Freedom from Fear of Death
We all take great confidence in knowing that the Lord Jesus Christ will raise the dead and judge the “quick and dead at his appearing and his kingdom.” (2 Tim 4:1).
Isaiah spoke of how the gospel message would “proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.” (Isa 61:1). Our common hope is that Jesus will return soon and deliver the faithful from sin and death. The prison house of the grave will no longer hold those who have died in hope.
However, the freedom our Lord offers is not only at his appearing. He also offers a life-changing confidence that can change our perspective of life—and death. It was Jesus who said, “Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” (John 14:27). The Apostle Paul wrote of this gift of freedom from fear.
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. (Heb 2:14-15 ESV).
As I enter my late sixties, I am becoming more accustomed to finding death within me. Earlier in my life, sickness and poor health were merely a rude interruption. Death was a certainty, but it seemed distant and a more philosophical consideration. As I’ve aged, there are ongoing, nagging differences in my body, my vision, my hearing (just ask my wife!).
To be honest, it makes me dread what lies ahead, whether it be a few years or a couple of decades. Those of us who are past our physical prime know the drill. Backs that once were limber and elastic, now slowly and painfully straighten. Sleep, once uninterrupted and sweet, is disturbed often by the “voice of the bird.” (Eccl 12:4).
Solomon aptly describes many of the experiences of the “evil days.” We can choose to view these as “medical problems,” or we can see them as Divine messages, helping us to acknowledge that everything about this life is temporary, fleeting.
When I read Hebrews chapter 2 a couple of weeks ago, it led me to think about my own fears. Am I afraid of death? Am I living in detention when the prison door has already been unlocked? Clearly for me, the answer was yes.
The Lord’s victory over sin teaches me that I have already been delivered from the slavery of the fear of death. My acceptance of this, from a doctrinal point of view, has never been shaken. I fundamentally believe that the Lord will return and raise me from my grave, along with all other faithful from over the centuries. I do not fear the grave the same as those without hope. But there seems to be something more that Jesus delivered us from. It is a freedom of mind, a comfort in the way we face our mortality.
There is a clarity about one’s faith when you see death.
I’ve had two experiences where I was in the presence of one who was dying. One, a faithful brother, who did not expect that day would be the day of his death. The other was my dear mother, who after a lengthy battle with cancer was ready to close her eyes in sleep. These were deeply spiritual experiences for me. There is a clarity about one’s faith when you see death. One understands at a visceral level that we are powerless over death. It is an acknowledgement that goes beyond the first principles governing death. It is a personal reminder of the absolute reliance that we have on our Lord.
I have often wondered why I have been so hopeful that the Lord would return in my lifetime. I remember a brother, long since asleep, telling me that he believed Jesus would return before he passed, resulting in him never having to experience death. In retrospect, his reasoning and motivation may be inconsistent with our freedom from the “fear of death.”
We are told that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption.” (1 Cor 15:50). I don’t know what this glorious experience will be like, but it certainly is a cessation of a mortal body, being replaced with a spiritual body. Does that change occur “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye”? Perhaps. But for those who slept in Christ over the centuries, the momentary cessation of consciousness matches their same experience. Change must occur. “This corruptible must put on incorruption.” (1 Cor 15:53). The concept of never dying seems inconsistent with the change we must all face, and it seems connected in a way to the fear of death.
I take courage when I read about the confidence that faithful men and women in Scripture had in God when they faced death. Joshua, at the age of 110, declared, “I am going the way of all the earth.” (Josh 23:14). The Apostle Paul, yet in reasonable health, faced a certain death at the hands of the Romans. But, as he wrote to Timothy, he reassured him that he was “ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished the course; I have kept the faith.” (2 Tim 4:6).
In these cases, and many others, the knowledge that life was about to end was clear. These great men of faith were at peace. There was no fear of death. Their focus and treasure were on the day when their eyes would open again to a life that “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man.” (1 Cor 2:9).
In Eden, part of the appeal of the message of the serpent was “Ye shall not surely die.” (Gen 3:4). Since Eden, men have shared in the mistruth of that statement. Interestingly, one of the consequences of sin was the curse of the ground. In Genesis 3, we are told “Cursed is the ground for thy sake.” (Gen 3:17).
Why were the curse of thorns and thistles helpful for the “sake” of Adam? During his labors as a farmer, he would struggle every day with the consequences of sin. Adam would labor “by the sweat of thy face” to eat bread. It would no longer be as it was in the Garden. He would feel in his life the progressive effects of the curse. There was a constant reminder of his mortality and the consequences of sin. It reminded him every day of his need for redemption.
What happens to our perspective of life when we fear death?
Not all believers, or their families, will have the blessing of long life. Sadly, it seems too often that promising people are removed from our lives, and we find ourselves searching for answers we may never get in this life. David was in great distress for the untimely loss of his “brother Jonathan.” (2 Sam 1:26). Jonathan was greatly loved by David, and between them they had determined that when David would become king, Jonathan would be second to him (1 Sam 23:17).
What a helpful friend and counselor Jonathan would have been during the troublesome times that David would face in the future. Yet, as we move forward into 2 Samuel, we can see terrible events from which Jonathan was spared. He was not there to experience the hanging of his half-brothers and nephews by the Gibeonites due to his father’s trespass at Nob (1 Sam 22:19).
God is the righteous Judge, and we must trust that He knows what is best, even if it doesn’t make sense to us during the time of grief. Isaiah wrote, “Good people pass away; the godly often die before their time. But no one seems to care or wonder why. No one seems to understand that God is protecting them from the evil to come. For those who follow godly paths will rest in peace when they die.” (Isa 57:1-2 NLT).
When I fear death, my heart is not fully at peace.
What happens to our perspective of life when we fear death? The Apostle John wrote that “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.” (1 John 4:18). How could my fear of death torment me and prevent me from embracing love?
When I fear death, my heart is not fully at peace. It brings anxiety about my death and the passing of my loved ones and brothers and sisters in Christ. But John tells us that it also prevents love from fully developing. How does that happen?
A very good friend of mine has been facing a dreadful, and potentially fatal disease. We are close in age, and we have worked together in the Truth for many years. So, when he was diagnosed with his disease, I was fearful of losing my friend. I am so thankful that our Lord has extended his life. But I was deeply moved by what he told me about facing the real prospect of death.
He said that his disease has been a blessing! It has brought him closer to God, and helped him to be much more aware of His strength and mercies. As I reflected on this, I realized that my friend had, indeed, been freed from the prison house of the fear of death. He wasn’t locked away, anxiously fretting about what might be coming in the days ahead. Rather, it helped him increase his appreciation, reliance and love for God. For where fear is absent, love can grow.
A lovely sister described to me the last moments of her husband’s life. “He was a multigenerational Christadelphian. Yet he was very fearful of his death. He was not certain of the mercy of God, nor of his standing in the sight of God. I fear he must have lived in ‘bondage’ although he never revealed this until his final hours.”
The thoughts our sister shared seems to get to the heart of the fear of death for many. It involves an uncertainty about our relationship with God. It is a fear of judgment, along with a feeling of unworthiness. I am sure we have all struggled with such feelings. But as we assess this problem, we can see clearly how such a feeling might generate within us a legalistic torment to try to be more loveable to our God.
If we could just be a bit more holy, then we would feel more confident to face the Judgment Seat. Such thinking fails to comprehend the love of God and his grace. In fact, He loved us “while we were yet sinners.” (Rom 5:8). It is the Father’s “good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32). We are encouraged, as believers, to have confidence that we are in an active relationship with the Father and Son today. It is that relationship where we can see the love and manifestation of our Lord (John 14:21).
When we comprehend the grace of God, we need not fear. David wrote about the prospect of the fear of death and he said, “He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” (Psa 23:3-4).
The reason we can face our own mortality is because we can fundamentally know that the Lord is with us, leading us beside still waters. He is with us during the spring of youth, as well as the closing days of winter. Paul wrote that, “Ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory.” (Col 3:3-4).
The word “hid” is instructive. It is krupto, which has been translated “to cover or conceal.” With fleshly vision, we are incapable of seeing how we are being hidden away for future glory. All we see is decline. Such vision can only bring about anxiety and fear. But through the eye of faith, we can have confidence that our Lord intends to have us “appear with him in glory.” The evidence of this today is our relationship with our Lord, and our knowledge of him working in our lives. It is confidence in our Lord, not ourselves.
The fear of death, which can obsess unbelievers, is what Jesus died to liberate us from. It is an acknowledgement of his love for us. “For that is what God is like. He is our God forever and ever, and he will guide us until we die.” (Psa 48:14 NLT).
Our Lord faced his own death, resolute on the “joy that was set before him.” (Heb 12:2). Today we are blessed to have our hope as a “treasure in earthen vessels.” (2 Cor 4:7). Through the mercy and love of our God, we can now look beyond these fragile mortal bodies. Through faith, we see the day when “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” (Rev 21:4).