The Slavery of Death: Q&A

Some readers have asked for a Q&A regarding my recent book The Slavery of Death. So lets do this thing!

In The Slavery of Death I try to use psychology to describe what Hebrews 2.14-15 means when it says we have been "enslaved, all our lives, to the fear of death" and why this slavery to the fear of death is described as "the power of the devil." And in describing all this I lean upon the notion from Orthodox theology that death, rather than sin, is the primary human predicament.

In the final part of the book I then move to describe how we might become emancipated from our fear of death to create the capacity for love. For love, according to 1 John, is how we know that we have "moved from death to life." Love is the experience of resurrection here and now, the life of Jesus manifest in our own lives. 

As I describe it, our emancipation from our slavery to the fear of death is achieved, first of all, by a prior experience of death. We overcome death by dying. We take up our cross to deny ourselves and die "in Christ." I call this a martyrological identity. In the book I describe this martyrological identity, this meeting death with death, as fundamentally the renunciation of the cultural hero-system, the cultural self-esteem project. By renouncing the idolatrous ways our culture defines worth and significance we extract ourselves from the power of death and the devil as these idolatrous pursuits are, deep down, enslaved to the fear of death.

From there, after the dying involved in renouncing all the death-driven and idolatrous ways we've constructed our identities, we then receive our identities as an experience of grace. I call this, borrowing a term from David Kelsey, an eccentric identity, an identity that isn't owned as a possession but is always and continually received as a gift. This experience of gift lessens our anxious grip on life, on our very selves. In sum, the degree to which this experience of grace and gift saturates our lives is the degree to which "perfect love has cast out fear."

Abstractly, these are the processes, the pincer movements of the martyrological (death) and eccentric (resurrection) identities, that create the capacity to love others fully and sacrificially. Regarding concrete practices that pull us deeper into these identities I describe, for the eccentric identity, the practices of doxological gratitude (again borrowing from David Kelsey). And for the cultivation of the martyrological identity I talk about the small, daily acts of asceticism of the "little way" of Thérèse of Lisieux. It is the assessment of Arthur McGill that "the way of Jesus is the way of self-expenditure." That's a scary prospect, but the little way helps ease us into a life lived for others.

Okay, that's a snapshot of the book. Parts 1 and 2 articulate our fundamental human predicament, our slavery to the fear of death. And Part 3 articulates an answer to that predicament, how perfect love can come to cast out fear so that we might move from death to life.

Time for Q&A. If you've read the book and have any questions you'd like to ask me please post them in the comments. If you've not read the book something in my summary above might have sparked a question. Feel free to leave your questions as well.

I'll let these questions gather over the week and then respond in a post in a week or so. (I doubt I'll be inundated with questions, but if there are a lot I might have to be selective in responding.) 

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27 thoughts on “The Slavery of Death: Q&A”

  1. I haven't read the book yet but am a regular reader of the blog. Great stuff! Anyways, a few questions: Do you think one is either emancipated or not emancipated from the fear of death (an either/or)? Or is the fear of death more like a continuum where we can eventually become less and less fearful but not necessarily escape the fear all together? Do you think certain people are more prone than others to the fear of death based on their personality and psychology? Do you fear death? Thanks!

  2. I'm just starting the book, having just read through the chapter explaing "ancestral sin" in contrast to "original sin." My question right off the bat is what is your definition of "sin." Just the word by itself. Thanks, Dr. Beck!

  3. Richard,

    I have heard it here before and I think I see why, but I admit I’m always a little taken aback by the way sin and death are juxtaposed. I’m just curious why we today so badly want to reframe the human predicament—away from sin and toward a fear of death. Is it that we so confuse what we are, our intrinsic nature and perhaps the cause for such a state? So it seems like there is a tendency in us to squirm out of some old cliché of yesteryears non-Catholic trope of ‘man is sin’. And yet, I don’t think any version of Christianity every really meant to say that. So, we shadowbox with caricatures and resituate our language away from ‘being’ to that of causes. I’m not sin—I am not a sinner—I’m something else but have been caused to be someone who sins. (does this word ‘sin’ even make sense anymore?). That cause is not in me, it from somewhere else. That cause has nothing to do with mankind, but it’s simply a fear, a fear of death.

    Richard, I think sin and death are obviously intertwined in scripture. I get that pointing a finger down from a pulpit into the eyes of a child saying ‘sinner’ is somehow counterproductive. But I wonder how this psychological move is any better. It instead feels like a selfish desire to wipe some stain off, to find some spark of light intrinsic to who we are. In the end, it runs the real risk of finding the source of light and hope somewhere other than back to its true source. Does it not? Can’t I die to self and renounce culture without any reference to Christ or Church?

    I think I find this language unfortunate, not because it’s trying to correct other bad theologies—that can only be a good thing—No, I think it bothers me because it stills seems very individualistic. The old theology says ‘I’m a sinner’ ‘I’m a saint’ or some strange mixture of the two. The contemporary view (cause I think you are just articulating contemporary sentiment from the perspective of your field) wants to make us more victims of extrinsic forces. But both stories seem to me to lack a corporate story of God and mankind.

    What if our recognition of our fear of death and our subsequent movements towards light and love and sacrifice are really our sliest expression of our fear of death?

    Perhaps I’m wrong, but I think these thoughts hinge on a false antithesis often brought up between East and West anthropology/harmatology, that, in my view, tends to hide modern notions of the self while making caricatures of views of sin and man after men like Augustine:

  4. I just finished the first reading and am about to start my second deep dive - but the question the hovers in my mind is wha prevents us from seeing the entire Christian framework, or religion broadly, as just another hero system?

    I was also interested in the discussion of institutions and the hero systems they create/represent. In my business I work with a lot of high level executives in many different fields. One thing I notice is that they work in a completely different. Hero system than what they project to their rank and file. Loyalty, for instance, is something that is drilled into rank and file, but the top of organizations rarely buy into that paradigm. If they are offered a better opportunity they take it, or are only prevented doing so by golden handcuffs. Is this typical? I think of how religious hierarchies tend to work with different rules from the general body.

  5. Yes, it is interesting that the first chapter of the book, on Ancestral Sin, is heavily dependent on the controversial views of Fr. Romanides. Many, even within the Orthodox community, take issue with Romanides antagonistic views of western Christianity.

  6. How does slavery to the fear of death work with suicide ... Was someone who committed suicide 'enslaved to the fear of death'?

  7. I haven't done a lot of reading on the Christus Victor theory of atonement outside of what you've articulated in your book. My question is: What's the causal connection between Jesus' life/death/resurrection and my own emancipation from the fear of death. I admit that I am skeptical of theories of atonement that are primarily metaphysical. In other words, I don't find it very helpful to talk about Jesus' death as taking care of some magical transaction that needed to take place between God and humanity up in the sky. For this reason I'm drawn to articulations of atonement that are more concrete like Girard's Scapegoat theory and Moral Examplar. In these two articulations I can see a connection between what Jesus did and my own (process of) emancipation from sin and death. Where would you place Christus Victor on this spectrum of metaphysical/concrete? Is this a helpful spectrum to begin with? It seems that in your book you talk about Christus Victor as a set of symbols that narrates Christ's freeing us from the power of death. However, I'm having trouble seeing the causal connection between what Jesus did and our own freedom from the fear of death.

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading the book. Thanks for what you do Dr. Beck!

  8. I am reading Shane Claiborne's 'Irresistible Revolution' and this paragraph reminded me of your work:

    “Khalighat is one of the places that showed me resurrection, that life is more powerful than death, that light can pierce darkness. Those dying people were some of the most vibrant people I had ever met…I could truly say, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:55). Death was “swallowed up” (v. 54) by the laughter of the dying and the singing of the destitute. I knew what Jesus meant when he told Peter that the “gates of hell would not prevail” against the church, as I was finally seeing a church that was storming the gates of hell itself to save people from its horrors."

  9. P Fitch,
    I'm trying to extract concrete questions to answer when I respond. Do you think these capture your concerns:

    1. Is the pitting against of the Orthodox notion of Ancestral Sin against the Western notion of Original Sin a false dichotomy?

    2. Is the focus on extrinsic factors (like death anxiety) as the cause of sin somehow downplaying the centrality of sin in our encounter with God? Phrased another way, is a focus on extrinsic causes of sin somehow trying to preserve a vision of human virtue and goodness in the face of God's holiness and judgment?

  10. Bought it and am a few chapters in right now. The Orthodox concept of "Ancestral sin" is one that is completely new to me coming from a Presybeterian background. (Though not in any way a calvinist now) ... Is there a good resource for more detail on understanding "Anscestral sin" how that doctrine originated and contrasting it to "Original Sin" beyond the level you did in chapter 1?

  11. Romanides is not as "contraversial" for Orthodox as Teilhard de Chardin is for Catholics... His tone could be improved, for sure, but the Orthodox notion of ancestral sin can be found in Athanasius and the Cappadocians. It didn't spring forth fully formed from Romanides' brain.


  12. Garret, this 10 minutes with Sr Dr Vassa Lerin may help you make the connection

    Richard can answer for his book.


  13. Richard, the book is still on my "to read" list, and I hope to pitch it to my book group. In reading your summary, though, I'm surprised that you didn't - at least in the summary - make the connection between the "prior experience of death" and Baptism, at least as the beginning of the martyric way, though it is actually much more. I hope you didn't miss that about Orthodox theology.

    Also, do listen to Sr Vassa, link above.

    Blessed Holy Week and Easter to you & family.


  14. Garret, I replied previously but I think Disqus did not like that I inserted a YouTube link. I'll try again this way.

    I think what's missing for you is the Incarnation and its meaning. Sr Dr Vassa Lerin explains this very well in less than 10 minutes. The YouTube channel is "Coffee with Sister Vassa" and the episode is "week 4 of Lent," in which she discusses the meaning of the Cross in the Orthodox Church. I hope you will listen to it.


  15. I would rephrase the first question as: Is the contrast between Orthodox and western notions of sin perhaps overdrawn here, such that what we’re really doing is groping for a new way to frame the story such that we can come out from under the shadow of tired and old formulations of evangelical piety? (i.e., people feel burdened by guilt (in the hands of an angry God) and without some new vision for who God is (and who man is) they’d most likely rather walk away from it all than continue with what was)

    Now this seems fine to me, except I think we run the real risk of losing something if we've unfairly represented it. Is it not still possible that there is something of value in the idea of Original Sin?

    And the second question I’d rephrase as: does focusing on the extrinsic nature of sin (death is the cause/sin the effect) dissuade us from the universal, egalitarian truth at the root of Original sin: that sin is not only outside of us but always runs right through all of us?

  16. I think the point being made above by Brad is valid. We’re dealing here with a sharp distinction between the east and west and their respective understandings of man and sin. It is relevant to note that Richard’s book relies heavily on Romanides who holds a debated position on this very score. The claim that some have had with Romanides is that he overemphasizes the differences between ancestral and original sin. I think many today pick up on these caricature as a way of coping with worn out and misused theologies rife in evangelical circles (and beyond). People are burdened by the old ‘sick-soul’ theologies and applaud the dawn of these ‘healthy-minded’ articulations.

    But in some ways it just seems like semantics. Lay down a simple proposition that say the Orthodox believe on this issue and then ask yourself ‘is this not said as well in the west?’ Was creation made good? Was there a fall with Adam such that our story, our situation has been changed? Is the wages of sin death? Does death beget sin? Is not death/corruption not a circle, a cycle? Is not God working to save his creation? Does he not invite us to join in on this effort? Where is the difference?

    I suppose while I find the idea of a fear of death an interesting avenue in why we sin, I’m left unconvinced that it explains the plight of man our human condition.

  17. Just a quick note to say that I could cut out all of the Ancestral Sin and Romanides material and the argument of the book wouldn't be affected. It'd be a whole lot more psychological in content, but the psychological account at the heart of the book doesn't rely on Orthodox theology. All I note are parallels between a certain theological account (and it really doesn't matter to me if it's controversial or not) and a picture of human moral failure painted by existential psychology.

    Also, can I ask some questions: How do you define Original Sin? What is it exactly, psychologically speaking? If I saw Original Sin in a human person what does it look like? In a baby? In an adult? How is it transmitted (passed on) from parent to child?

    Because Original Sin would have to be more than selfishness, being incurvatus in se or desiring self-determination as all that is exactly what we'd expect from a biological creature focused on survival (i.e., death anxiety). I describe all this in the book.

    In short: Can you give me a description of Original Sin that is not readily reducible to basic and neurotic anxieties in the face of death?

  18. People talk about original sin as if it is something you have, but I think these analogies miss the point. Original Sin is first an event. It is a dislocation. It is about mankind exiled. It sets off an endless circle of problems, corporate and individual. Sure it manifests itself in desires, and perhaps those desires can be reduced to ‘death anxiety’; but this just seems to shift the old error—which was to dissolve narrative into ontology—now replaced by a shift toward psychology. Basic and neurotic anxiety are symptoms of something. We can medicate these symptoms, but what then? If I shun my neurotic need for self-appreciation, the self-esteem project say in Facebook, am I not feeding my neurotic need for self independence?

    I don’t deny that original sin includes death anxiety; I do, however, think that if reduce it to this and we ‘cure’ our fear of death, or even our slavery to it, that we are still left with a more basic problem, namely our original exile from God. Seeing how we are enslaved to various anxieties is good. But if we can diagnosis this well and offer solutions, I don’t see why it necessarily follows communal life in a ‘Christian’ context.

  19. I hear you that your basic thesis does not stand or fall on the contrast between east and west versions of original/ancestral sin. I simply find it unfortunate that this caricature continues to be told and retold.

  20. Perhaps I ought to have specified what I see as the challenge with respect to atonement theory.

    In biblical theology the hardest of questions--as you've noted in this blog--is reconciling the God of the OT with the God of the NT. God who is Love vs. a virtually unapproachable God who sees fit to cleanse virtually the entire world of moral contamination via a great flood (to site just the biggest example of many "cleansings"). The formulation attributed to Anselm forms a explanation that originates in the divine character: God is absolutely loving AND holy. The cross is God's solution to an otherwise intractable dilemma--that there is a ruthless, judgmental, unyielding, merciless side to holiness, which cannot be reconciled with agape, unless...

    Yes, Christus Victor gives us a different picture of God's motivation, which is consistent with love, but it does so without portraying divine motivation in a way that draws on the full sweep of biblical narrative.

    I'm guessing that you can pull from Girardian material to form a response, but I've not seen that move made yet, and I think it would be helpful form many of us who've been following your lead here a while.

    Thanks! (And I'm glad not to be the only one who's asked about the atonement...)

  21. I agree very much about the idea that sin creates a dislocation. At the heart of the Orthodox vision of Ancestral Sin is that the primal sin of Adam and Eve separates us from God's vivifying Spirit. Thus, what we inherit from the Fall is the mortal condition, an existence saturated through and through with death, decay and corruptibility.

    So at the start, yes, sin does introduce death into the world. But after the fall what we inherit from Adam and Eve--because of the dislocation (the expulsion from Eden)--is the mortal condition. As babies we are born dying, born into post-Eden corruptibility, and thus, morally weak and chronically vulnerable to sin, with perpetuates the initial spiritual dislocation. Thus Paul's cry describing his struggle with sin: "Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?"

    That's how I describe it in the book. Have you read it?

  22. What you describe as Orthodox does not seem specific to it. Would a Catholic deny the proposition that “the primal sin of Adam and Eve separates us from God's vivifying Spirit. Thus, what we inherit from the Fall is the mortal condition, an existence saturated through and through with death, decay and corruptibility”?

    And yet if we say that the ‘only’ thing that we inherit at birth is our mortality, that this somehow simply weakens us to sinning, then I think we run the risk of missing the full picture of both the eastern and western (Catholic) teachings on the issue. Where does grace play into the mix?

    I have not finished your book yet. Perhaps all will make sense in the end. Yet I still wonder if sin—sin in its largest sense, above merely personal, actual sins—is not more fundamental than death. For it is not too difficult to imagine being free from death—immortal—but still suffering from a fallen state—lacking grace and virtue, connection to God.

    I don’t disagree with what I’m reading, I just find it antagonistic rather than augmenting to other established ideas. I don’t see why original and ancestral sin cannot be seen as complementary. Likewise, I find the disparity between substitutionary atonement and Christus Victor to be misguided. But perhaps I’m seeing something that’s not there…

  23. I'm glad you've got the book. In the Preface I write this:

    "Looking at both formulations [Western and Eastern] what we find is a
    complex causal tangle, even before we throw the devil into the mix. So to be
    clear, the perspective of this book, which emphasizes the moral impact of death
    upon our lives, isn’t an attempt to replace the Protestant framing. Rather, the
    goal is to point out how the Protestant tradition, in placing the primary
    emphasis upon sin, has ignored a wealth of biblical material regarding the
    nature of sin and salvation. The bible presents us with a dense and complex
    causal matrix in which sin, death, and the devil all mutually interact.
    Consequently, an exclusive focus on sin tends to oversimplify the dynamics of
    our moral struggles. I argue that a fuller analysis is critical as it will
    present us with a clearer picture of Christian virtue—love in particular."

  24. Hey Richard, in Ron Wright's senior psychology colloquium class at Southern Nazarene we just read through Authenticity and then your Fuller lecture version of Slavery. We're now using them as a lens to read Nouwen's book Compassion. What's so interesting to me about Nouwen's story is how he had been in the university teaching theology, but it wasn't until he was moved into the place of neediness at L'Arche that he "found" God. Here I think back to the fifth part of your reflection over the conversations at Fuller, where Dr. Wright and Dr. Jones talked about Smith's distinction between information and formation in Desiring the Kingdom. We've talked about that in our classes a lot--the difference between love being "taught" and "caught."

    For my question I would want to connect that with your concept of "communities of love" that you talk about around pg 110 of your book. If experiencing a state of vulnerability and neediness is the path to love, and this requires a certain social space in which to practice it, how would that space be structured? What ecclesiological model do we use to think about this? When in the book you talk about the courage and risk love requires to overcome fear, I think of some of the people you look up to in many of your blog posts. Stringfellow and the Berrigans' evading the FBI, Mother Teresa and St. Therese's self-emptying compassion, the White Rose students, etc. At the same time, you've also talked about examples who embody this not just on an individual level, but also a structural level such as the Benedictine and Catholic Worker communities.

    So when you talk about Jesus' call to sacrifice in Mark 10 and the early Christian communities' koinonia in Acts 4, I ask, "what does church look like here?" Should we all move into intentional community? Do we just need to add more programs onto our existing church structure? Is the standard "3-4 worship songs + sermon" Sunday morning service enough to shape Christians into self-emptying practitioners of resurrection? What examples from non-Protestant traditions (liberation/postcolonial theology, etc.) do you see as providing insight into the way forward? How do you relate to your own church in wanting to challenge it to do more, but at the same time having the patience and grace to see it as a gift?

  25. Hey Richard,
    I have been profoundly challenged and encouraged by all three of your books and your posts here... I love the Christus Victor motif, the warfare motif, eccentric identity, your work on Becker, Freud etc.. It seems to me that to be truly set free from the fear of death, I have to live with a degree of confidence that Jesus has in fact defeated death - in some bodily material way. So first question: Do you think this is the case - do we need confidence in bodily resurrection to be set free from our slavery to the fear of death? Second - what would it look like if we were confident in bodily resurrection to hold this view in a non-violent way?

  26. Thank you for doing this. I’m looking forward to your answers to some of the other questions. I have two:

    1. On one of your recent posts, you mentioned that you always find something after you submit your final manuscript for publishing you wish you could have included. What would you like to have included in Slavery of Death?

    2. What are some ways you've found helpful to talk about concepts in the final part of the book (like kenosis, martyrological/eccentric identity) with those who haven't read the book and/or are unfamiliar with this type of Christianity and possibly even opposed to it? I seem to struggle with how to discuss what I learned there it in a way that does it justice. These concepts strike me as similar to pacifism, since they are a way of life accepted by choice at the very core of an individual's identity. They are also not thing kind of thing a community which embraces them can advertise or enforce on its members, so it seems that most people will only come to such a choice by seeing it lived and being drawn to it. So I’m not looking for ways to try to convert people or convince them, rather wondering if there are there questions you ask or brief points you've found may help in discussing these things with people who are entrenched in a religious mindset that esteems nationalism, excellence, significance, heroism, moralism, and the like.

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