is God, but that He is our God. If we are to take true comfort in these things, we must come to the point where we can earnestly say: to live is Christ. In this then, if we are to stop being afraid of death, we must also be able to say: to die is gain. Nothing short of either statement will put our fears to rest, for anything short of either statement only reveals we have yet to cherish Christ as much as we ought.