All human beings live in fear of death.
In this world, death is the only certainty. Everyone reading this post will die.
Within a quick glance at the online news, in the space of a few hours I recently read of the deadly bombing of Coptic churches in Egypt; of the death of acclaimed Australian comedian John Clarke; and reviews of the movie ‘Burn Burn Burn’ about two friends setting out to dispose of the ashes of their friend. Death shocks us; causes us to mourn, and occasionally we let off steam by using it in humour.
A recent study from Oxford University found that the people who are least afraid of death are the deeply religious, and the deeply non-religious; sincere believers at one end, and skeptical Atheists at the other.
Amongst the ‘religious’ they found that those who were ‘extrinsically religious’ – that is, who followed religious practices just for the social and emotional benefits – had more fear of death than those who were ‘intrinsically religious’ – those who had deep convictions to which they would hold even when they may suffer as a result.
The theory, I assume, is that a well-thought-through atheist has also thought through the implications of their belief – that death is the end of of their existence – and have come to terms with it. However, I know that this is not always the case, in practice. My own grandfather was an atheist until his dying day, but even in his 90’s he told me that he did not want to die. His 90 years of rationalising the non-existence of God did nothing to take away his fear of death.
It is also interesting to note that, apart from countries where atheism is a state enforced belief, the countries in the world that have the highest number of atheists are all ‘first world’ countries who also have, coincidentally, high standards of living and long life expectancy. It seems that its easier to believe that death is the end if your life is good, and you feel that you’ve managed to get as much out of life as you can.
The Pulitzer Prize winning cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker (who was not a religious man) wrote in his book, ‘The Denial of Death’:
“Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever. It is a terrifying dilemma to be in and to have to live with…”
“…everything that man does in his symbolic world is an attempt to deny and overcome his grotesque fate. He literally drives himself into a blind obliviousness with social games, psychological tricks, personal preoccupations so far removed from the reality of his situation that they are forms of madness — agreed madness, shared madness, disguised and dignified madness, but madness all the same.”
(Ironically, Becker died of cancer in 1974, the same year his book was published.)
Becker discovered by observation what the Bible has been telling us for at least 2000 years, that people, ‘through fear of death are subject to lifelong slavery.’ (Hebrews 2:15)
Some (maybe you!) might say, ‘Ah, but this just proves the theory that in the end, religion is just the product of fear; Christians want to believe in Jesus’ resurrection and the promise of eternal life because they’re afraid of going to hell when they die.” In fact, a previous church I used to attend had a graffiti attack one Saturday night, and we arrived at church on Sunday morning to be greeted with the words, ‘Christianity is for people who are afraid of death’.
However, this claim does not work with Christianity – even if it may work with other religions. Normally if a person is converted to a religion because of fear, they also have to be kept in fear if they are to stay faithful to that religion. This is a technique used by cults – the ever-present threat that you may lose your salvation or be cast out or lose the approval of your fellow believers is what can keep people in a false sense of joy and security.
However, Jesus does not use fear to convert or keep his people. Fear has to do with punishment and shame. But Jesus’ teaching was never, ‘Do this, or else.’ Rather, it was ‘Come to me, because.’
‘Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’ (Matthew 11:28)
‘Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.’ (Matthew 19:14)
‘Come to me, that you may have life.’ (John 5:40)
‘Whoever comes to me I will never cast out.’ (John 6:37)
‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. (John 7:37)
This one who calls us to come, is the one who first came to us:
‘I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.’ (John 12:46 )
‘The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.’ (John 10:10)
‘The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.’ (John 1:9-13)
Earlier, I only quoted part of the Bible verse about fear of death. Here is the rest of it:
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. (Hebrews 2:14-15)
Note that Jesus does not deal with death by denying it, or making it out to be not so bad – as if it were just the natural cycle of life. No, Jesus uses death itself to deal with death! We will unpack that in a moment.
Our passage talks about fear, but it’s fear of another kind.
Most English translations continue Mark’s Gospel after verse 9, however they also have a footnote indicating that the earliest copies of Mark all finish with verse 8. It’s almost certain that the original Mark’s Gospel finished here.
This may seem to us a strange way to end the Gospel. All the other Gospels record Jesus appearing to his disciples, why not here?
And verse 8 contains words that may not seem to us to be the most positive: trembling, bewildered (ESV ‘astonished’), afraid. What’s going on here?
These three words in the Greek can be used in both a negative or a positive way.
We may tremble when we hear bad or frightening news; however we may also tremble when we hear news that is almost too good to be true, or which we least expected. The women had just faced the most horrific three days of their lives, as they saw Jesus brutally executed. They had come to the tomb to mourn, expecting to never see him again, and thinking that all their hopes that they had placed in him were gone. How else would they respond when they were told that he was risen? Wouldn’t news like that take a while to sink in?
Secondly, ‘astonishment’ is a translation of the Greek word ‘Ecstasis’ – from which we get our word ‘Ecstasy’. If we say someone is ecstatic about something, we normally mean it in the positive sense. It literally means to ‘stand outside yourself’ – or as we might say, to be beside ourselves.
And the word for fear is not only used in a foreboding, dreading, terrifying sense. It’s also used to refer to the way we should view God – in awe of His greatness, His power, His justice. It is the natural response of a creature who has come face-to-face with their Creator.
So rather than an image of the women fleeing, confused and afraid, Mark is painting a picture for us of women who had been amazed by the most exciting, mind blowing news they could ever imagine they would hear.
Jesus’ resurrection means not merely that the man Jesus is alive again against all odds. It marks the start of a cataclysmic, history making, destiny forming, earth shattering reality of the establishment of the Kingdom of God, and the resurrection not just of one man but of the entirety of humanity, which will in turn mean a total renewal and liberation of the entire universe. The enormity of this had gripped them. They were witnesses of the start of the new Creation. Nothing would ever be the same again.
The Resurrection is not merely something to believe. Often Christians (and non-Christians) can get caught up in arguments about the credibility of Jesus’ resurrection, and how much history and literature might prove or disprove it happened. The resurrection is something to be encountered.
You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. (Romans 8:9-11)
The main reason Jesus came was not to die on the cross. The cross was a means to an end. The role of the Messiah was to be the one who would pour out the Holy Spirit on all flesh (Joel 2:27) – not just prophets priest and kings, but all of God’s people regardless of age, status, gender or role. This new era of the Spirit was to replace the old era, the era of temples and priests and sacrifices. It would be an era when people would be free to worship the Father in Spirit and Truth, and not be bound by time or place or ritual. No longer would people need to come to the Temple in Jerusalem to encounter the living God, because God’s Spirit would be sent out into the whole earth and would draw people to God from every tribe and tongue and nation. These people would become the dwelling place of God by His Spirit (Ephesians 2:22).
However, in order for this to happen, the dwelling place had to be made suitable. Just as the Temple and everything that was used in it must be sanctified – purified and made holy – in order for God’s presence to fill it, so too must those among whom He will make HIs dwelling place. The Cross is the means of bringing that cleansing, purifying and sanctifying work that makes the human heart a suitable place for God to make His presence known. And the resurrection declares Jesus to be truly the Messiah – the one who will send His Spirit to all who have faith in him.
Because Jesus is alive, he gives the gift of the Holy Spirit, who transforms our lives, opens our eyes to see the glory of God, and causes us to cry out to God ‘Abba Father’ because He had brought us to know and love the Father who sent His son to be the saviour of the world (1 John 4:14). This is fulness of life, and it’s a life that starts now, not ‘when we die and go to heaven.’
It’s life lived in light of the sure hope we have, that because Jesus rose from the dead, so too will we. When your future is secure, you have the freedom to live in the now; to get the most out of life and not worry about what tomorrow may bring. It enables you to give of yourself to others, being prepared to lose all in love for our neighbour because in Christ we already have everything anyway, and so anything that God takes away in this life will only be that which we don’t need anyway.
The philosopher Alain deBotton (author of ‘Religion for Atheists’) talks about a phenomenon called ‘Status Anxiety’. He attributes it to a loss in the west of the Christian hope of life beyond the grave. It means that if this life is all there is, then I need to do all I can to get the best out of life – and so I gather to myself things that will give me ‘status’ – a career, material possessions, financial security, a good reputation, etc. Having no security for the future causes us to live selfishly, for our selves and our own glory. Or we could say, because we prefer to life selfishly, for ourselves, we rationalise and justifiy our selfishness by doing away with not only the thought of an afterlife, but of a God who will hold us to account for our life.
And we’re back to the issue of the fear of death.
Jesus’ resurrection deals with this fear, because it deals with sin, and therefore the need for judgement. We saw earlier that Jesus destroyed the Devil, who ‘has the power of death’. Why does he have this power? Because he is described as the ‘Accuser’. He is the counsel for the prosecution, who brings before God, and before our own consciences the reality of our sin and rebellion and the justice it demands. However, by taking sin away at the cross, Jesus has taken away accusation, and the devil’s only weapon against us is rendered useless.
This is true freedom! Knowing that you may stand before the God of the Universe and be acceptable in His eyes – and not just acceptable, but welcomed into His family such that you can call Him ‘Father!’ Knowing that because your place in the Father’s family is secured because Jesus the Son is risen from the dead and sits at the Father’s right hand, and says of us, ‘He/She is with me. I died for them. Their sin is gone, and now I have poured my Spirit into their hearts as the guarantee of their future not just now but for eternity.
The resurrection of Jesus is incredibly practical, not merely ‘pie in the sky when you die.’ Paul told the Corinthians, after one of the longest chapters in the New Testament that is all about the resurrection:
Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:58)
The word ‘vain’ means empty, meaningless, to no end. Because Jesus is alive everything we now do has meaning. Nothing we do is insignificant. Whether it’s preaching a sermon on Easter Sunday, or changing your baby’s nappy or going to work day after day. The resurrection transforms the drudgery of a life that lived too briefly and then ends in the grave, into a life lived with purpose, with the goal of living for God’s glory and in love for one another.
Mark finished his Gospel with the women running to tell the good news of Jesus’ resurrection, as instructed, to the other disciples. We know from the other Gospels that the risen Jesus appeared several times over the next 40 days. On one of these occasions he told one of his disciples, ‘You believe because you have seen. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’ (John 20:29).
It’s as if Mark has deliberately finished at this point because he wants to communicate to us, ‘Well, what about you? What do you make of this world-tilting news for Jesus’ resurrection? Do you believe that He is alive, even though you have not seen him with your physical eyes? And what will you make of it? Will it transform your life? Will you come to Jesus, as he calls you, to receive the life He gives? And having received, will you step out into fulness of life, empowered by His spirit to live for the glory of God?