Breaking the circle

In a recent post, I mentioned Richard Beck’s current series of posts on “the slavery of death”.

It is common for Christians to say that death is the consequence of sin. Beck argues that, on the contrary, sin is the consequence of death, and especially our fear of death – and that this is confirmed by both theology and by modern psychology. He takes as the foundation text for his series Hebrews 2:14-15:

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.

This “slavery” to “the fear of death” manifests itself in the way we are run by envy, rivalry, vengeance and so on (see René Girard and James Alison for details). In a word: sin.

What are we to make, though, of a text such as Romans 6:23: “the wages of sin is death”? Doesn’t this show that Beck is wrong to say that sin is the consequence of death rather than its cause?

The answer, I think, is to see this as a vicious circle: the fear of death leads us to sin, and sin then results in death and the fear of death, and so on. We are trapped in this cycle of sin, death, fear and slavery.

How can we break free from this cycle of destruction? Our instinct, as religious creatures, is to assume that the answer is to deal with the element which we think lies within our control: that is, sin. If we can stop sinning, make ourselves into good people, then we can escape the slavery of death.

The gospel turns this on its head. The way to break the vicious circle of sin and death is to take away the fear of death. Take away the fear of death and its slavery, and – while we won’t stop sinning, any more than we can avoid physical death – sin’s stranglehold on us is broken.

What’s interesting about Beck’s argument is how this great counterintuitive truth of the gospel finds an echo in psychology, where our propensity for behaviours and thoughts that are destructive to us and to others – that is, our sinfulness – is shown to be largely beyond our conscious control, and to be driven by primal fears; principally, the fear of death.

Edit: As this has been raised on Facebook, it’s worth adding a quick note on how linking sin and death can be reconciled with an evolutionary view in which death has been intrinsic to the existence of life from the start.

I tend to see this in terms of Genesis 2:7: “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being”. The death which enslaves us is not physical death per se, but the loss of that “extra” life, the “breath of life” which made us truly “living beings” rather than “walking dust”. It’s that “breath of life” that makes the prospect of physical death itself fearful for us.

How the Genesis account then correlates to what happened in space and time is unknowable, but I think the overall message is: sin and death (being “from the beginning”) are fundamental enough to human existence that we cannot escape them unaided, but they are not more fundamental than the breath of life and divine image-bearing which make us human.


One thought on “Breaking the circle”

  1. I’ve just been discussing Lucretius with my students and your analysis is not unlike L’s view that the fear of death is the primary cause of our wickedness and moral predicament. And that a life so lived is an existence that is more like death than life, asleep than awake. His remedy for “breaking this circle” is very different than the Christian one, but Lucretius describes the inner awareness of the predicament in almost existential-Pauline terms: “What he [the aesthete, Mimmias] is trying in vain to escape is, of course, himself, / and no matter how fast he runs, he is just as desperate and / bored, / an ailing man who cannot even describe his disease” (Bk III: 948-950). I would add that the theological remedy is sometimes (often?) applied in bad faith.

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