The Slavery of Death: Part 1, "He who does not fear death is outside the tyranny of the devil."

This was the root post of my "Slavery to Death" series.

With the encouragement of my readers here I've pulled all this material into a book which is now under contract with Cascade publishers. With the book on the way I've pulled the posts from this series out of respect for the publisher. When the book appears I'll pull this post and link directly to the book where my thoughts about the "slavery of death" can be found. Consider this first post in the series a teaser for the forthcoming book.
Awhile back I asked readers of this blog to recommend sources about the relationship between sin and death, with a particular focus on how the Greek Orthodox view the relationship. The idea I'm exploring is a reversal of the typical Protestant formulation:

Sin causing Death
The formulation I'm working with flips the Protestant understanding around:
Death causing Sin
The focal passage I'm working with is Hebrews 2.14-15:
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of 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.
The idea is that we are "held in slavery by our fear of death." Fearing death we act in various ways that are prompted by needs for self-preservation. Life is ruled by a Darwinian survival instinct that makes us selfish, acquisitive, rivalrous and violent. Mortality fears create our sinful actions and attitudes. That is the key theological and psychological insight.

Given this situation, the work of the Christ is to "break the power of him who holds the power of death--that is, the devil." (See also 1 John 3.8: "The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.") Salvation in this view is obtained through Christ's defeat of the the devil who uses our fear of death to hold us captive to sin, using our instinct for self-preservation to tempt us into sinful practices. Christ came to destroy both the devil and death to set us free from our "slavery to the fear of death." And being set free from this fear we are able to escape the bondage of sin. This is the meaning of resurrection.

In my research the book The Ancestral Sin by the Greek Orthodox theologian John Romanides has proved very influential. More on this book to come, but at the end of the book Romanides quotes from a sermon from St. John Chrysostom that nicely articulates the view I'm working with:
[H]e who fears death is a slave and subjects himself to everything in order to avoid dying...[But] he who does not fear death is outside the tyranny of the devil. For indeed 'man would give skin for skin, and all things for [the sake of] his life,' [Job 2.4] and if a man should decide to disregard this, whose slave is he then? He fears no one, is in terror of no one, is higher than everyone, and is freer than everyone. For he who disregards his own life disregards more so all other things. And when the devil finds such a soul, he can accomplish in it none of his works. Tell me, though, what can he threaten? The loss of money or honor? Or exile from one's country? For these are small things to him 'who counteth not even his life dear,' says blessed Paul [Acts 20.24].

Do you see that in casting out the tyranny of death, He has dissolved the strength of the devil?

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34 thoughts on “The Slavery of Death: Part 1, "He who does not fear death is outside the tyranny of the devil."”

  1. This theme of death=slavery is very strong in the early Syriac tradition as well. Chrysostom's contemporary, Ephrem the Syrian, provides an extensive comparison that likens Egypt to Sheol with an "exodus" happening from both. Moreover, each exodus entails the defeat of a power: Pharaoh and Satan/Death-personified.

  2. Hmm ... very interesting proposition. I have a couple of initial thoughts that perhaps you will comment on:

    1) According to the Genesis story, sin preceded death temporally. At least, it preceded physical death. Can the idea of "death" be extended to loss of self, loss of power, loss of significance? Michael Mahoney talks about "core ordering processes" that resist change (Human Change Processes, 1991). The core processes are: experience of reality (order), self (identity), value (valence) and power (control). We resist change because systemic integrity is of central importance to living things. So, is the loss of systemic integrity (or to put another way, self-annihilation) equivalent to physical death to us? Or would you argue that fear of physical death underlies this also? 

    2) How would the way we live our lives be affected if there were no physical death? Or, if at the very least, we could expect a lifespan 10 or 20 times what it is now? Would we be better people? Or worse?

    3) In either the appendix to the LOTR or in the Silmarillion, Tolkien writes that "death is the gift of the One to men," that they might leave the confines of the world and not be bound to it. I find this perspective very compelling. 

  3. This is (one of the many reasons) why I love this blog!  I know I must have read Heb. 2:15 many times before, but I don't seem to have ever actually READ it before.  I had to look it up to make sure you weren't using some dubious translation (as if you would!).  After your initial call for material, I have to confess I didn't have a clue what you were on about - death causing sin?!?  Now I can't wait for the rest of the posts and the book that follows.  Best wishes for your journey.

  4. Excellent questions which I'll be getting to. In anticipation of that discussion, a taste:

    Yes, in Genesis a primal sin separates us from the Tree of Life. In that primal event sin precedes death. And in the NT you see that causal arrangement echoed: "The wages of sin is death." But what subsequent humanity inherits from the Original Pair isn't sin but the mortal condition. We have been separated from the source of life. Thus, our sin is more akin to Cain's murder than the Fall from Eden. For us we see the reversed causality also echoed in the NT: "the sing of death is sin."

    In short, the causal associations are complex and cross-directional. So I'm not saying that Protestant formulation is false.  It is, rather, unbalanced and incomplete. By focusing on the reverse direction we open up a whole realm of biblical and theological insight that most Protestant Christians have completely ignored. More, the unbalanced (read: less than biblical) Protestant perspective has lead to some pernicious outcomes.

  5. As a father of three young children, I struggle at times, deeply, with a fear of death- not for myself but for them. I suppose this fear is a universal emotion, but am curious of the implications from your working theory.
    I have noticed seasons of distance to God to coincide with surges of the above stated fear. Have I hijacked your theory or do you see a connection? I would be ecstatic for you to draw some conclusions and head that way some. Like Andrew, Heb 2 just jumped off of the page.

  6. I can identify. My death anxiety shot way up when I became a father, and it hasn't gone down yet.
    And yes, my hope is to try to connect all this theology to our lived experiences with death anxiety, fusing the theological with the psychological.

  7. What you say makes a lot of sense. But where do suicide bombers fit in to this idea - their apparent lack of fear of death seems to lead them on to greater rather than less sin. 

  8. This reminds me of an interesting stage play I stumbled across while preparing to preach on the raising of Lazarus called 'Lazarus Laughed'. You may be familiar with it, but if not, the premise is that upon being raised by Jesus Lazarus laughs and when pressed by the crowd as to why he responds: "There is only life! I heard the heart of Jesus
    laughing in my heart; "There is Eternal Life in No," it said,
    "and there is the same Eternal Life in Yes! Death is the fear
    between!" And my heart reborn to love of life cried "Yes!" and I
    laughed in the laughter of God!"

    While I am a little theologically suspicious given that Jesus dies a real death and is raised (rather than conquers death by avoiding it), I find this notion of eternal life circumventing our fear of death quite compelling. I wonder if it speaks to your musings Richard, and what your response to this whimsical play might be?

  9. Very interesting! It give richer meaning to Jesus' words "For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it."

  10. Yes, different sorts of marytrological heroics will bear a surface resemblance. What we are talking about is the Christian non-violent heroism where "perfect love casts out fear."

  11. So are you saying that what Jesus has done to overcome our fear of death goes beyond simply promising heaven/paradise after death? I'm interested in this topic because I've come to the conclusion that the fear of death is more far-reaching than just the fear of physical death. Our fear of death includes social death (ostracism, being forgotten etc), incapacity and impotence (in the widest sense) and a host of other aspects of death already present in life. The poverty and exile mentioned by John Chrysostom are not less to be feared than death, but aspects of death itself. Self-preservation goes beyond merely preserving our skin. 

  12. Totally agree. Have you read Ernest Becker's The Denial of Death? His argument is that death is a part of just about everything in human psychology and culture. The very foundations of our personality are built upon death-denying defense mechanisms. And that is where my argument is going: How our slavery to the fear of death affects everything around us and inside us.

  13. I'd not heard of the play, but I'll definitely check it out.

    I think the analysis I'm developing could fit comfortably with a variety of metaphysical stances about death and life after death. I think it boils down to a question Tony Campolo asks, “Even if there were no heaven and there were no hell, would you still follow Jesus?" I hope my analysis would answer that question in the affirmative.

  14. Thanks Jamey. I've talked briefly with Jeff Childers about the Syriac tradition on this subject. I'm slowly discovering the richness of the Eastern Christian traditions. 

  15. I live in Japan, and I'm reminded of one coastal town that got completely demolished (not a building left standing) in the recent tsunami. A young, 24-year-old town hall employee headed to the low-lying areas when the tsunami alert came in, and spent the last hour of his life sounding the alarm and making sure as many people as possible fled to higher ground. He never made it himself.

    Whatever the opposite of sin is, I think it's that. Self-sacrifice that defies the fear of death.

  16. beautiful paul! 
    That is he opposite of sin, serving others as a priority over one's own desires. Such a difficult thing... such a fearful thing, yet only possible without fear.

  17. I agree. A beautiful story. And yes Paul, I agree, whatever the opposite of sin is, it's that.

    "There is no greater love than to lay down one's life for one's friends."

  18. When I think about turning things around, or just anything in the Eastern Tradition, it always struck me that you had to go back to the Desert Fathers.

    Something like this: Anthony said, "Our life and our death is with our
    neighbor. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but
    if we scandalize our brother, we have sinned against Christ."

    While the asceticism could be a denial of value of the body, the sayings are often deeper than that.  Holiness begins with holding death lightly.

  19. I revisited David Foster Wallace's "This Is Water" recently (an essay I recall you writing about some time ago), and I think a parallel can be drawn between your thoughts here and his essay. I agree that "life is ruled by a Darwinian survival instinct that makes us selfish, acquisitive, rivalrous and violent." Because that's our "default setting" as Wallace says, it takes discipline to be aware of that selfishness and to choose to think otherwise. But to do so, he writes, is freedom: "But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind
    that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the
    great outside world of wanting and achieving.... The really important
    kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and
    being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them
    over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day."

    Though he doesn't explicitly address death-anxiety in the essay (not exactly the mood one usually goes for in a commencement speech), the freedom from that "default setting" of self-seeking and self-preservation is a freedom from the fear of death.

  20. I'm replying to myself because I inadvertently posted without finishing my thought. Let me be the third person to say that Paul's story is a stirring example of self-sacrifice.

    There's a chance that any of us could find ourselves in a life or death situation, but it's a rather small chance unless our job routinely puts us in such circumstances (fire fighter, police officer, etc.). It's our quotidian routines that require us to choose ourselves or others. Freedom in Christ, I think, entails our "default setting" transforming to selflessness.

  21. I certainly struggle with fear of death for my children.  And I think I would be much quicker to cast off pacifist principles to protect them than I would be to protect myself.

    This issue, along with the discussion about self-sacrifice, reminds me of something my mother always used to say about sacrificial love.  She insisted that she didn't want my father to give his life for her because she didn't want to live without him.  This always makes me think twice about whether I would give up my life for a family member.  I think I would be more likely to give up my life for non-family members (a la the Japanese tsunami story), although I am hard-pressed to explain why.  (Perhaps Dr. Beck's old post on family values is to blame...)

  22. This is a wonderful series Richard. Thanks. I've been interested in the direction of causality you talk about for some time now. Today however, I have to preach on Matthew 14: 22-33 esp 'Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid". Heb 2 will make a great second text. I will follow your progress with interest

  23. Are we right to interpret Genesis so literally (ie in terms of the origin of physical death) when in fact the protagonists do not die (physically) but are cast out of the garden (separated in some sense from God's purpose)? Also the wages of sin are death, but again, is Paul talking about extrinsic consequences or intrinsic?

  24. I am, hopefully, going to get into a bit about how the Orthodox view the first three chapters of Genesis. The main difference between the Orthodox and the Latin/Western view inherited from Augustine is that the Orthodox don't think we inherit guilt or a corrupted soul from the Primal Pair. Rather, what we inherent are the consequences of their Primal Sin, the main one being our mortal condition. And in our mortal condition, being prone to death, we are easy pickings for Satan. Hence the logic of Hebrews 2: Satan holds "the power of death" and keeps us in "slavery" because of our "fear of death." Again, note the reversal: The mortal condition--death--makes us prone to sin.

    Now, do we have to read Genesis literally to get to this point? We could, but we don't have to. I think, as I'll try to show later in this series, that it's an empirical fact that our mortality/death fears lead us into sinful practices. Just as Hebrews 2 describes. Literal Eden or not.

  25. While I would agree that "He who does not fear death is outside the tyranny of the devil" and that the "Christus Victor" view has a legitimate place as a part of Christ's mission to save mankind, reversing "sin causes death" into "death causes sin" seems contrary to the bulk of Biblical teaching. While I also agree that we do not have to read Genesis' opening chapters literally, the timeline they present is that disobedience to God (sin ) led to mortality, death, not the other way around. Satan did not tempt Eve by scaring her with thoughts of her mortality but by appealing to her pride, offerring her equality with God in knowledge not lifespan. It was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they were forbidden to partake of, not the tree of Life. Up until their disobedience they were apparently free to eat of the tree of life, so how could they be scared of death ? Basing your viewpoint almost entirely on two verses in Hebrews seems shaky to say the least.

       While you also make a valid point that "fearing death we act in various ways that are prompted by needs for self preservation" and this can obviously lead to sinful actions, it should be equally obvious to anyone with average intelligence that these actions only delay the inevitable end of all flesh, death. If you are an aetheist or someone who believes there is nothing more than this earthly life then prolonging this life by any means would seem logical, but how does this explain sin by those who believe in God and that man is more than flesh and blood ? Anyone who believes in an eternal spiritual aspect in man who would  act sinfully solely out of fear of mortality would be acting at cross purposes to their own best interests (which admittedly man does constantly) since this is taught (Biblically) to result in the very thing, death, they are seeking to avoid. I'm speaking of "the second death" , separation from God, not fleshly death, which is unavoidable to all.

  26. Let's not forget that the only reason the devil has any power is because God allows him to.

  27. I just read this blog for the first time this morning and am at a loss to describe how this has hit me, for it speaks in unison with my own heart. For many years now I have felt that the reason for Christ's death and resurrection was to show us that He has defeated death, and that we should then not fear it. If we do believe this we will have peace now. If we don't, we will still live in fear... but the fact remains that death has been defeated, regardless of whether we believe it yet or not. Our belief only affects our peace now (our entrance into the kingdom now), not our eternal destiny as "Christianity" would have it. Contrary to what orthodox Christianity teaches - that Christ came to save us from God's wrath (hell) - this view of the defeat of death has no bearing on our eternities (as in, "if you believe, you will have eternal life") but in entering the kingdom NOW... the Kingdom of God in which we have peace in His promise. And the promise is that death HAS been defeated, which completely eliminates any thought that God will abandon us to eternal death (hell), but has instead ensured us that He has not only overcome death, but the sin (our "selfish, acquisitive, rivalrous and violent" actions) that leads to it and results from it.

    It also directly relates to John 3:16, which orthodox Christians use as a proof text for their "believe or go to hell" doctrine:

    "...that whosoever believes in Him, will not perish, but have eternal life."

    The greek word (apollumi), misunderstood here to mean "eternal death" ("perish"), is the same word properly translated as "lost" elsewhere in scripture - as in "Jesus came to seek and save the lost." And the greek word (aionios) rendered here as "eternal" is the adverb of aion, which is always translated (properly, I would add) as "age."

    With those corrections in place, John 3:16 then becomes:

    "... that whosoever believes in Him (what He has done - defeated death), will not remain in that state of lostness (a state marked by the fear of death), but have life of the age (real LIFE - peace and contentment now)."

    .. and it continues in a new understanding of verse 18:

    If we don't believe in Him, we are still "condemned" - living in fear - living under the fear of death (and the fear that our sins have eternally separated us from God). We are NOT condemned to eternal death.

    Just my thoughts. Thanks for yours Richard.

  28. Bruce, read on, my friend. There's a particular refrain in chapter 5 that has relevance to your observation that the primordial pair do not die physically.

  29. Interesting thoughts. But I think what you mean (at least given your citation of Hebrews) is that the fear of death causes sin not that death itself causes sin, right? If so, you're not really reversing the typical Protestant formulation at all.

  30. This entire project conformed to everything I've experienced in the past 4 month. Thank you for this, Richard. This framework breathes a whole new life into scripture, and was probably an answer to prayer.

  31. This was incredible to read. I think it will take me a while to truly understand it all and make sense of it all, but it is what my heart has been yearning to hear for a while now. I actually wrote a short prose piece 2 days ago that lamented my enslavement to a whole host of things; fear, lust, insecurity and now I can see with much clarity that the root cause is my fear of death! Wow. Truly eye-opening and makes sense Jesus words where before they simply confounded me.

  32. I plan to have the final draft to them by the end of November. I'm waiting to hear back about their publication timeline once I submit the draft. When I get that info I'll give everyone a head's up.

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