I’ve been a Christian my entire life and I’ve always known that when I die, I’m going to go to Heaven. And as much as people talk about how great Heaven is, I just can’t quite get over a fear of death. It seems like, if I really believed in Heaven, then – if anything – I’d look forward to death. But it honestly just sounds terrifying, and that makes me feel like I don’t really believe what I say I believe. Is it OK for Christians to be afraid of dying?
David, what a great question. As I was reading it, I found myself nodding and thinking, “Yep, I’m afraid too.” And I bet a lot of people join you and I in this fear, while also wondering if that fear is in direct opposition to our relationship with Jesus. So, let’s talk about it…
I think the conversation around the fear of death has less to do with fear, but more to do with how we define death. As I see it, there are three different definitions of death that each carry their own theology and psychological profile:
Death (1) – A singular moment where body function ceases and your physical life on earth has ended. Put more beautifully, “and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” (Ecclesiastes 12:7)
Death (2) – When we talk about death, oftentimes we’re really talking about dying, or the manner of death. This can include old age, disease, accident, or any number of other not-fun-to-talk-about options.
Death (3) – There is a kind of death described in Scripture as a sort of death of the soul, that is, a succumbing to sin or turning away from God. This is often referred to spiritual death and is the death that we see used in verses like:
“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)
“When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins.” (Colossians 2:13)
So David, when you talk about being afraid of death, what definition of death are you using? My guess (and the source of your tension) is that you’re fearing and thinking more about the first or second definition, but hung up on the third one. Because the third definition (and the accompanying verses) aren’t just warnings concerning the consequences of unchecked and unrepentant sin, but they are also beacons of hope. A hope that is found in a relationship with Jesus, which you have. This kind of spiritual death is no longer yours to fear.
(Side note: I am clearly a Calvinist in this regard.)
Back to the conversation. Some Christians would argue that a fear of death is a lack of trust in God. Here’s the problem with that though, being afraid of leaving earth or being afraid of dying in an unpleasant way doesn’t indicate a lack of faith, it indicates a presence of humanity. Now I will say, a fear of spiritual death is a little concerning for someone who’s a follower of Jesus. And if you find yourself fearing this, I’d pray fervently and read everything you can about God’s love and grace. But outside of that, death, dying, and our time ending on earth IS scary, even to Jesus:
“They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. 34 “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them.“Stay here and keep watch.” Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14:32-35)
Now what was Jesus fearing here? Certainly it was not His eternity, relationship with God, or purpose for dying. Jesus was afraid of the the pain that was to come. He was afraid, like any human, of dying (definition No. 2). Additionally though, and I want to be cautious about reading too much into what Jesus is/isn’t thinking, but I wonder if there was a part of Him that was going to miss His friends, His family, and the community He had built? Maybe not, but that’s what makes me afraid of death.
We are put on this earth for a reason. If there was no reason, God wouldn’t have put us here. He doesn’t need us to hang out in this holding pen for 80+ years, there’s room in heaven. But God chose to put us here—and to live. Live abundantly, live gratefully, live justly, and live to accomplish the work of God. Am I afraid of the afterlife? No. But am I just human enough to not be able to fully comprehend heaven and, therefore, be afraid of saying goodbye to my sweet wife, daughters, friends, homebrewing, crisp fall air, laughing so hard I cry, happy little existence that I’ve eked out? Yes. Because this is the heaven I know—and I like getting to live in God’s creation.
Daniel, there’s no need to be afraid of death. But, there’s no reason why you wouldn’t be. My encouragement to you is to do all you can to figure out why God has put you on this globe, and leave your tomorrows to Him.
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Eddie Kaufholz is a writer, speaker and podcaster and serves as a director of church mobilization for International Justice Mission. He also hosts and produces "The New Activist" podcast. You can find on Twitter @EdwardorEddie.