Amusing Ourselves to Death — that was the great title to a book written by Neil Postman and published in 1985. Amusing Ourselves to Death. Maybe you’ve heard of it or even read it. It was a great title before the digital age. And it’s a great title for the digital age. And I’m borrowing it for this episode, with one change: amusing ourselves from death — today’s theme in a clip from a John Piper sermon preached in the summer of 1996.
Before we get into it, here’s a little context for the sermon, and why eternal realities were especially on the forefront of Pastor John’s mind at the time. Evangelist Billy Graham was in Minneapolis for a five-night rally. By then, Graham was 77 years old. He spoke for a week in the Metrodome, which was just steps away from Bethlehem Baptist Church. It was a huge gathering, well attended, and local reports put attendance for the final evening right around 100,000 people. All of that was happening the same week as this sermon from Pastor John. And that’s why he’ll mention the Dome in a little bit. With that, here’s Pastor John in June of 1996.
Death is sad — and death is terrifying if there’s a holy, just God who’s going to call everybody to account.
If you don’t believe in God — if there is no God, and death is simply the end of a long summer — it’s just sad. It’s sad. And the reason it’s sad is because life as we know it in this world is the basis of everything that makes us happy — family, friends, leisure, food, sex, job, work, meaning. If you don’t have life, you don’t have any of that. And to lose that feels sad, but it doesn’t feel terrifying. It’s not terrifying to fall asleep thinking you never wake up. It’s over — no consciousness ever again. That’s not terrifying. It’s sad to lose things that you know, but it’s not terrifying to go to sleep and never wake up again. Zero consciousness.
But if there’s a holy, just God of truth, who has a law, who has a glory, and we will one day give an account to that God for everything good or evil we’ve ever done, and he will render that to us, then death is terrifying if we’re not right with God.
Silent Slave Master
The existence of God in relationship to death is a terrifying thing. Hebrews 2:14–15 says it’s a slave master if you’re afraid of death. And it says in verse 15 that everybody has been held in bondage all their life long by the fear of death.
I thought about that. A lot of people would deny that. A lot of people who don’t believe in God would say, “We’re not afraid. We are not living a life of bondage. I mean, look at us: Do we look like we’re in bondage? We’re the freest of all people, doing what we want to do. What in the world do you mean that everybody is held in slavery and bondage by the fear of death? What are you talking about? Where’s this verse coming from?”
“Even people who don’t believe in God are subconsciously ruled by the fear of death, one way or the other.”
Here’s what I think it is implying. I think even people who don’t believe in God, and who on the surface are not feeling terrified, are subconsciously ruled by the fear of death, one way or the other. It’s a silent slave master. One of its main forms of slavery is by putting you in the dreamworld of denial. Now, you don’t experience it this way, but the way you can tell if you’re in it or not is by considering what you are willing to think much about. Denial of the death that terrifies manifests itself in all kinds of ways of escaping from having to think long or much about your mortality and about your death.
It’s one thing that Americans will not let themselves think long about, and therefore we surround ourselves with all kinds of distractions and narcotics to escape from what we know we’d be afraid of if we thought about it. And therefore, it is ruling us from underneath.
Cruising Toward Death
I thought of this analogy. It’s like the cruise control on our station wagon. It doesn’t work, but I know what cruise control is for. The fear of death is like a cruise control in the soul that is set roughly at 55 miles an hour of contentment and ease.
Now, if something begins to happen where your life begins to slow down to a pace of pensiveness and reflection and thoughtfulness, and big realities start to come into your consciousness so that you start to ask some big, significant questions, that cruise control is going to bump back up to 55 in a big hurry so that you don’t have to get into thinking about and dealing with those big thoughts that you can have when your life slows down to a restful pace. It’s late at night, it’s quiet, the stars are out, the kids are asleep — and you start to ask the big questions. The fear of death, not even consciously, says, “Quick — turn it on. Turn it on. Get the volume up. Get moving. Start doing something. You can’t deal with that.”
Then it works the other way. Sometimes God, in his common graces — and we’ve all experienced this — moves into your heart and begins to rev up your inquisitive motor, and you start to inquire and think, and it’s a kind of new day. You buy books, and you pursue, and you want to know how to solve mysteries. It’s not the same reflective atmosphere that I was talking about a minute ago. It’s energy, it’s inquiry, it’s pursuit, because you know there’s something vital out there, and at that 65 or 75 miles per hour you might in fact find it. And so, the cruise control takes the foot off the accelerator and brings you back down to the ease and comfort of 55. The TV is just right. The leisure is just right. The family is just right. The work is just right. You don’t need to ask any of those questions or make any of that pursuit.
Our Inner Law
This is what I think the writer here means when he says, “We are being held in bondage, all our life long, by the fear of death” (see Hebrews 2:15). There’s a slavery. Everybody who does not come to terms with reality — with God, with sin, with guilt, with punishment, with death, and with hell — if you don’t come to term with those realities, you must be in denial. You must be living a life governed subconsciously, or perhaps consciously, by the fear of death.
“If you’re not right with God, that law written on your heart is going to make you a slave to the fear of death.”
Some of you know what it’s like to live consciously in horrible anxieties all the time. So whether subconsciously or consciously, this is the case. Romans 2:15 says that the law of God is written on every human heart, your conscience bearing witness with that law, either condemning or affirming.
So I, on the authority of the Bible — the same Bible that Billy Graham holds up, and he seems to get a lot of approval — that same Bible says that everybody in this room, everybody that will go to the Dome tonight or has been there, has the law of God written across your heart, and it is damning you or affirming you, according to whether you are right with God. And if you’re not right with God, that law written there is going to make you a slave to the fear of death.