Dealing With the Fear of Death
If the era of COVID has taught us anything, it is that people are terrified of death. We already knew this, of course, but the pandemic thrust our mortality into the limelight in a way that we aren’t normally confronted with. Much of our culture has sanitized death to the point that we largely ignore it. Sure, we all know that we will die one day, but we don’t really like to think about it very much. When that reality becomes inescapable, we panic, because we are—pun intended—scared to death of death.
Why are we so afraid to die? I’m sure there are many layers of answers to this question. We are afraid to leave those we care about. We are afraid that we will be forgotten. Probably most of all we are afraid of the unknown. What is death like? Will it be painful? Will it be blissful? Is it the end of us? Is there something on “the other side”?
The fear of death is very natural. I would go as far as to say it is God-given. It is God-given in at least two senses. Firstly, we fear death because it contradicts the way humans were created. We were created by God to live, not to die. The creation account in Genesis describes a world where death does not exist—only life. I believe part of the reason we fear death (or at least resist it) is because it is a reflection of the human impulse to live forever, as God designed us to do.
There is, however, a second reason that fear of death is natural. Ecclesiastes 3:11 tells us that God has “set eternity in the human heart”. I take this to mean not only that we yearn for eternal life, but also that deep down we know it exists. In our heart of hearts we know that death is not the end, but rather the transition into the next life where we will meet God face to face. The reality of meeting God face to face is scary, and rightly so. Hebrews 10:31 tells us that “it is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
We anticipate that meeting God is dreadful because we know that no pretence will save us then. God will be there whether we believed it or not. God will exist as he really does, not as we thought he exists. And God will judge us according to who and what we really are, not who or what we pretend to be. Hebrews 4:13, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” Deep down we know this is the case, and it terrifies us.
It terrifies us because it should terrify us. We are afraid to die because we are afraid to face God. In life we use convenient phrases like “no one’s perfect” or “we’re all a work in progress” to deflect guilt from ourselves for our own failings. We appreciate that they are, for the most part, culturally-accepted reasons to live with our flaws. But will that attitude fly with God?
The answer is no. The message of Scripture is clear and straightforward: “Repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). These words, spoken by Jesus himself, summarize God’s command to the world. We must repent for our sin and believe in the saving grace of Christ. The word “repent” means to “turn around”. It implies that humanity is going in the wrong direction at present. The way we are going is the path of self-autonomy. We want to reject God’s rulership in our lives and become our own gods. This is the fundamental sin of us all, the sin that is under every other sin. This prideful rebellion against the reign of God in our lives has put us at odds with our Creator. We have made ourselves his enemy. Therefore we must repent.
But if we are to turn away from sinful rebellion, what are we turning to? Jesus said it himself, “the gospel”. The gospel, which literally means “good news”, is that God forgives sinners like you and I. He offers this as a free gift of grace that we receive by faith. We don’t earn God’s forgiveness through good deeds. Rather it is free for the taking to all who trust in Christ as their only hope. You cannot put your hope in yourself because you are not righteous. Jesus Christ died for the sins of the world. 1 Peter 3:18 says “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.”
Our relationship with God is restored through the gospel. No longer do we need to dread seeing God face to face. Rather, we can actually look forward to and long for that day, because we have been made right with God and have nothing to fear. All who have repented of their sin and trusted Christ as Saviour and Lord do not need to fear death. Philippians 1:22 tells us that “to die is gain” for the believer. Death is an upgrade for the Christian. It is to leave the suffering of this world for an eternal future of blessing with God. For those who are still in their sins, death is not gain. It is to fall under God’s righteous condemnation for eternity. That is what we fear about death. But it need not be that way.
I am going to die. You are going to die. We all will. The sooner we face that reality, the better. And the sooner we actually deal with it, the better. I have chosen to obey the call of Jesus to repent and believe the gospel. Because of that, the fear of death does not control me. But this world is crippled by fear of death. The world needs a hope beyond the human measures we can take to stave off the inevitable. You can prolong your life many ways, but you can never secure it forever—not through human means, at least. But God does offer eternal life for sinners who repent and believe in him. In that there is an unshakable hope that no trouble of this life can upset.
John 3:16-18 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”