Why Fear Death?

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Since we had been to Niagara Falls many times before, my wife and I guided friends on their first visit. On a warm July morning, we walked from our car through heavy ground fog with visibility of about fifty feet. We stood at the railing above the Horseshoe Falls hearing thundering water; just fifty yards from us, the falls were invisible. We assured our friends that nature’s great scenic wonder did exist. They believed us, based on the sound of the rushing water alone.

In ten minutes, the morning fog burned away, and before us the awesome panorama of Niagara Falls was fully visible. I take that experience as a paradigm for the present-day comfort of Christian hope. We have plain indicators of eternal life today, but only beyond our death will heaven’s splendor and the face of Christ be fully revealed.

The Bible’s answer to the fear of death unfolds in stages. The Old Testament knows it in anticipation. Psalm 23 assures us that God will be “with us” in death’s valley. Psalm 16 declares, “You will not abandon my soul to Sheol … at your right hand are pleasures evermore.” The lifeline for pre-Christian saints was the bold belief that death would be a passageway into God’s secure presence. No clear road map told how this would happen—somehow God would do it.

For centuries, the prophets looked forward to the keystone event of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. Only by this did we gain the historic foundation for the answer to the fear of death: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26). Consequent to His own rising from the dead, Jesus could promise, “I go to prepare a place for you … and I will come again and receive you to myself” (14:2–3). He guaranteed to those who trust exclusively in Him, “Because I live, you also will live” (14:19).

That should seal the matter. Why would any Christian not have airtight eternal hope, banishing all tremors of mind regarding physical death? Since Christ has risen for us, He has “delivered all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb. 2:15). Do any Christians have a problem with that? Yes, in fact, many do. A ninety-eight-year-old woman, eyes brimming with tears, once confessed to me, “Pastor, I’m afraid to die.” She was not connecting the Easter doctrine of resurrection she had professed for a lifetime to a possession of comfort by that hope. We may have our biblical foundation correct without making lively and habitual applications of it to the soul.

Sustaining hope in the face of death matures best as we consciously recognize that Christ Himself is on heaven’s throne. Many Christians have a “me-centered” view of eternity. They ask, What will the place be like? What will I do all the time? Eternity exerts its magnetic pull on us when we study Christ Jesus Himself as our all-consuming final destination. Paul wrote, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21, emphasis added). If we say Christ is presently our “all in all” during this imperfect lifetime, think what it will mean to be possessed by Him completely:

Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2)

The heavy fog of our sin will be gone, and we shall behold His face.

Every engaged woman gives supreme attention to obtaining her bridal gown, the dress she will wear on one of the biggest days of her life. As a pastor, I watch the bride emerge on her father’s arm. Halfway down the aisle, she forgets her dress, as her eyes lock on to her groom and her smile beams at him alone. Christians await just such a moment. A hymn based on Samuel Rutherford’s writing says, “The bride eyes not her garment, but her dear bridegroom’s face; I will not gaze at glory, but on my King of grace.”

In John 17:24, Jesus prayed, “Father, I desire that they also whom you have given me, will be with me where I am, to see my glory” (emphasis added). We can gradually be weaned away from our natural fear of death as we dwell much upon the preeminent Lord who will greet us there. Comparing Christ to every earthly joy left behind, Jonathan Edwards wrote:

Beside [Jesus], father and mother, husbands, wives, or children are but shadows, while the enjoyment of God is the substance. These are but scattered beams, but God is the sun. These are streams, but God is the fountain. These are but drops, but God is the ocean.

Is your view of heaven Christ-centered? Heaven exists for us to know Jesus Christ in His exalted glory. Apart from Him, it really has no meaning at all.

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