On Death and Dying: What Exactly Are We Afraid Of?

“Are you afraid of the coronavirus?”

My four-year-old asked his Sunday school teacher that question on March 8, 2020. Since then, I daresay that there has not been one person on our planet who is unaffected by the pandemic. As I watched events unfold, questions echoed in my mind. There were a variety of reactions and levels of social distancing. I believe that a large part of Christian charity is not allowing our different reactions and opinions to divide us as Christians. However, I do want to address the heart attitudes of all involved. As Christians, are we afraid of death?

Hard Pressed?

In a well-known passage on death and dying, the apostle Paul says, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. . . . For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you” (Phil. 1:21–24, New King James Version). In the attitudes surrounding the coronavirus, I have not seen much of what I would call “hard-pressed.” I am not talking about wanting to throw your life away or having a death wish. I am talking about a living communion with God, with Christ, through the Holy Spirit, such that death seems like what it is—our entrance into glory. Are you feeling hard-pressed between a desire to live and a desire to depart and be with Christ? Are you living out Philippians 1:21–24?

Is It Really Better?

Is it really better to depart and be with Christ? I think every Christian would agree with that. But what is our attitude? Deep down, do we believe it? Or do we allow the pleasure and glory of this life to sneak in? Do we say, “I’m pretty happy here. I’m needed here. I can accomplish more for God’s glory if I live longer”? Paul said that too: “to remain in the flesh is more needful for you.” But he did not end there. He was hard-pressed. He said that he longed to go and be with Christ. I admit that for me it is easy to always say, “Later.” Later, I will be more ready for death. When my children are out of the house . . . when I’ve finished that ministry project I always wanted to do . . . when I’ve had a chance to live more life.

Desire to Depart

As a Christian, we should be desirous of departing to be with Christ. The examples of other Christians can serve to admonish us. Elizabeth Prentiss (1818–1878) was the author of the hymn “More Love, to Thee, O Christ” and the well-known book Stepping Heavenward. After her death, her husband, George, wrote of her: “She viewed it [death] as an invitation from the King of Glory to come and be with Him. During the more than three-and-thirty years of our married life I doubt if there was ever a time when the summons would have found her unwilling to go; rarely, if ever, a time when she would not have welcomed it with great joy.” In Elizabeth’s time, death was a constant companion throughout life. Unlike many of my generation who have never seen death up close, Christians living in the nineteenth century almost inevitably experienced the death of a close, young, and often healthy family member. Infant mortality was high; Elizabeth Prentiss lost two of her children before they turned four years old. I think that this experience helped them to have a different view of death than what I have. For me, I have the expectation—no, the assumption—that I will live a long and relatively healthy life. It’s almost as though I am entitled. Entitled to live into my eighties or nineties. Entitled to a life of ease and little personal suffering. Entitled to the lives of each of my family members. Forgetting that it is God who gives life. That I don’t have a right to life, that each and every day is God’s gift to me. But most of all, forgetting that this life is not really what my life is all about. “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are all of all men the most pitiable” (1 Cor. 15:19)

What, then, should be my attitude about death? Should I be afraid of death? Afraid of the coronavirus? Afraid of driving my car lest I get into an accident? Death is an enemy, so some fear is natural. However, death is a defeated enemy. I do not need to fear. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me” (Ps. 23:4). Death is the great leveler of all. Death is something that no human relationship can survive. Even if we were to die at the same time as our spouse and children, we would still walk through that valley alone. And yet—not alone. “You are with me.” Jesus Christ is the only person who can go with us through death and guide us safely to glory. Our relationship with him is the most important aspect of our lives.

How Do We Prepare?

How should we prepare for death? My cousin is currently preparing for marriage. She is so excited to have a wedding day set and is counting down the days, preparing all the details. But what is her attitude toward her soon-to-be husband? “I’ll be with him soon, so no need to talk to him much now.” Or, “I have all these pressing wedding details to hammer out. He’ll just have to wait until I’m less busy.” Obviously that is not her attitude. Her attitude is, “I’m going to spend the rest of my life with this wonderful man, and I’m going to spend every possible minute with him in the meantime!”

Too Busy?

I wonder if our attitude toward our Savior is that of a soon-to-be bride. Do I say, “I want to spend every possible minute with my Savior right now”? When I have a spare minute, when I’m in the car waiting, when I’m cooking dinner, when I’m relaxing after the kids are in bed—is turning to Jesus my default mode? I don’t know about you, but for me it is much easier to turn to technology. A huge disadvantage of technology is how easily it sucks our time and attention. “I don’t have time” is a common excuse for a lack of any of a number of spiritual disciplines. Reading the Bible? “I’m too busy.” Praying? “There’s never a down moment in my life.” Listening to an extra sermon here or there? “Who has an hour of time when their brain can concentrate?” If any of these thoughts are familiar to you, I’d like to challenge you: Check your screen time. Are you too busy for Facebook? How about that game of Solitaire on your phone? Do you have a chunk of two hours to watch that latest movie? Moving beyond that, what about your leisure time? We live in a society where work does not consume our every waking moment, where we do not have to work all the time in order to live. When you’re walking or biking or exercising, driving your kids from one activity to another, are you leaving time for the most important relationship in your life?

If my desire for Christ right now is buried beneath a to-do list and a playlist, then how can I expect to desire to depart and be with Christ? Has my spirituality essentially become a pie-in-the-sky heaven by-and-by while I enjoy myself on earth?

If you’re not sure of how to long for heaven, try getting a partner for Bible reading and spiritual growth. I have done this for the past five years, with great benefits to both of us. Together, we decided on a plan of what to read and how much each day. We then text each other on a regular basis about what we’re reading. It has been a huge help in the area of accountability and growth in grace, as well as furthering our friendship in many unforeseen ways.

You’ve Already Died!

In the process of writing this article, I had that sinking feeling of “I can’t do it. I have failed. I have not desired Christ more than the things of this world. How can I ever expect to long to be with Christ when I am attracted to this world?” The answer lies in union with Christ. Through our union with Christ, we’ve already died. As Paul says in Colossians 3:3: “For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” How can the apostle say that? If you’re reading this, you obviously haven’t physically died. Yet we have died through our union with Christ. He died on the cross and has been raised to heaven. Somehow, mysteriously, Paul speaks of us having already died. If my life is hidden with Christ in God, then it is easier, somehow, to not get distracted with the false pleasure and glory of this world. My real life awaits! How can I not long for it with all my heart?

Union with Christ also assures us of our resurrection life. “For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin” (Rom. 6:5–6). Jesus died on the cross—and I died with him. My life is no longer my own. I’ve already died, already conquered, already triumphed over death. Now I know with certainty that I will live again, I will rise, I will join my Savior in glory. As Jesus my Savior delights in God the Father and the Holy Spirit, so I can and do delight in God. As his death conquered sin, so I, too, can be freed from sin. I am free to set aside the hindrances, the fear, the false pleasures of this world. “When Christ who is our life, appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory” (Col. 3:4). I am not afraid. I am hard-pressed. I delight in the Savior who has died for me, set me free, and risen for me. He will bring me to glory in his perfect time. And I can’t wait.

1. George Prentiss, More Love to Thee: The Life and Letters of Elizabeth Prentiss (394), as quoted in Sharon James, Elizabeth Prentiss: More Love to Thee (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust: 2006), 178.


Mrs. Vanessa Le is a wife and mom to four children age five and under. She enjoys reading, playing the piano, studying theology, and generally being Mommy. She is a member of Orlando Reformed Presbyterian Church in Orlando, FL.