Describing the world before His second coming, Jesus said: “ ‘Men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken’ ” (Luke 21:26, KJV). The New International Version reads: “ ‘People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ ”1 Either way, fear, terror, and apprehension will become the main characteristics of human life before the second coming of Jesus.
We, of course, do not like to talk about fear. We do everything we can to be free from it. Yet fear is an essential part of human existence and, like it or not, some fear will accompany us, always and everywhere, until the end.
Paul Tillich, in The Courage to Be, writes about the triple nature of human fear or anxiety. Three existential fears, he writes, accompany life:
1. Fear or alarm of death
2. Fear or alarm of emptiness of life and its meaninglessness
3. Fear of guilt and condemnation
The question for us then is, if Tillich is right, how does our faith in Christ address these fears?
Fear of death
Of all our fears, to most, death is the most frightening. Nobody wants to die; nobody wants even to think about death. Many avoid thinking about the stark fact that sooner or later we die. The only out, it seems, is to believe that we continue our existence after death.
The “immortality of the soul” is, thus, a common belief. From ancient time until now, people have been comforting themselves with the idea that life after death does exist. Ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Slavs—all believed in the immortality of the soul. Even most forms of Christianity have adopted that idea, although it is not in the Old or the New Testament. No matter how popular, the teaching is wrong, regardless of the comfort it supposedly brings.
Another way to avoid thinking about death is through positive language. No one ever dies anymore; instead, one simply “passes away.” Death is made to sound like a pleasant little trip. There are no longer cemeteries or graveyards; what we have, instead, are “memorial parks.” The experience of growing old, which signals the approach of death, is carefully masked with euphemisms like “senior citizen” and the “golden age.”
The manifold ways in which death is disguised or ignored sometimes constitute a virtual denial of death, which in itself reveals our fear of death. However, all those ways to avoid thinking about death do not obscure its reality and tragedy. Death is death; and—regardless of whatever ways we attempt to mask it—its reality, and the fear that reality brings, will always be with us.
Fear of meaninglessness
Next, people want to make their lives meaningful. Some see the purpose of their lives in their careers, raising children, gaining wealth, becoming popular, or maybe in doing scientific research. Others find the meaning of life through the very process of searching for the meaning of life.
But without God and the revelation from Him about the true meaning of life, one will never find anything that really works. After all, what does the meaning of life mean if everything inevitably finishes with death? And, as we know, only in God do we have the answer to death.
Before the collapse of the Soviet Union (USSR), the Soviet people were trying for decades to build new lives, a utopia without class struggle, exploitation, social inequality, violence, and unfilled economic needs. All people would live happily. The communist leaders often meant well; many sincerely believed that it was possible to build a kind of paradise here on Earth. They lived with that hope, they dreamed of that bright tomorrow for their children, and some even sacrificed their own lives for that idea.
But one day that communist idea collapsed, the USSR disassembled, and another side of Soviet history was exposed. Many people who piously believed in the communist ideals and dedicated their whole life to them suddenly lost the meaning of their life. After communism in the USSR col-lapsed, suicides increased dramatically. The fear of emptiness of life and its meaninglessness overcame even the fear of death.
Fear of guilt and condemnation
Finally, everybody knows how painful guilt and condemnation can be. They can deprive you of internal peace and harmony. Guilt can cause both mental and physical damage.
Who has not struggled, to some degree, with guilt and fear? One can only imagine how political leaders who have done evil in the past, deal with the guilt that surely must plague them at times.
One thinks of the agony of David’s soul when he struggled with the consequences of his sins. “He fasted and spent the nights lying in sackcloth on the ground. The elders of his household stood beside him to get him up from the ground, but he refused, and he would not eat any food with them” (2 Sam. 12:16, 17).
The suffering was real; the pangs of guilt tormented his soul. Life loses its beauty, its joyfulness and happiness, if there is no peace and harmony. “But the wicked are like the tossing sea, which cannot rest, whose waves cast up mire and mud. ‘There is no peace,’ says my God, ‘for the wicked’ ” (Isa. 57:20, 21).
Freedom from fear
The question remains, then: What escape can we find from the fear of death, meaninglessness, and guilt?
We can find escape in Jesus Christ: “‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls’ ” (Matt. 11:29).
First, Jesus is the only One who can save us from the terror of death. As He said to the mourning sisters in the village of Bethany after their brother, Lazarus, died, “‘I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die’ ” (John 11:25).
Death did not have power over Him. On the third day after His crucifixion, Christ rose from the dead. He became a victor, a conqueror over death. Thus, Paul could write: “ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ . . . But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:55–57).
Those who mourn their dead can find great hope in these words! And these words, too: “ ‘Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades’ ” (Rev. 1:18).
Next, Jesus is the only One who can save us from the sense of a meaningless and empty existence. Only the One who created us in His image and likeness can give us purpose. And our lives have meaning only when connected to God and His will.
What has God said about His will regarding us? What makes our lives meaningful? In two main commandments, God gives us the answer to those questions: “ ‘ “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments’ ” (Matt. 22:37–40).
God is love, and being created in His image, we are called to reflect that love in our lives. These two dimensions—love to God, and love to our neighbor—determine the meaning of human existence.
And if our lives are filled with that love, there is no room for fear: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18).
Finally, only Jesus can save us from the pain of guilt and condemnation. David, for instance, knew where to go to find the peace that he longed for. “Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice” (Ps. 51:8). “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (v. 10). “Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me” (v. 12).
David experienced freedom from guilt and condemnation, but only after he confessed his sins before God. “Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord does not count against them and in whose spirit is no deceit. Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.’ And you forgave the guilt of my sin” (Ps. 32:1, 2, 5).
For all those who suffer under the same burden of guilt for their sins, there is hope in God’s Word. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
If Tillich is right and these three fears dominate human existence, it is no coincidence that in Jesus Christ we have the answer to such fears. Thus, as ministers, it is important we know for ourselves the freedom from these fears that we can have in Jesus; then, out of our own experience, we can share this good news with the flock under our care.
Know who you are
I was born in an Adventist home. My father was a pastor, but as a Seventh-day Adventist minister in the Soviet Union, he was always under pressure from the state authorities. The Soviet regime was atheistic, so religion was often practiced underground. It was not an easy time for true believers.
From my childhood, I had dreamed of being a medical doctor. But it was practically impossible for “sectarians” to enter a medical school. However, I passed all the exams and started my studies in Gorky Medical School. Realizing that administration of the school was intolerant toward religion, I decided to keep my personal beliefs a secret.
I was constantly afraid of being found out and expelled for my faith. For three years I lived in fear.
It is not easy to live under such pressure, waiting for the call to come to the dean’s office, where I would hear the words, Zaitsev, we have heard you are a Christian. You well know that a Soviet physician cannot be a sectarian, so you are no longer a student of medical school.
So, to make sure that it would never happen, I did everything I could to blend in. But being raised in a Christian home, I felt the difference between good and evil, and so to act in the ways of the world was quite a challenge. I managed to, though, and the longer I did it, the easier it got.
When at home, I was a good son of my Christian parents; when in school, I was like everybody else. This was a really strange situation. Who was I—a Christian or a man of the world; a believer or an unbeliever? I was like an actor playing two roles: one was at home, another at school.
And the main reason was fear, a fear that not only caused me not to live an abundant life in Jesus but led me to sadness and a loss of joy.
I am so thankful that my father, seeing my personal anxiety and worries, challenged me, saying: “Son, I know that you do not have peace in your soul. This is due to uncertainty in your life. You do not have an answer about your self-identity. You do not know who you are. You need just to answer for yourself: am I a Christian or not? If you choose to be a Christian— just say it to yourself. If not—say it to yourself, as well. Be honest with yourself. Stop playing a part; instead, start to live openly. People should know who you are. Be either Christian or non-Christian. I will respect your choice. Just make a decision, and you will feel much better.”
Then he asked me to pray with him, and after praying, I decided to give myself fully to Jesus and be baptized. And as soon as I made that decision, all my fears disappeared. What a relief I felt in that day when all my fears and terrors, all my worries and anxieties, were buried in baptismal waters!
I continued my studies, but now as an open Christian. I shared my personal beliefs with other students and teachers, and did so openly and without fear. For the first time in my life I realized that there is no fear in love if only you know Christ as your Master and Savior. “But now, this is what the LoRD says—he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel: ‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine’ ” (Isa. 43:1).