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Fear of Death

Updated: May 21, 2022

In my short time as a staff chaplain at the Nebraska Medical Center, I have noticed that many of my patients are genuinely afraid of death. This probably isn't surprising, and it's not necessarily a bad thing. A healthy fear of death is natural, it's what keeps so many of us alive for so long. We use crosswalks at busy street corners. We don't run with scissors. We keep blow-dryers away from bathtubs.

Since we don't want to die, most of us try to avoid situations where death is more likely to occur. This is a natural and good approach, and we teach safety to our children at a young age. But have you ever wondered why specifically we are so fearful of death?

Sculpture of slain lion

The Bible tells us there are at least two reasons:

  1. Death separates us from this world and from our loved ones. We don't need a Bible verse to teach us this fact, but it is in Scripture. For example, when King David's child is sick, David fasts and prays for the baby's recovery; and when the child dies, David laments that they will no longer be together in this world (2 Samuel 12:22-23). Even when the source of our suffering stems from our own physical ailments, Paul reminds us that we really don't want to die and be separated from our bodies (2 Corinthians 5:4). Death represents the end of our physical existence, and this is a scary realization.

  2. In death each of us faces the Divine Judge. God breathed life into the first human (Genesis 2:7) and instructed us to obey Him (Genesis 2:15-17). We die because our first parents decided not to trust God. Because of this "fall" each of us starts off with a selfish orientation (Romans 5:12). Our personal interests become more important than anything else. We lie, steal, and harm others to get what we want. And because of this, when we die, we have to appear before God and face judgement for our sins (2 Corinthians 5:10; Hebrews 9:27). This is frightening if we take it seriously. And those who do are typically worried about the judge's decision. Even Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood fame, the man who many considered a modern-day saint, worried aloud on his deathbed that he might not make it into heaven.

For these and probably other reasons, the vast majority of us are afraid of death. In essence, we are paralyzed by the realization that we will leave this world and our loved ones. We are also worried about what it will mean to stand before God and face the consequences for our sins.

But what's especially interesting is that Hebrews 2:14-15 reveals that not only are we scared of death, we are also "slaves to the fear of dying." In other words, our fear of death is actually holding us captive. It's keeping us from truly living.

Have you ever let the fear of death keep you in bondage? I know I have. As a chaplain in a large medical center, I hesitated to minister to a patient in need. When I first began my service at Nebraska Medicine, I was called to visit a patient with a contagious disease. Even though personal protective equipment (PPE) was available to me, and other healthcare professionals had recently been with the patient, I was fearful to garb up and go into their room. Fortunately, another chaplain was with me in this situation, and he urged me to push through my fears.

With some trepidation I moved forward, and the most amazing thing happened as a result. As soon as I entered the room and approached the bedside, I felt the weight of my worries lift off of me, almost as if someone had removed a heavy backpack from my shoulders. As my fear faded, I was able to focus all of my attention and compassion on the person in need. I talked with the patient, prayed for them, and saw them as a person whom Jesus loves.

Reflecting on the experience later, I realized that my personal fear of death was keeping me from living in a way that pleases God. God called me to a chaplain's ministry so that I could represent His love to those who are suffering. My worries about my own risks were not only making me anxious and uncomfortable, they were also hindering His purposes.

For those of you who are followers of Christ, it is important to remember Paul's words of encouragement in Romans 8:9-15. "You have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children..." So if you are a child of God, commit yourself to no longer be a slave of the fear of death. While all believers will surely die, the Spirit will give us life eternal. We no longer need to fear death, and we can repeat with the early Church these words, "O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?" (1 Corinthians 15:55). We can also agree with Paul as he concludes in verses 57-58:

But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ. So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless.

(All verses taken from New Living Translation; photo credit: Wix media)

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