Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Freed from the fear of death

Another aspect of the salvation Jesus brings is shown in this passage:
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.
from Hebrews 2:14-15
How does fear of death enslave us, and how did Jesus set us free?

We can be enslaved by fear in at least two ways:
  1. by obsessing over it so we can't think about anything else; or
  2. by being so afraid of it that we can't even think about it, and our thoughts about everything else are distorted whenever they get close to that fear.
For the past century in Europe and North America, #2 is more usual. According to Yalom's classic text Existential Psychotherapy, the way we deal with death anxiety (i.e., mostly by denying it) provides lots of patients with lots of interesting problems for psychotherapists. Here is the first principle from the first part of his text:
  1. The fear of death plays a major role in our internal experience; it haunts as does nothing else; it rumbles continuously under the surface; it is a dark, unsettling presence at the rim of consciousness.

Irwin Yalom, Existential Psychotherapy
(Basic Books, 1980), p.27
This book explores several major themes: death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness. The first section, and the longest (189 pages) is all about death. We spend a lot of effort avoiding this "dark, unsettling presence," he says, and these efforts are not always healthy; at best, they dull our enjoyment of life; at worst, they drive us to maladaptive choices that actually kill us sooner. What's worse, psychotherapists, being human themselves, also tend to ignore or deny their own death anxiety.

On the denial of death v. acknowledging and recognizing it, Yalom writes:
Recognition of death contributes a sense of poignancy to life, provides a radical shift of life perspective, and can transport one from a mode of living characterized by diversions, tranquilization, and petty anxieties to a more authentic mode.
Yalom, op. cit., p. 40
On the other hand, Yalom's book gives no indication that he knows the only real answer to the fear of death; he seems to think religious beliefs about a life after death (which Jesus bought for us) merely form a coping mechanism, another way to deny the reality of death.

But as this Scripture tells us, Jesus truly did set us free. How did he do that? We don't get a lot of detail here, but we have some hints. Earlier in the chapter, we're told that the grace of God enabled Jesus to taste death on behalf of us all. And this passage says Jesus shared in our humanity -- he became flesh and blood -- as part of setting us free, and breaking the power of the devil.

And what does that salvation from slavery mean -- how could or should it be evident in our lives? The apostles and the prophets give us some wonderful examples: "Our God is able to save us from the fiery furnace, O King, but if not, we will still not bow down and worship the statue." "The time for my departure is at hand." They lived fully aware that each day could be their last.

As should we! As the Psalmist wrote,
Show me, O Lord, my life's end
and the number of my days;
let me know how fleeting is my life.
Psalm 39:4
May the Lord answer that in our lives, and may we live with "a sense of poignancy" and be transported "from a mode of living characterized by diversions, tranquilization, and petty anxieties to a more authentic mode."


jfille said...

Did the prophets even believe they had been freed from death? The psalmist certainly seems to think that Sheol will be the end of his relationship with God. It seems to me that they were free from the fear of death but not free from the annihilation of death...

collin said...

Some of them certainly did.

Abraham was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God (11.10);

If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had
opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country--a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. (11.15-16)

Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. (11:35)

But now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me. (2 Samuel 12:23)