Why Do Christians Fear Death?

I’m continually perplexed by Christians who fear death. If heaven is so wonderful, shouldn’t we welcome the opportunity to go there as soon as possible? A funeral is often called a celebration of life, but for a Christian with a strong faith should it not actually be a celebration of death?

Fear of death typically comes under two categories — fear of the pain of dying and fear of the unknown.

Do you remember a parent yanking the band-aid from your skinned knee, and then being surprised that it wasn’t as painful as you expected? Dying slowly means more pain. It may be spread out over time and therefore seem like less pain (or “managed” pain, as they like to say), but it’s still more pain. If a hospice care provider says they can alleviate 100% of the pain in all cases, they’re lying.

Fear of the unknown keeps many people stuck, whether in something as mundane as an unfulfilling job or as unhealthy as an abusive relationship. Most people won’t change their behavior or circumstances until the fear of the unknown becomes greater than the pain of the known. But the converse is also true — when the pain of the known becomes unbearable, the fear of the unknown doesn’t matter.

Death is the big unknown. Or is it?

Vince was a patient in the VA hospital where I served as a chaplain resident. He was the calmest hospital patient I’ve ever seen. He had a cough that wouldn’t go away, and his contented smile remained even when the possibility of cancer was mentioned. He had a twinkle in his eye as if he’d just won the lottery but couldn’t tell anyone. When the hospital staff were out of the room, he told me about a near-death experience from years earlier, and how the experience completely erased any fear of death.

I heard similar stories from other patients, each telling of an absolute and indescribable sense of peace. No pain. No fear. My hospice patients are also typically unafraid of death. Doris was the first who said she was actually looking forward to it. She had that same twinkle.

For Christians, fear of the unknown often translates into not knowing whether they will go to heaven. In other words, fear of hell.

Many modern depictions of hell use imagery traceable to Inferno, the first part of the epic Divine Comedy written by the Italian poet Dante Alighieri in 1321. You may be surprised to learn that Dante’s hell — eternal torment surrounded by flames — cannot be found in the original Hebrew scriptures, the New Testament Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, or any of the letters attributed to Paul of Tarsus.

The concept of burning in hell was virtually unheard of throughout Christendom until the second century after Jesus’ crucifixion. In 151 CE, Justin Martyr wrote about eternal fire, but even that was not necessarily the kind of fire we equate with flames. It could easily have been a reference to the fire or “burning” associated with passion or desire, just as a thirst for knowledge has nothing to do with water.

References to eternal fire or eternal punishment appeared only sporadically for the next two centuries. In the Middle Ages, church writers invented the terms hell and purgatory (with absolutely no Biblical basis), but they weren’t popularized until Dante combined them with elements of Greek and Roman mythology to create descriptions so vivid that they became the basis for all artistic representations. If you fear death because you fear spending eternity with demons and fire, it was all a figment of Dante’s imagination.

I wonder if Paul had that twinkle and contented smile when he wrote to the church of Corinth, “Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting.” Maybe Paul knew what Vince and Doris knew.

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