In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, a prevailing postmodern philosophy of deconstructionism has magnified our metaphysical fears and propelled our American society into a panic of epic proportion. It is distressing enough when many in our nation are trying to deny or “deconstruct” the established facts of God’s creation, like those involving gender, sexuality, or the sanctity of life. But now this novel virus, the current plague of the day, has brought the delusional masses face-to-face with the reality of their collective mortality, and they don’t like it one bit. It has interfered with their desperate attempts at self-actualization and the frantic building of lavish castles in the air where death has no lodging.
They were led to believe by our cultural institutions that digital consumerism, universal health care and Silicon Valley would protect them from having to grapple with their inevitable demise in this shiny, transhumanistic world-in-the-making. To the public’s shock, however, the presumptuous coronavirus had other plans and brazenly jammed a monkey wrench into their carefully-constructed illusions of immortality. Its sudden appearance on the world stage easily stoked the underlying fear of death which has beset mankind since the days of Adam and Eve, and it quickly produced from those primal embers the flames of existential angst.
This response, of course, was to be expected, at least by those students of history, human nature, and the teachings of the Bible. As Soren Kierkegaard rightly observed, both the account of the Garden of Eden and the emergence of modern psychology have confirmed this one undeniable fact: “Death is man’s particular and greatest anxiety.”
No doubt the government, our self-appointed nanny, capitalized on this herd anxiety that spread throughout America in the last year. Our political leaders, with the help of the media’s fear-driven narratives, certainly seized the opportunity to mandate masks, social distancing, lock-downs, and rushed vaccine protocols to establish their authority and control over the populace. And yet the actions of our elected officials, whether good or bad, merely followed after the predominate will of the people: those who clamored more for the safety and security provided by our world rulers than the hope found in our own informed sensibilities and the overriding providence of Almighty God.
To be sure, this pandemic may have brought a new disease into the world, but a more insidious disease, spiritually speaking, has now been fully exposed: the growing widespread denial of death among the infantile masses of humanity who have become frozen with fear during the reign of COVID. Confronted with this stark reminder of death, they can no longer ignore or tamp down the reality of their coming demise, nor are they equipped in any way to approach the issue calmly or rationally. Why? Because sadly, we live in a time where it is much too easy to immerse oneself into the safe spaces of our affluent culture as one searches for one’s “unique” significance in the world.
Too many people, as we can now see, flit like hummingbirds from one earthly flower to the next to feed their hungry souls and have little to no deep biblical understanding concerning the wages of sin or the deadly consequences of clinging too tightly to the things of this passing world. They have forgotten, or worse, rejected, the teachings of God’s word, and it shows in their utter lack of faith, hope, and grace in the face of death.
THE DENIAL OF DEATH IN OUR POSTMODERN WORLD
Dr. Ernest Becker, a science writer and cultural anthropologist, saw this first playing out way back in 1973 when he penned his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death. In it, he laid out his lifelong academic observation that modern (or more rightly, postmodern) man is terrified of his mortality. There is nothing more horrific to this man, according to Becker, than to be aware that one is “food for worms.” Writes Becker,
“This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-expression—and with all this yet to die. It seems like a hoax, which is why one type of cultural man rebels openly against the idea of God. What kind of deity would create such a complex and fancy worm food?”
According to Becker, this inner conflict with our innate awareness of death makes many people strive to avoid God’s reality altogether. They simply refuse to freely speak about death or acknowledge its presence in their lives, and are constantly searching for ways to guarantee their sense of immortality. Becker’s central assertion in the final analysis is that many people in today’s vacuous American society have carefully constructed their behavior and culture in such a way as to remove any reminder of the fragile state of their earthly existence and the sovereign will of God which is outside of their control.
And how are they avoiding this reminder of death far too often? The opioid epidemic, comic book entertainment, and the meteoric rise of Amazon and Netflix may be a clue. “Modern man is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness (of death),” observed Becker, “or he spends his time shopping, which is the same thing. As awareness calls for types of heroic dedication that his culture no longer provides for him, society contrives to help them forget.”
This time, however, the people could not find a way to forget. COVID-19 appeared and brought with it the tangible evidence of their impending end—with catastrophic effects. While the devastating loss of human life was certainly predictable during this health crisis, the loss of people’s livelihoods and other socio-economic needs was unexpected, yet just as damaging to their overall well-being. According to mainstream media outlets, depression rates tripled during the first few months of the pandemic. Not surprisingly, several reports of suicide during the last year, especially among teens, were directly linked to the uncertainty and despair created by the various public health shutdowns and the superficiality of our current culture.
Sadly, it is during dark times like this that the spiritual emptiness of our postmodern world comes back to haunt us. As Becker explained almost fifty years ago, “When (man) dethroned the ideas of soul and God, he was thrown back hopelessly on his own resources, on himself and those few around him.” These impotent resources, Becker smartly points out, “are not substitutes for absolute transcendence.” It is no wonder, then, that people fear death and soon buckle under the burden of their own sin and hopelessness when they feel they have no transcendent Savior to rescue them from their earthly plight.
THE GOSPEL OF PEACE IN THE AGE OF MORTAL FEAR
This is why the world with all its current turmoil needs to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is the good news, the great news, that every anxious soul must hear with the ears of faith and then believe: Jesus of Nazareth, the Righteous Son of God, died for our sins and rose again from the grave, eternally triumphant over death, so that there is now no condemnation for those who believe, but only everlasting joy and peace (See 1 Cor. 15:1-6, Romans 8:1).
As Scripture teaches us, Jesus Christ was tasked to be our “perfect leader, fit to bring us salvation,” who came in the flesh in order to “suffer death, so that by God’s grace He would experience death on behalf of everyone” (Hebrews 2:9-10). And for what ultimate purpose did He do so? “So that through death He might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-15).
Even now, Jesus proclaims to the world, “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. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26).
The believer’s eager embrace of this amazing Gospel truth is the only thing that will truly obliterate any fear he or she may have when faced with the specter of death that has hung over humanity since the time when sin and ungodliness first entered into the world through Adam. To be sure, once we repent of living outside of the will of God and are justified by faith in Jesus Christ, “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…” (Romans 5:1-2). This “peace” is the only true Spirit-fed serenity which “surpasses all understanding” and will surely “guard our hearts and minds” from undue stress and worry when we are in active communion with God through prayer, petition, and thanksgiving (Philippians 4:6-7).
This kind of peace is essential to our life’s stability. Anyone can sail through life when the sea is calm, but spiritually speaking, our life is lived in all sorts of weather, at times in squalls and tempests, and sometimes engulfed by the pounding waves of fear, hopelessness, and pain. The key to our steadiness is not calm, glassy waters, but the peace that comes from being reconciled with God through Jesus Christ. When we have this real, abiding peace given to us by our Savior then we can maintain a steady course of faith that keeps us afloat, even when we are overwhelmed and tossed about by unfavorable weather.
Yes, there are merciful times when Jesus will calm the waters for us as He did for the disciples on the Sea of Galilee (Mark 4:35-40), but His peace can always be there to help us to sail more confidently through those unavoidable storms of life that have been placed before us. Even if we are eventually smashed upon the rocks unto death, believers can find their ultimate peace as they joyfully look forward to being ushered into heavenly glory to be moored forever to their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, in the safest of harbors.
COVID-19, you see, or any other mechanism of death, is no match against the abundant mercy of God the Father, who has given us “a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of His son, Jesus Christ, from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3). This “living hope” is what we gain by faith in Christ, believing that Jesus “died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). And because Jesus rose by His own divine power, we know that death is not the end of our soul’s journey. Death has been defeated by our Savior, or as the apostle Paul put it, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?” (1 Corinthians 15:54–55).
And lest one thinks this biblical truth engenders some kind of death cult mentality, one must think again. On the contrary, by removing the fear of death and eternal damnation, believers are freed from the oppressive “slavery” of gloom and doom. Through the work of Christ and his sacrificial death, they can experience life, and that more abundantly (John 10:10). Without a doubt, it is this freedom from the stifling dread of death which gives us the fullest opportunity in life to live and breathe the Gospel, make disciples, and serve one another in love to the glory of Christ until our last dying breath.
A CLOUD OF WITNESSES SHOWS US THE WAY
This is why Christians down through the ages have been given the courage by the Holy Spirit to face death without fear by living boldly for Christ while here on earth. From the very beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry, the disciples took to heart what their Master told them concerning the difficult days ahead when He would be arrested and horribly crucified right before their eyes, only to rise again in everlasting triumph over sin and death. “Peace I leave with you,” Jesus lovingly assured them. “My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled; do not be afraid… I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 14:27; John 16:33).
Later, with Christ’s promise of peace still resounding through the early Church, the apostle Paul could joyfully contemplate death and see it, not as a defeat, but as “gain.” He could challenge fellow believers to be of “good courage,” knowing that being absent from the body meant being “at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). “If we live, we live for the Lord,” he told them in Romans 14:8-9, “and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” In this instruction, we see the picture painted by the psalmist that speaks of the sheep “belonging” to Jesus, their great Shepherd, who comforts them by rod and staff and guides them safely through the “valley of the shadow of death” to the “green pastures,” either of this world or of the next. (Psalm 23:4).
Even while writing from a dark Roman prison and facing the strong possibility of execution for his Gospel testimony, Paul himself could say with true conviction: “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. Now if I am to go on living in the body, this will mean productive work for me, yet I don’t know which I prefer: I feel torn between the two, because I have a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is a far better thing…” (Philippians 1:22-24). Paul, of course, soon died a martyr’s death, as did most of the other apostles and other brave Christians throughout the ages; and yet the sufferings they endured at the end of their lives were “not worthy to be compared with the glory which was revealed to them” in eternity (Romans 8:18). In the end, they found “a far better thing.”
This increasing desire to one day “depart and be with Christ” was also the enduring testimony of prominent Christians in later centuries, especially during those dark times when medical science had not yet reached a level of success against the various plagues and common illnesses that afflicted vulnerable mankind. One can look back in history and see many noted men and women of God struck down in what should have been the prime of their lives, often before their devotion to God and His Church was even noticed by the world in their lifetime. Nevertheless, God ordained the perfect boundaries of their earthly service to Him and the precise moment of their passing, and they happily went to their deaths in eager anticipation of the glory to come.
One thinks of the great Scottish evangelist Robert M’Cheyne, probably most known for his famous Bible Reading Plan, who succumbed in 1843 to typhus at the age of 29. “Sit loose to this world’s joy: the time is short,” he once warned; and he was right. By his early death, he accomplished the truth he had so often preached: “Oh to be like Jesus, and with Him to all eternity!”
Then there was David Brainerd, the humble missionary to the Native Americans in the eighteenth century, whose biography compiled by Jonathan Edwards inspired many young Christians who would later be at the forefront of the revival of the Second Awakening in America. He, too, died at 29, his life cut short by a painful, lengthy bout with tuberculosis. Yet even in the throes of his suffering, he could write in his diary, “Oh, that I might not loiter on my heavenly journey!”
One of the most poignant deathbed scenes, however, was recorded by J.C. Ryle in 1778 as he witnessed his good friend, Augustus Toplady, slipping into eternity at the age of 38. Toplady, best remembered as the author of the beloved hymn, Rock of Ages, was increasingly joyful about his fading prospects for recovery from tuberculosis when Ryle came to visit him near the end of his life. As Ryle warmly remembers:
A short time before (Toplady’s) death, at his request, I felt his pulse, and he desired to know what I thought of it. I told him that his heart and arteries evidently beat almost every day weaker and weaker. He replied immediately, with the sweetest smile on his countenance, “Why, that is a good sign that my death is fast approaching; and, blessed be God, I can add that my heart beats every day stronger and stronger for glory.”
Perhaps Jonathan Edwards, the great American evangelist and theologian, summed it up best when he, too, was on his deathbed at the age of 54 after a failed inoculation against smallpox. At his bedside, friends and family thought him unconscious and were expressing fear and anxiety over how much his absence would affect them and the Church at large. Much to their surprise, Edwards still heard them through the haze of his eminent death and in response he uttered his last earthly words: “Trust in God, and you need not fear.”
As we live out our lives during times like these where death has mounted a new offensive through a pandemic, we need to take Edwards’ final admonishment to heart and not fear what the world and its unfavorable circumstances might bring in our future. We need to hold tight to the true peace that Jesus Christ offers us by faith, let it transform our hearts to beat “stronger and stronger for glory,” and not be undone by unprofitable worry and anxiety, which is surely a sin in light of our Savior’s sure promises.
Indeed, Jesus Christ has challenged us even now with this cutting question: “Who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life?” (Matthew 6:27). The answer is, of course, that none of us can do so. Only by trusting in Him, and Him alone, will anyone ever see the fruit of everlasting joy and peace that comes by “casting all your anxiety on Him” because we know how much He cares for His people (1 Peter 5:7).
Why, then, are we so fearful of death when we have such an amazing Savior to give us peace, joy, and life in all its fullness?