Nothing to Fear
By Rev. Robert Fleischmann, National Director, Christian Life Resources
“I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far.” (Philippians 1:23)
The Apostle Paul struggles with two desires when writing the Philippian congregation: whether to continue living for the benefit of others or to die, which he considered of far greater personal benefit. Paul’s candor – though striking – isn’t original.
The Old Testament taught us that earthly life is not the end of our existence. Our soul returns to God (Ecclesiastes 12:7). Daniel describes two separate eternal dwellings after earthly life (Daniel 12:2). Jesus reflected those truths when he spoke about Judgment Day (Matthew 25:31-46). Even in death, we live (John 11:25-26).
Jesus comforts us with his promise that he has prepared our eternal home (John 14:1-3) and that death is not to be feared (Matthew 10:28). The psalmist went as far as to state that the condition of the dead who died in faith was “precious” (Psalm 116:15).
Contrast that positive talk about death with the talk about living an earthly life:
Paul told Timothy, “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). Jesus said, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first” (John 15:18). Jesus summed up our existence on earth with these words, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33).
The friend of Job observed, “Yet man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7). Luke also recorded that Paul and Barnabas told the people, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).
Despite this contrast, we conduct celebrations for life’s special moments – such as a pregnancy, a birth, graduation, promotions, anniversary, and birthdays. In death, the mood becomes somber and dark.
An Article of Faith
Any preparation for death requires faith. Scripture defines faith as, “Confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1). These examples of faith come to mind: Abraham willing to sacrifice his long-desired only son; Moses leading an entire nation out of Egypt and across – or more like “through” – the Red Sea; and a virgin accepting a miraculous pregnancy at the word of an angel.
Few of us have a great deal of experience with such extraordinary ventures of faith – until we face death. Life after death is an article of faith.
Faith Is a Modern-Day Miracle
We think of miracles as walking on water, turning water into wine, and healing the sick. Yet, within each child of God, faith is the most incredible miracle. You see, every inclination of our hearts is turned away from God and towards evil (Genesis 8:21; Romans 8:7). Paul used Romans 7 to describe his personal struggle between faith and his evil inclination.
Faith, however, gives even the most short-sighted person the ability to look beyond the here and now. We weep at a funeral and yet confidently sing, “I’m but a stranger here, heaven is my home.” Despite the lack of tangible evidence, we believe what is unbelievable. That is why we say faith is God’s gift by the Holy Spirit, worked into us at our baptism. Our inclination is to reject such things as life after death. We believe it, however, through the miracle of faith.
But We Often Fear Death
A professor of mine once said, “Sometimes I contemplate my own death, and I can hardly wait. Other times, I am scared to death to die.” For many – and perhaps most – death is our first big test of faith. Even believers become uncertain during those times.
These are the four most common fears I have encountered:
Fear #1: Destination
A Christian knows that after death we are in heaven. Yet, as death nears, we in weakness and doubt might ask, “Can I be sure?” When it comes to faith, certainty is not found in evidence that we can see, handle, dismantle, and reassemble. Faith accepts what our reason wants to reject.
Perhaps, we overlook the evidence. No matter how advanced we become, we always fall short. We long for days of better weather, more comfortable homes, happier families, and conveniences that make life easier. The 20th-century apologist, C.S. Lewis, wrote, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” (Mere Christianity).
Christians long for something better. The seed of faith reminds us that earthly is not the endgame. The best is yet to come. Jesus made it happen. Yet, doubts may fabricate a second fear.
Fear #2: Accountability
During the final moments of life, we may fear accountability – the past finally catching up with us. Despite knowing God’s forgiveness of sins, we might dread the thought of being held accountable (Romans 14:12).
The forgiveness of sins through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is a historical fact. He who knew no sin became sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21). Christ’s death on the cross was a complete payment for all of our sins – whether in thought, word, or actions. Yes, we must give an accounting of our lives. Read Romans 7:22-25 and imagine how the Apostle Paul must have felt at the thought of an accounting. But he wrapped up those thoughts with this concluding statement:
Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:25)
Paul knew his hope for and claim to salvation were not found in anything he did but rested completely on the merits of Jesus Christ. We have that same assurance at our own accounting.
Fear #3: Pain
Pain is something everyone wishes to avoid. Even Jesus, on the night of his betrayal, prayed for the “cup to be passed” if it were possible. As a child, I thought the Son of God wouldn’t offer such a prayer. As I have grown, have experienced pain, and learned the pain that Jesus went through, I get it. A desire to avoid pain is not sinful. It is incredibly human to avoid things that can harm us. If we can avoid pain, we want to.
One of the fears at the end of life is that the path to death might be painful. Nearly all physical pain today can be managed. It is common for pain specialists to advise finding a different doctor if a patient’s pain cannot be controlled.
Many are also concerned about lost dignity in the dying process. People worry that someone might have to clean up after them in bed. They worry that they might lose the mental capacity to follow a conversation.
Some push for legalized assisted suicide, having adopted the slogan, “Death with dignity.” The problem is that God never surrenders his right to terminate life (Deuteronomy 32:39). To end life because we don’t like it is not our prerogative. Rather, we are to be stewards of life – caring for it not as OUR possession, but as a blessing from God, to manage in his best interest.
We should work to alleviate pain at the end of life. Find a pain management specialist to keep the dying comfortable and hold out the promises of comfort and assurance from God to ease the emotional pain some may experience.
Fear #4: Survivors
Universally, those with a heart for others fear the welfare of those they leave behind upon death. A husband or wife worries about how the surviving spouse will get along. Younger parents worry about the continued care of their children. Heads of small businesses worry about the employees who counted on them.
First, let’s acknowledge the commendable nature of those who watch out for others. Philippians 2 clearly instructs us to be concerned for others above ourselves.
Death, however, brings that concern to an end. Even in our care for others, we need to realize we were simply God’s servants in carrying out his will. God’s concern for our loved ones will continue after we are gone.
In this regard, the immediate family should demonstrate their sincere willingness to care for survivors, but fellow Christians in a congregation should too. Within a congregation, Christians should be tightly networked so that when hardship inflicts a family, the congregation shows consistent and loving care, concern and compassion for the survivors (Galatians 6:10).
These are the four most common reasons for fearing death. If you study Scripture, you will discover that God provides both assurances and directions for us to address these fears. To do so requires a desire to love as we have been loved and to make sacrifices for the benefit of others. It’s our way to prepare others and ourselves for our day of departure and the ultimate reunion in heaven because of what Jesus did for us.