Ernest Becker was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction in 1974 for his book, The Denial of Death. In his book Becker theorizes that man has a dual nature that alternates between his physical life and his symbolic life. A man defends himself against the innate fear of death by dedicating himself to a cause bigger than himself. The deeper recesses of his mind tells him that one day he will die so he attempts to give his life purpose and meaning and he stretches for immortality by attempting noble things and this becomes the shield he uses to fend off the Grim Reaper. Becker was saying that men’s accomplishments become the blocks used to construct great walls around their lives like a castle, to defend themselves against the certainty of death.
Is it possible for life to be prolonged if it is more purpose-driven and full of meaning? I’ve lived in a military community for over thirty years and I’ve observed a lot of early death among those who retire young. Is it because a man’s work is much of his motivation to live? It makes him feel valuable and offers a temporary illusion that he can escape his own mortality. Isn’t activity the major characteristic of life and inactivity, total inactivity the major trait of death?
I saw a picture that was making the rounds on Facebook recently. It was the picture of a very old African-American couple. He was wearing a grey suit and she a pink suit. They were holding hands and looked to be going to or coming from church. They looked very happy, very content. I read the caption attached to the picture and learned that the gentleman was 104 years old and his young bride was only 101. They had been married for 86 years. I stared at the picture in disbelief for a good while. It was as if they had conquered death.
Then I remembered the words of Jesus in John 8:51 “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” Perhaps the elderly couple had conquered death. Jesus said that if we keep his commands, if we love him and obey the precepts of his word, we will never see death.
John Piper tells of one of the more harrowing experiences of his life. James Morgan was Piper’s theology professor at Fuller Seminary. Morgan’s love for Christ was a great inspiration to John. Morgan’s students were saddened by his premature death. He died of stomach cancer at the age of 36. John Piper describes, as only he can, the profound experience he witnessed at his professor’s funeral. Louis Smeeds spoke at the funeral attended by former students, colleagues and Morgan’s wife and four small children. Louis lifted his voice in one unforgettable, shocking moment and bellowed, “James Morgan is NOT dead!” John Piper sat stunned in the reality of the moment.
“Truly, truly, I say unto you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” (Jn. 8:51)
The soul, the immortal essence of a man, lives on forever. That soul that has submitted itself to Christ takes on immortality at the point of physical death. There is no hesitation, no prolonged period of sleep or unconsciousness that characterizes the separation of the soul from the body. A Christian’s soul flees into the bosom of God. When Jesus hung on the cross he turned to the thief at his side and said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with in Paradise,” (Luke 23:43)
Ernest Becker’s idea that men dedicate themselves to a greater cause to avoid their own mortality holds merit. But when they squeeze the last drop from the fruit of their earthly labor they realize they have lived an illusion. They arrive at the same conclusion King Solomon did, “So I hated my life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” (Ecc. 2:17) The secret to immortality is not foolishly dedicating oneself to an earthly cause that will one day be eaten away by moths or by rust. The secret to immorality is to live by the spirit, not the flesh. “For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit are the Sons of God.” (Romans 8:13-14)
Those who are followers of Christ have already died. Jesus explained this in John 5:24 “whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.” When we dedicate ourselves to Christ and we experience salvation he bestows upon us eternal life. His promise of salvation is only fully realized when we enter into the final stage of the process, the glorification of our souls. We who are Christians have already begun to live our eternal lives. When we lay down our physical bodies, our souls will pass from death to life. There is no pause button. We are immediately in the bosom of Christ, in the paradise or the presence of God himself.
In the words of John Piper, “We do not experience one millisecond of break with fellowship with Christ.” This is only made possible to us because Jesus, the Son of God, took on humanity and died on the cross, thereby paying the penalty we all deserve for our sin.
These facts effectively remove the fear of death from those who are Christ-followers. He paid our penalty, he died on the cross. He rose from the grave to take away the sting (fear) of death. “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.” (Hebrews 2:14-15)
We conquer the fear of death by dedicating ourselves to a cause larger than ourselves. We commit ourselves to the Eternal One. When he says, “I know the plans I have for you…plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future,” (Jeremiah 29:11) those plans encompass an eternity that extends beyond what we are able to comprehend. His plans for his own require their immortality.
Imagine the level of courage one might live by and what might be ultimately accomplished if he lives his life with no fear of death? A lifelong fear of death is the prison that prohibits a man from being genuinely free. It is faith in Christ Jesus that breaks our fetters in twain. This faith will bring us to the same conclusion Solomon arrived at. If you want to live a meaningful life or if you want to live life without fear of death: “Fear God and keep his commandments for this is the whole duty of man.” (Ecc. 12:13)
Kevin Probst - Teaches History, Government and Apologetics at the high school level in Columbus Georgia.