“Now since the children have flesh and blood in common, Jesus also shared in these, so that through his death he might destroy the one holding the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Death has always been the great equalizer. Everyone dies eventually, should our Lord tarry. It doesn’t matter how wealthy or poor you happen to be. No amount of privilege or bad luck will impact this ultimate outcome. People of great resources have occasionally tried to put it off for as long as they can, but their efforts always prove futile in the end, all the resources put toward that end wasted. And although some have tried to make all of this sound poetic and beautiful, for most people it has been and remains terrifying. Jesus broke that fear. Let’s talk about how.
Modern reframings of ancient burial practices make it look like many of them believed death was this noble send-off for fallen warriors. We hear talk about having a “good death” or dying on our own terms (usually as a means of justifying the morally abhorrent practice of euthanasia). We want for death to be something good and, if not exciting, at least worth looking forward to experiencing. But it’s all a lie. Death is scary.
Before you react to that, though, let me offer a couple of caveats to justify it. The first caveat is this: Our culture is experiencing a mental health crisis and a crisis of hopelessness which are both being fed into by our opioid crisis. The result of this deadly vortex is that people are killing themselves either intentionally or accidentally in record numbers. That doesn’t seem to betray any kind of a fear of death on the part of our culture. Perhaps. But I think this better reflects the existential threat that a loss of hope is to our lives. When we lose any sense of hope or meaning to life, our desire to stop living tends to override our natural fear of death.
The second caveat is here: Many committed followers of Jesus who reach the end of their lives are not fearful of death at all. I’ve stood at the bedside of a godly man knowingly near his end who was crying out for Jesus to take him home. He was eagerly anticipating throwing off this mortal tent so that he could begin embracing the immortality waiting for him in Christ. For folks like this, death is no enemy, but a welcome doorway to move one step closer to the eternal life we have waiting for us when this life comes to an end. Where’s the fear here?
Both of these caveats, though, only help to prove my point that the Christian worldview makes all the difference here. Before the cross and the empty tomb, death was terrifying. For folks today who haven’t embraced the Christian faith, death is terrifying. Yes, there are things that can override that fear, but without those in place, it remains a fearsome proposition. And it shouldn’t be hard to understand why. On the one hand, people have always had a sense that there is more to this world, more to this life, than what we can see and experience in this life. We have always had this nagging sense that death should not be the end. The clear evidence of this is that every single religious worldview ever conceived has included some story about what happens after we die. We were made for eternity, and we just can’t shake that memory in spite of the fact that we have been dying for thousands of years.
On the other hand, before Jesus rose from the grave, we didn’t have any idea what lay on the “other side.” People died…and that was it. Sure, there have always been folks who had a near-death experience or looked to have died and came back a few moments later reporting visions of various things, but those are pretty rare in the grand scheme. Mostly there was just this yawning gap of unknown. And the unknown is terrifying to us.
Well, fear like this can become a kind of slavery. It did become a kind of slavery. For too many today it remains a kind of slavery. It becomes the thing that dictates what we do, why we do it, when we do it, how we do it, and so on and so forth. We evaluate all of our actions as well as the actions of the people around us based on the amount of threat of death they represent.
Our society today is obsessed with being safe. Many parents stop just short of bubble-wrapping their kids so they don’t face any kind of even potentially mortal danger. We hear often about the helicopter parents and the lawnmower parents who either never leave their kids alone to figure out life by themselves or else simply remove all the obstacles they might face before they face them. Part of the reason we have tended to tell such elaborate stories about what the afterlife is like is to distract ourselves from this fear. And the devil uses this fear and the power it gives him to keep us wrapped in death everywhere we go.
Jesus broke all of this insanity to pieces. The writer of Hebrews here argues that part of the reason Jesus became fully human was so that He could die as a man and then, by rising again, destroy death’s power along with the one who held it. When Jesus came walking back out of the tomb three days after He was put to death on a cross, all of our suspicions that there was something else – namely, life – on the other side of the grave were confirmed to be true. Now we knew – and still know – that death is not the end. It does not have to be an eternal separation. It does not mean the end of existence. All of those things have been put to the lie. What’s more, when He came walking back out of the grave, it was with the promise that we can share in this life with Him. We can have this same eternal life for ourselves. The only thing we have to do is to put our trust in Him as Lord. And when the guy who predicted and pulled off His own death and resurrection makes a promise like that, you trust Him.
Death is not the end, friends. It doesn’t have to be. This doesn’t mean we don’t still mourn our loss when a friend or family member dies. Mourning is a natural human response to change. Having someone who played a significant role in our lives removed from our lives is about as dramatic a change as we will experience, and so mourning is right and proper. But if their faith was in Christ and if your faith is in Christ, then the separation is only going to be temporary. In that situation, you do not have to grieve like the rest who have no hope, as the apostle Paul put it. You can grieve with faith. My encouragement, then, is simple: Put your faith in Christ. Embrace the fear-breaking power that His life will bring to your life. Nothing will ever be the same again.