In the technological world, we can choose what is close and what is distant—even death. In his book The Slavery of Death, Richard Beck writes:
Prior to the industrial revolution and the advent of modern medicine, our experience of death was more direct and immediate. Death was a daily reality. (29)
Today our culture prefers to keep death at arm’s length. What does this mean for pastoral ministry, and particularly when ministering to those facing end-of-life uncertainty?
Beck—a psychologist and theologian—argues that the removal of the immediate presence of death during the industrial and technological age has not only instilled a heightened fear of death, but also inflamed the manifestations of anxiety in our daily lives. Through the changes in our food preparation and consumption, the popularity of funeral homes, and the availability of specialized hospice care, the modern world allows us to outsource dealing with death to someone else.
Ironically, the ability to outsource dealing with death hasn’t freed us from its fear. What has taken root instead, Beck argues, is a “death anxiety” that underlies all other forms of anxiety and drives us to distraction:
In an attempt to manage or reduce our anxiety, we are driven to embrace distractions, entertainments, and comforts. The illusion of a deathless society can only be maintained by a vast industry of such distractions and entertainments. (29)
Our fascinations with legacy, and the continuation of our name and achievements, are also attempts to circumvent death. For Beck, these “identities are being driven, deep down, by death anxiety” (37).
Some channel their death anxiety into searching for a technological solution to death. Peter Thiel, a billionaire venture capitalist, has invested in numerous projects focused on life-extension, human biology, and the eventual prospects of immortality. Thiel sees the ultimate victory over death as small, winnable medical interventions that will eventually cure disease and extend life. He says, “In practice, it will always be framed in terms of these very specific interventions, and it seems to me in every instance the moral answer has to be, yes, we should do this.”
As pastors, we struggle to grapple with our culture’s death anxiety while ministering to those facing end-of-life medical decisions. Within our congregations, individuals and families are also experiencing death anxiety.
A 2009 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, led by researchers in the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, found that people with high faith commitments were three times as likely to choose “intensive medical care near death.” Essentially, those who profess the promise of eternal life are more likely to prolong life, despite significant financial expense and much physical pain. The anxiety of death seems to plays a powerful role in the end-of-life choices made by faithful Christians.
How, then, are we to cultivate a pastoral and theological response to the death anxiety that leads many to choose life extension in an attempt to forestall death? And for those not facing end-of-life decisions, but living under the burden of death anxiety, how do we give them hope?
Freed from the Burden
The answer is found in the glory of the resurrection. In John 8:12, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” As followers of Jesus, we believe the “light of life” has swallowed up the darkness of death. The resurrection reveals God’s glory in a way that speaks directly to the anxieties that accompany death. The psalmist writes, “For you have delivered me from death and my feet from stumbling, that I may walk before God in the light of life” (Ps. 56:13).
In the resurrection of Jesus we now live with an eternal and eschatological vision that can change the way we encounter physical death. We’re given what theologians call a “beatific vision”—a heavenly vision of God and his eternal glory. Now, while we live facing the uncertainties of life, “we see in a mirror dimly,” but the promise of the resurrection is that we will one day see him “face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12). Kyle Strobel writes,
This sight is transformative, it is beatifying, because it is a knowledge of God, and, furthermore, a knowledge of God for me. . . . It is in Christ that we share in this vision, through the dark glass of faith now, and in clarity for eternity.
While technology continues to push society forward, pastors must teach congregations to see a seismic difference between the promise of life-extension and the promise of abundant life in Christ (John 10:10). We must free them from the burden of anxieties rooted in the fear of death, and set their sights on the light of life found in the resurrection of Jesus.
Only then will we be able to walk faithfully alongside those overwhelmed by end-of-life medical decisions—encouraging them to see Christ’s resurrection as the promise of our abundant and eternal rest in him.