Fear of death is not a Christian virtue

I’m going to start right up front with the disclaimer that this is 1) not a claim to speak for the Forney church of Christ or Focus Press, for whom I preach and write – thus why I’m writing on this website, under my own name and 2) a personal opinion on what the Bible teaches on this matter, yet one of which I hope to persuade you.

The point of this article is not to debate the risk level of the coronavirus, or really to discuss the virus at all. My point in this article is not dependent on the dangerousness of the virus. On the contrary, my point is that the danger of the virus is irrelevant in the face of Biblical commandments.

I’m writing to posit two Biblical truths and apply them to our situation.

First, Christians are not to fear death.

Paul wrote in Philippians 1:21, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” While I’m here, I am to try to follow Christ’s footsteps, but death, whenever and however it comes, is to be viewed as gain. Do we believe that? Do we act like we believe it?

In a letter to a sickly woman named Mary Willis Shelburne, C.S. Lewis shared these thoughts on the matter of death for those in Christ:

“Pain is terrible, but surely you need not have fear as well. Can you not see death as the friend and deliverer? It means stripping off that body which is tormenting you… What is there to be afraid of? You have long attempted (and none of us does more) a Christian life. Your sins are confessed and absolved. Has this world been so kind to you that you should leave it with regret? There are better things ahead than any we leave behind.” (Emp. added.)

One of the most beautiful blessings about Christianity is the knowledge that death is not the end. I suspect the cause of our confusion on this issue is that we have neglected to ground ourselves in faith that we will be far better off on the other side.

I am not running toward death – I wear my seatbelt, drive the speed limit (or… thereabouts, you know), work out and try to eat reasonably, etc. I would very much like to see my children grow, and care for them and my wife, serving God all the way. But neither am I going to live my life in fear. To die is gain.

Arguing from a different angle, James wrote that our planning for the future must be done with an important fact in mind: “You do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away” (James 4:14). While we put off religious duty and wait for the virus to disappear, or a vaccine to eradicate it, or whatever else may save the day, we aren’t guaranteed that we’ll be here to see the other side.

Aside from the COVID deaths themselves, over 2 million Americans have died of other causes this year while waiting on life to return to normal. You aren’t guaranteed that you will be able to fellowship and share the body and blood of the Lord with God’s children a year from now. But you can this Sunday. Jesus told us not to worry about tomorrow, but instead to seek first the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33-34).

Fear of death is antithetical to our faith. We are a religion founded on resurrection, practiced by millions who cower in fear of death. This should not be.

Second, we have work to do.

It was wrong of us to determine our course of action based on risk rather than on Biblical command. If God told us to do something, we are to do it and let Him work out the details. Preaching the Gospel has routinely gotten people killed throughout church history. No, persecution is not a direct equivalent, but it establishes for us that obedience – even in the face of great risk – is required. Even when Paul escaped Damascus in a basket to avoid persecution (Acts 9:25) he did so to go somewhere else and preach, not to go home and hide and wait for favorable conditions.

While we wait for our favorable conditions, the work remains waiting for us. Christian service cannot be accomplished in a setting in which we are not seeing each other face to face. When’s the last time any of us obeyed 1 Peter 4:9 – “Be hospitable to one another without complaining”? How long are we going to be okay with blowing off Acts 2’s example of gathering together, praying together, learning together, and serving each other together? Were we “loving our neighbors” by isolating them into depression and possible suicide?

The reason it was so easy for most of us to accept “virtual church” and continue on without the assembly is that our concept of church is so small and powerless. (Somebody should write a book about that.) Other than the preacher or a select ministry team, just about everybody else is interchangeable in many cases. You come to them and get what they’ve provided for you.

What happened when the lockdowns began? The preachers went to the buildings and recorded their sermons, and everybody else stayed home. If we had a biblical view of church, in which we need each and every member growing to maturity in Christ to strengthen each other (Ephesians 4), the idea of everyone doing “church at home” would have been a complete oxymoron. There’s no such thing as church at home.

Biblically we’re supposed to be evangelizing, discipling, praying together, being hospitable to each other, serving each other, and the list goes on. Very little of that can be done over a phone call or a Zoom, particularly for 9+ months.

So, to be clear, I’m not just arguing about getting back to Sunday worship. I’m arguing for going far beyond that, to practicing community as a Christian family. And while many (if not most) have continued to see their biological families through these months, we accepted isolation from our spiritual, eternal family indefinitely. Do we mean it when we call our church family our “family” or not?

God gave us work to do (Ephesians 2:10), and it’s my contention that we need to keep on doing it. You are free to disagree, but the burden of proof is then on you to show where we have the authorization to abandon that work, and how long we’re allowed to go without doing it.

Anticipating a few commonly raised objections:

“‘Love your neighbor’ means not exposing them to risk.” Yes, I know that “love your neighbor” was trotted out, as always, as the old reliable argument we can bend to mean whatever we want (sexual liberation, doctrinal compromise, political point scoring, and whatever else the moment needs). The Bible itself defines what loving one another looks like, though, and there is no sense in which all of us avoiding one another for a year fits into that definition.

It was one thing to accept “15 days to slow the spread” in the name of loving our neighbor. But if at that time it had been pitched to us as “staying home and abandoning Christian fellowship for months with no defined end point to slow the spread,” I suspect we would have been far more reluctant to view it as a loving gesture.

“If it saves just one life, it’s worth it.” If one life is the standard, we can never meet again. Every single year we have the potential to inadvertently spread the flu to an elderly, immunocompromised member. Every single week we all take the risk of getting into a car to drive to worship. Staying home would eventually save one life in both of these cases. Are these equivalent to COVID? Of course not. But I’m not the one who came up with the “one life” standard, I’m merely arguing according to its logic.

“People stay home to keep from spreading germs all the time.” You are fully capable of discerning the difference between one sick person isolating (typically for a short, defined period) and everybody – sick or not – isolating indefinitely, and have no need for me to explain why the two aren’t equivalent. The same goes for staying home for a Sunday when the weather makes assembling dangerous.

You can see the frustration in my tone, I’m sure. Week after week of bare minimum Christianity can have that effect. We simply are not being the church if we are not making disciples and fellowshipping with one another. Our response has robbed us of our identity and told the world that we’re just as focused on this life and afraid of death as they are.

With a knowledge of how beautiful and horrific eternity can be, a world at risk should motivate us to far greater activity, not lesser. Worship is too important. Fellowship is too important. Evangelism is too important. Disciple making is too important. Service is too important. It’s time to get back to work.


A quick postscript:

While everything thus far has been in the realm of opinion, this is not: if you’ve gone to restaurants, traveled, and/or gone into other people’s homes yet still are holding out on the Sunday assembly or other church gatherings, repent and get yourself in there. What that says is that you’re willing to accept at least some level of social risk, but being with the church is not high enough on the priority list to be worth that risk.

And, if that logic tracks with you, I’ll leave it to you to weigh up the same arguments as they pertain to going to the grocery store.

On Christians and President Trump…

As one of the tens of millions of Americans who log in to social media every day, I’ve been seeing posts about President Trump for over 3 years. Rarely do any of these posts strike a balance down the middle. Though I suspect most Americans are somewhere in the middle, there is a large number of people occupying the two ends of the spectrum in his favor and against him.

Brothers and sisters, you have to realize the polarization and alienation that comes from vocally taking a side.

Given the extreme distance between his fans and his critics, he’s one of the most polarizing figures in American history. His most passionate supporters look upon anyone who disagrees with him as stupid or evil, and the same is true in reverse when it comes to his most passionate critics. Both sides view any who disagree with them as adversaries to be defeated rather than fellow humans to be loved despite the differences of opinion.

What troubles me is that there are plenty of Christians who know how divisive the discussion around the President is and yet persist in broadcasting their opinions of praise or hatred anyway. It is a horrific embarrassment to the church any time a Christian shares one of those posts along the lines of, “If you don’t like my opinion of the President, remove me from your friends list.”

In what universe is that attitude compatible with “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9)? How is that compliant with the command, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Romans 12:18)?

And to what end? All that comes of it is that those who agree will continue to agree, and those who disagree will be driven away, meaning we’ll never have the opportunity to love and serve them in the ways Jesus called us to do.

That’s why I’m asking you to think twice before your next post about President Trump. I’m not writing this to tell you who to vote for, vote against, agree with, disagree with, support, or oppose. I’m writing to ask you to weigh your social media posting against our Lord’s desire for us to be peacemakers. Regardless of which side you may fall on, intentionally and proudly alienating friends and family over our opinions on the President is patently unchristlike.

“Evil and the Justice of God” by N.T. Wright

Jack Dodgen shares his review of “Evil and the Justice of God”, N.T. Wright’s take on the problem of evil, pain, and suffering.