Our most fundamental fear is the fear of death. Best-selling author Stephen King appeared on a morning news show years ago, promoting one of the books for which he is known—a thick volume on some blood-curdling theme. At one point, the interviewer interrupted her stream of inquiries about his latest effort to ask a more fundamental question. “Why do you write this stuff?” she said. “What keeps you going from one horror story to another?” “Because in 200 years,” King replied, “we’ll all be dead.”I don’t read King’s work—real life is scary enough for me—but he is right about death. The primal fear, the ultimate fear, the root of all our fears, is the fear of death.
Death is a specter that haunts human life in every age and every place. The oldest buildings in the world, the colossal pyramids of Giza, are monuments to its power. Ancient Egyptians were preoccupied with death. As soon as a pharaoh ascended the throne, he started planning his tomb. And the elaborate paintings and exquisite artifacts that filled the royal burial chambers were designed to assist their occupants as they journeyed in the afterlife.
I’ll never forget my first visit to the National Archeological Museum in Athens. It is filled with magnificent examples of classical art, but the funerary monuments made the most lasting impression. The sad profiles of those ancient mourners, etched with timeless grief, illustrate perfectly the Apostle Paul’s reference to those who grieve and have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13).
Until the advent of modern medicine, death was something everybody knew about first-hand. There wasn’t a family of any size who hadn’t lost a child and often a parent as well. Children were so vulnerable that some cultures didn’t regard them as members of society until they were several years old. Today, things are drastically different. It is not unusual for children to reach adulthood without having lost a single close relative. We may hear about death, and read about death, but for many of us it’s a vague possibility, but not a present reality.
Or is it? The truth is that death is all around us. In the last few weeks alone, natural disasters have claimed thousands, tens of thousands, in Myanmar and China. In the United States 43,000 people die in traffic accidents each year. In Africa the number of AIDS victims reaches into the millions. And all this on the heels of the twentieth century, “the century of death,” as many call it, in which up to 120 million people died at the hands of their fellow humans.
In spite of its gruesome visage, some people try to paint a positive picture of death. Death comes to all of us, they purr, but there is no reason to fear it. The end of our existence is as natural as the beginning, and we should approach it with complete peace of mind. According to a poem in Forest Lawn, “Death is only an old door set in a garden wall. On quiet hinges it gives at dusk, when the thrushes call. There is nothing to trouble any heart, nothing to hurt at all. Death is only an old door set in a garden wall.” In a similar vein, though on a higher poetic level, William Cullen Bryant invites the dying to “lie down to pleasant dreams.”
In stark contrast to this “sentimental acquiescence,” others view death with something like “desperate defiance.” This life may be all we have, but we should hang onto it tenaciously. Resist death to the bitter end—that’s the approach of William Ernest Henley and Dylan Thomas. “Beyond this place of wrath and tears looms but the horror of the shade,” exclaimed Henley, “And yet the menace of the years finds and shall find me unafraid.” “Do not go gentle into that good night,” cried Thomas. “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
None of these attitudes or their variations, ancient or modern, expresses the Christian response to humankind’s deepest fear. The Christian perspective on death is more complicated. On the one hand, there is nothing sentimental in the way Christian faith views death. It looks death squarely in the face and sees exactly what it is. Death is a destroyer, an intruder, an enemy. It was not meant to be, and it is horrifying. On the other hand, Christian faith looks past death. Death is powerful, but it is not supremely powerful. There is something, or some-one, who is more powerful, and he has gained the victory over it. So, death is not only defeasible, death has been defeated: its power is broken, and its reign will end. So, even though death is still a part of things in this world, it is on its way out. The last word on human existence belongs, not to death, but to life.
The opening chapters of the Bible link death with the entrance of sin into the world. “And the LORD God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die’” (Gen 2:16-17).1 As these words suggest, death was not an arbitrary penalty that God imposed; it was a natural consequence of sin. Centuries later, the Apostle Paul made a similar connection between death and sin. “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned” (Rom. 5:12).
If death is a consequence of sin, and sin doesn’t belong, then death doesn’t belong either. It was not part of God’s original plan for humanity. According to the Bible, then, death is not our destiny. We are susceptible to death; we are mortal. But we are not meant for death; we were meant to live forever.2 And according to Christian faith, that is exactly what will happen. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).
The Christ’s resurrection is central to Christian faith for a number of reasons. First of all, Jesus’ resurrection demonstrates that life after death is a reality. To quote Paul again, “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.” “For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thess. 4:13, 14, 16). Paul works out this connection more fully in 1 Corinthians 15, the Bible’s most extensive discussion of the resurrection. “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain” (1 Cor. 15:13-14). To paraphrase, if Christ came to life from the dead we have everything to hope for, and if he didn’t, we have nothing to hope for. Everything depends on the resurrection of Jesus.
Second, the resurrection of Jesus conclusively establishes his identity as the Messiah, the one in whom and through whom God accomplishes the work of salvation. As Paul puts it in the opening of his longest letter, Jesus was “descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 1:3-4). In the first Christian sermon, the Apostle Peter makes the same point. “This man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power” (Acts 2:22-24).
Third, the power of Jesus’ resurrection is available to us now. Although life after death does not begin until the return of Christ, the resurrection life begins as soon as we experience the saving power of Christ. For the Apostle Paul again, our solidarity with Christ in death and resurrection begins with baptism. Our old life comes to an end, and a new life begins. “When you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses . . .” (Col. 2:12-13). “So if you have been raised with Christ,” Paul continues, “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (3:1-4).
The resurrection of Christ thus provides us a basis for living with confidence now. When Christ came to life from the dead, he broke the power of death for all of us. Even though death is still a fearful enemy, it has suffered a mortal blow, and its reign will soon come to an end. As John Donne wrote, “Death, thou shalt die.”
The notion that death is a “conquered enemy” justifies the complex feelings we have in its presence. On the one hand, it honors our revulsion at death. In spite of everything that people have said in recent years to de-mystify death and treat it as a perfectly normal, natural process with nothing for us to fear, our hearts know better. Death is horrible. It is the antithesis of life. It brings physical, mental, social, and spiritual existence to an end. It violates everything that God wants for us. It is an intruder and an enemy. Stephen King is right. Death is the ultimate fear.
On the other hand, death does not have the last word. We can face it with confidence and hope, because Jesus fought it and defeated it. He died on the cross and rose from the tomb and in doing so he broke death’s power. So, the great enemy has been conquered. Jesus’ resurrection gives us the hope of life everlasting, and it gives us the power to live victoriously here and now. We can experience its death-conquering, life-transforming effects day by day as we await the day when death will be expelled from God’s good world once and for all.
Notes and References
*Adapted from “An Enemy Defeated: Death and Resurrection,” Ministry: International Journal for Pastors (September, 2004).
1. The Hebrew expression behind these words, literally “dying you shall die,” does not mean that death would instantly follow sin. It means that once sin occurred, death was inevitable. Sooner or later, life was certain to come to an end.
2. The expression “conditional immortality” is sometimes applied to this viewpoint. It expresses the conviction that eternal life was possible for human beings, not because they possessed “natural immortality,” that is, not because they were inherently immortal, but on the condition that they remain loyal to God, the Source of life.
Richard Rice is professor of theology, philosophy, and religion at Loma Linda University.