Terror management theory juxtaposes the human impulse toward survival with our realization of the inevitability of death. How do we deal with these two competing facts?
The result in this heightened, ever-present state of cognitive dissonance, tends toward terror. Humans are naturally afraid of death because it conflicts with their desire to live.
Social psychologists have developed terror management theory to explain this conflict and its effects on human beings. They assert that, in response to the natural terror we experience in the face of certain death, we turn to values and systems (like religions) that counter the fear of death and bolster the meaning and sustainability of life.
For Christians, our faith and hope is explicitly in a savior who defeated death. And while we do not turn to Christianity as some kind of blanket for our mortal anxieties, the psychologists are correct that our faith gifts us—not by accident or only in pretend, but truly and deeply—a freedom from the paralyzing fear of death.
Christians know the “end” is not some empty vanishing void of death. We look, as William Stringfellow put it, to what there is instead of death.
The realness of Christ’s answer to death is essential to who we are and how we live—and die.
A main way Christianity delivers us from the terror of death is in the promise of an afterlife.
(To think fully about this, we would need to dig into not only the reality of heaven, but also of hell, which might be thought of as a deeper death, but that will be for another time.)
The Christian Afterlife
The belief in a good afterlife—that there is, in fact, life after death—dramatically changes our feelings toward death. It becomes not a dark end, but a bridge to the next thing—which for Christians promises to be far better and fuller and truer than what we have now.
While death, in the Christian view, will never be thought of as a real good, it can be seen rightly as something of a step into the greatest good—life in the presence of God. We see this reinforced all around us.
Steffany Gretzinger, in her song “All That Lives Forever,” sings:
Death is just a door that leads me home to you.
I remember an old MXPX song that’s never quite been unstuck from my mind:
Some would say tomorrow is just one step closer to death; I’d say tomorrow is just one step closer to life.
Or we might recall a version of the famous Moody quote, recently attributed to Billy Graham:
Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.
This idea that death is just a door, a step, a cosmic address change hugely reduces the fear we would otherwise have of our mortality. Certainly, death remains a sad, hard thing because of temporary separation and dissonance we feel, but people of faith know there is hope beyond the grave.
For some Christians, there may even be a sense of anticipation—perhaps even joy—at the thought of death, because it is immediately coupled with the thought of resurrection.
Christ vanquishes the terror of death. The reign of mortality always gives way to the overpowering reign of immortality with Jesus.
And in that immortality, where eventually all believers will be united in the glorious presence of our good, just God, we will have both bodies and souls, all perfected. We will sing everlasting and joyous songs for all time. This is why we cry “Marantha,” come quickly, not so we can die, but so that we can truly live with God, world without end.
It’s precisely—no, more glorious—than Tolkien writes, at the moment Pippin thinks he will surely die, afraid, in the presence of his enemies.
Pippin: I didn’t think it would end this way.
Gandalf: End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.
Pippin: What? Gandalf? See what?
Gandalf: White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.
Pippin: Well, that isn’t so bad.
Gandalf: No. No, it isn’t.