Thanatophobia. The word may be unfamiliar but the older you get the more familiar you will become with its meaning. Thanatophobia is the fear of death or more specifically being dead or dying; and according to those ‘Top Ten’ surveys that frequent the internet, it remains unchallenged as the number one fear most common to mankind.
In some way, most of our days on this earth are simply spent attempting to avoid facing thanatophobia. Family, friends, work, vacations, music, sport, theatre, TV, movies, alcohol, drugs, money, plastic surgery, politics and insurance policies – from the virtuous to the vile – we flood life with a torrent of activity to help drown out the one thing that we fear the most. These things don’t just give people an assurance of their own vitality but they double up as an escape from the reality of their own mortality.
I’ve used this quote on this blog before but I can’t help but quote Woody Allen again:
“I’m not afraid of dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” – Woody Allen
Comedians, movie directors and journalists alike are among thanataphobics’ more daring ‘heroes’. Some – like Woody Allen – attempt to confront death with laughter as if by empowering us to laugh at death we might belittle it, hurt its feelings and give it a complex. Hollywood attempts to remove the sting of death by helping us face our fear with an army of others from within the stronghold of a movie theatre, so that some how we can reduce our fear to mere fascination and social entertainment with popcorn. Not satisfied with taming our fear of death in the context of fiction, others grab at real life and death tragedies and bring them to the front pages and centre stages of our newspapers and television sets so that we can face real death – but at arms length; even empowering us to take control with the push of a button or the turn of a page. Last week I was struck by a newspaper front page which showed a large grainy photograph of Reeva Steenkamp – the recently killed girlfriend of South African athlete, Oscar Pistorius – driving on her way home, to the place where she would be shot dead within hours. And some how photographs like that give the living a real life opportunity to confront death in the same way that we confront cage-enclosed lions and tigers in a zoo.
Not every phobia has a successful remedy but this one does and His name is Jesus. There are many impotent counterfeits peddled by the alchemists of religion, philosophy and atheism but they are nothing more than snake-oil and opiates proved weak by the incredible and historical Jesus who both confirmed our fears and allayed them.
As Christians, we should be the least fearful people in the universe. But during the last six years of my wife’s terminal cancer, I’ve realised that Christians – myself included – can often be just as fearful as anyone else. I’ve lost count of how many times I had sung “No fear in death, this is the power of Christ in me.” but when I sing that now, it doesn’t just roll off the tongue with gusto. I’ve realised that many Christians – again, not excluding myself – are as well versed and rehearsed in the ways and means of worldly escapism as they are in the worship songs they sing ‘fearlessly’ behind the pages of a hymn book on Sunday mornings. Show me a Christian who loves the things of this world, and I’ll show you a thanatophobe! I know this because I have known it of myself.
Sometimes, as Christians, we even use our prayers and bible readings to escape – rather than remedy – our fear of death. In the 21st century western church, it’s too often that death and dying has no place in our vocabulary of prayer or in our fridge magnet theology.
But isn’t the gospel supposed to set us free from this fear? Surely, if we understand what Jesus was saying, if we trust Him and follow Him and love Him and obey Him…death no longer has mastery over us? Surely, we have no need of escape because the gospel is supposed to set us free from the fear of death?
So what exactly is the problem?
Well, there cannot be a problem with the gospel! It certainly worked for the first century Christians! Death and dying was not taboo in the Apostle Paul’s vocabulary.
Christ will be exalted in my body, whether I live or die. For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. Now if I am to go on living in the body, this will mean productive work for me, yet I don’t know which I prefer: I feel torn between the two, because I have a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far – The Apostle Paul, Philippians 1:20-23
When the early followers of Jesus received regular threats on their lives by the same powerful leaders and authorities who beheaded John the Baptist, crucified Jesus the Son of God, stoned the disciple Stephen to death and ran a sword through the Apostle James, those threatened disciples didn’t ask God to make the mean men and their nasty threats go away. In their prayers they prayed:
Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. – Acts 4:29
And this was not just a quirk of the first century Christians. Trace it through the second century with Christians like Ignatius of Antioch:
I am writing to all the Churches and I enjoin all, that I am dying willingly for God’s sake, if only you do not prevent it. I beg you, do not do me an untimely kindness. Allow me to be eaten by the beasts, which are my way of reaching to God. I am God’s wheat, and I am to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, so that I may become the pure bread of Christ. – Ignatius of Antioch, The Epistle of Ignatius to the Romans.
Trace the same pattern in church history throughout the centuries. Trace it today in the church in Iran and Iraq, in China, in India, in places where persecution means more than being upset and marginalised by your local MP’s views. In places like North Korea where – as Annie was reading recently – pastors and church leaders have been lined up and steam rolled over because of their faith in Jesus Christ.
The only quirk is the peculiar bunch of 21st century Christians in the West of whom many of us belong and for whom ‘death’ and ‘dying’ seems to be so last season.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” – Matthew 16:24
My conviction is that the underlying problem is that we simply don’t realise the great gospel treasure that we have and why we have it. If we realised the treasure that we had, surely our lives and churches would look radically, fearlessly different to the lives of those whose sins and fears have not yet been met and remedied by Jesus?
I was struck this week by what I was reading in Romans 6. The whole chapter was like lifting the lid on a chest full of treasure but these few verses really sparkled.
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. – Romans 6:3,4
The fact that the Apostle Paul asks “Do you not know…?” makes me think that there were certainly some Christians in the first century who shared our ignorance. But it’s what he reminds them of that is most noteworthy.
If you read the first half of Romans 6, the Apostle Paul gives us two broad fear-busting, gospel truths that are not only to be treasured and cherished, but experienced, enjoyed and shared!
1. We don’t have to fear death as Christians because death will not end with the grave but rather will be the gateway to glory
Jesus talked a lot about death. He taught that there is life after death for every human being, irrespective of race, religion, gender or age. Without Jesus, we die in our sins and face eternal punishment from God. But God has sent His Son to come and deal with the punishment for sin and by faith in Him, in His death and His resurrection, we no longer have to fear what lies beyond the grave; when we die we will be with Him, which is – to quote the fearless Apostle Paul “…better by far…” than anything we have or could ever have experienced on this planet. And one day we too will experience a bodily resurrection, where our spirit will be reunited with our bodies – new and imperishable – to experience the new heavens and the new earth, without sin, without fear, without pain, without the limitation of time and without death!
And if for a second you think this sounds like fantasy, be assured, this is history. I appeal that you would not die believing the myth that the gospel is the stuff of fairy story and fantasy. The birth, life, teaching, miracles, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus and the church that bears His name and is empowered by His Word and Spirit, compels me to implore you not to be ignorant or dismissive of the truth, the fact, the wonder of the gospel.
2. We don’t have to fear death because as Christians it’s not just a future event but a past event
This is the jewel that sparkled most to me this week as I read Romans 6.
Christianity is not simply intellectual assent to some facts, religious compliance with some creeds and instruction. It’s a miraculous new life which begins with Holy-Spirit-empowered new birth and continues miraculously in Holy Spirit equipping and empowering.
We are born again.
But in order for that to happen – in order for us to be born again – we had to die. I think as Christians, we too often and too quickly gloss over this and as a result, our new birth experience is not as full and free as Jesus said it should be.
…we have been united with him in a death like his… – Romans 6:5
By faith in Jesus Christ, God unites us to His Son in such a way that what happened to Him has happened to us. I struggle to explain the mystery in that union but basically, He died, we died! That’s why our future death has lost its sting. Believers will not approach the grave with dreadful fear and loneliness because Jesus already faced that for us and it is now a past event for us – not a future one; we will not face punishment for our sins on Judgement Day, because we already died when Jesus died on the cross. That punishment has already been paid, and that death already died.
Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. – Romans 6:8
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. – 2 Corinthians 5:17
This article isn’t meant to be received like a fragment of unearthed archaic theological treasure that is to be examined under a magnifying glass or from behind a glass cabinet at a distance; rather I just want to present to you a glimpse of this beautiful treasure that God has given to us so that we can begin to afford and enjoy the experience of having it right now.
Do you ever ponder how huge this truth, how significant this fact, how incredible this precious gem is? Did you ever experience that feeling when someone famous, someone you respected, or someone else close to you, died? Remember when Princess Diana died? Maybe you remember hearing when JFK and Martin Luther King were assassinated? Do you remember what it felt like when you saw images of those airliners full of people, children, mothers, babies, fathers, husbands, wives, sisters and brothers, collide into the World Trade Center? Do you remember how you felt when you first heard that news? Do you remember how that feeling gripped you for hours – even days and weeks? Do you have memory of the feeling you had when you got the news of a dear friend dying unexpectedly? It’s so shocking, so shattering; it’s mind disorienting stuff, right? It changes lives, households, nations and history in an instant. So can you begin to project those feelings onto what the Apostle Paul was writing? If you are a true follower of Jesus Christ…you are no longer who you once were; and that’s not just because you’ve changed your personality, it’s much more significant than that. You already passed away, you already died, you already had your death certificate dated the day of your conversion; you were already buried. It’s as shocking as going to a graveyard and seeing your own tombstone. It’s as shocking as seeing your own death splashed on the headlines of the newspaper complete with grainy photograph.
Annie and I have this one recurring bad dream we share in common. It’s the dream where, aged as we are now, we are summoned back to high school to relive and retake our years and our exams all over again because it was found that there was some significant misunderstanding: we didn’t pass our final exams as we had thought; we didn’t qualify and we have to retrospectively do it all over again otherwise we cannot progress forward in life. The dream is filled with panic and the dreaded fear of the past shadowing and swallowing up our freedom and our future. What a great relief it is to wake up and realise…it was all just a bad dream. We already passed through high school; we already sat the exams; we already passed them; we have the certificates to prove it. It’s done. It’s finished. The past has no hold on our future. The morning after those bad dreams, life feels so freeing and so liberating!
Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” – John 8:31,32
It’s a small illustration but do you grasp how much more freeing, how much more liberating and empowering it is to understand that in Christ, we already died? How much brighter does today look when you realise “I already died – there’s nothing else to fear; there’s nothing to escape; there’s no power that can hold me back.” Christian brothers and sisters, that makes us uniquely, radically, dangerously, free! How much smaller do your problems look when you are released of that fear? Jesus said that the harvest is plentiful but the labourers are so few. How much more plentiful does the harvest look when you realise that the labour cannot kill you. Aren’t you less fearful about sharing the love of Christ with the lost when you know that the worst they can do – kill you – has already been done. What else is there to fear?
Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. – John 1:12,13
Once we process that shocking truth, then comes the awe. Once we understand that the old me died then we can more fully approach and appreciate the new life we have. You are a new you. You are a new creation. Having died with Christ, you have been newly created and birthed by God. New passions and new ambitions and new desires. No longer mastered by the old passions and fears that died along with the old self.
If the things of this world are your means of escape – even escape from the fear of death – then you’re simply not experiencing the newness of life that you have through Jesus Christ. Christian brothers and sisters, we don’t need to escape the fear of death. That would be rather like sitting inside a prison cell, trying to scratch away the walls with your nails, not realising that the door of the cell, the door to the great outdoors was already wide open behind you.
There’s so much more in Romans 6 – and elsewhere in scripture. So much more that could be written about how we grasp and experience that newness of life that we have in Christ Jesus. But I hope that this simple thought is enough to encourage you today, to lift the lid on the incredible treasure that Jesus Christ has afforded us – treasure not only for the life to come, but even for life today. If you are a true follower of Jesus…you have already died. Now don’t be such a thanataphobe; discover and live out your new life in Christ!
Praise God! In Christ, you are uniquely, radically, dangerously free!