On the Fear of Death

“Life is always fatal.  No one gets out alive,” says Peter Kreeft.[1]  Some may laugh at such a saying, insisting that it is a clever remark and nothing else.  While it is certainly clever, it is also undeniably true.  Every person will have to face death.  Regardless of what a person says, he or she is probably scared to die.  To be sure, some fear it less than others.  If we are honest with ourselves though, we are afraid.  We are afraid of the unknown.  Perhaps this fear has caused some people to want to avoid the subject altogether.  The beauty of the gospel, however, is that we need not be afraid.  Christ has faced death for us and has triumphed over the grave. 

John Stott’s book The Cross of Christ helps reinforce this wonderful truth.  In short, the book is about the purpose and significance of Christ’s death for all of life.  In successive fashion, I would like to consider four truths about death and demonstrate how the work of Christ takes away the fear of death.

1.  Death is inevitable.

From a human perspective it is safe to say that death is inevitable.  Although the Bible does indicate that not every person who has ever lived has in fact died (Gen. 5:24; 2 Kings 2:1-12), it is fairly safe to say that most of us will have to face death.  No matter how much we exercise, no matter how healthy we try to eat, we cannot completely prevent death.  Generally, we view death as a part of being human.  As Peter Kreeft notes, in fact, most American books call on us to accept death as natural.[2]  As Scripture teaches us, however, though death may be inevitable, it is by no means natural.

2.  Death is not natural.

Although psychologists may want to inoculate us with the message that death is natural, such a concept is foreign to the Bible.  As John Stott rightly notes, “The Bible everywhere views human death not as a natural, but as a penal event.”[3]  This is to say that, even though we die, we do not die principally because we are human; we die because we have broken God’s laws and are by nature, by choice, and by divine declaration, sinners.  Death was not originally a part of God’s creation (Gen. 1-2) but rather was a foreign intruder brought about due to the sin of our first parents (Gen. 3; Rom. 5:12; Baptist Catechism Q/A 15-16[4]).

Like our first parents, rather than joyfully submitting to our God, we have “sought out many schemes” (Eccl. 7:29), and have “exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:25).  Consequently, “we have rejected the position of dependence that our createdness inevitably involves.”[5]  These truths serve to reinforce the point that death is by no means natural.  Deep within our hearts we know this to be true and this is why we fight against death with every ounce of energy we have.  Kreeft notes, “Death is as natural as the world, but we rebel against the world, we have a lover’s quarrel with the world.”[6]  Death is an enemy of God.  As Keith Mathison writes, “Death is the result of sin.  It is an unnatural abomination in God’s creation, an ally of Satan that will ultimately be eradicated.”[7]  In poetic fashion, no one has expressed this truth better than Peter Kreeft:

Death is loss, loss of life.  Life is good.  Loss of a good is an evil.  Therefore death is an evil.  Loss of a great good is a great evil.  Therefore death is a great evil.  Not to see this is a great blindness.  Blindness is a great evil.  Therefore not to see death as a great evil is a great evil.  Death is loss of being, denial of being, the enemy of being.  It is the reduction of being to nonbeing, the undoing of creation.  Death is the most uncreative thing there is.  It literally uncreates creation, whether it is the creation of man or God, whether it is a painting destroyed by fire, or a nation destroyed by war, a soul destroyed by vice, or a body destroyed by cancer.  Death is an enemy of God.  It undoes the divine work, creation.  If man is the friend of God, he must be the enemy of death.  God’s enemy must be his enemy.[8]           

3.  Jesus died our death.

It would be reasonable to fear death if our sins were not atoned for.  Since Jesus bore our sin and paid our penalty, however, we now have no reason to fear death.  As previously stated, death is a penal event; and “sin and death are integrally related throughout Scripture as cause and effect.”[9]  Though we have sinned by breaking God’s law, Paul says, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4-5, emphasis mine).  Whereas the first Adam failed in his obedience to God, the second Adam positively fulfilled the law in all aspects for those he represented (Rom. 5:14ff; 1 Cor. 15:45-49).

We need not fear death because Jesus died as our substitute.  Mark 10:45 says, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  The Apostle Peter writes, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18, emphasis mine).  We who have received salvation are the unrighteous people for whom Christ died!  As Stott beautifully expresses it, “He bore the judgment we deserve in order to bring us the forgiveness we do not deserve.”[10]  Such a thought is staggering when one considers that even though we have sinned, we are not the one who pays the penalty.  Stott explains: “Sin and death are inseparable, but whereas usually the one who sins and the one who dies are the same person, on this occasion they were not, since it was we who sinned but He who died for our sins.”  When we take time to ponder such a glorious thought, our conclusion will be the same as Stott’s: “This is love, holy love, inflicting the penalty for sin by bearing it.”[11]  Christ’s followers can sing with the hymn writer, “Bearing shame and scoffing rude, in my place condemned He stood; sealed my pardon with His blood, hallelujah! What a savior!”  As St. Athanasius said, Jesus Christ is “the Lord even of death.”[12]

  1. Jesus’ death is the death of death.

Careful readers will notice that I have borrowed this phrase from John Owen’smasterful work, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ.[13]  When we are tempted to fear death we can meditate on this great truth: Jesus defeated death for us, and therefore death died.  While God himself is immortal (1 Tim. 6:16), he became a man to die in our place and to destroy death.  For this reason the writer to the Hebrews says:

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil,  and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery (Heb. 2:14).

Jesus died for us and in our place to take away our fear of death.  As Stott says, “It is sin which causes death, and which after death will bring the judgment.  Hence our fear of it.  But Christ has died for our sins and taken them away. . . .  Now that we are forgiven, death can harm us no longer.”[14]  Now believers can cry out defiantly with the Apostle Paul, “O death where is your victory?  O death where is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.   But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:55-57).  Elsewhere Paul says that Christ “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim. 1:10).

The teaching of Scripture regarding death should cause believers to rejoice greatly.  Though death may be inevitable, it is by no means natural.  And for the one who places his or her trust in Christ it has no ultimate power.  Of course, the same cannot be said for the person who refuses to trust Christ for the forgiveness of sins.  Rather, the Apostle Paul says, “[W]hen the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.  They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thess. 1:7-9).  Unbelievers, in contrast to believers, should fear death.  They have no eternal hope after death.  As Peter Kreeft states, “When God is dead, death is God.”[15]

Believers, on the other hand, can look with expectancy to the moment of death.  Because we have been united to Christ through faith we conquered death and the grave along with Christ.  Though we may grieve when our friends and family pass from this life, “We grieve as those who cannot wait to see death destroyed once and for all.”[16]  Let us look to the future with confidence and eagerly expect to hear, “Well done good and faithful servant . . . Enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:21).

[1] Peter Kreeft,  Love is Stronger than Death (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992), xv.

[2] Ibid., 1.

[3] John Stott, The Cross of Christ  (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006), 67, emphasis mine.

[4] The Baptist Confession of Faith & The Baptist Catechism (Vestavia Hills: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2010).  This is the Baptist catechism based on the 1689 London Baptist Confession.

[5] Stott, The Cross of Christ, 92.

[6] Kreeft, Love is Stronger than Death, 12.

[7] Keith Mathison, “The Frozen Chosen,” Tabletalk 34:8 (2010): 82-83.

[8] Kreeft, Love is Stronger than Death, 4.

[9] Stott, The Cross of Christ, 331.

[10] Stott, The Cross of Christ, 91.

[11] Ibid, 210.

[12] Athanasius, On the Incarnation, ( trans. C. S. M. V.; Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s, 1996), 3. 15.

[13] John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (repr., Carlisle: Banner of Truth Trust, 1967).

[14] Stott, The Cross of Christ, 239.

[15] Kreeft, Love is Stronger than Death, 27.

 16] Keith Mathison, “The Frozen Chosen,” 83.


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