“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21)
An author and college professor named Earnest Becker won a Pulitzer Prize in 1974 for a book he wrote entitled “The Denial of Death.” I read this book as an undergraduate student at Vanderbilt University in 1978, and it had a strong influence over my pre-salvation thinking. Doctor Becker, an atheist intellectual, had much to say about the fate of man. In Becker’s understanding, humanity tragically sits alone at the top of the evolutionary food chain pondering the dilemma of being godlike in abilities, but no better off than bugs or plants in terms of knowing any meaning beyond the temporal life. Here is the professor’s distressing take on what he calls the dilemma of humankind:
“This is the paradox: he (man) is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it. His body is a material fleshy casing that is alien to him in many ways—the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die. Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order to blindly and dumbly rot and disappear forever. It is a terrifying dilemma to be in and to have to live with.
Becker’s fundamental premise in the whole of the book is that people cannot, and therefore, do not live with the dilemma. Instead, both individually and corporately, people simply ignore death for as long as they’re able; which means denying death until they no longer can.
I suggest that Covid-19 has made denying death a near impossibility since March of 2020. Sickness and death are fully at the fore of our national conversation, especially as we move closer to election day coming November 3rd. The pandemic is forcing people to face the reality of their own impending death, whether they want to or not. And people’s philosophical and doctrinal beliefs about themselves and how the world works are being put to the test. In the testing, we are witnessing strong emotions and varying doctrines.
If it is reasonable to group people into broad categories regarding the question of death, I have observed that there are essentially two—those that are very afraid to die, and those that are less so, or not at all. Fear seems a strong root determiner, and I see this division among people as more binary than not. Moreover, I would assert that people who agree with Professor Becker tend towards fear—even debilitating fear—from which fear-based choices emerge. In fact, some it seems, are so afraid of dying that they are choosing not to really live, at least in a manner of living that is fulfilling and rich.
I personally experienced a similar “life calculus” moment when I deployed to war way back in 1990. I had not really faced the idea of me dying until I was forced to do so by landing in a combat zone where America’s enemies were literally trying to kill me. I had to grow up fast during Operation Desert Shield, even as the U.S. led coalition leaders planned to shift to full combat operations against Iraq in the coming Desert Storm phase. I needed a worldview that would help me understand the “why” behind the real possibility that after saying a tearful farewell as I embarked to the middle east, I might never see my wife, Cynthia, and our three young children again.
In the ensuing days, God graciously and sovereignly saved me, bringing me to a far better understanding of first Himself, and then myself. At my conversion, I was given the gift of the Holy Spirit who helped me see truth (Eph1:13–14; Rom 5:5). I literally had eyes to see for the first time in my life and the grace of the Gospel overwhelmed me with the worldview I so desperately needed to understand my fear.
God brought truth that also brought me a measure of peace under duress. An unenlightened mind cannot grasp these words of the Apostle Paul who wrote from prison saying in his letter to the Philippian Church:
“Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” (Philippians 1:18–23)
Paul is not only saying death is not to be feared, he is saying that for the Christian, death is “gain.” Believers can look forward to it, as opposed to shrinking in terror from it! This is because our faith in Jesus rests on the empirically provable foundation that He is a resurrected savior. He rose from the dead! He alone overcame sin and death and triumphed by returning in a physical, but glorified body. And He promises us life in a similar resurrection at our physical death. We will be blessed with a gloried body that cannot die if we, by faith, receive Christ’s free gift of salvation. All hope in the Christian faith hinges on the resurrection of Jesus Christ being an historical fact, which indeed it is! Upon the verifiable proofs of Jesus’ resurrection, our fear of death should be utterly and finally removed. And with the fear of death settled, then our temporal fears and anxieties about everything else should begin to fade as well. We find peace, and it is a supernatural peace that surpasses understanding, just as Paul promises it will be in the fourth chapter of his epistle to the Philippians:
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6–7)
Please know you can believe in the resurrected Christ just as the disciples did the very first Easter Sunday as recorded in John 20:19–20:
“On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.”
Please also understanding that overcoming the fear of dying through Holy Spirit-inspired enlightened thinking does not equate to a license to live foolishly or to unnecessarily defy governing authorities. But it should help you live more joyously in terribly difficult times. What are you fearful of today? Covid-19? The coming election? Fear not! Our Savior lives!