The Psychology of Christianity: Part 11, "On the Third Day He Rose Again."

The last of the Christological doctrines I discussed in my chapter on the psychological experience of Christianity was the resurrection: "On the third day he rose again." The resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday is also associated with other confessions in the Apostles' Creed, namely the belief in “the Resurrection of the Body, and the Life Everlasting,” the notion that the Christian believer will share in the resurrection of Jesus.

Obviously, in a chapter on psychology I couldn't get into the historicity or metaphysics of any of this. That is, I didn't speculate on if Jesus' physical body actually walked out of the tomb on Easter Sunday. Nor did I speculate on life after death for Christian believers (or anyone else for that matter). My focus was simply upon the psychological experience associated with these beliefs. What is it like to believe in the resurrection?

One answer can be found in the bible. Consider Hebrews 2.14-15:

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too [Jesus] shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy 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.
What we see in this passage is that the resurrection has an immediate psychological impact upon believers. That is, Christians, given the work of Christ, have been set free from slavery to the fear of death.

If this is true there is a real power to be experienced. Many people are psychologically crippled by a fear of death. And this isn't necessarily a conscious battle. As Ernest Becker argued in his book The Denial of Death, much of our lives are actively involved in repressing our existential anxieties, usually via our efforts to be "significant" or to "make a difference." According to Becker, most of our self-esteem projects are simply elaborate death repression mechanisms. We want to be "noticed" by a cosmos that seems largely indifferent to our birth, life and eventual death. So we fight to be noticed by the cosmos. "Hey Cosmos, look at me! I'm smart, talented, unique, special and have achieved a lot in life! For example, look how many hits my blog has!"

In short, our slavery to the fear of death is insidious and often outside of our awareness. So it would be liberating to step out of this trap, to face life in an existentially open and honest manner, to be set free from the slavery to the fear of death. Much of our emotional energy, freed from maintaining our death-denying self-esteem projects, would become available for more life-affirming and other-affirming activity. I could give up my neurotic quest to become "significant" or my pretending I could live forever (via things like working out, modern medicine, cosmetic surgery, diets, or cryogenics) and become open to this moment and the person right in front of me. For God's sake, stop going to the gym and start drinking whole milk. You're missing your life.

So what does the research say, are Christians free from the fear of death? A lot of research has been done on the relationship between religiosity and death anxiety. Summarizing this massive literature the psychologists Ralph Hood, Peter Hill, and Bernard Spilka conclude:
Though there is some disagreement in the rather large number of studies in this area, the dominant finding is that religion and spirituality can counter death anxiety.
Supporting this conclusion is the observation that religious faith is associated with greater emotional well-being among older adults who have been hospitalized. Religious faith has also been found to be important amongst those coping with the death of a loved one. Finally, it also seems relevant here to note that it has been consistently observed that religion makes people happier.

In short, it seems that the Christian belief in the resurrection aids in death transcendence, setting the Christian “free from the fear of death.”

Or does it?

Ever since Freud’s The Future of an Illusion, existential psychologists have wondered if what we take to be Christian death transcendence might actually be symptomatic of existential repression, what Ernest Becker called “the denial of death.” Recent work in what is known as Terror Management Theory (TMT) has offered some support for this assessment. Specifically, when faced with a death prime, Christian participants have tended to denigrate outgroup members. This reactivity in the face of a death is symptomatic of what TMT researchers call “worldview defense," and it suggests that Christian beliefs in the afterlife can be deployed in a defensive manner as a form of death repression (i.e., a fear induced psychic avoidance) rather than as a means toward death transcendence. In short, the absence of death anxiety in Christians might be due to neurotic denial rather than a symptom of a liberative death transcendence. As they say, there are no atheists in foxholes. One might clutch at faith in an attempt to avoid the crushing fear of death. If so, we have something pretty ironic on our hands: A belief in the afterlife that is a symptom of death anxiety. Faith, in this case, rather than liberating us per Hebrews 2.15, is still very much a slave to the fear of death.

Such a possibility places us in quite a pickle. How are we to know when the belief in the afterlife is being deployed as a form of denial, fantasy, repression, and avoidance? And from a counseling and pastoral perspective, does deployment of this sort make any difference in the face of coping with death or grief? And, finally, how might belief in the afterlife be involved (if at all) in an existentially honest experience of death transcendence? In light of Freud's criticism, is the experience of Hebrews 2.15 even possible?

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9 thoughts on “The Psychology of Christianity: Part 11, "On the Third Day He Rose Again."”

  1. Good set of questions. It is next to impossible to look at one's own fears. The same experience as is recorded in Hebrews is of course recorded in the psalms - which the letter to the Hebrews use as the source of the dialogue between the Father and the Son. So pace those who only know the NT, the experience is not new. Jesus himself could not have learned ti without the OT as input. And he was angry, he wept, and he was distressed at death. But he took the promise in the psalms that he would not be left 'to see corruption'.

  2. I'd offer another line of inquiry that would appear to have psychological bearings:

    To what extent is the ostensible Christian serenity about death grounded in, or even correlated with, a measurable conviction about Jesus' own bodily resurrection? That is, how pervasive among self-described Christians is the conviction that what Wright calls "life after life after death" has in fact been achieved in at least one notable case, thereby disproving the assertion that all bodily death is inexorably final, and what role does that conviction play in the emergence of Christian attitudes toward death?


  3. Besides reassurances from various Holy books of various religions, what demonstrable truth exists about survival of consciousness after death? Yes sure, believing in a Christian, Muslim, Hindu etc. Heaven and Hell helps people. it is not fun to be an agnostic as I am. Without a belief in an afterlife, life seems futile, except to hardcore atheists. Why religions exist? Why they have in common a belief in an afterlife? Is religion a genetic predisposition. Would other intelligent life forms in the Universe have the same religious tendency?

  4. I don't know if this helps - but here goes. Afterlife is not something that is in the creeds. They read as parts of the statement of belief: I believe the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. I do not think we have an adequate image of time when we think of it as an unending linear thing like a string with no terminus. In the last century and continuing into this one, time seems to have had a beginning and to have a limited speed. Time, gravity, and entanglement are not understood - and probably like an Escher there is a limitation to the possibility of self-reference - and the inside and outside are easily confused. From certain points of view (allowing for a moment the analogy of a point in space-time) there is death, discontinuance, demolition, and disintegration. What does faith do? It engages the unknown without preconception. I tries a little madness as David did in the context of Psalm 34 when he wanted to escape from Abimelech - a name which means my father is king. David pretended to be mad. The same word is used in verse 9 (Hebrew numbering) and it means 'taste'. Faith is that tasting the result of which - that YHWH is good - cannot be proven from the point of view of space time. Things seem anything but good. Nonetheless that poem - a letter game - plays with perception - David escapes from the creed - represented by 'My Father I King' with a little madness - and he invites us with the same word to trust the invisible. The result is to be known by the one who engages. In a similar manner - though everlasting can be seen as a long piece of string, the word 'eternal' as used in John's gospel has a truer ring for me - there is more presence to the taste than duration. It is knowledge - not so much my knowledge of the hidden one, as that one's knowledge of me - and it is not engaged with cheaply. A terrifying cost is required. So David also says in the same psalm under the Lamed
    Listen to me, children, come
    I will teach you the fear of יְהוָה
    The cost - its a long story - and there are a lot of distractions, but it does have content information if you like - negative entropy - and it is, you may say - satisfactory.

  5. I have an ongoing battle with fear of death which likely began when my dad died of cancer when I was 8. For me, his death made life unsafe and unpredictable, even with God in control. When I got older and understood the Bible more I saw God actually called us to die, to embrace pain and suffering. The doctrine of hell added to death anxiety as it seemed not just trusting in Jesus but a certain specific constant of trusting in Jesus was needed for assurance, and that assurance was not guaranteed. For me now, the actual process of dying-brain and heart stopping, breathing ended, is still fear-inducing. The hope of resurrection helps to make the death event understandable and a lil less fearful as ultimately i will be given a new body for eternity with God.

  6. I've wondered about the possibility of doing a terror management study involving repeated mortality salience primes. Might there be a pattern of diminishing returns when it comes to the effectiveness of the death reminders?

    There are a couple of reasons why I ask this. First, I'm thinking about the Buddhist practice of death meditation, as well as the famous story of the samurai who (because he knew that he wasn't a very good swordsman) spent so much time thinking about how he would die in battle that he eventually stopped being afraid of it.

    Second, I wonder how often Christians actively contemplate their own death. Here's just one example: The hymn "My Jesus, I Love Thee" has four verses, describing the love of the believer toward Jesus in all kinds of circumstances. However, I have so often been in church services in which the third verse is skipped entirely. The third verse goes, "I love thee in life, I will love thee in death, and praise thee as long as thou lendest me breath, and say when the death-dew lies cold on my brow: If ever I loved thee, my Jesus 'tis now." Why skip straight to the fourth verse, which talks about heavenly glory, unless it is due to uncomfortableness over thinking about one's death?

    If a TMT study can demonstrate that repeatedly thinking about one's mortality results in a reduction in worldview defense, it might lend support to the idea that Hebrews 2:15 is theoretically possible (though it might take some time and effort).

  7. Hi I am from Australia.

    Please find a completely different Illuminated Understanding of the life and spirit-breathing Spiritual Way of Life taught and demonstrated by Saint Jesus of Galilee while he was alive.

    And of the origins of the Bible as a political document, the purpose of which was to consolidate the power and privileges of the church "fathers".

    Plus the Real Truth About Death

  8. What I find interesting is that resurrection (life after death) was a fairly recent idea in Jesus' day; perhaps only 100-200 years old. In fact the Sadducees (deniers) and the Pharisees (believers) were still debating whether there was a resurrection at all. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul actually has to make the case for life after death and say that faith in Jesus is for more than this life only (vs. 19). This indicates to me that the original meaning of Jesus' resurrection had little or nothing to do with life after death for everyone else.

    I know that doesn't change how faith in life after death affects people today. But the terror that comes when hell is an eternal possibility (as described in Dante's Inferno) is somewhat different than the fear or reverence (phobos in the Greek) of Hades which is simply the "place" where the dead go.

  9. The Good News did not and does not succeed because of miracles. The initial success of the Good News was in how it demonstrated that anyone – even someone oppressed into complete oblivion by an empire - could live a resurrected and transformed life even in a world where death, cruelty, corruption, crime, war, systemic injustice, slavery, and extreme poverty were so rampant as to be the norm. Their success in living a resurrected and transformed life even in such a world is completely relevant to our time and for all time. The Good News is that a life of resurrection and transformation does not have to be preceded by death. The Good News is that the kingdom of God is not a future event or a distant place or a strictly post-mortal existence. An “anticipated” kingdom of God is meaningless and useless. The Good News is that the kingdom of God has arrived, it is here and it is now and it is available to anyone – without exception and without qualification and without sacrifice.

    (excerpted from "RECLAIMING the GOOD NEWS" by Doug Sloan)

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