One of the more prevalent fears haunting us is the fear of disease, especially a debilitating disease like cancer. My mother suffered from severe dementia before she died and I often catch myself dreading the possibility that I, too, may suffer the same horrible fate. Following closely behind the fear of debilitating disease is the fear of dying.
Of all the tormenting fears that afflict people, the fear of dying is certainly one of the most common. Many fear losing their job but not everyone loses their job. The fear of public speaking is a particularly common fear but most can avoid public speaking if they choose. If you are tormented by the fear of spiders or snakes you can easily avoid places where those critters can be found. Most of our fears are founded on things we find difficult to control such as the fear of rejection, the fear of poverty or the fear of loneliness.
We can make accommodations for all the fears listed above accept one. You can fill your life with people if you are lonely. You can eat right, exercise and try to get plenty of sleep if you fear poor health. But no one can successfully run from death. The Grim Reaper comes to claim everyone. We are born to live and eventually to die. Life for many is difficult because of all of its uncertainties. The only true certainty in life is death. Well, actually Ben Franklin added one other certainty, “In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes.”
Necrophobia, or the fear of death is closely connected with xenophobia, the fear of the unknown. There is a German proverb that says, “Fear makes the wolf bigger than he us.” Conspiracy theorists thrive on the fear of the unknown. We look into the vast and diamond studded velvet sky in the moonless night and we imagine Martians or aliens because we don’t know what is out there. The fear of the future caused world panic before Y2K and it appears to be returning as we begin the year 2012. The fear of death is so prevalent because it is something new, something we’ve never experienced before. We long for someone to die and then come back and comfort us about dying.
The Bible seems to confirm the idea that everyone must die, it also confirms that everyone must face the judgment of God. Perhaps the real fear of dying is grounded in the latter fact rather than the former. “It is appointed unto man once to die, but after this the judgment.” (Hebrew 9:27) But let’s back up. The Bible also teaches that there were two men who never died. “And all the days of Enoch were three hundred sixty and five years: And Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him.” (Genesis 5:24-25) The writer of Hebrews confirms this: “By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death; and was not found, because God had translated him: for before his translation he had this testimony, that he pleased God.” (Hebrews 11:5)
The other biblical figure who escaped death was Elijah. The Lord took “Elijah into heaven by a whirlwind…there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.” (2 Kings 2:1,11) Are these two incidents not contradicted by Hebrews 9:27…”It is appointed unto man once to die”?
John the Revelator envisioned two witnesses which he wrote about in Revelation chapter 11. These two will share gospel truth with the Jewish people and then they will be brutally murdered by the “beast that rises from the bottomless pit.” (Revelation 11:7) If Elijah and Enoch are the witnesses foretold here then the requirement that all men taste of death would be satisfied.
Having established that none shall escape the Angel of Death, what can be done to reduce or eliminate the fear of death? John Donne addresses the topic in his poem, “Death, Be Not Proud.”
“Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow.
It may sound arrogant for Donne to claim that death cannot kill him but he has a supernatural hope that destroys his fear of death. His faith is founded in the promise of Christ. Christ is the one who has died and come back to comfort us regarding our fear of death. The Apostle Paul speaks of this promise in 1 Corinthians 15. Paul asserts the reality of a resurrection based on the fact that because Christ arose from the dead he is qualified to fulfill his promise to raise us from the dead also.
Donne reveals the impermanence of death by comparing it to rest and sleep. Because of the hope of the resurrection death becomes nothing more than a prolonged period of sleep before we are brought again to life by the grace and power of Christ himself. Our fear of death makes the wolf bigger than it really is.
The poet turns the tables on death and portrays it as something powerless and inadequate:
“One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.”
Paul wrote comforting words to Titus (1:2) when he declared that God cannot lie. He has promised us eternal life from the beginning of time. Let us rejoice in His salvation! Through him we have eternal life. We must trust him to prepare us for it and preserve us to it. It is our great privilege to draw deeply from the wells of his salvation.