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The Allure and Terror of Death

October 21, 2015


Most of us fear death on some level—that final stroke of our lives that will push us off into the hereafter and the mystery that awaits. To some, death marks an end to an otherwise short flash of conscious life in a vast, mysterious cosmos. To many others, Christians especially, it’s a beginning to a new life—a rebirth into an eternal state of being based on the state we’ve chosen for ourselves. And even as Christians who profess the resurrection of Christ and the eternal Kingdom of Heaven for those who choose love in this life, there is still something fearful, unnatural, and—paradoxically—alluring about death.

God did not create the death that we know—one beset with fear, pain, sadness and horror. We created that death with our decision to turn from God and sin—inviting the natural consequences of such a decision to follow: a return to dust. However, Christ, through his death on the cross and resurrection, has conquered death. It’s good news. It’s very good news that we must proclaim to our culture lest we become filled to the brim with woe. Still, despite Christ’s victory over sin and death, we will still endure a natural death—a reality that doesn’t go down easy for most of us.

In some ways, death is cast aside by our culture as a dim reality, or rather, a slight inconvenience that dots the end of our lives with which we shouldn’t be bothered until absolutely necessary. We can refuse to acknowledge it, avoiding even the subtlest nod to its encroaching grip on our lives by busying ourselves with relationships, work, pleasures and daily affairs. Unlike many generations of the past, which experienced death often and firsthand through war, famine, plagues, sickness, poverty and so on, modern medicine and technological advancement have made death less common, causing it to recede into the periphery of our concerns. In other parts of the world people see death face to face to a staggering degree. For many of us, we only see death where we expect to see it—in hospitals and at funerals.

Even though many of us may not confront death with the same raw frequency of generations before us, our culture is still deeply haunted by it. We are not in short supply of images of death, as many of our movies, TV shows and videogames depict enough simulated deaths to last a lifetime. By the age of eighteen the average American has seen 40,000 fictional murders according to some sources. In one sense, the finality of death has been dampened from our consciousness by its removal from ordinary life, while in another, we have become so inculcated with it in our entertainment that we’ve grown numb. We’ve supplanted an exposure to actual deaths with a plethora of fake ones.

The fascination with death can speak on some level to our fallen nature. There is a morbid curiosity that surfaces regarding death—a macabre allure that resonates with a part of us. It seems that the darkness points to something slightly askew within us. As Christ warns, there is a part of us that, if we’re not careful, prefers the darkness to the light. This fascination may also serve as an attempt to dull death’s fangs—this taking of a distanced, voyeuristic approach to death is perhaps a way to be less afraid of it.

An article in The Atlantic by Leah Sottile, When Death Is a Fascination, explores a certain group of individuals, collectively known as the “Death Hags,” with an unusual interest—even macabre obsession—with death. The peculiar group profiled in the article seeks details beyond what the mainstream media provides—from photos of the bloody crime scene to nuanced descriptions from the coroner’s table—regarding celebrity deaths. Even though the behavior of many of these individuals is obviously questionable—in some cases blatantly unhealthy and disturbing—the article poses a thought-provoking question: does such a fascination with death serve as a vague attempt to mitigate the fear we have of it?

“But people are also drawn to looking at tragedy in order to confront humans’ greatest fear. ‘We are probably more afraid of death than anything else,’ Saltz says. ‘The fascination with viewing someone who is [dead] … is driven by that sort of supreme fear of ours which makes us want to know more and to understand the experience and feel like we have some kind of window in.’ It could be a way of trying to feel prepared for something we can never truly be ready for.”

We know from our faith that there is a better, and much healthier, way to prepare ourselves for death—a relationship with Jesus and a life lived in union with him. This may not hurl aside every fragment of fear about death, at least for those of us who aren’t living saints, but it gives us the confidence we need to meet death with an enduring light of hope. This is both the brilliance and mystery of the paradoxical Christian life—by dying we enter into life. Or, in the words of Jesus, “whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”

While we proclaim the abundance of life that God wishes for us, we at the same time raise up a Roman torture device with a suffering and dying man nailed to it. We kneel before a tortured man in the throes of agony—and because of it, we praise God. It isn’t surprising then that some are confused by our faith, maybe even appalled by it. As George Carlin said regarding Christianity:

“I would never want to be a member of a group whose symbol was a man nailed to two pieces of wood.”

Yes, if that’s all there is to it—a glorification of death and the macabre as a way to appeal to our fallen nature—then there would be no reason to be part of such a “group.” There is something within us that shuns death—we know in our very core we weren’t created for death. Our souls don’t lament that we have to eat or sleep, but that we have to die, well, that’s another story.

It’s this deep knowledge that we weren’t created for death contrasted with its stark, inevitable reality that causes us to wonder about and fear it. The fact that our culture looks to dismiss, understand and find comfort in death all at once, speaks to our human desire for life—the very life which God intended for us without end.

That’s precisely why we raise the cross of Christ crucified—because it doesn’t say death won’t have a word—it will—but that it won’t have the last one. We can look to death with peace, accepting it as a part of our lives here on earth, but trusting that it will ultimately grant safe passage to eternal life. If we live a life united with Christ—doing his will and trusting in his mercy—then we come to see that, in the words of Saint Paul, “death is gain.” And as we wait patiently for the death that brings life through Christ, we can live in peace, beyond both an unhealthy fear of and obsessive infatuation with it.

“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” – Mark Twain