Afraid of Being Afraid

In Richard Beck’s book, The Slavery of Death, he makes a case from Scripture, theology, and psychology that in our broken, post-Fall experience, much of our human endeavor is driven by the fear of death. A central notion for him is the Hebrews author’s contention that Jesus set us free from slavery to the fear of death when he defeated the devil in his cross and resurrection (Hebrews 2:14-15).

Beck tells us there are two basic forms of death anxiety. The first is obvious and primal. We experience anxiety when we don’t know where our next meal is going to come from or when something (or someone) threatens to take our life. Many people around the world experience this sort of anxiety each day as they are refugees or live in areas suffering from famine, drought, disease, etc.

The second form of anxiety is more nuanced and a lot harder to describe. We might say it is attached to the search for meaning in the face of death. This is the core issue the Preacher deals with in Ecclesiastes. In a world where everything “under the sun” is rendered empty by death, where does one find meaning? The sociologist Ernest Becker explores a similar thought in his The Denial of Death where he argues that we develop culture as a way of pushing away the looming fact of death and thereby invest meaning in our life that is bigger than our mortality. Becker believes we’re all pretty much like the Preacher, working to find something meaningful in the face of death, and that is what we call culture.

Sociology and psychology have observed (much as Scripture has) that once our basic survival is relatively secured, we begin to operate out of this second kind of fear or anxiety. The Hebrews writer would say we are slaves to it, that we serve death. Last year, I took a survey course in World Literature and was interested to see how often this theme pops up. In the oldest extant narrative we have, The Epic of Gilgamesh, the ancient king of Uruk seeks immortality and, failing that, looks for meaning in the face of death. At one point, he says, ““I have peered over the city wall, I have seen the corpses floating in the river’s water. So too it will come to pass for me, so it will happen to me … Since no man can avoid life’s end, I would enter the mountain land and set up my name.”

Importantly, Scripture, Beck, and Becker all agree on one point. Motivated by our anxieties over death, we hurt each other. We find an obvious example in the Exodus narrative (cf. Exodus 1). A new Pharoah rises to power that doesn’t know what Joseph did for the nation. As such, when he sees the Hebrews, he only sees a threat to national security and he is afraid. Acting out of this fear, he institutes a domestic policy of Hebrew enslavement. When that fails to ease his anxieties he calls on all patriotic Egyptians to execute any Hebrew boys of a certain age when they encounter them. This narrative is paradigmatic for how death anxiety operates in human culture.

Put another way, for those of us who don’t have to worry about starving to death or living in a war zone, the reality of death is still present. Because of this, we build up structures – culture – to help us push away this reality. When I’m at the symphony, shopping at the mall, eating a great meal, playing video games, working hard at my job, or tossing a football in the backyard with my kids, I can deny the fact of death. What’s more, when I engage in this way of life I’ve helped build up, I tell myself that my life is meaningful in the face of death. But, when someone challenges that way of life, when someone threatens to unmask the reality of death that I’ve been pushing away or they call into question the meaningfulness of my way of life, I respond with violence because they reintroduce the anxiety I’m working to forget.

In the introduction of Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark, she summarizes this second, existential anxiety helpfully. She says, “Almost everyone is afraid of being afraid.” And history shows we’re willing to go to great lengths to deal with that.

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Afraid of Being Afraid

Slavery to the Fear of Death

This is another in a series of older posts I am porting over from an older blog space. This one is from the Fall of 2015. These thoughts continue to be foundational to the way I’ve come to look at things. Enjoy!

Over the summer, I read Richard Beck’s The Slavery of Death and John Romanides’ The Ancestral Sin. These two works have really helped nuance and deepen my understanding of how the broken world goes round — and how the work of Jesus counters that brokenness. Today, I thought I would share some of what I’ve learned.

Growing up in an evangelical context, I have always viewed humanity’s primary dilemma as sin. Working from passages like Romans 6:23 — “ … the wages of sin is death …” — I’ve carried a pretty straightforward view of how things worked. We sin and that leads to death, and so Jesus comes to somehow deal with our sin problem.

In recent years, and especially since I’ve started thinking more deeply about themes of atonement and resurrection, a second set of texts have come to my attention that complicates the simpler narrative about sin and death and Jesus on the cross. For instance, here’s a key passage in Hebrews 2:14–15:

Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, he also shared the same things in the same way. He did this to destroy the one who holds the power over death — the devil — by dying. He set free those who were held in slavery their entire lives by their fear of death.

Here, the Hebrews writer characterizes what Jesus did on the cross as the defeat of the devil who holds power over death. In accomplishing this victory, Jesus redeems us from our slavery to the fear of death.

While not denying sin or it’s ill effects, the writer seems to believe atonement is not so much about our sin problem as it is about our death problem. Then, there is an interesting suite of passages in 1 Corinthians 15:

Death is the last enemy to be brought to an end … (vs. 26)

Death has been swallowed up by a victory. Where is your victory, Death? Where is your sting, Death? Death’s sting is sin … (vs. 54–56)

1 Corinthians 15 is Paul’s treatment of resurrection. This is the victory he refers to in the concluding remarks of vs. 54ff. Of particular interest is that Paul describes the resurrection of Jesus in terms of the defeat of death rather than the defeat of sin. In fact, in quite the reversal from my typical way of thinking about the subject, he calls sin “death’s sting.” Here, sin is what results from death.

Again, these texts suggest a way of looking at the human predicament that is different from the way I’ve grown up looking at it. They suggest the primary dilemma is not sin, but death. Further, while it is clear sin opened the door to death, we are also left with this intriguing notion that our slavery to the fear of death also leads to sin.

This last point, in particular, has captivated me. Working from the perspective of thinkers like the Preacher of Ecclesiastes and Ernest Becker, it seems that our anxieties about death motivate an awful lot of the sinful things we do.

The Preacher points out that our search for meaning in life “under the sun” will always be futile because of death. Whatever we make of the other texts, this is clearly the issue for him. No matter what you accomplish, no matter who you become, it is all vanity because you die. That’s a heavy thought.

Becker comes in and argues (convincingly) that an awful lot of what we do in life amounts to trying to forget, deny, or push past the Preacher’s conclusion. We push back against our anxieties in thousands of subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Sometimes we even push back violently and at the expense of others.

So, sin not only leads to death, but our fear of death also leads to more sin. Round and round that goes, on and on. For me, the old way of looking at the causality of sin and death has changed. It used to be a straight line — sin leads to death. Now it has been replaced by a downward spiral that leads us deeper and deeper into slavery, with death being the primary dilemma we face. Here’s how I sketched it out earlier this week:

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Slavery to the Fear of Death