The Fear of Death
June 4th, 1986 @ 7:30 PM
THE FEAR OF DEATH
Dr. W. A. Criswell
Isaiah 38:1-5, Hebrews 2
6-4-86 7:30 p.m.
That is Scripture and that is a wonderful way to sing: singing God’s Word. And they do it so beautifully and well. Edgar Morrison of Toronto, Canada, who is the one who is responsible for the arranging of these chairs that are coming, came to the study and got me, and he had two of his workmen to repair one of them that I could sit in up there. And oh, they are luxurious! The only problem I think of is how in the world am I going to keep those people form going to sleep up there in those beautiful, soft chairs? They are red; and when you look at this sanctuary it’s going to be a glowing tribute to our Lord. And everything will be finished Sunday except the rack on which you will place your song book; but the chairs will be ready to sit in. And I just wish I knew how to get somebody else to preach for me Sunday, and I would just sit up there in one of those chairs and enjoy what God has given to us.
This message tonight is one that pertains to all of us in all of our lives: The Fear of Death. I want us all turn to Isaiah 38; Isaiah chapter 38. And I want you to turn to Hebrews chapter 2; those two places in your Bible. Isaiah chapter 38; we are going to read the first five verses. Isaiah chapter 38, that’s the first book beyond the poetry books, about the middle of your Bible; Isaiah chapter 38, the first five verses. Now let’s read them together:
In those days was Hezekiah sick unto death. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came unto him, and said unto him, Thus saith the Lord, Set thine house in order: for thou shalt die, and not live.
Then Hezekiah turned his face toward the wall, and prayed unto the Lord,
And said, Remember now, O Lord, I beseech Thee, how I have walked before Thee in truth and with a perfect heart, and have done that which is good in Thy sight. And Hezekiah wept sore.
Then came the word of the Lord to Isaiah, saying,
Go, and say to Hezekiah, Thus saith the Lord, the God of David thy father, I have heard thy prayer, I have seen thy tears: behold, I will add unto thy days fifteen years.
Now have you found Hebrews, toward the back of your Bible? Hebrews, the Book of Hebrews, chapter 2, and we’re going to read verses 14 and 15. Hebrews chapter 2, verses 14 and 15, now let’s read it out loud together:
Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, He also Himself likewise took part of the same; that through death He might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil;
And deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.
Do you see that phrase in there? “Who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” [Hebrews 2:15]. The fear of death is universal. It is natural. It is a mechanism created by God to preserve life. Animals are afraid of death: they will run, they will fight, they will bite, they will sting; all nature responds to death in that same terror. Death is terrible in its visage and in its presence. Death brings disintegration, disorder, desolation, corruption, and horror. In Genesis 23:4, Abraham discussing with the sons of Heth the cave of Machpelah, said, “I seek to buy the place that I may bury my dead out of my sight.” Of whom was he speaking? Of his beloved Sarah, the wife of his heart and the love of his life, “that I may put her out of my sight.”
There is no respecter of persons in death: no matter who, where, what, how, death comes to all alike. In Ecclesiastes 3:19-20, “That which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts: as one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they all have one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast . . . All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.”
I remember as a youth visiting Boston for the first time, and I took a tour of the city, and they passed by a rising hill. And the man said, “These that are buried up there at the top are the great and the famous of Boston, and then the commoners are buried down here below.” And I asked the man, “Do you suppose that these down here, the commoners, are any less dead or more dead than those that are buried up there on the top of the hill in places of unusual splendor and sepulcher glory?” They’re all alike: they are dead, whether they are the famous ones on the top of the Boston hill or the common ones down there at the bottom. Death has no care for tears or groans or agony; all die alike.
The body bends to the dust, and there’s no power to extricate it or to stop the process. And the process, this moment, is working in you. There is a loneliness of dying that is indescribably sad. No one can die for you: you are cut off from everyone and everybody. When time comes for you to die it will be you, and you alone who are going through that tragic moment.
Our mortality is evidenced everywhere. This planet Earth is a vast cemetery; the death row of the universe. You live in a house—death knocks at your door and tears your family apart. We are tenants without a lease; we occupy just for a moment. Do you live in a town? Every year the cemetery is enlarged. Do you work in a marketplace? Every few years there are in that place new names and new faces and new companies. Do you belong to a church? It is changing perpetually.
Let me do something here. Let me count, one, two, three, four: in ten years, one will be dead. Let me count one, two, three, four: in ten years, one will be dead. Let me count one, two, three, four: in ten years one will be dead. The church is perpetually changing. Are you the citizen of a great nation? In Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”:
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
All that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike the inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
Death is universal, and its evidences are seen and felt on every side.
Immediately, there arises in our minds, questions: “Is there life beyond the grave? Are the dead conscious? Do the dead sleep in the grave or go immediately to heaven or hell? Will we be ourselves or somebody else beyond death? Will we have bodies? Will we recognize each other?” The answer to every one of those questions in Scripture is a decided affirmation: yes! The answer is Scripture is full and reassuring. For example, in that famous passage of Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:13, he says, “I would not have you without knowledge, my brethren, concerning them that fall asleep in Jesus.” James Whitcomb Riley wrote:
The sea was breaking at my feet
And looking out across the tide,
Where placid waves and heaven meet,
I thought me of the Other Side.
O, tell me if beyond the sea
A heavenly port there is!” I cried,
And back the echoes triumphantly,
“There is! There is!” replied.
The Christian answer to the phenomenon, terrible and awesome, of death is very, very, very emphatic. One of the reasons for the dynamic conquest of the pagan Greco-Roman Empire was the attitude of the Christian toward death. For example, in AD145, Aristides wrote an apology to Emperor Antoninus Pius to explain the reasons for the extraordinary success of Christianity, and I quote from him: “If any righteous man among the Christians passes from his world, they rejoice and offer thanks to God; and they escort his body with songs and thanksgiving as if he were setting out from one place to another nearby.” The pagan world could not understand such a response to death as that.
We are in God’s hands, as Christians, and in God’s will. And it will be God’s hands that open the door into the grave and not somebody else’s. If God does it—and He does—I will not die until time comes for me to die. That’s the reason that when I face any kind of a disaster, such as when my plane fell in the Amazon jungle, I was not afraid. I went through the experience not knowing whatever might happen; I just prayed one prayer, and that is, I asked God that I not be left after the plunging of the plane to the earth, I asked God that I not be left with my back broken, and my mind gone, and my body so impaired I was a burden to everyone who would know me or love me. It is God who says when I die, how long I will live, and it is God’s hands that will open that door into the other world. And if God does it, then I am not to look upon it as a dreaded calamity, and certainly I am not to be bitter or cynical or rebellious.
Now I want to take this passage that I had you read—and that’s the reason I chose it out of the whole Word of God—I want to show you how God’s will is always best. When God said to Hezekiah, good King Hezekiah, he was one of the five good kings of Judah, when God said to Hezekiah, “Set your house in order, you are going to die and not live” [Isaiah 38:1], Hezekiah, as you read, turned his face to the wall and weeping pled with God, “Remember the righteousness by which I have sought to serve Thee, and please God, add to my life.” And God did that. God added fifteen years to the life of good King Hezekiah, in answer to that supplication [Isaiah 38:2-5]. But in that fifteen years, the greatest tragedy that ever overcame Judah and Israel came to pass. In that fifteen years, Manasseh, the son of Hezekiah, was born. And when Manasseh was twelve years of age, he inherited the throne of David; he became king of Judah [2 Kings 21:1-2]. And because of the sins of Manasseh, God destroyed Judah from the face of the earth and sent Jerusalem into captivity [2 Kings 24:2-3].
Now let me read it. In the Book of 2 Kings you have the reformation of Josiah; he was another one of the five good kings of Judah. But, now you look at this, in 2 Kings 23, verses 26 and 27: “Notwithstanding”—notwithstanding the great revival under Josiah and the great reformation and the great turning to God [2 Kings 22:1-23:25]—“Notwithstanding the Lord turned not from the fierceness of His wrath, because of all of the provocation that Manasseh had provoked Him. And the Lord said, I will remove Judah out of My sight, and will cast off this city of Jerusalem” [2 Kings 23:26-27]. Now, as though you might say, “Well, that was just an historical inconsequential incident,” listen to the prophet Jeremiah, many, many years later: Jeremiah chapter 15, verses 3 and 4, “The Lord saith, I will appoint over them four kinds.” Now you look at the—oh, these prophets, how they can say it!—“I will appoint over this nation four kinds: the sword to slay, and the dogs to tear, and the fowls of the air to devour, and the beasts of the earth to destroy. And I will cause them to be removed into all the nations of the world,” and that’s true today, scattered over the face of the earth, “I will remove them into all the nations of the earth, because of Manasseh king of Judah for all which he did in Jerusalem” [Jeremiah 15:3-4]. Had Hezekiah died when the Lord said, “The day has come for you to die,” Manasseh would never have been born. But he prayed that God would extend his life; and extending his life, Manasseh was born whose sins God would not forgive.
Let me give you an instance of that in my own life. There was a woman whose baby boy was sick unto death. And she cried and she wept and she pled before God for that boy, that baby boy. And God heard her cry, saw her tears: healed the boy, and he grew up. And when he was about eighteen or nineteen years of age, he was electrocuted in the state penitentiary at Huntsville, Texas, because of a terrible murder in the robbing of a bank. It would have been a thousand times better had that baby died when the baby was sick unto death; but the mother cried and pled and lamented, and lived to see the day when her young son was electrocuted at Huntsville prison in Texas. It is best, God’s will; and we ought to pray in that will: “Lord, if it is Your will that I have strength and health and length of days, may it be to the glory of God. If it is Thy will that I fall asleep in Jesus, Thy will be done.”
Now back of all of this is the Lord’s word to us: we are not to fear death. I, in my reading, counted, there are more than one hundred “fear not’s” in the Bible; and that does not mean that God glosses over the terror and the horror of death. Even God, in 1 Corinthians 15:26 calls death an enemy; “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” And you yourselves know of the agony of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, when He faced that awesome trial of crucifixion [Matthew 26:36-46]. For us to cringe before it is natural. For us to be in agony at its presence is natural. But we’re not to be afraid: God is with us, and there is victory in Jesus [1 Corinthians 15:54-57]. That is the great and marvelous and triumphant message of the presence of Christ and the strength of the gospel.
When John fell at the feet of our Lord in the first chapter of the Revelation, the Lord put His hand upon His beloved apostle—it says His right hand—I suppose John had felt the pressure of that right hand on his shoulder for all the years of his ministry before the Lord, all the years of his discipleship. And the Lord put His right hand upon him and said, “Fear not,” that’s one of those fear not’s, “Fear not; behold, I am He that liveth and was dead; and I, I have the keys and of Hell and of Death” [Revelation 1:17-18]. Jesus is there and He has won for us an incomparable victory [1 Corinthians 15:55-57]. In Isaiah 43:2, “When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.” And I want us to quote together now, Psalm 23. Psalm 23 has to do with this: the courage of the Christian in his life and in his facing the inevitable day of death. You want to turn to it? You can turn to it and read it with me, or you can just say it in your heart with me. Are you ready? Psalm 23:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
That psalm is a psalm of unending triumphant courage, whatever the providences of life and the ultimate presence of death. “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil” [Psalm 23:4].
Christ does not stand on a pedestal apart from us; He is one with us. He was tried [Hebrews 4:15], He was tempted [Matthew 4:1-11], He was reproached [Romans 15:3], He was slain, and He died [Matthew 27:32-50], just as we shall die if He delays His coming. His victory for us is unending and everlasting. [Second Timothy 1:10]: “Christ hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” And do you remember that great triumphant passage in 1 Corinthians 15:55-57: “O Death, where now is thy sting? And O Grave, where now is thy victory? . . . Thanks be unto God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In the Scriptures, death is described as a sleep. So the Lord said about Lazarus, in John 11:11-14: “Lazarus is asleep; and I go to awaken him.” And so Paul describes it in the glorious passage in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-15: “They that sleep in Jesus.” The dead in their bodies are raised at the second coming of Christ [1 Thessalonians 4:16]. In Job 19:25-26 is one of the most glorious passages in the Bible: “I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: and though through my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God: Whom I shall look upon, and not another” [Job 19:27]. We are in our bodies when Jesus comes to raise us from the dead [1 Thessalonians 4:16-17].
I—going to do it anyway. If we put a silver dollar into diluted nitric acids, the silver will dissolve; it’ll just be a glass of acid. Eventually we will see only liquid. That’s an unbelievable thing, I’ve seen it; no trace of the silver remains. It goes out of sight; it dissolves in the acid. Its luster, its body, its specific gravity, the words engraved on it, its distinctive features, all the characteristics that make it a dollar are gone. Now you take the nitric acid to a store and attempt to pay for a quart of milk with it, and you’ll be unsuccessful. You could argue that the dollar was there, and the grocer will call a policeman and have you taken to the funny farm. Has the metal been destroyed because our senses cannot perceive it? Now, let us drop into the solution some copper pennies. The acid has a stronger affinity for copper than for silver; and soon you will see small brilliant metallic crystals fall to the bottom. The quantity of silver thus deposited will be precisely the same as that in the silver dollar. And at the day’s price of silver, it may be worth even more than the silver dollar was. Now, if a hard piece of metal can dissolve and you can’t see it, but introduce copper and it all reappears again, if that thing can happen before our very eyes in a glass of nitric acid, why would I stagger before the ableness of God to raise me from the dead?
Did you ever read what Benjamin Franklin wrote on his, for his epitaph? “The body of B. Franklin, printer, like the cover of an old book, its contents torn out and stripped of its lettering and gilding, lies here, food for worms; but the work shall not be loss; for it will, as I believe, appear once more in a new and more elegant edition, revised and corrected by the Author.” Isn’t that a wonderful sentiment? That’s God.
Now hastily: we shall be real recognizable people. Jesus was recognized; He even had scars in His hands and His side [Luke 24:36-40; John 20:25-27]. Even though they weren’t raised, Moses and Elijah were intuitively known to the apostles at the transfiguration [Mark 9:4]. Let me give an illustration of us: these scientists say that our bodies change every seven years, every cell in your body is replaced with another cell every seven years. Now you think how long some of us have lived: my body has been changed about eleven times! Eleven times it’s been changed. Well, are there eleven me’s up here looking at you? No, I’m just the same no-account, sorry, good-for-nothing me that you saw forty-two years ago when I came to be undershepherd of the church, just the same. We’ll all be the same: “When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall we also appear with Him in glory” [Colossians 3:4].
“As for me,” Psalm 17:15, this is a beautiful verse, “As for me, I shall behold Thy face in righteousness: I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with Thy likeness.” At death we go to Sheol or we go to Hades, Sheol or Hades, we go to an intermediate state awaiting the great judgment day of Almighty God [2 Corinthians 5:10]. And there are two parts in Sheol or Hades. Sheol is the exact Hebrew word, Hades is the exact Greek word, they mean exactly the same: when you die you go to that other world. Now it has two parts: one is Paradise. The Lord said to the dying thief, “Today, sēmeron, this day, this day,” emphatically, that’s the first word in the sentence, “This day, sēmeron, this day thou shalt be with Me in Paradise [Luke 23:43]; you are not going to sleep in the grave. This day you go to Paradise,” or you go to torment, or to tartarus. Both words are used in the Greek New Testament. In the sixteenth chapter of Luke [Luke 16:23], the dives—that’s the Latin word for the rich man—“he lifted up his eyes, being in torments,” and in 2 Peter 2:4, the angels that sinned, God cast them down to tartarus, there to be reserved unto judgment.
Now I have to close. What do you do to prepare for death? God said to Hezekiah in the passage you read, “Set your house in order” [Isaiah 38:1]. All right, how shall I prepare? Good works and philanthropies will not prepare me. Always there is that nagging, everlasting, hounding question: did I do good enough? Am I good enough? Anxiety will accompany you every step of the way: you’ll never come to an affirmative conclusion.
All right, human bravery and scorn and braggadocio, will that prepare me? Let me take time to read this. You say to me, when I avow that everyone is afraid of death, you say to me, “Well, I know infidels and sinners, and I have read about them who were not afraid of death, and they just died triumphantly.” Now I want to take one of them. One of the famous philosophers and infidels in English history was named David Hume, a very, very famous writer. He ranted against the cross; he ridiculed Christ, and at the same time confidently claimed that when his time came to die he would face death fearlessly. His housekeeper, who was with him to the end, asserted that, “When his agnostic infidel friends visited him, he’d put on a brave front. But,” she added, “When he was alone, the scene was different. His mental agitation was so great as often to alarm me greatly. He struggled to appear composed, even before me. But to one who had attended his bedside all of his days and nights, who witnessed his disturbed sleep and more disturbed wakings, who frequently heard his breathings of remorse and frightful startings, it was no difficult matter to determine that all was not right in his heart. This continued and increased until he became insensible. I hope I may never be called upon to witness a similar scene.” That brave infidel or agnostic who rants against Christ, when time comes for him to face the almighty judgment of Almighty God, you put it down: he does so with fear and trepidation.
The Christian dies triumphantly. Think of Stephen: when he died, he saw Jesus standing to receive him up there in heaven [Acts 7:55-56]. Think of Paul: “For the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love His appearing” [2 Timothy 4:6-8].
Now I’m not a partner in the theology of this great modern preacher, Helmut Thielicke of Germany, but I sure do concur with him in his faith and hope in the Lord Jesus Christ. He was a great German—he just recently died—he was a great German pastor and theologian. And in the days of the terrible Nazis that destroyed his country, he closed his sermon on an Easter Sunday morning, and he closed it with these words:
When I die, and someone finds my skull, may this skull preach to him as follows: I have no eyes, but I see Him. I have no brain, nor understanding, but I know Him. I have no lips, but I praise Him. I have no tongue, but I sing of Him with all of my heart. I am a hard skull, yet I am softened and melted in His love. I lie without in the churchyard, yet I am within Paradise. All suffering is forgotten because of His great love, when for us He bore His cross and went to Calvary.
That is the Christian faith: dying triumphantly, in God’s will, in God’s time, in God’s grace, in God’s day. It’s a wonderful thing to be a Christian; it just is.
Now in a minute we’re going to lower our kneelers and remember these: one, “Pastor, I’m not well; and in God’s grace and goodness, I want healing, in His will”; second, “I know someone who is not well”—and I’ve asked Brother Ed Poole to name Mary Crowley when he prays for that—“I know someone who is not well and I want to pray for them”; three, “I need God’s encouragement; broken hearted, broken in spirit, I need God’s presence in my life,” and you kneel asking God to be strong in your soul; and last, “I know someone who is not saved, and I want to pray for them.” Now let’s all lower the kneeler, and we’ll take it one at a time. “I want to be strengthened in my soul,” you kneel. Second, “I know someone who is not well, and I want to pray for them.” Third, “I want God in my heart.” Or, fourth, “I know someone who is not saved, and I want to pray for them.”
I. The natural fear of death
A. A mechanism to
B. A terrible visage
(Genesis 23:4, Ecclesiastes 3:19-20)
C. Our mortality
D. Our questions (1
II. The Christian answer
A. We are in God’s hand
B. God’s will is best
1. Hezekiah gets
15 more years
2. The tragic
result (2 Kings 21:1-2, 23:26-27, Jeremiah 15:3-4)
C. God’s “Fear nots”
1. God calls
death an enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26)
in Jesus (Revelation 1:17-18, Isaiah 43:2, Psalm 23, 2 Timothy 1:10, 1
Corinthians 15:55, 57)
described in form of sleep (John 11:11-14, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-15)
of the body (Job 19:25-26
We shall be recognized (Colossians 3:4, Psalm 17:15)
At death we go to Sheol or Hades (Luke 23:43, 2 Peter 2:4)
III. Preparing for death
A. Good works will not
B. Human bravery will
not prepare us