In a recent article in The Observer, under the heading of ‘We can’t be squeamish about death. We need to confront our worst fears’, Dr Rachel Clarke, a palliative care specialist, wrote: “As the coronavirus spreads through the British population, there is one fact we can all agree on. Whether we like it or not, society’s greatest taboo – death and dying – has been thrust unequivocally centre stage.”
The initial British government strategy was to allow the virus to infect huge swathes of the country in the hope of building sufficient ‘herd immunity’ to build up ‘herd immunity’. Such herd immunity, according to Downing Street’s chief scientific adviser, requires a minimum rate of 60% of the population. Of those infected, the World Health Organization, estimated that 3.4% would die. Tens of thousands of Britons therefore may face an early and unexpected death. No wonder people are frightened.
Fear of death (‘thanataphobia’) is, of course, nothing new. It is what distinguishes humans from animals. Ernest Becker in his Pulitzer Prize winning The Denial of Death, argued that human beings cannot accept that all we are – our conscious self, our loves, our profound aspirations for beauty , goodness, truth – is going to cease to exist forever, in a literal blink of an eye.
The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is the mainspring of human activity – activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying… that is the final destiny.
Even today, death remains ‘the great human repression’, ‘the universal complex’. Dying, it has been said is “the reality man (sic) dares not face and to escape which he summons all his resources” (H.P. Lovell Cocks). Death is still the last thing we talk about. Doctors hate telling people they are terminally ill. So too do the families of the terminally ill hate telling their loved ones they are going to do. Instead, we pretend that they are going to get better.
Significantly many Christians find it difficult to cope with the thought of death. According to a 2018 survey of attitudes to death in the UK, some 34% of Christians feel unable even to talk about death with their family or with friends.
Particularly in this season of Easter – and remember that in the church year the season of Easter includes the five Sundays following Easter – preachers have a great opportunity to ‘declare’ the difference that Jesus makes to living and to dying. (Incidentally, thanks to a recent blog response, I have realised that ‘declare’ has a more contemporary and less churchy feel than ‘proclaim’).
We need to acknowledge that people are right to fear death. Job, for instance, described death as the ‘the king of terrors’ (Job 18.14). The Psalmist wrote that when the “terrors of death” assailed him, “fear and trembling” beset him, “horror” overwhelmed him (Ps 55.4,5). Even Jesus in the face of the death of his friend Lazarus was “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (John 11.33).
However, the good news of Easter Day is that coronavirus need no longer have the last word. Jesus has conquered death – death is a power that no longer needs to be feared. To quote the unknown writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, “Jesus shared our flesh and blood “so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death”.(Hebs 2.14,15). Or to quote from what J.B. Philips described as the greatest chapter in the Bible, “God gives us the victory through our Lord |Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 15.7), for, in the quaint words of the 18th century preacher, William Romaine, “Death stung himself to death when he stung Christ”!
Yes, Jesus has risen from the dead, and in rising has brought life and immorality to light. The atheist Bertrand Russell, who sought to give a philosophical undergirding to the permissive society of the 1960s, as he came to the end of his life wrote in his autobiography: “No dungeon was ever constructed so dark and narrow as that in which the shadow physics of our time imprisons us; for every prisoner has believed that outside his walls a free world existed; but now the prison has become the whole universe. There is darkness without and when I die there will be darkness within. There is no splendour, no vastness, anywhere; only triviality for a moment, and then nothing”. But Russell was wrong. There is purpose, there is hope, there is life for men and women of faith.
Here is good news for a dying world. Jesus has broken through death’s defences. Jesus, in rising from the dead, has carved a trail through the valley of the shadow of death, and we through faith may follow him. Or in the words of C.S. Lewis:
He is the ‘first fruits’, the ‘pioneer of life’. He has forced open a door that has been locked since the death of the first man. He has met, fought and beaten the King of Death. Everything is different because He has done so. This is the beginning of the New Creation: a new chapter in cosmic history has begun.
Let’s not confine Easter preaching to Easter Day. Let’s not even confine Easter preaching to the season of ‘Eastertide’. However long the pandemic lasts, let’s preach The Message of the Resurrection (the title of my best-selling book which has been translated into Burmese, Chinese, Korean, Romanian, and Turkish). This is as time to heed the cry of Tomaso Campanella to the Italian painters of his day:
Paint Christ not dead but risen! Paint Christ, with his foot set in scorn on the split rock with which they sought to hold him down! Paint him the conqueror of death! Paint him the Lord of life! Paint him as what he is, the irresistible Victor who, tested to the uttermost, has proved himself in very deed mighty to save.
Throughout this period of the coronavirus, pandemic let’s begin every Sunday morning service with a hymn or song celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. For this is a time to help Christians and non-Christians alike to overcome their fear of death.