When people talk about dying, they could be referring to a couple different aspects of death, and we should not condemn their fears without understanding what they’re discussing.
As Christians, we’re more or less told that being fearful of death is sinful. Look at the great martyrs of the faith who boldly stepped up to the plate! Shame on you for shrinking back even a teensy bit!
Part of the problem is here is a communication error. Despite English’s potential for great specificity, it’s occasionally unclear what we mean when we talk about death. Eddie Kaufholz, podcast host and International Justice Mission director, pointed this out in response to a listener’s question about death. Clarity on the three general types of ‘death’ is vital in this discussion.
Death as a medical event.
Death as a spiritual state.
Death as a process
The first type of death, the physiological event in which our bodies stop functioning and begin to decay causes, for many nonbelievers, either horror or unhealthy fascination. The call for believers to not fear death here is reasonable and right.
We acknowledge that death is antithetical to our nature as eternal beings that are crafted in God’s image. It represents the cost of sin in the world, but we also have the promise of God’s resurrection and new, heavenly bodies.
Death as a medical event and the price tag for sin in the world shouldn’t horrify us or create excessive interest since we understand where it comes from, God determines how and when we die, and death will no longer be a feature of the world once Christ returns.
The other two versions of death, however, we have every right to view with concern.
The Corruption of a Soul
In a sermon on death as a spiritual state, David Wilkerson wrote, “Up until Calvary, death was a very fearful thing to humankind. It was still the devil's domain, under his rule and lordship. Therefore, death was an enemy to be feared. God knew this power of death had to be broken. And that's why he handed over his son to death.
“’…that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil’ (Hebrews 2:14). God wanted to remove death's sting, to break Satan's power over death once and for all. So he allowed Jesus to go down into death in order to swallow it up.”
We have an awe-inspiring promise, as believers, that we are free from the terrible separation from our Father and the result: spiritual death.
That’s well worth celebrating, at least for ourselves. We have every right to still fear, though, for friends and family who refuse to acknowledge that Jesus’ sacrifice and submission to his path is the only way to a right relationship with God.
Spiritual death in our unsaved loved ones is a horror, and it’s part of the reason why God allows the physical death to remain even for his redeemed children.
David explains in the conclusion of his sermon, “The apostle [Paul] states very plainly, ‘Here is the reason why God hands us over to death. He does it so the life of Christ will flow out of us to others! If we allow death to complete its work in us, a manifestation of the Christ-life will come forth in us; and our testimony will produce life in all who hear it.’”
Our hope in something beyond life, our love for Christ that will move us to embrace death if it gets us in his presence at last, is an anomaly in the world and will draw those who don’t know God yet.
As a small aside, spiritual death is sometimes discussed among Christians as simply not feeling God’s presence. “I pray, but I don’t hear any answers from God. I’m in a dark night of the soul, and I really feel dead spiritually right now.”
This emotional description is technically hyperbolic and incorrect. Being in a dark night of the soul is very difficult; let no one say otherwise. However, if you have the Holy Spirit in you, you cannot be spiritually dead, even if you’re not currently feeling God’s presence or aware of his answers to your prayers. In the same way that a struggling creature can’t be dead, a child of God can’t be spiritually dead.
This type of death is reserved for those who refuse to acknowledge God or submit themselves to Jesus. We have no reason to fear it for ourselves, but we should fear its presence in others and what it will cost them at the end of time.
Passing Out of the World
Even if a believer is not overly disturbed by that moment of going from this life into the next and we are secure in the knowledge that God has given us an unquenchable spring of spiritual life, we may still experience some anxiety thinking about the process of death.
No one savors the idea of slowly withering away from terminal cancer (or if you do, I’m concerned for your mental state). Car wrecks, drowning, disease, old age, infection, murder, etc. are not fun ways to pass out of this world. It’s probably safe to say that almost all of us have at least one method of death that we would rather not experience.
Thanks to a near-drowning while white-water kayaking, I have to say that death via water is one way to the great hereafter that I’d happily bypass.
Given the current situation with the coronavirus, a lot of people have serious concerns about catching COVID-19 and dying of acute respiratory distress, especially if their local hospital doesn’t have enough respirators to go around.
Quite a few people have had someone close to them die and leave them with a certain dread of that kind of death. Others have gone through a life-threatening event themselves and would rather not repeat that particular experience. Maybe you don’t have any special reason for finding one way to die more disturbing than the rest; it simply involves a type of suffering you’d like to avoid.
As a consolation to this common fear, John Piper writes, “You are not at the mercy of Satan. You are not at the mercy of nature. You are not at the mercy of man’s cleverness or carelessness or evil. You are rock-solid secure in God’s omnipotent hands, and you will not die except at his decision….
“This has filled God’s people with incredible courage and energy and joy over the centuries in very risky circumstances of ministry. Why? Because we are immortal until our Father decides to bring us home.
“…You are immortal until God’s work for you is done. You really will not die. You will not die until God intends for you to die.”
So, while it is not sinful to experience fear at the idea of a certain kind of death, that anxiety gives us good reason to pause and remember the Lord’s sovereignty over every moment of our lives — even the end — and then we can continue on following God’s call.
The Power to Transform Death
Hours before his execution in the Flossenbürg concentration camp, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a poem describing death as the last station on the road to freedom.
It echoed his earlier sermon about the end of life. “That life only really begins when it ends here on earth, that all that is here is only the prologue before the curtain goes up — that is for young and old alike to think about. Why are we so afraid when we think about death?... Death is not wild and terrible, if only we can be still and hold fast too God’s Word. Death is not bitter, if we have not become bitter ourselves.
“How do we know that dying is so dreadful? Who knows whether, in our human fear and anguish we are only shivering and shuddering at the most glorious, heavenly, blessed event in the world?
“Death is hell and night and cold, if it is not transformed by our faith. But that is just what is so marvelous, that we can transform death.”
The power of what Christ has done to defeat death and our knowledge of it changes everything. We can walk forward, guiding by the unmovable facts of God’s authority over life and his goodness that will bring us safely through and beyond death.