Freedom from the Fear of Death

Approximately 10 very short phrases of this article have been reconstructed to render it a non-polemic piece as this poster considers its content extremely vital to the Gospel and a legitimate consideration for all Christians. My thought was to remove any unnecessary distraction to those who might take offense and would otherwise embrace the contents and subject matter herein. The original article can be read here.

April 18, 2008
Freedom from the Fear of Death
The Curse of Sin and the Resurrection of Christ

by Rich Vincent

 

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (1 Corinthians 15:3-5)

The earliest gospel preached by the apostles is summarized in the creed handed down to Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5. The “good news” is not principally about us; it is about Christ Jesus: “Christ died… he was buried… he was raised.” In other words, the same Christ who died and was buried (and thus, was truly dead) is the same Christ who rose from the dead.

The creed emphasizes that Christ’s death and resurrection are “in accordance with the scriptures.” In this way, the events concerning Jesus of Nazareth are connected to Israel’s story, and not just a few “proof-texts.” In this regard, Anglican scholar and pastor N. T. Wright writes,

Paul is not proof-texting; he does not envisage one or two, or even half a dozen, isolated passages about a death for sinners. He is referring to the entire biblical narrative as the story which has reached its climax in the Messiah, and has now given rise to the new phase of the same story, the phase in which the age to come has broken in, with its central characteristic being (seen from one point of view) rescue from sins, and (from another point of view) rescue from death, i.e. resurrection.

Since Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are “the continuation and fulfillment of God’s dealings with Israel,” the “good news” is the consummation of God’s original redemptive intent as communicated in the sacred scriptures.

It is here that the gospel connects to our lives. Though the good news is not principally about us, it does have significance for us. That is, the good news possesses redemptive significance: It is “for our sins.” Jesus’ death and resurrection are God’s saving response to the human condition that is the consequence of human rebellion to God.

What, then, is the nature of the human condition to which Jesus’ death and resurrection are the only remedy? How does Jesus’ death and resurrection address the problem of sin? And how does this all fit into the ancient story of God’s dealings with creation and humanity? In order to answer these questions, we must go all the way back to the beginning of God’s story in the book of Genesis.

Original Goodness

Sometimes we focus so much on humanity’s fall into sin that we ignore a foundational truth: The world is good – created and blessed by God to be the stage upon which God’s grace and goodness is expressed and experienced (Genesis 1; cf. 1 Timothy 4:4).

Not out of lack or necessity, but in complete freedom, God created the heavens and the earth out of the overflow of the Triune fullness, in order that all creation may share in the divine fullness of life and love. God’s original intention was that the heavens and the earth would be a temple of the living God.

In this cosmic temple, humankind was granted a special and unique role. Unlike any other creature, humanity was not created by Divine Fiat – the utterance of the Divine Word (“Let there be…”) – but by the direct involvement and action of God. Consequently, humankind bears the divine image, possessing a unique capacity to reflect the divine likeness and to mediate the divine presence. Through communion with God (walking and talking with God) and stewardship on God’s behalf (obedience to God’s will), humankind dwelt in harmony with itself, fellow humans, God, and God’s creation.

This sacred harmony was disrupted by sin. Through human disobedience to God’s will, death entered the world. Paul summarized this truth in Romans 5:12: “Therefore, sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned.” With the introduction of sin, and along with it, death, the disintegration of creation began, and with it, the need for divine redemption.

Original Sin

The disintegration, or corruption, of creation has four dimensions. Because of sin, humankind is now alienated

from God. Whereas Adam once walked with God, Adam now hides from God. God’s lonely cry, “Adam, where are you?” underscores the pain of this separation. This is not God’s will. God’s redemption will bring reconciliation.

from others. The blame-shifting between Adam and Eve, seeking to be right at the expense of the other, is one expression of this. Domination, jealousy, murder, and vengeance rapidly ensue, and become the “normal” human experience. This is not God’s will. God’s redemption will bring healing.

from self. Once naked and unashamed, Adam and Eve now experience shame. They are profoundly aware that they are not what they should be. They seek to hide the truth from one another and from themselves. This is not God’s will. Redemption will bring wholeness.

from creation. Creation is subject to vanity (Romans 8:20-23). Thus begins the human struggle to survive in the face of death and corruption. “Domination and exploitation of the creation for selfish ends by greedy human beings became the order of history.” This is not God’s will. Redemption will bring renewal and re-creation.

This is the tragic situation in which we find ourselves. The sinful exercise of human freedom, provoked by the devil, introduced forces of disintegration and corruption into creation. From the beginning, the devil, sin, death (and the corruption that accompanies it) are inseparably linked. All exist as parasites on God’s good creation.

What then is needed to redeem what was lost in the fall? Restored union and communion with God and others, and a reintegrated environment that is no longer susceptible to corruption. Redemption is no less than the recovery of all that was lost in Adam. It is God’s divine response to the human condition brought about by human sin. All that is divided must be reunited. All that is corrupted must be healed.

This restoration and renewal of all things in Christ is at the heart of the gospel message: “God’s plan for the fullness of time is to gather up all things in him [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10). This union comes about through the death and resurrection of Christ:

He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:18-20)
Through the redemptive work of Christ, “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).

When Christ’s work is complete, the Lord’s promise will be fulfilled: “Indeed, as I live, all the earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord” (Numbers 14:21); “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14).

God’s intention to fill all creation with the divine presence and love is the heartbeat of sacred history. This work of redemption is God’s ultimate answer to our greatest problems: sin, death, and the devil. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, these enemies are addressed, overcome, and defeated. We now live in light of this victory and await its future consummation in the new heavens and new earth (Revelation 20).

Reevaluating Our Perspective on Death

In order to fully appreciate the scope of God’s redemptive work in Christ, we must reevaluate our perspective on death. Our view of original sin deeply influences our understanding of God’s redemptive plan. We are often unaware of this influence. However, we must never underestimate the following fact: The way we describe our problem (“original sin”) deeply influences what we perceive as the necessary solution to our problem. In other words, our view of salvation is primarily shaped by our understanding of what exactly is wrong and what needs to be put to right.

Some Christians generally assume that death is God’s punishment for sin. In other words, death is God’s doing. Stated in the starkest of terms, some Christians generally assume that death is God’s judgment on guilty sinners – God’s punishment for sin. Though we attempt to soften the blow by assigning the devil as God’s chosen instrument of death, the implications remain the same: God kills guilty sinners. And God is justified in doing so because of the guilt of sin. The “wages of sin is death” because God vindictively punishes the sinner for his or her sins.

However, a more traditional view of our main problem (“original sin”) and God’s solution is markedly different. Sin is its own undoing; it contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction. Sin is the turning away from the divine life and love, and its ultimate consequence is alienation and death. God did not create death; we brought it upon ourselves through our sin. God warned of death because death is not God’s will: “for in the day that you eat from it, you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:16). Rather, communion, obedience, and the sharing of divine life is God’s will.

Death exists in the world as a parasite apart from the will of God. It is not God’s creation. Since sin is always a perversion of the good, it brings decay and disintegration to all it touches. It destroys rather than builds up. Death is the ultimate experience of the disintegration of creation due to human sin. In death, the corruption of sin is complete.

The difference between the two views described above comes down to this: Generally speaking, the first view assumes that death is God’s doing – God’s punishment for sin – and therefore, God’s will. In the traditional Christian view, death is God’s enemy, a great evil, a perversion, a distortion, a corrupting parasite on God’s good creation.

In my opinion, the historical and traditional perspective is faithful to the whole message of scripture. In other words, it does a better job of connecting the dots of sin, death, and the devil. Viewing original sin and death in this manner, our problem is not simply that we are guilty and need forgiveness. Our problem is that we are sick (the ultimate expression being death) and need divine healing (the ultimate expression being resurrection).

The life and ministry of Jesus supports this view. In the establishment and expression of God’s kingdom, Jesus healed the sick, cast out demons, and raised the dead. Theologian, John Romanides asks, “If death and man’s bondage to Satan, however, are the will of God, we necessarily ask why the Evangelists present Christ to us through numerous miracles in which He heals the sick, casts out demons, and raises the dead?” This is also evident in Jesus’ great struggle in Gethsemane. Why was Jesus so reluctant to die, if death were not a great evil? Likewise, why would Jesus so passionately weep over Lazarus’ tomb (especially with the knowledge that he would soon raise him from the dead), if it were not that death is a great evil that demands divine redemption?

I believe that this historical and traditional view best connects and explains the biblical evidence. God is not responsible for death and corruption. Death is not God’s will; it is God’s enemy. God speaks through the prophet, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (Ezekiel 33:11). Why would we assume that God enacts punishment for sin through death when no biblical text explicitly states this? On the contrary, we read, “The soul that sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4) and “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). These passages do not read “The soul that sins shall die by God’s hand” or “The wages of sin is death by God.” Instead, death is the tragic consequence and ultimate end of sin. The very seeds of death are contained in every act of sin, since sin is a turning away from the divine life, love, and communion.

Because we often assume death is God’s punishment, we present the gospel in an un-Biblical fashion: we push personal guilt in the transmission of sin to the forefront and relegate the power of Satan, death, and corruption to the background. We assume that “guilt” is our primary problem and “forgiveness” our primary need. For those concerned with the truth of this matter, death and corruption is our primary problem, and our ultimate need is divine healing and wholeness. In other words, we who are “dead in our sins and trespasses” need life by God’s grace alone, for we are chained to our sins and helpless before death (Ephesians 2:1).

When we begin to think in this manner, many familiar (and unfamiliar) passages take on a new meaning. For example: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). Our problem here is not guilt and the solution forgiveness. Our problem is our inherent corruptibility due to sin (“perish”) and our need is for “eternal life.”

Death – The Fruit and Root of Sin

The problem of sin goes deeper and the connections are greater than we often realize. Death is not simply the fruit of sin; it is also sin’s root. The devil uses the fear of death to provoke further sin and destruction.

As noted above, in Romans 5:12, Paul connects Jesus’ saving work to Adam’s fall. “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned.” The text continues with Paul arguing that death, not guilt, is the real problem. Death reigned in spite of personal guilt demonstrated through breaking God’s law: “sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses” (Romans 5:13-14a). It is not personal guilt alone that calls for divine forgiveness, but “the dominion or reign of death” that must be addressed by the gift of life.

The Greek of Romans 5:12b could also be constructed, “and because of which death all have sinned.” This would cause the entire passage to read: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and because of which death all have sinned.” Viewed in this light, we discover that sin “is an egocentric illness contracted from the parasites called corruptibility and death. Adam died because he sinned, and death spread to all men. Now we sin because we die, for the sting of death is sin. … Death is the root; sin is the thorn that springs from it.”

Put simply: sin leads to death and death arouses sin. Death is the fruit and root of sin. This evil cycle is doomed to lead to destruction unless divine redemption halts its progress.

And this is exactly what the devil seeks to do. Whether one believes in a personal devil or one views the devil as a metaphor – the embodiment of systemic sin and destructive powers – the outcome is the same. Death is used by the evil powers to excite fear, sin, and destruction. This is the point the author of Hebrews makes in Hebrews 2:14-15: “Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself [Jesus] 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.” This harmonizes with 1 John 3:8b: “The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.”

Now, all three themes – sin, death, and the devil – come together: Sin results in death, and the fear of death is used by the devil to deceptively and cunningly destroy the works of God. Thus, death is both the fruit and root of sin. And it is precisely the devil’s cunning use of the fear of death that excites sin and furthers human corruption and societal and ecological destruction.

Fear of Death as a Root of Sin

The power of death and corruption is not negative, but positively active: “The sting of death is sin” (1 Corinthians 15:56); “Sin reigns in death” (Romans 5:21). Though we were made for life in God, we are now, due to sin and death, corruptible, perishing, decaying. We are sick, and we need healing. We need redemption from death and the ultimate disintegration it brings. The evil one plays on our fear of death, furthering sin and death in rebellion to God’s will.

Christian theologians are not the only ones who have made this connection. In his Pulitzer Prize winning work, The Denial of Death, psychologist Ernest Becker suggests that the fear of death haunts the human animal like nothing else.

Animals “live and they disappear with the same thoughtlessness: a few minutes of fear, a few seconds of anguish, and it is over. But to live a whole lifetime with the fate of death haunting one’s dreams and even the most sun-filled days–that’s something else.”

We know emotionally that we are creatures who will die. Consciously or unconsciously, this truth pervades our entire lives. Death is not simply a one-time event. It is a process. We live with it our entire lives. Ernest Becker argues that we, in order to maintain the illusion of sanity, deny death:

Everything that man does in his symbolic world is an attempt to deny and overcome his grotesque fate. He literally drives himself into a blind obliviousness with social games, psychological tricks, personal preoccupations so far removed from the reality of his situation that they are forms of madness–agreed madness, shared madness, disguised and dignified madness, but madness all the same.

The fear of death and disintegration brings anxiety, despair, and a frantic search for meaning. We fear the threats of disease, sickness, bodily decay, challenges of aging, and physical violence that could maim or destroy us. The 1987 Report of the World Council of Churches Inter-Orthodox Consultation draws attention to the social implications of the fear of death:

“Fear of death instilled anxiety, acquisitiveness, greed, hatred and despair in human beings. Modern forms of economic exploitation, racial oppression, social inequalities, war, genocide, etc. are all consequences of the fear of death and collective signs of death.”

Afraid to die, we are also afraid to truly live. We fear both death and life. Our desire for self-preservation easily descends to self-absorption and self-justification. We come to believe that practically everyone is expendable except ourselves. In its most extreme form, we actually feel we can defeat our own death by killing others. War is the most obvious expression of this.

In this state, we dare not risk our security to help others. Our well-being takes on greater importance than self-giving love. Any perceived threat triggers fear and anxiety. John Romanides writes, “Being under the way of death and not having real and correct faith in God, man is anxious over everything and is ruled by selfish bodily and psychological motives and, thus, he is unable to love unselfishly and freely. He loves and has faith according to what he perceives to be to his own advantage.”

Fear is a powerful force wielded to influence our decisions. Politicians, advertisers, and even preachers play on our fears in self-serving ways. Ultimately, we fear the loss of life and the loss of our way of life. As long as the fear of death holds us under its dominion – whether consciously or unconsciously – we dare not take the necessary risks to live fully, selflessly, and in a Christ-like manner.

The Significance of the Resurrection

The death and resurrection of Christ are central to the good news of God’s redemption because sin and death have been fully addressed in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Christ Jesus has “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10).

Christ’s work is redemptive (“for our sins”) and the fulfillment of God’s saving purposes (“in accordance with the scriptures”) because it recovers all that was lost in Adam. Sin, death, and the devil have been dealt a lethal blow in the death and resurrection of Christ (see Colossians 2:13-15). These parasites on God’s good creation are removed, and all things are restored in Christ.

Resurrection is the culmination and consummation of God’s redemptive purpose because it represents the ultimate undoing, reversal, and defeat of death. It represents the highest achievement of divine healing. It is the reason we can cry out in praise with Paul, “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:57).

This is the reason Paul argues for the necessity and centrality of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. “Without the resurrection, there is no reason to suppose that Jesus’ crucifixion dealt with sins, or with sin. But, with the resurrection, the divine victory over sin(s), and hence over death, is assured.”[14] Paul is crystal clear: “there is no gospel at all unless the death of Christ can be seen to deal with sin once and for all.”

No Fear

It is our faith in Jesus’ victory over sin, death, and the devil that gives us the courage to renounce the fear of death and walk in the power of God’s Spirit (see 1 Timothy 1:7). The fear of death through which the devil prevailed is now vanquished. The strength of evil is broken. “Death is a great enemy, but it has been conquered and will at the last be conquered fully. … death is important; it is an enemy, but for the Christian, it is a beaten enemy.”

Fear keeps us from being perfected in love. This is the point the Apostle John makes in 1 John 4:17-18:

Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.

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