The New Testament, however, has a different conception of death. For instance, Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Death, it turns out, is not the end. It is rather the entrance to life, the passageway in which the tentacles of fear lose their suffocating grip. Terror, in whatever form it might come, does not greet us as the final word.
Here is an example. One day in July 1505, while riding his horse back to school after a visit home, Martin Luther encountered a fierce thunderstorm. Fast-moving clouds sprinkled the parched road on which he traveled, gently at first, and then more intensely. The sky flashed and rumbled before a lightning bolt struck the ground in a deafening clap near Luther. It touched the earth in such dangerously close proximity that it sent him falling to the ground in terror. Exposed to nature’s fury, Luther cried out: “Help me, Saint Anne! I will become a monk.”
With five hundred years of hindsight, we recognize that Luther’s experience of fear set in motion his journey of faith. To this example, we might add a myriad of men and women who have been dislodged from the world by the unsettling effects of fear. Yet, as significant as our existential turning points may be, they are only a pale reflection of a much greater showdown with terror: Jesus at Gethsemane. Here is how the poet Rosanna Eleanor Leprohon puts it:
Alone in deepest agony, while tired apostles slept;
No one to share His vigil—weep with Him as He wept;
Before Him, clearly rising, the Cross, the dying pain,
And sins of hosts unnumbered whose souls He dies to gain.
Garden of Gethsemane! the God-like lesson, then
Left as a precious token to suff’ring, sorrowing men,
Has breaking hearts oft strengthened, that else, so sharply tried,
Had sunk beneath sin’s burden and in despair had died.
With death squarely before Him, Jesus endured the cross. He died, and, in doing so, He experienced the most profound terror humanity could imagine. The one who had been in perfect fellowship with the Father from eternity past was forsaken. Divine wrath was unleashed with such unmitigated fury that Jesus’ relationship with God was eclipsed by the horror of holiness. Underneath the weight of this condemnation, Jesus cried out, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:45–46).
We rightfully deserve divine judgment. We deserve to be cut off from the loving presence of God. But on account of God’s redemptive grace, that curse has been borne for us. Christ was cast out into the darkness—our darkness. And He was raised from death to the right hand of God’s throne so that now, having our lives embedded in Christ, we need not fear being forsaken by the Father. And since we need not fear this, we need not fear anything.