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?