Overcoming the Denial of Death

Overcoming the Denial of Death

I sat down on the gym floor next to a college freshman after a game of pickup basketball and struck up a conversation.

We had met on the court a couple weeks before and had briefly conversed. This time, after broaching a few standard topics, I asked about his church background. I learned that he had never really attended church, so I thought what logically followed would be to ask what he believed and how he knew to believe those things. We arrived at the fact that he was "a pretty easygoing guy" and "didn't really think about it." I was a little incredulous. How was that an option? With the exception of taxes, I was sure that he knew death to be the only certainty in life. And since he himself had rather apathetically confessed his belief in a god, not to think about it would seem to be the most foolish decision possible. "But you're going to die," I said with a bit more intensity in my voice. "That terrifies me." He didn't change his nonchalant tune. What was going on there?

In 1973, cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker published The Denial of Death, a profound book that claimed that people are too terrified of death to face it. Because that fear is so deeply rooted and so much more powerful than the immediate fears of one's daily life, the near-universal response has been to deny that it's coming at all. This seems to be confirmed in our current culture, especially collegiate culture, as there is a flippant air of invincibility that only gives a second thought to our mortality for the briefest of seasons when tragedy strikes.

In the book, Becker asserts, "To live fully is to live with an awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything." Are we not all longing to be aware of what is true rather than escaping it with a mind-numbing drug or hobby? Are we really so naive that we will, like a child playing hide-and-seek, place our hands over our eyes and convince ourselves that death is no longer there? If we want to live, let's call a spade a spade. Death is both inevitable and terrifying, and denying it will accomplish nothing but emotional shallowness.

But when death is reckoned with, the terror is very real and potentially debilitating. How do I go on functioning normally when each second that ticks away on the clock is a step closer to the end of this life? To the meeting of a holy Creator? As believers, we know the answer:

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, He likewise partook of the same things, that through death He might render powerless the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery" (Hebrews 2:14-15).

Satan can no longer effectively accuse us of sin before the Father. For those who lean on Jesus as their Substitute, there is no more unforgiven sin to condemn us, and if there is no more unforgiven sin, then there is no more slavery to the fear of death.

So there are three options for people. We can take the route of denial, which is the kind of slavery to the fear of death that forces our ignorance. If ignorance is bliss, as they say, it is only very temporary and takes extreme measures of escapism to maintain. We can take the route of facing death without hope and inevitably fall into a terrified despair. It is certainly a more courageous path, but despair is not welcomed by anyone, and it almost inevitably leads back to a life of denial.

Or we can take the narrow way. We can first reckon with death in its barest, most terrifying form. We can look at our uncle's cancer as an inevitability for us. We can watch the clock tick away as we are involuntarily carried along the path to judgment. And we can imagine that judgment, our guilty lives on display before our holy Maker, only to call upon the One whose life carried no guilt and whose death paid our penalty. And we, for the first time, can be truly safe in this universe, free from the fear of death, and confidently crying out, "O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?" (1 Corinthians 15:55).

As one who is safe in this universe, I cannot allow the fear of upsetting the status quo to keep me from bringing the awareness of death to the minds of those who are unconsciously terrified to their core. Lord, help us.

Matt Reagan is an elder at Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, and campus director at the University of Minnesota for Campus Outreach.