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Denial and the Fear of Death

October 15, 2017

Rereading Richard Beck’s book The Slavery of Death (Cascade: 2014) I am reminded of why there is so often confusion around the classic Christian idea (Hebrews 2:14-14) that we are ‘enslaved by fear of death.’ I find that when I express the opinion that the fundamental human problem is the fear of death many people simply disagree, usually by politely telling me that they are not afraid of death (and presumably therefore are not enslaved by such fear and therefore presumably unaffected by the victory of the risen Christ over death and its sting, sin).

For Beck, if I understand him correctly, the account of our situation goes like this. Our fear of death is not the kind of basic fear that an animal shows in the face of physical danger. Rather it is another kind of fear. It is the neurotic fear which shapes our identity and behavior even when we are not conscious of the object of our fear (death). Beck (drawing on Ernst Becker) says that the human animal is in a relatively unique situation of having an awareness of the inevitability of death and having a survival instinct that wants to avoid it. The response to the tension created by a threat we know we can’t avoid are cultural systems (he calls them ‘hero systems’) in which we seek to give ourselves significance beyond our own death. There is an immense array of ways we bestow on ourselves a kind of heroism. Self-esteem is not a private psychic achievement. It is the product of our service of cultural hero-systems in which we ‘make a difference’, ‘distinguish ourselves’, and feel important or significant. Rooted in awareness of the inevitability of our death these systems allow us to sub-consciously deny what we also know to be inevitable.

In my most recent foray into this area I posted a citation from John Chrysostom:

He who fears death is a slave and subjects himself to everything in order to avoid dying . . .[But] he who does not fear death is outside the tyranny of the devil. For indeed ‘man would give skin for skin, and all things for [the sake of] his life.’ [Job 2:4] and if a man should decide to disregard this, whose slave is he then? He fears no one, is in terror of no one, is higher than everyone, and is freer than everyone. For he who disregards his own life disregards more so all other things. And when the devil finds such a soul, he can accomplish in it none of his works. Tell me, though, what can he threaten? The loss of money or honor? Or exile from one’s country? For these are small things to him ‘who counteth not even his life dear,’ says blessed Paul [Acts 20:24]

Do you see that in casting out the tyranny of death, He has dissolved the strength of the devil?

  • John Chrysostom, Homily IV of Homilies on Hebrews


A friend responded on fb to the effect that it makes no sense to fear death because it is inevitable. From the perspective of Beck (and Becker and possibly the writer to the Hebrews) this is precisely the point. Our peculiarly human form of death-fear is based precisely on its inevitability. It is culturally mediated denial. It makes no sense, but that is why it exists in the way it does.

This reflection on denial reminded me of a lecture I attended today. It was by historian Richard Evans who was reflecting on the Lipstadt/Irving ‘holocaust denial’ trial (2000) and the movie Denial (2016). The main point that struck me arising out of the lecture was the judgement on Evan’s part that Irving the holocaust denier both sincerely believed that the holocaust did not happen (in the way it had been portrayed by historians) and simultaneous deliberately distorted the facts to fit with his beliefs. He denied the Holocaust, but was he also in denial about his own duplicity? Clearly his manipulation of facts consistently served his political ends. This was at the heart of the legal opposition to his case. But did his ideological devotion to his cause simply blind him to fact so that he only saw what he wanted to see? Or was he duplicitous at all levels? Or was it a bit of both?


The questions sink deep. Does our human situation vis a vis death create a blindness in us? Are there any real alternatives to radical nihilism on the one hand and belief in Christ’s victory over death (resurrection) on the other?

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