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Are Christians More Afraid of Death?

3 April, 2009


Sorry for the lull in posting, everyone — I’ve been in the Netherlands the past week for a theology conference, and neglected to make C or C arrangements. Well, back to it, then!

A recent report has found evidence, according to this article, that ‘religious’ people are three times more likely to seek drastic medical measures to prolong their life at the end of a terminal illness, at all costs.

Many doctors are worried, it seems, that not only are these measures really expensive, but in a lot of cases they actually increase the pain and discomfort of the dying person. But the most important thing I want to highlight is the implicit suggestion — at least for some interpreters — that this finding means that people who are religious are much more likely to try to prolong their lives by any means necessary because they’re actually more afraid of death. I want to say 2 things here.

First, ‘religious’ should never be equated with Christian in any matter-of-fact way — surveys of religious affiliation are often hopelessly vague and inaccurate, and in this study it seems that all someone had to do to be a “religious coper” with their illness is to “pray or meditate often”. I say this because there are lots of anti-religious blogs out there thumbing their noses at Christians because of this study, claiming that it proves that when it comes down to it, strong Christians are even more afraid of death than others. I think this is a false assumption: whether the religious are more afraid of death or not doesn’t mean Christians are, and trying to prolong life by all available means certainly doesn’t automatically mean that an overriding fear of death is the only (or even any) driving motivation.

I have no intention of attempting to say what should or shouldn’t be done to save a dying person’s life — or more pointedly, what Christians with terminal illness, and their families, should or shouldn’t do medically in order to try to keep them alive. What I want to share though, secondly, is an excerpt from a very good work on what Christians do believe about confronting aging and death; it’s from “The Christian Practice of Growing Old”, by Richard and Judith Hays.

The Defeat of Death, the Last Enemy

While the Bible shows little concern with aging as a problem, death is another matter. The biblical writers have a sober and realistic view of death as a grim shadow cast over the world. The psalmist laments the brevity of life and the inevitability of mortality:

For all our days pass away under your wrath; our years come to an end like a sigh. The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. (Ps 90:9-10)

The aversion to death is not found only in the Old Testament; if anything, it is even clearer in the New Testament that death is a great evil.

In contrast to the serene detachment of Socrates facing his own death with imperturbable equanimity, Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane in a state of agitation and grief as he contemplates his impending arrest and execution….

This point must be emphasized, because sentimental Christian piety sometimes lapses into careless talk about death as a smooth passage into a better world. But nothing could be further from the perspective of the New Testament writers. Jesus weeps at the tomb of Lazarus (John 11:32-37). Paul characterizes death as “the last enemy,” which remains to be destroyed by Christ….Thus, in a world that still does not see all things in subjection to Jesus (Heb 2:8), the process of aging carries with it the fearful prospect of death

The New Testament’s answer to the problem of death is firm and consistent: God will overcome the power of death by the resurrection of the body at the last day. The resurrection of Jesus is both the firstfruits of this final resurrection and the sign of the eschatological [final] resurrection in which all Christ’s people will share (1 Cor 15:20-28). Thus, the hope of resurrection lies at the heart of the way in which Christians embody the practices of growing old….

Because the resurrection of Jesus proclaims God’s triumph over the power of death, we are set free from fear, no longer paralyzed or controlled by fear of aging and dying. This good news is movingly articulated by the Letter to the Hebrews:

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, [Jesus] 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. (Heb 2:14-15)

As we grow old, we face death in and with Christ; therefore, while death remains a terrible enemy of human flourishing and of God’s redemptive will for the world, we know that its “sting” has been taken away, as Paul declares in 1 Corinthians 15:55. We live no longer under slavery to fear. John Donne, the great seventeenth-century metaphysical poet, takes up Paul’s taunt to Death, personified as a power that seeks to destroy us:

Death be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe, For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow, Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee….One short sleep past, wee wake eternally, And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

In such confidence inspired by the New Testament’s testimony, we are set free from the paralysis that the fear of death produces in our culture: we need not deceive ourselves with costly amusements that distract us from the truth of our mortality and foster the illusion that we are immortal. Likewise we are set free from the frantic urgency to forestall death at all costs: we need not grasp at life or harness every medical technology at our disposal. We can look death in the face without fear, because we trust in the promise of the resurrection….

As Christians, we are people trained to die. We have been trained from our childhood by focusing, week in and week out, on the story of the cross and resurrection. We need not avert our eyes from our own death, for our identity is grounded in the crucified Messiah who has gone before us through death and resurrection. That is why Paul can encourage the Thessalonians not to be afraid of death’s power to separate them from their loved ones:

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus God will bring with him those who have died….Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1 Thess 4:13-14, 18)

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  1. James Vandenberg permalink
    3 April, 2009 2:16 pm

    I would “support drastic medical measures to prolong [my] life at the end of a terminal illness, at all costs.” I believe my earthly life is a sacred gift from God and that it ought to be protected. By giving up, I would showing disrespect both for myself and the sanctity of my own life.

  2. 3 April, 2009 6:59 pm

    I really appreciated reading this today. While I certainly don’t think it’s wrong for anyone to pursue medical treatment that may prolong his or her life, I think we need to remember that for the Christian, death is not to be feared.

    I am reminded while reading it of 2 Timothy 1:10, where Paul says that it was Christ “who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”

    The greatest testimony we can give is not just to live well, but to also die well: Not in fear, but in confident expectation.

    Thanks again for posting this.

  3. creedorchaos permalink*
    4 April, 2009 3:18 am

    James and Aaron~

    I think you’re both touching on important things that the Hays’ article brings up: death is a terrible thing — a curse — and not the way it’s supposed to be. On the other hand, Christ has conquered death by rising again as the firstfruits of our resurrection to everlasting life. So death is our last enemy, but it doesn’t have the victory.

    In the messy concrete reality of each person’s circumstances, then, it’s so important to be careful not to fall into problems on either side. That’s why I would disagree with those who seem to suggest it’s wrong to make use of the medical means God has provided in order to pursue our present life’s extension, not only for our sakes but for our families’ and friends’ and ministries’ sakes. For the same reason I would disagree with those who suggest by their supreme fear of death that Christ has *not* gained the victory over death, and that we don’t actually believe in the hope of the resurrection of the dead.

    And I wholeheartedly agree that dying well is a profound testimony of ‘confident expectation’, but I would even use caution here: in past centuries this has sometimes been overplayed, to the detriment of the Church’s witness. Sometimes people have believed that if one became demented shortly before death, for example, it meant that the devil had taken their soul and they were damned. And in the 17th century, atheists would often appeal to the ‘confidence’ with which irreligious philosophers like Spinoza faced their own death, as proof that Christianity isn’t necessary to face death ‘like a man’.

    The key here, I think, as in everything, is looking to Christ and looking at things in his light. Although dying well is a great testimony and encouragement, we need to make sure people realize that it doesn’t mean someone wasn’t *really* a Christian if they have a very hard time of things at the end of their life. It isn’t the strength of our faith, after all, that saves us — it’s the *object* of our faith who is strong to save, and he will do it.

    And finally, it’s not so much the way death is faced in and of itself that is ultimately decisive: it’s what comes after. Christians may stand before the judgment seat of God whole and pure in the righteousness and holiness Christ has given us by the Spirit, who is himself the life of the age to come. *That’s* our confidence in life and in death, and at the end of the day it’s true no matter how we’re feeling about ourselves and our circumstances. I think this has huge pastoral consequences in the often dark days around the end of life, where in our weakness Christ is shown to be strong.


    • 15 April, 2009 6:25 pm

      Absolutely agree – when I posted I certainly didn’t intend to infer that anyone would be less of a Christian if they have difficulty facing the end, although I can see how it could be taken that way. Thanks for your very thorough and helpful follow-up comments – have a great night.

  4. 17 April, 2009 11:53 am

    Aaron: “The greatest testimony we can give is not just to live well, but to also die well: Not in fear, but in confident expectation.”

    Good point. I’m stealing that.

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