How Conscience Makes Cowards of Us All

“. . . that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb. 2:14–15).

Death is the Great Interruption, tearing loved ones away from us, or us from them.

Death is the Great Schism, ripping apart the material and immaterial parts of our being and sundering a whole person, who was never meant to be disembodied, even for a moment.

Death is the Great Insult, because it reminds us, as Shakespeare said, that we are worm food.

[We are] literally split in two: [Man] 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 to blindly and dumbly rot and disappear forever.

Death is hideous and frightening and cruel and unusual. It is not the way life is supposed to be, and our grief in the face of death acknowledges that.

Death is our Great Enemy, more than anything else. It makes a claim on each and every one of us, pursuing us relentlessly through all our days. Modern people write and talk endlessly about love, especially romantic love, which eludes many. But no one can avoid death. It has been said that all the wars and plagues have never raised the death toll—it has always been one for each and every person. Yet we seem far less prepared for it than our ancestors.

Fear of Judgment
Many have pointed out that today our society is as moralistic and judgmental as it ever has been. We live in a “call-out culture” in which people are categorized reductionistically to good or evil and then are publicly shamed until they lose jobs and communities. People are charged for what used to be called sins and are punished and banished in ways that look remarkably like religious ceremonial purification rites.

All the wars and plagues have never raised the death toll.

As Wilfred McClay points out in his essay “The Strange Persistence of Guilt,” human beings cannot abandon their “moral reflexes”—a belief in moral absolutes, in sin and judgment, and in the imposition of guilt and shame. However, today we have abandoned the old underlying beliefs in God, heaven, and hell, and therefore have lost the older resources for repentance, showing grace, and granting forgiveness.

All this triggers a crisis for modern people in the face of death. As a pastor I’ve spent many hours in the presence of dying people. As death approaches, people look back on their life and feel tremendous regret. The unbehagen, or deep dissatisfaction with oneself, comes to the fore. There may be guilt for things not said or done for loved ones, for apologies not made or received, for kindnesses refused or unkindnesses done and now beyond forgiveness, for wasted opportunities or even a wasted life.

But beyond regret for the past, there is also fear of the future. T. S. Eliot writes, “Not what we call death, but what beyond death is not death / We fear, we fear.” Behind and beneath all the other emotions is the fear of judgment. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s lengthy discussion of death, he asserts that the “sting of death” is sin (v. 56). Just as he had taught in Romans 1:20–22, we all know, in our hearts, however deeply hidden, we know that God is our Creator and the one who deserves our worship and obedience. But we have “suppressed” (v. 18) that knowledge in order to claim sovereignty over our own lives.

Death, however, makes our guilt and self-dissatisfaction much more conscious. Our conscience cannot be silenced as it was before. Shakespeare’s Hamlet thinks about suicide, but he decides not to do it. He dreads something after death, “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns,” which leads us to fear judgment. So we “bear those ills we have, than fly to others that we know not of” because “conscience does make cowards of us all.”

So despite all the great efforts, guilt persists, and never more than when we consider death. Modern culture gives us little to deal with it, but the Christian faith has some astonishing resources to give us.

Our Champion
Rather than living in fear of death, we should see death as spiritual smelling salts that will awaken us out of our false belief that we will live forever. When you are at a funeral, especially one for a friend or a loved one, listen to God speaking to you, telling you that everything in life is temporary except for his love. This is reality.

Everything in this life is going to be taken away from us, except one thing: God’s love, which will go into death with us and take us through death and into his arms. It’s the one thing you can’t lose. Without God’s love to embrace us, we will always be radically insecure, and we ought to be.

Everything in life is temporary except for his love.

Real smelling salts are very disagreeable, but they are also very effective. But as you’re waking from your illusions, be at peace, because here’s what Jesus Christ offers to us if we have him as our Savior by faith in his provision for us.

In the book of Hebrews we read:

In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. . . . He too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Heb. 2:10, 14–15)

In order to save us, Jesus became the “pioneer” of our salvation through suffering and death. The Greek word here is archēgos. Bible scholar William Lane says it really ought to be translated “our champion.”

A champion was somebody who engaged in representative combat. When David fought Goliath, they both fought as champions for their respective armies. They fought as substitutes. If your champion won, the whole army won the battle, even though none of them lifted a finger. That is what Jesus did. He took on our greatest enemies—sin and death. Unlike David, he didn’t just risk his life, he gave his life, but in doing so he defeated them. He took the penalty we deserve for our sins—the punishment of death—in our place, as our substitute. But because he himself was a man of perfect, sinless love for his father and neighbor, death could not hold him (Acts 2:24). He rose from the dead.

That’s why in verse 14, the writer says he destroyed the power of death because he died and rose, taking away our penalty and guaranteeing the future resurrection of all who unite with him by faith. Jesus Christ, our great captain and champion, has killed death.

Rather than living in fear of death, we should see death as spiritual smelling salts that will awaken us out of our false belief that we will live forever.

All religions talk about death and the afterlife, but in general they proclaim that you must lead a good life in order to be ready for eternity. Yet as death approaches we all know we have not done even close to our best; we have not lived as we ought. So we stay, with warrant, enslaved by the fear of death until the end.

Christianity is different. It doesn’t leave you to face death on your own, by holding up your life record and hoping it will suffice. Instead it gives you a champion who has defeated death, who pardons you and covers you with his love. You face death “in him” and in his perfect record (Phil. 3:9). To the degree we believe, know, and embrace that, we are released from the power of death.

So when Hamlet spoke of death as “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns” he was wrong. Someone has come back from death. Jesus Christ has destroyed the power of death and “a cleft has opened in the pitiless walls of the world” for us. When by faith we grasp this, we need fear darkness no more.

Saint Paul wrote the famous lines:

Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting? (1 Cor. 15:55)

Paul is not facing death stoically. He’s taunting it. How can anyone in his right mind look at humanity’s most powerful enemy and taunt it? Paul immediately gives the answer: “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:56–57). Paul says that the “sting of death” (as Hamlet says) is our conscience, our sense of sin and judgment before the moral law. But Christ has taken it away—or more accurately, taken it upon himself for all who believe.

Shadow of Death
Donald Grey Barnhouse was the minister of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia when his wife, only in her late 30s, died of cancer, leaving him with four children younger than 12. When driving with his children to the funeral, a large truck pulled past them in the left lane, casting its shadow over them. Barnhouse asked all in the car, “Would you rather be run over by the truck or the shadow of the truck?” His 11-year-old answered, “Shadow, of course.” Their father concluded, “Well, that’s what has happened to your mother. . . . Only the shadow of death has passed over her, because death itself ran over Jesus.”

The sting of death is sin, and the poison went into Jesus.

The sting of death is sin, and the poison went into Jesus.

So any Christian man or woman has the power to triumph over death like this. Once I was speaking to a friend about his chronically ill wife, who over and over again had defied medical predictions and had “beaten death.” Now she was very ill again, with a real possibility that this time she would not pull through. Talking with her husband we agreed that no matter what happened, a believer always beats death, whether they die or not, because Jesus Christ has defeated it, and now all it can do is make us more happy and loved than we’ve ever been before.

If Jesus died so you don’t have to pay for anything in your past and he has risen to be your living Savior, then what can death do to you?

Tim Keller

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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