Jesus Set Us Free.


Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, he likewise shared in their humanity, so that through death he could destroy the one who holds the power of death (that is, the devil), and set free those who were held in slavery all their lives by their fear of death. For surely his concern is not for angels, but he is concerned for Abraham’s descendants. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he could become a merciful and faithful high priest in things relating to God, to make atonement for the sins of the people. For since he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted. (Heb. 2:14-18, NET)

I want to start by posing a simple question: Is death merely a future problem, or is it a present reality? Is death content to stay out there on the horizon, or does it somehow intrude upon our present experience?

We might think that it is solely “out there” and that we don’t have to worry about it today. But I’m afraid we’d be fooling ourselves if we took that view.

Martin Heidegger, the influential 20th-century German philosopher, talked about death as an “omnipresent possibility.” [1] Death is inevitable; the catch is that we don’t know when it will come. It’s determined, yet undetermined. Fixed, yet unfixed. So death casts its ominous shadow over all of us from the beginning of life. In Heidegger’s own words, “As soon as a human being is born, he is old enough to die.” [2]

Death is a very present problem. This “omnipresent possibility” is the source of untold amounts of fear and anxiety. Just imagine walking around your whole life with a gun to your head, knowing the trigger is going to be pulled any minute. You’re not sure when it’ll happen, but you know it will. Sounds horrific, right? Well, life is actually like that.

Our daily experience doesn’t seem that bad, though. Most of us don’t go throughout our days worrying too much about death. But that’s because we’ve become expert deniers. The way we’ve come to cope with the fear of death is through countless means of denial. We can’t face it so we just pretend that the barrel of the gun isn’t there resting against our temple.

One of the most well-known explorations of this idea was Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death. Published in 1973, this work earned the Pulitzer prize the following year. [3] Becker, also a philosopher of sorts, makes the case that essentially everything we do is an attempt to deny our own mortality. All of civilization is an elaborate scheme striving to produce meaning, significance, and everlasting life in light of our impending death. Underneath everything is fear: the dread and angst of knowing someday we will cease to be. “The only thing which consoles us for our miseries is diversion,” so we occupy ourselves with every kind of endeavor to avoid having to come face to face with death. [4]

Becker may have overstated his case, but I think he’s on to something. We all, whether we admit it or not, suffer from death anxiety. We are all slaves to this omnipresent possibility.

Death is one of the most prominent characters in the biblical narrative. It shows up in the 48th verse of a book containing 31,102 verses. Throughout the book it is known as the “curse.” It is the punishment we all must face for our rebellion against our Creator. Heidegger and Becker weren’t saying anything new in the 20th century. They were just repeating what Scripture told us thousands of years ago: that death is the curse we all find ourselves under.

But as I mentioned, the biblical narrative is a long story. It doesn’t end after the intrusion of the curse. That establishes the conflict. But there is also a climax.

The climax comes when Jesus shows up on the scene. Jesus is the Word of God who has always existed. In him is life itself and through him everything else derives life. Death was never a possibility for him as the omnipresent God. But in a mysterious act of grace, this same Jesus took on flesh. The Son of God became the Son of man. But could Jesus die? Could he be that human? Could he suffer death like the rest of us?

The answer is yes. In fact, that is why he came to earth. He came to die “so that through death he could…set free those who were held in slavery all their lives by their fear of death.” How did Jesus liberate us? He died in our place, canceling the record of debt that stood against us because of our sin, and then rose back to life proving that death would not win. Now, death has lost its sting. It’s no longer a punishment for us who are in Christ. We can say with Paul, “to die is gain!” Death can be the best thing that happens to us now. We don’t have to fear it; we can embrace it because it carries us to our Savior!

And not only this, but we have been guaranteed resurrection. Jesus was the firstfruits of what is to come. As he arose, so will we. Death is not the end of the story. We will rise with new bodies in a new heavens and new earth. There we will dwell with God and there will be no death ever again.

The 4th-century bishop Athanasius summed all this up well: “Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death in place of all, and offered it to the Father. This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, having fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men. This He did that He might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection. Thus He would make death to disappear from them as utterly as straw from fire.” [5]

Jesus made death disappear like straw in a fire. That’s what he did. And in doing so, he set us free from the fear of death.

Have you been liberated yet? Or are you still striving with anxiety?

[1] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Martin Heidegger, 2.3.1.

[2] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, 236.

[3] Ernest Becker Foundation, Theories, “The Denial of Death”.

[4] Blaise Pascal, Pensées, 49.

[5] Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word, 34.