Facing Down the Fear of Death

Augustine Slaps Us Upside the Head

In the early part of the 5th Century, as both the pagans and the Christians of the Roman empire reeled from the calamitous events of 410 AD, Augustine of Hippo picked up his pen. Rome had been sacked by the Visigoths; the empire was impotent in its decadence; and people were (understandably) freaking out. Pagans were blaming the rise of the new Christian faith, and Christians were wondering if God had abandoned them. The world had been turned upside down, and common sense had been shaken loose from its pockets. Thus Augustine, sensing the need to reintroduce right thinking, set about writing his great On the City of God Against the Pagans.

Though our particular circumstances are different, we live in a world equally full of questions, and equally devoid of common sense. We have not been invaded by the Visigoths, but our culture has been sacked by Rousseau, and following him, Darwin, Marx, and Freud. Man’s regard for God-given reason, like Rome, has disintegrated into a heap of smoldering rubble; materialism and evolution have destroyed meaning and purpose; self-control and self-governance are called evil, while personal expression and the intersection of all one’s bitter grievances are elevated as the new standard of righteousness. Perhaps it is no great mystery why an exaggerated fear of death has our world by the short hairs.

It used to be taken for granted that death, like taxes, was inevitable. And as a culture we had largely made some kind of peace with that reality, as the cliche would indicate. That peace, however tentative or uneasy, was mainly due to various degrees of recognition that this life was not all there was. Culturally speaking, belief in heaven or the afterlife, no matter how misunderstood, was widespread. Certainly, what that heaven, or nirvana, or happy place consisted of, was not always guided by a loyalty to the Word of God. Nevertheless, in the main, people knew that this life was not all there was.

But with the dominance of materialist and evolutionary pedagogies in our public schools and public spaces, that assumption has disintegrated. In its place, a “live-for-today-for-today-is-all-you-have” ethos has been cultivated, leading to hedonism and decadence on the one hand, and desperate nihilistic despondence on the other. With nothing but blank annihilation on the other side of a non-existent Jordan, what possible reason could there be to consider other people as more important than ourselves? Or to submit to some divine law? Or to seek meaning and purpose in this life? We live in a world that in no way can relate to Hamlet, when he said,

To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause… (Hamlet III.1)

The only pause death gives now is not the pang of conscience, but rather the fear of losing it all. This fuels the panic porn that has tyrannized our lives in these days of pandemic. This is why people suddenly feel like it is normal, even laudable, to strap seventeen pieces of cloth around their mouth and nose, don a face shield and/or helmet simply to walk, by themselves, to their own mailboxes. They are afraid, deeply afraid, of death. And I cannot help but think that it is because they are convinced that death is what will rob them of everything they hold dear. And in their minds, everything they hold dear is everything that there is or ever will be. Thus, apparently, it is worth the ridiculousness of these “death-defying” measures, if it means they can add one more second to their lives.

For this pattern of thought, Augustine, in City of God, has some choice words:

Of this at least I am certain, that no one has ever died who was not destined to die some time. And of what consequence is it what kind of death puts an end to life, since he who has died once is not forced to go through the same ordeal a second time?”

Everyone only dies once. There is some hidden comfort in that reality, comfort the good bishop wants us to discover. But here is the punchline:

And as in the daily casualties of life every man is, as it were, threatened with numberless deaths, so long as it remains uncertain which of them is his fate, I would ask whether it is not better to suffer one and die, than to live in fear of all? (Book 1, chapter 11, Dodds translation)

At what point can we honestly say that living in fear, the kind of fear that causes us to lose our collective grip on reality, is worse than death itself? If we truly believe that this world is all there is, as long as “what dreams may come” fail to give us any pause whatsoever, then I guess the answer is that any amount of fear, any relinquishment of liberty, any amount of truth, beauty, and goodness lost, is worth it, so long as an ultimately meaningless existence (given the materialistic premise) can be extended one more second. But is that really true? Even on its own terms? Augustine would have us question that conclusion.

Isn’t a “one and done” death better than a lifetime full of joy-sucking fear? Isn’t making peace with an inescapable reality better, in the long run, than a fear that deprives one of everything that makes life worth living in the first place?

Having said all that, pure materialism, just like pure secularism, when it comes to living it out in the real world, remains a myth. No one, no matter what they become convinced of, no matter what the entertainment industry preaches, no matter what kinds of doctrines fester in the ivory towers, no one actually, deep down, believes this world is all there is.

The real fear, behind our fear of death, though ignored and suppressed, has less to do with what we will lose here, and everything to do with where we will stand there. The image of God rests on each of us in such a way that, though it can be denied and distorted, it cannot be dissolved. We are creatures living in a reality made by Someone other than ourselves, with rules that are not up for discussion.

Therefore, no matter how we may kick and scream, no matter how many of our fingers fit in our ears, death is a reality. More than that, it is a door to something far more permanent, far more lasting, than anything we have ever experienced in this short life. And deep down we know it. And it scares the hell out of us. At least, I pray it will.

For when, by the grace of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that Hell-born fear is cast from our souls, and we are able to stand up in hope against the incursions of anxiety and alarm, whether from potential illness or the invasion of foreign nations, the peace of Him who remains a rock in the midst of a storm guards our hearts. And in the lee of His stability, we can take joy, and live.

*** Pictured above: the Church of St. Augustine, Panjim, Goa, India, constructed between 1592-1602 by Augustinian friars; it was abandoned in 1835 due to a series of deadly epidemics.

(MA Humanities) is a poet and translator living in the DFW metroplex with his wife and son. His new blank verse translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, as well as accompanying reader’s guides, are available at dantepoem.com.

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