11. Hiking in Hebrews: Primal Fear

How often do you think about death? Have you ever had a dream where you actually died—and kept on dreaming? Or did you wake up just before you hit the ground?

 
Most people don’t think much about death, unless they’re struggling with depression, going through their moody teens, or watching their aging comrades die. Or when death hits close, through the loss of a loved one. Or they get a personal wake-up call—a scary diagnosis, a serious accident, a frightening dream.

 
Several years ago I went through a very hard period where I imagined dying nearly every day. As a (struggling) Christian, I knew taking my own life wasn’t an option. But even when I indulged in those dark thoughts, what I imagined wasn’t death, per se, but merely the relief of not being stuck anymore in (what felt like) my unbearable life. Still, I could no more imagine what lay across the divide—especially in my shaky spiritual state—than I could hit the ground and keep dreaming in my latest dream of falling.

 
We don’t like to think about death, and that’s natural. Death is the great enemy. Death scares us. Unless we’re staring death in the face (or think we are), we can’t imagine how those final moments might feel. But if we’re truly God’s children, we shouldn’t fear death for one second. Christ has conquered death on our behalf, and he wants us to know it. And to live differently, because of it.

 
Here’s what the Hebrew writer tells us:

 
But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because by he suffered death, so that by the grace of God, he might taste death for everyone. (Heb.2:9)

 
Do you see what he’s done? It’s as if there’s a huge bottle of pure poison—labelled with a skull and crossbones—and instead of us having to take even a tiny sip, Jesus has drunk the whole bottle. It’s finished—just as he said on the cross, right before giving up his spirit and experiencing death. For us. For EVERYONE, even those who don’t care, don’t believe, and don’t want the sacrificial gift he bought for all—at the cost of his own life.

 
For us who believe, Jesus says we have already crossed over from life to death. (John 5:21) We might feel like we’re running out of juice and winding down, but we already possess eternal life. And once we cross over, we’re going to be pumped with endless energy. I can’t wait!

 
We get to skip the scariest step of all, the dying-and-judgment part. And Jesus says it again: If anyone keeps his word, he will never taste death. (John 8:51).

 
As Christians, the closest we get to death is dying with Christ during our baptism, seconds before we splash out of the water and into new life. Now that’s a painless, perfect death!

 
What are you afraid of? Violence? War? Homelessness? Heights? (Those falling dreams! I think we all have them.) Most fears trace back to our primal fear, the fear of death. God knows how much this fear can stifle our hearts and lives. And he’s gone to great lengths to remove it:

 
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity, so that by his death, he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Heb.2: 14-15)

 
Look what he did on the cross! He destroyed the devil (who has limited time on earth, and limited power). He set us free from our slavish thoughts—our subliminal, terrifying, lifelong fear of death—by taking death out of the equation. Unless we’re resisting God, rebelling or ignoring or mocking him, we NO LONGER HAVE TO BE AFRAID OF DYING.

 
Doesn’t that sound wonderful? Any remaining fear tests our faith in God: do we trust him enough to rescue us, or carry us through whatever trials he allows to make us stronger? That’s something the Hebrew writer will address many times as we continue hiking.

 
As God’s beloved children, we ought to welcome the next phase, the ultimate phase, when God takes us from this life and brings us to heaven. Paul said he would far rather die and be with Christ than keep on living, even though his life was rich with purpose and meaning. (Phil. 1:21-26). He lived fearlessly, knowing his days would end in martyrdom, because he knew ‘death’ would be a painless step into eternal glory.

 
There IS a death everyone should fear, and that’s what the Bible calls the “second death”: the final banishment to hell, the lake of fire. Who’s going there? Not Christ’s true brothers and sisters, his disciples and followers, his obedient children. Rather, “the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters, and all liars.” (Rev. 21:8).

 

The lake of fire was prepared for the devil and his angels—he’s going to be punished there forever, not be in charge of the place, as portrayed in cartoons about the afterlife. Everyone who listens to the devil, who chooses his ways over God’s, will join him in punishment. That’s the death we should spend our lives avoiding, the only death deserving of unspeakable fear.

 

 

Thinking about death—our leap from this decaying life into the eternal— should bring us great joy, as long as our soul is at peace with God. Heaven should be the hope that gets us out of bed in the morning, our ultimate fulfillment, the destination that makes every temptation worth fighting. We’ll finally get to see everything Jesus has prepared for us, and understand why he gladly drank the poison.

 
I’m not afraid of death. Are you?

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