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The Fear of Death

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Posted by Lee Gatiss, 17 Mar 2021

Lee Gatiss preaches Part 1 of the “An Exhortation against the Fear of Death” from the Anglican Homilies.

It is not to be marvelled at that worldly people are afraid to die. For death deprives them of all worldly honours, riches, and possessions, and the worldly person counts themselves happy with the fruit of these things, as long as they may enjoy them at their own pleasure. On the other hand, if they are dispossessed of such things without hope of recovery then they cannot but think of themselves as unhappy, because they have lost their worldly joy and pleasure. “Alas!” thinks this carnal person, “shall I now depart for ever from all my honours, all my treasures, from my country, friends, riches, possessions, and worldly pleasures, which are my joy and heart’s delight? Alas that ever that day shall come when I must bid farewell to all of these at once, and never enjoy any of them again!” Therefore, it is not without great cause spoken by the wise man: “O death, how bitter and sour is the reminder of you to one who lives in peace and prosperity among their possessions, to someone living in comfort, living in their own way without trouble, pampered and well fed.”

There are other people, whom this world does not so greatly laugh at, but who are vexed and oppressed with poverty, sickness, or some other adversity. They fear death, partly because the flesh naturally abhors its own sorrowful end which death threatens them with, and partly, because of sicknesses and painful diseases which are very strong pains and agonies in the flesh, and commonly come to sick people before death, or at least accompany death when it comes.

The second death
Although these two causes seem great and weighty to a worldly person, and move them to fear death, there is another far greater reason for them to fear death: and that is, the state and condition to which, at the last, death brings all those who have their hearts fixed on this world, without repentance and amendment. This state and condition is called “the second death” (Revelation 21:8), which shall follow for them all after this bodily death. And this is the death which ought really to be dreaded and feared. For it is an everlasting loss without remedy of the grace and favour of God and of everlasting joy and pleasure and happiness. It is not only the loss of these eternal pleasures forever, but also the condemnation of both body and soul, without appeal or hope of redemption, to everlasting pains in hell.

To this state, death sent the unmerciful and ungodly rich man whom Luke speaks of in his Gospel. He was living with all the wealth and pleasure in the world, and enjoying himself daily with luxury food and fine clothes. But he despised poor Lazarus, who lay pitifully at his gate and was miserably diseased and covered in sores and grievously afflicted with hunger. Both of these two men were stopped in their tracks by death, which led to the poor and miserable Lazarus being taken by the angels to Abraham’s side, a place of rest, pleasure, and consolation. But the unmerciful rich man descended down into hell, and being in torment there he cried out for comfort, complaining of the intolerable pain that he suffered in that flame of fire — but it was too late. So to this place, bodily death sends all those who have their joy and happiness in this world, all those who in this world are unfaithful to God and uncharitable to their neighbours, and die without repentance and the hope of God’s mercy. Therefore it is no marvel that worldly people fear death, for they have far greater cause to do so than they themselves even consider.

Thus we see three causes why worldly people fear death. One, because they shall lose their worldly honours, riches, possessions, and all their heart’s desires when they die. Second, because of the painful diseases and bitter pangs which people commonly suffer either before or at the time of death. But the main cause above all others is the dread of that miserable state of eternal damnation both of body and soul, which they fear shall follow after they depart out of the worldly pleasures of this present life. For these causes, all mortals who are given to the love of this world are both in fear of death and in a state of death through sin (as the holy apostle says) so long as they live here in this world (Hebrews 2:15).

No fear in death
But — everlasting thanks be to Almighty God for ever! — there is never one of all these causes, no, nor all of them together, that can make a true Christian afraid to die — since they are truly members of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit, the children of God and true inheritors of the everlasting kingdom of heaven. On the contrary, they can see a great many causes, undoubtedly grounded upon the infallible and everlasting truth of the word of God, which move them to put away the fear of bodily death and also to wish, desire, and heartily long for it because of the manifold benefits and remarkable advantages which follow for every faithful person.

For death shall be to them no death at all, but truly a deliverance from death, and from all the pains, cares, and sorrows, miseries, and wretchedness of this world. It will truly be an entrance into rest, and a beginning of everlasting joy — a tasting of heavenly pleasures so great that no tongue is able to express, nor eye to see, nor ear to hear them, no, nor for any earthly person’s heart to conceive them. Such are the exceedingly great benefits which God our heavenly Father, by his mere mercy and for the love of his son Jesus Christ, has laid up in store and prepared for those who humbly submit themselves to God’s will and evermore sincerely love him from the bottom of their hearts!

We ought to believe that death, being slain by Christ, cannot keep anyone who steadfastly trusts in Christ under its perpetual tyranny and subjection. Rather, they shall rise again from death to glory at the last day appointed by Almighty God, just as Christ our head rose again, according to God’s appointment, on the third day. For St Augustine says: “The head going before, the members trust they shall follow and come after.” And St. Paul says, “If Christ is risen from the dead, we also shall rise from the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:20-23). And to comfort all Christian people in this, holy scripture calls this bodily death a sleep (John 11:11, 13; Acts 7:60; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18), in which our senses are (as it were) taken from us for a while and yet, when we awaken, we are more fresh than we were when we went to bed.

The doorway to life
So although we have our souls separated from our bodies for a season, yet at the general resurrection we shall be more fresh, beautiful, and perfect than we are now. For now we are mortal, but then we shall be immortal. Now we are infected with various infirmities, but then we shall be completely free of all mortal infirmities. Now we are subject to all carnal desires, but then we shall be entirely spiritual, desiring nothing except God’s glory and things eternal.

So this bodily death is a door or entrance into life, and therefore no so much dreadful (if it is rightly considered) as it is comfortable; not a mischief, but a remedy of all mischief; not an enemy but a friend; not a cruel tyrant but a gentle guide, leading us not to mortality but to immortality, not to sorrow and pain but to joy and pleasure which endures forever. If death is gratefully received and accepted as God’s messenger and we patiently bear it for the love of Christ who suffered the most painful death out of love for us, to redeem us from eternal death. Accordingly, St. Paul says: “Our life is hidden with Christ in God, but when our life appears, then we shall also appear with him in glory” (Colossians 3:3-4).

Why then should we be afraid to die, considering the many comforting promises of the gospel and of the holy scriptures? “God the Father has given us everlasting life,” says St. John, “and this life is in his Son. The one who has the Son has life, and the one who does not have the Son does not have life. And I write this,” says St. John, “to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have everlasting life, and that you believe in the name of the Son of God” (1 John 5:11-13). And our Saviour Christ says, “The one who believes in me has everlasting life, and I will raise them from death to life on the last day” (John 6:40, 47). St. Paul also says that “Christ has become for us our righteousness, our holiness, and redemption from God, so let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:30-31). St. Paul set little store by all other things and treated them with contempt, considering the things which cost him dearly before as like dung, that he might be found in Christ and have everlasting life, true holiness, righteousness, and redemption (Philippians 3:7-11).

Finally, St. Paul makes a plain argument in this way: “If our heavenly Father would not spare his own natural Son, but gave him up to death for us, how can it be that, with him, he should not give us all things?” (Romans 8:32). Therefore, if we have Christ, then we have with him and by him all good things, whatever we wish or desire in our hearts, such as victory over death, sin, and hell. We have he favour of God, peace with him, holiness, wisdom, justice, power, life, and redemption. We have, by him, perpetual health, wealth, joy, and everlasting bliss.

Lee Gatiss is the Director of Church Society.

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