People continue to embark on gullible journeys, buying up whatever promises false and temporary hope
THE fear of death is having a field day these days. Not that it is a new phenomenon. The Bible does describe people “who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb 2:15). This is an all-inclusive phrase that describes everyone. Everyone has to deal with it.
Most people do not want to think about death. In fact, according to the philosopher Ernest Becker, many cultures are the result of a deliberate human attempt to deny the reality of death. In his book, The Denial of Death, he notes such denial taking many forms, including the ambition to achieve and to own. If he is right, then much of human activity is powered, ironically, by the innate fear of death in every human heart.
The fear of death may do its work secretly, unrecognised or disowned by people. But every now and then, its face materialises in people’s thoughts and feelings. The SARS outbreak is one such time. For many, death was no longer deniable or a remote reality. It was no longer a topic that one could talk about calmly. Instead, it became a daily obsession, after people started hearing death’s knock on neighbours’ doors.
Death does not produce much terror until we think about our own death. The fear becomes palpable when the possibility of death becomes real, when death becomes a terrorist who can strike at any time. It can become paralysing when one comes to realise that his own death is a certainty.
Many years ago, I drew a line down a page in my journal and created two columns. One column was entitled “Survival Mode” and the other “Redemption Mode”. I tried describing these two ways of approaching life and death.
People in the survival mode see death as the end, and therefore live their lives fighting death with all their wits and weapons. To survive is their number one goal. The survival of the fittest is their chief doctrine and so their lives exhibit a competitive lifestyle. They tend to be focused on the self rather than others.
The survivalist therefore tends to hoard resources rather than share them with others. Since there is no other real world for him, he aims to survive in this world for as long as possible. Sometimes, because of the rush of adrenaline produced by the survival game he plays, he even forgets that his battle is against his own death. The tragedy is that after a lifetime of fighting against death and avoiding it, he finally loses the battle. His fellow survivalists become nervous when that happens. But they go on surviving. They know of no other way to live.
Those on the redemption mode, on the other hand, instead of fighting death blindly and desperately, face it and overcome it. They see death as something that can be transformed, that good can come out of it. Their focus is not on their own strength but on God’s grace. Through eyes of resurrection faith, they can see redemption beyond death.
They go through life, not believing in the survival of the fittest, but in the redemption of the faithful. The slogan “I must take care of myself” is overshadowed by the truth “God takes care of me.” Because their own survival is not their primary goal in life, they have time for redemptive relationships. They have time for others, and for acts of compassion and sharing. They know that life must go through the valley of the shadow of death and take it in their stride.
The reason for their poise and peace is their faith in the living Christ. In Valladolid, Spain is a monument commemorating the famous explorer Christopher Columbus who died there in 1506. The most striking feature of the monument is the statue of a lion destroying the word Ne (meaning “no”) in Spain’s long-held motto, Ne Plus Ultra (meaning “No More Beyond”). The Spanish people thought they had reached the ends of the earth; hence their motto. Columbus proved them wrong through his travels and showed that there was indeed more beyond.
How true that likewise in the spiritual realm Jesus, the Lion of Judah, had destroyed the word “no” through His death and resurrection. He has changed us from a fearful “no more beyond” people to a “more beyond” people of hope. If this is our perspective and experience, then it will change the way we live and respond to the fear of death. It will also affect the way we journey in this life.
The contemporary writer John Dunne has written many books such as The Way of All the Earth, exploring the human journey as portrayed in ancient stories. A common theme is the search for immortality, a futile journey in the end, for human beings are mortal and must die. But such a realisation does not come easily and people continue to embark on gullible journeys based on the faulty compass of survivalism, buying up whatever promises false and temporary hope.
A better way to travel is to go on the journey allegorised by 17th century Puritan writer John Bunyan’s classic Pilgrim’s Progress. This is the story of Christian who leaves the City of Destruction to find Heavenly Jerusalem. The journey of Christian is filled with peril and temptation in the form of characters such as Mr Worldy-Wiseman, Sloth, Formalist, and Mistrust, and places such as the Slough of Despond, Vanity Fair, and Doubting Castle. There are characters who help him on the way such as Prudence, Charity, Faithful, and Hopeful. The allegory focuses on the Puritan emphasis on salvation. The goal of Christian life is the heavenly city which is reached by overcoming temptation and deception through faithful attention to Scripture and the Spirit, and the cultivation of Christian virtues. For Bunyan, life was a sacred journey from darkness to light. It included death but there was redemption beyond that.
This journey is travelled with Christ. It involves carrying the cross, a symbol of death and self-denial (Mk. 8:34). In such a traveller, there is no more fear of death, for death, the last enemy, has been conquered (1 Cor 15:26). He has rejected survivalism as a futile life motto, and embraced with gratitude the redemption that Christ freely offers. And when he hears the sound of death’s knock on neighbours’ doors, instead of self-centred fear, he opens his door and goes out to love his neighbours.