My life has been deeply touched by the reality of death from my childhood. Due to the intuition of a physician, I avoided being my mom’s second miscarriage. When I was four years old, I nearly drowned, but was saved by the intuition and heroic actions of my mother. From 7th to 9th grade, I experienced my first three significant deaths in my family: the death of my grandfather, the suicide of my brother, and the death of my uncle who lived with my family and was like a brother to me. Given the wounds and pains that had built up, I thought of taking my own life late in my high school years, but I avoided repeating the script of my brother. As a result, death has always haunted me and I learned to let go of attachments because death always had a way of taking those who I loved away from me.
While the intensity of tragic deaths would not be so strong in my later years, it was still a persistent force and reminder in my life. Soon after I had graduated college, I got a call that my other grandfather had threatened to take his own life and I was the closest one who could go to respond (he didn’t take his own life, but he would die a few year later after that). A year later, another uncle of mine passed away due to a surprising illness, leaving her at the time 6 year old daughter behind. As I went through one of the most difficult and isolating episodes of my life during seminary, my mother as one of the only people I could really talk to about my problems grew gravely ill for a time period, and I was left basically alone to my thoughts. While I ultimately came to make a decision that I would never choose to take my life, my experience with PTSD and the pervasive made me feel like I was inevitably going to be a burden on everyone that death seemed like a sweet release from a life filled with simply broken dreams. Then in the years afterward as I was trying to recuperate from PTSD, I saw my grandmother slowly become lost to Alzheimer’s.
Death and the feelings of it had prematurely swallowed up so much of life, leaving me feeling so detached and so helpless to the point that I stopped fearing death. This might sound good if you know your Scriptures, as Hebrew 2.14-15 says, “Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.” But, the problem is I was never entirely freed from the fear of death as much as I simply had accepted the reality that death threatens and takes everything away. While many people who have only had to face death briefly and those who never faced so much death as a child fear death but can buffer themselves from that fear, I have long been forced to accept the power that death has over our lives, replacing direct fear that makes one scramble to avoid to an accepting yet despairing dread of it. Meanwhile, as a believer in and follower of Christ, I believed and accepted that death was not a permanent part of our life. The lyrics of Jeremy Camp’s “There will be a day” rung so deeply within my heart for many years, with the chorus having the words of Revelation 21.4 as a distant echo.
It seems to me that my experiences put me somewhere existing between the threshold of slavery to the fear of death and freedom. On the one hand, during seminary I began to notice how so much of our world, our life, and even our intellectual endeavors, etc. had the fear of death as a central motivator, even in ways that we would not directly think it as a motivation. I could understand it at an intellectual level because I myself had experienced that fear and seen how its reality touched the way we think. And yet, I somehow was also intellectually distant from it. Not that my distance from it was the full Christian liberation, but it was a change left in arrested development: neither enslaved to fear of death, as it it was something I had simply come to accept with tears, nor entirely freed from it, as I never had the chance to recover from the losses that death and its threats had inflicted on me time and time again.
The Christian’s relationship to the fear of death is complicated. In Christian circles today, it is often considered axiomatic that fear is our enemy, that fear should have no place in our lives. However, notice that the preacher of Hebrews does not say that the Christian is freed from the fear of death so much as they are no longer enslaved to that fear. In the 1st century, enslavement to fear would not have been referred to any experience of the emotion that we today call fear, but a driving ‘passion’ that overwhelms and controls what we think, do, and feel, as if it is a persistent, never ending anxiety that lights up for the slightest of reasons. Put in modern therapeutic language, we can imagine the enslavement to the fear of death is more akin to a traumatic trigger in which the most miniscule hint or possibility of death drives people into self-preservation and buffering mode. Or, alternatively, the fear of death becomes one of the deepest source of motivations in our behaviors, including in unseen ways.
Death is an enemy that Jesus comes to defeat: the Scriptures are clear about that. And yet, just as we are to eat with sinners and have mercy upon all sinners, including ourselves, even as sin is another enemy, death is an enemy that we embrace in taking up our cross. We experience death in its distant forms and even in its fullest culmination, just as Jesus experienced death in its worst form to free us through our experiencing of death. Death is a part of life. It is only in accepting and embrace the reality of death, however that death is to come, that we can be freed in Christ from the fear of this death.
Meanwhile, those who run from death, who avoid it, who try to escape it at every turn are left in a world where they are enslaved but their illusory sense of themselves and the world has them blinded to its power over them. So readily life is lived in this form of self-deception, where through distraction and avoidance we think we feel the very opposite of the very thing that actually motivates us and drives us. Christ does not fully deliver them because they do not see the need for deliverance. Christ may be a source of encouragement, of hope, of inspiration but because he died so that we can be so simply blessed, so they think. This ‘Christ’ doesn’t really ask for us to bear our own cross, but instead asks us to substitute the difficult, hard, and trying things that can so deeply hit to the core of our survival instinct with other, easier, less costly virtues and habits.
The redemption in Christ replaces death with life as our motivation. As Paul sames in Romans 8.6, the thinking of the flesh is about death, but the thinking of the Spirit is life and peace. To be redeemed in Christ, to experience the transformation from spiritual enslavement to freedom is one where our deepest motivation switches, even if the difference isn’t always easy to identify from the outset. To fear death and to value life can look very similar on the surface in many ways, but yet in so many ways it can drive us to act in very different ways. Valuing staving off death leads us to rationalize all sorts of sacrifices and costs to protect against death. Valuing of life lived in shalom is concerned about the ways our attempt to preserve from death can actually create death and steal peace.
So, if I may suggest, here is a principle that readily draws a line among the body of people known as Christians: is our ethic, our sense of justice, our theology, our motivations, and our values motived by the fear of death or by the longing for life and peace? You can not easily assess this question by simply looking at what moral positions you take and stand for, but one must ask the deeper question as to whether life or death motivates you by looking at the whole.
The truth is, I fear so much of what has been labeled Christian in the West, both in progressive and evangelical circles, has the fear of death as the driving motivation, that this fear of death has been baptized by our theology, ethics, missions, and pursuits of justice. I believe that so much of the transformative potential of the Gospel of Jesus Christ has been closed off to us because we have regarded Jesus as simply a source for our ethics, a source for our theology, a cause for our salvation, and a cause for a healing that we access through the reading of Scripture and prayer, substituting in a distant ‘Jesus’ so that we do not see that we need to embrace the crucified Jesus in our own life through the Spirit who leads us to participate in Jesus’ death and resurrection which we realize through our actions lead by the Spirit, informed by Scripture and sought for in prayer.