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Theologising the Fear of Death, Pt 2

Theologising the Fear of Death, Pt 2

In the previous part of this essay, we considered some psychological research on the fear of death to help us answer the question of whether people fear death. In this second part, we consider the question from another angle before turning to Augustine for help to a answer our normative question, about how we ought to live.


On whether people fear death, Pt 2

There is another obvious explanation for the findings we previously considered, which suggest that people do not really fear death. But this strategy risks being a question-begging one: that is that the fear of death is, in most people for most of the time—and perhaps most of all as death is nigh—sublimated or suppressed in some way. Evidence for sublimation is hard to come by, as all critics of Freud can attest. What we can do is surreptitiously observe how people react to thoughts of death, either physiologically or behaviourally. I’ll skip the physiological stuff because the samples are generally small, and the measures too equivocal to interpret.

I have already mentioned, albeit briefly, the psychological research programme inspired by Ernest Becker’s work: this goes under the sensationalistic name Terror Management Theory, whose basic premise is that large swathes of human behaviour are fundamentally attempts to mitigate death anxiety. In this, they include things like procreation, the procurement of fortune and attainment of fame, but also art, science, and religion. It is very much a psychological theory of everything, about which we should always be suspicious. On the other hand, there have been hundreds of studies run and published that are at least consistent with the theory. 

Most of the studies published under this rubric share a structure. Some participants are asked to think and write about it might feel like to die, and to reflect on the emotions this arouses in them. Others are asked to imagine and write about something else: sometimes, something anodyne like watching television, other times something anxiety-provoking but death-unrelated like public speaking or going to the dentist. And then, typically after an unrelated distracter task like a word puzzle, they are asked questions that also seem unrelated to death. They might be asked about whether they want children, and if so how many, and also what they might want to name them. They might be asked whether they feel a sense of responsibility to do good in the world. They might be asked about their desire for luxury goods or for fame. They might be asked about their attitudes toward their countries, and also other countries. Or about their ethnic groups, and also other ethnic groups. 

And across hundreds of studies, psychologists have found that reminders of our mortality affect our responses to a wide variety of these questions, including the ones just mentioned. The effects are small, but I think this is unsurprising giving the artificial setting in which these studies are run. When people are asked to contemplate their mortality beforehand, they show tell-tale signs of a desire for immortality, even symbolic immortality via children and fame and fortune, and the glory of the tribes to which they belong even to the detriment of other tribes. As is their wont, social psychologists—my own tribe—have generally focussed on the dark sides of this tendency, the irrational and irascible sides. Reminders of death make us more punitive, they find, and more prejudiced, and more receptive and obedient to cultural taboos that we might otherwise dismiss more easily. 

In the midst of this negativity bias, however, there are to be found some small signs that death anxiety may be channeled for good too. Two studies by Molly Mayfield and her colleagues in 2014 found, for example, that among older adults—but not younger adults—thoughts of death increased what they called “generative concern”, the motivation to do more for future generations [1]. Rosellina Ferraro and colleagues have also found that reminders of death increases charitable donations and socially conscious consumer decisions among those who hold such activities in high esteem: which is to say that our fear of death does not always propel us to indulge the baser aspects of our nature, but may motivate us to fulfil our cultivated virtues [2]. A couple more examples: earlier studies by Jeff Greenberg and colleagues found that when reminders of death are paired with reminders of the value of tolerance, they reinforce one another, leading to people being more tolerant of difference [3]. Similar studies have been run among American Christian and Iranian Shiite fundamentalists with similar effects: pairing death reminders with reminders of compassionate values decreases the antipathy for outgroups for which fundamentalists are renowned [4].

From these two bodies of research—the direct and indirect methods of assessing death anxiety—the empirical psychological literature is clearly ambivalent on the question of whether human beings fear death. One might read this as an indication of the limitations of the human sciences, but I’m inclined—biased, you might say—to interpret this as a reflection of our own ambivalence, our complicated relationship with death. On one hand, when asked point blank, we generally deny being afraid of death, often being more willing to admit being afraid of the ancillaries of death: the pain, the indignity, the inconvenience of hospitals and hospices, and other palliative technologies. On the other hand, our reactions toward thoughts of death reveal more than we are willing to say, perhaps even more than we know to say. 

This contradiction between our stated opinions and our reactions can be seen outside of the laboratory too. Consider, for example, one of the most hotly debated issues in public health care in this country, over how much we should spend on life-extension treatments at the end of life. Health economists often complain about the irrationality of prioritising the dying, citing opinion polls that show that people would prefer the government to spend money on treatable illnesses or on improving quality of life for the dying [5]. But whenever the government decides to defund an expensive treatment of this kind, protests emerge from among those affect and a media frenzy ensues. Perhaps this is a case of a vocal minority having disproportionate influence, but I suspect that we are happier to cut costs when it is somebody else who will lose out on an extra few months. (Incidentally, there is one recent study that has found that reminders of death increase people’s belief in the plausibility of indefinite life extension technologies, especially if they were not religious: to the extent that wishful thinking is an indicator of desire, this may be taken as evidence that people’s desires to live forever flare up when they are confronted with their mortality. [6])

From the crypt of San Giovanni, Saluzzo

From the crypt of San Giovanni, Saluzzo

Theologising the fear of death

The ambivalence toward death that psychologists have found among hoi polloi is also reflected in the Christian theological tradition. On one hand, St Paul writes in his letter the Philippians that to die is gain, and then expressed a desire to be with Christ, which is far better than living on in the flesh; and then again, in his first letter to the Thessalonians, he writes that they should not grieve “as others do who have no hope”. Some of the Church Fathers have taken such texts more or less at face value, claiming that the hope of the resurrection negates the need for and appropriateness of grief at the death of loved ones and fear about one’s own: such sentiments may be found in Cyprian [a],  John Chrysostom [b], Jerome [c], and perhaps most famously Ambrose, whose De Bono Mortis is dedicated to the theme [d]. The clue is in the name. Even Gregory of Nyssa, who describes his own grief so eloquently and whose funeral sermons are deeply sympathetic, feels the need to excuse those who mourn his sister with him, justifying it by saying that it is the loss of Macrina’s spiritual leadership that they mourn, not merely the loss of a friend or companion. His own sorrow, he self-effacingly judges as the abandonment of reason for passion.  

The newly converted Augustine also writes in this vein, asserting that the wise man is not afraid of “bodily death”, though neither is he reckless in the face of danger [e]. He admits to fearing death himself, but not death itself, only the potential loss of the possibility of attaining and retaining wisdom after death [f]. Augustine and Gregory are on the same page here.

But Augustine’s reactions against Manichaeism afford him some reticence against the old idea with which his teachers and forebears flirted, that death is good, either because it is “natural” or because it entails an escape away from the corrupt body or toward the beatific vision. By the time he completes City of God (ca. 426), he had come to see death as bad, on the Pauline reason that, whatever the similarities between human beings and animals in their struggle to survive, human death is special for being unnatural and the consequence of sin [g]. 

Furthermore, the death that is bad is not just the death of the soul as a result of mortal sin, or even just the deaths of the wicked consigned to everlasting damnation: Augustine insists that death—the separation of body and soul, which coincides with what you and I might call biological death—is good for no one (“nulli bona est”; CD 13.6), not even for the blessèd saints. So it is that even so great a saint as the Apostle Peter—who has no need to fear his passage out of this life, for the Lord’s resurrection has illustrated for him the life to come—had to be bound and led where he would not otherwise go (John 21.18) [h]. Indeed, Augustine drives home his point about the naturalness of our unwillingness to die by citing the passage in Matthew 26.39, in which Christ himself asks to be spared from his martyrdom. For Augustine, blessèdness—and the fact that death is, for the saints, the entrance to heaven—entail neither the denial of death’s badness nor the removal of our fear of death, though both are ultimately conquered by love. 

Thus, for Augustine, it is not death but an aversion against death that is natural. The naturalness of the fear of death is a corollary of the naturalness of our soul’s embodiment: soul and body belong together, and thus death, which is the separation of body and soul, is unnatural, the natural response to which is fear. Our fear expresses a truth, and reveals an apt desire, to be what God made us to be, that is the union of body and soul.

But the naturalness of the fear of death does not entail that it is good; Augustine did not need Hume to tell him that. He was also well aware that our perfectly natural fear of death can motivate terrible things as well as noble ones. A close reading of his critique of empire in City of God reveals his psychological theory of the case, in which the Roman love of praise and desire for glory—as expressed diversely in war-mongering [i], as well as engagement in the arts and even the cultivation of virtue [j]—is tied to the fear of annihilation and death [k]. Indeed, City of God 5.14 ends with a rhetorical question that would be sympathetic were it not sardonic: given that the Romans were in an earthly city, a sphere of demise and destruction, what else should they love but glory, by which they can at least live on the lips of admirers. Darker still, elsewhere Augustine also attributes to the fear of death—or as a distraction against the fact of our mortality, the lusts of the flesh and the eyes, as well as worldly ambition [l]. In other words, Augustine would not be surprised by the aforementioned empirical deliverances of Terror Management Theory.

If Augustine’s reticence to call death good is a product of his anti-Manichaeism, then this reticence to expect Christians to display a total absence of death anxiety might be a product of his battles against Donatism and Pelagianism. Even later on in his career, Augustine maintains the belief that the fear of death is to be overcome, but our triumph over this natural fear is expected to be a gradual process, and impossible without divine aid. In his first anti-Pelagian tract, On Merit and the Forgiveness of Sins, and the Baptism of Infants, Augustine calls the overcoming of the fear of death by love and faith an “exercise of discipline” as we “advance in holiness” [m], and deserving of commendation. The fear of death is therefore, as Robert Dodaro puts it, “a divine instrument for the perfection of virtue“ [n]. The sense in which the fear of death is a divine instrument is crucial here, as—for Augustine—trust and reliance upon God is always necessary in the development of virtue.

Finally, then, an Augustinian reading of the minority report of Terror Management studies on the positive effects of death anxiety, increasing generative concern, tolerance, and the like. The thing to note is, I think, that reminders of death usually do not themselves motivate these nobler tendencies. It is in conjunction with reminders of cultivated virtues—tolerance, compassion, and so forth—that the knowledge of our mortality produces good fruits. This too would not surprise Augustine, for whom the key to conquering the fear of death is to understand what it is that we ought to value. 

To illustrate this, Augustine turns to the martyrs, whom is he fond of contrasting against pagan heroes. Martyrs, recall, are those who are killed for their faith, typically for refusing to abandon their faith or behave in ways contrary to their faith. By Augustine’s time, the Diocletian persecution was long over, and martyrdom was relatively rare: the point of writing and preaching about the martyrs is to learn from their example in a broader way, including about how the fear of death is to be overcome.

The martyrs did not lack the fear of death, Augustine argued: to the contrary, they loved life and therefore feared death as we do. Nevertheless, by the grace of God, they valued eternal truth more than the transient things of this mortal life, having hope in the everlasting life that can only be bestowed by God. That is, rather than choosing to distract themselves from their fears or attempting to achieve the ersatz immortality pursued by those who love praise and glory, who harbour worldly ambitions and lusts, the martyrs faced the thing they feared trusting in the God they love [o]. As Elena Martin observed in her essay on Augustine’s sermons on the martyrs, “[the martyrs] conquered fear because they understood the right order of love: they swapped cupidity for charity, temporal goods for eternal happiness, and this life for the next life”. It is perhaps an obvious and trite thing to say, but if it is advice commonly known it is advice not commonly taken, that to defeat the fear of death we must live well, abandoning what Ernest Becker calls our immortality projects, our quests for self-esteem and attempts to assert ourselves in a competitive, zero-sum-game, dog-eat-dog kind of world: in other words, we must freely give our lives away, which is not our own anyway, but freely given by the God who dies for the sake of the world. Maybe it’s not to trite after all, considering that Augustine has a very different idea of “living well” than we do now, in these heady days of late capitalism.


 [a] “What room is there here for anxiety and solicitude? Who, in the midst of these things, is trembling and sad, except he who is without hope and faith? For it is for him to fear death who is not willing to go to Christ. “; On the Plague 2.

[b] e.g.,, “none of this is painful to us, if we are willing to cultivate wisdom”; Homilies on 1 Thessalonians 6

[c] e.g., “If you really believed your daughter to be alive, you would not grieve that she had passed to a better world”; Letter 39

 [d] See especially 8.31.

[e] The Happy Life 25; composed 386

[f] Soliloquies, 2.12.20; composed 386/7

[g]  City of God 8.1, 15 (composed 413-426/7) and Enchiridion 8 (composed 423/4); and On the Free Choice of the Will, 3.20.57.193 (composed 388-95). The idea clearly comes from St Paul, e.g., Romans 6.23; 1 Corinthians 15.56.

[h] Lectures on the Gospel according to John 123.5 (composed 413)

[I]  City of God 4.3

[j]  City of God 5.13

[k]  See Rowan Williams, Politics and the Soul; Thomas W. Smith, The Glory and Tragedy of Politics

[l]  Sermon 335B (De Natale Sanctorum Martyrum); cf. 1 John 2.16

[m] 2.34 (composed 411)

[n] p. 33

[o]  Sermon 335B.4

St Mary Magdalen

St Mary Magdalen

Theologising the Fear of Death, Pt 1

Theologising the Fear of Death, Pt 1