Monthly Archives: February 2024

Why are Christians So Fearful?

I don’t scare easily, but I recall like yesterday how terrified I was.

It happened in the mid-1980s when I worked in Yaoundé, the capital city of Cameroon, about 250 kilometers from the coast. I was the manager of the Imprimerie Adventiste, the denominational publishing house and printing plant for the French-speaking part of Africa. That day I had gone for some business to Douala—the port city at a 40-minute flight from where I lived. When I had finished my mission and returned to the airport, I missed the last flight of the day back home.

I had no desire to spend the night in a hotel, so I decided to look for a cab. I bargained with a driver, offered him half of what he asked—and with that he was more than content. We began the journey of about 4 hours. Soon we were outside the port city of Douala, where the jungle began. It was pitch black.

Then, totally unexpectedly, the driver reduced speed and turned into a narrow, dark forest path.

“Don’t worry,” he said.

But I did. “What are you doing,” I shouted. “Go back.” He drove on for about a kilometer. I did not know what to do. This is not going to end well, I thought.

But then, there was a small shack. The driver stopped the cab. Inside the shack were several barrels of gas. From one of the barrels he filled his tank. He then explained that an uncle of his worked as a truck driver for Shell. He transported barrels of gas, and every now and then a barrel just happened to fall off his truck…

I breathed a sigh of relief—but I had never been so scared.

There was one other time when I was also very afraid—but that was a very different kind of fear. It was when I had just heard the diagnosis of prostate cancer. What did that mean? What treatment options did I have?

Both times it ended well. I came home in one piece that night after a long drive through the forest. And I was declared “clean” after a successful prostate cancer treatment and the necessary check-ups.

Diffferent kinds of fear
I think it’s safe to say that we all have experiences of fear. There is a long list of phobias that can make life quite uncomfortable. Topping the list of most frequent phobias in the United States are arachnophobia (fear of spiders) and ophidiophobia (fear of snakes). These kinds of anxieties are followed by a fear of heights and a fear of flying. Claustrophobia (panic when being in an enclosed space), agoraphobia (entering open or crowded places) and mysophobia (extreme fear of germs) are also high on the phobia list.

While each of these phobias can be experienced as a major impediment, other sorts of anxiety appear to cut even deeper into the human soul. The cry of anguish of the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch receives a piercing echo in the fear for the future of countless men and women.

Will there perhaps, before too long, be another world war, this time fought with nuclear weapons? Will there be enough food and clean water on our planet for a growing population? And what about our personal future? Many fear for their own physical wellbeing, or fear the loss of their partner, or are afraid their children will make wrong choices. Elderly people fear the moment they can no longer drive, or detect the beginning of Alzheimer’s disease and the onset of dementia.

And, whether we acknowledge it or not: most of us fear death.

Faith and fear
Through the prophetic voice of Isaiah God told his people of old:

Fear not, for I am with you; look not anxiously, for I am your God. I strengthen you, also I help you, also I sustain you with My holy right hand! (Isaiah 41:10).

These words were not only directed to the prophet’s contemporaries but also to God’s people in our day and age.

But are all Christians—and more specifically: all Seventh-day Adventist believers—able to repeat with confidence the words of Psalm 56:12: “In God I trust, fear I know not, what can any man do to me?” Unfortunately, that is not the case.

The faith of many—maybe most—Christians is mixed with fear. And that is not as it should be, for the gospel is not a doomsday message but is “euangelion” or “good news.” It is about love, salvation, deliverance, forgiveness, freedom and peace in Christ, and eternal life. Jesus underlined this with his famous statement: “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:1).

Jesus was not referring to being afraid in the dark, or to the fear of flying. And He did not speak of depressions and the kind of anxieties that may require the help of a therapist. Jesus comforted his disciples, who were afraid that the entire kingdom-story would end in a fiasco. He was speaking of things for which theologian Paul Tillich coined the term ultimate concern.

The judgment
I once had a conversation with a physician who for a number of years had worked as a family practitioner in a small town in the Dutch Bible Belt. At least half of the area where he worked belongs to denominations of a very conservative variety of Calvinism, with the doctrine of double predestination as an essential aspect of their faith. They are convinced that, from all eternity, God has already decided who will go to heaven and who will eternally burn in hell.

The doctor told me he was not a believer, but that he had been very surprised to meet so many patients who were frightened to die. He asked me: “Should people who believe in the message of the Bible not face death without any fear?”

Many Seventh-day Adventists live in fear of the judgment. They do not fear the eternally burning hell fire, since Adventists have, from early on, accepted the doctrine of annihilationism: the second death. But our teachings about judgment have caused many to doubt whether they can ever be sure of their salvation.

The obsession with perfection has jeopardized the spiritual life of too many of us. It has imprisoned believers in a cage of legalism, with the constant fear that there may be sins that have not been forgiven, shortcomings perhaps unwittingly overlooked, and so never confessed.

The heresy of last generation theology has hundreds of thousands of church members worldwide in its nefarious grip, leaving them wondering whether they are worthy to belong to the small remnant that will eventually make it to the kingdom.

The investigative judgment
The investigative judgment teaching in particular has robbed Adventist believers of inner peace.

After the “disappointment” of 1844 the doctrine emerged that, since that date, a pre-Advent judgment has been in sessions, during which “the books” are meticulously inspected. This “investigative judgment” will determine who will participate in the “first resurrection” at the second coming of Christ. Many ask the unnerving question: “What will happen when my name comes up? Will our heavenly Judge give me the green light and declare me as “righteous”?

Periodically this topic is revisited in our Sabbath School quarterlies. It is presented as a key doctrine of Adventism and, to their credit, usually the author reminds readers that with Jesus Christ as our High Priest and Mediator, there is no reason for anxiety.

Yet, in many minds there remains a deep-seated fear that we can never be sure that we are good enough.

The doctrine of the investigative judgment is still very much part of the official beliefs of our church. But, in spite of all frantic efforts from the higher regions of the church to preserve this doctrine, it seems that the I.J. (as it is often abbreviated) is losing support and few pastors nowadays preach on it! The conviction is growing that the biblical basis for this doctrine is extremely slim.

Will this traditional Adventist teaching disappear? History teaches us that denominations are not easily inclined to officially abandon a particular doctrine. But they may simply cease to talk about it—even while it remains in the official documents. This is true of the doctrine of predestination in a number of Reformed denominations in my country, and it may well happen in our church with regard to the I.J.

If it does, it will deliver many from a deep-seated fear.

The end
Perhaps an even greater source of fear is the frightening end-time scenarios, the historicist interpretations of Daniel and the Revelation crafted by our pioneers—particularly in Ellen White’s Great Controversy. The incessant emphasis on such topics as the time of trouble, the seven last plagues, the papal Antichrist, the Sunday-laws, the mark of the beast, the shaking, the close of probation, and Armageddon has for many totally eclipsed the “blessed” hope of the “glorious appearing” of our Lord Jesus Christ (Titus 2:13).

It seems, when I glance through the Facebook postings of conservative Adventists that the complicated schedules, with lines that indicate historical periods, intersected with dates, are as popular today in Adventist circles as they were when the pioneers developed their prophetic charts.

Speaking in the context of the period prior to his return, and the dreadful events that may then be expected, Jesus admonished his disciples: “Do not be frightened” (Luke 21:9). The last-day events will indeed cause widespread fear (and not just among Adventists), but this fear should give way to faith and hope: “When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28). The words of Isaiah sound as if they were written in our twenty-first century:

Do not call conspiracy everything this people calls a conspiracy; do not fear what they fear, and do not dread it (Isaiah 8:12).

There is no doubt that we live in serious times, and that the future of this world is under threat. Believers in Christ can expect major difficulties in the final phase of the history of our planet, before they are redeemed.

But any anxiety about what might come should be absorbed by the assurance of our Lord: “I am with you always, until the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

Trust in God
The apostle Paul gave Timothy a clear signal about how to deal with fear:

The Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline (2 Timothy 1:7).

And remember the powerful testimony of the Psalmist of how we may find the inner strength to overcome fear: “In God I trust and am not afraid. What can man do to me?” (56:11). Faith that is grounded in the good news of the gospel refuses to give in to fear.

The gospel is a message of love. Love always has the last word:

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us, so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment . . . There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear . . . (1 John 4:16, 17).

How soon will I die?

This essay is about life and death, and about life after death. It is an intimate and personal topic, because it touches directly on my own life and inevitable death.

I know that I am alive. The fact that I am writing this is sufficient proof that I am still in the land of the living.

But I also know with absolute certainty that one day I will die. It would be foolish of me were I not to recognize that most of my life is over. I don’t want to ruminate too much about my inevitable demise, but I have reached the phase that, according to Psalms 90:10, “by reason of strength” I’ve made it past three-score-and-ten, and now beyond four-score.

I’m certain I’m old, but I do not know with the same kind of certainty what comes next after the curtain has fallen on my earthly existence. As a Christian, I affirm what Christians throughout the ages have professed when quoting the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”

What is life?

We share our human life on planet Earth with some eight billion people. Every day worldwide about 150,000 people die, but this is more than compensated for by the 365,000 births. People differ in many ways, with respect to culture, gender, age, skin color, sexual orientation, and many other characteristics, but whether we are white Americans and Europeans, Asians, Africans or Inuit; whether we belong to the contingent of older women or male adolescents; or any other age, gender or ethnic combination, we all belong to the same species of homo sapiens.

But of course we’re not alone as representatives of life. There are some 5,500 different species of mammals on our planet. Bird-watchers tell us that the mammal species are by far outnumbered by the 9,000 species of birds. Add to that 33,000 species of fish and a million-plus kinds of insects.

Oh, and at least 300,000 species of trees and plants.

What do all these living things have in common? Or to rephrase the question: What, in fact, is life?

Over the years, many definitions have been proposed. As Jack Hoehn wrote in these pages recently, it is not so easy to unambiguously define the boundary between living and non-living things, and the question deserves much debate. For example, are viruses, which cause so much disease in living organisms, even living organisms themselves?

Human life

We would agree that the kind of life that humans possess is unique. I conclude this from the creation stories at the beginning of the Bible. Human life is much more than an assembly of chemical and biological processes; in addition to physical characteristics, there are also intellectual and spiritual dimensions. We are living beings who not only can reproduce and respond to general stimuli, but we can love and hate, use language, understand symbols, and are capable of aesthetic and spiritual feelings.

I have many questions about the first chapters of Genesis, but I continue to believe in Divine creation. How and when creation happened, I don’t know. But I believe that life resulted from a divine initiative—it did not arise by mere chance, but it was created. I do not know what that exactly means. Creating (in the absolute sense) is not something we humans do. God is life, and God created the life we see around us. God created us.

The creation story informs us that human life differs from other forms of life. I do not know what will become of these other forms of life when this present world has come to its end. In a number of places the Bible hints at the existence of animal and plant life in the world to come, but we can only guess about the degree of continuity between now and then. Will there be lions and lambs, but no dinosaurs? And what about rats and sharks?

However, as far as human life is concerned, God’s Word is quite clear about a definite continuity between our present lives and our re-created existence in the hereafter. Because our human life is so special, it holds the promise of eternity. Jesus, along with the Father and the Spirit, underlined this when He declared that He is Life (with a capital letter) and that everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life.

I recognize that this requires some huge leaps of faith and trust, and it raises more questions than we can ever find answers for this side of eternity. So be it. The bottom line for us is: Life is a beautiful gift, but in final analysis it is something inexplicable.

That’s because it comes from God.


It seems that the older we get, the more funerals we attend. As a retired pastor I have in recent years been asked far more often to lead funerals than to conduct weddings.

All life ends in death. As we grow older most of us lose our parents, our friends, the people we grew up with. Many lose a partner or even children. If we have pets, we have to accept their limited lifespan: we will outlive most of them.

Most of us want to protect life, but we exterminate pests and kill mosquitoes and flies. Some of us eat parts of animals, at least of certain species! Even trees will eventually die, even though a few may be centuries old.

Death is a stark reality. People can die of old age, but death can also come as the result of war or a natural disaster, or through a fatal traffic accident.

Paradoxically, while most people want to push death away as far as possible, it is simultaneously becoming increasingly familiar in our culture. Crime novels and television series about shrewd detectives who unmask killers are hugely popular, though they offer a constant menu of violence and death. In most video games, the players must kill enemies if they want to score points. By age eighteen, most young people have already seen thousands of murders on television and film.

Denying death

Yet we also find that for many in our Western world, talking about death and dying is taboo. In general, people do not want to be confronted with the reality of their finitude any more than is absolutely necessary. This is even reflected in the terminology that is often used. People no longer “die,” but they “pass.” They “leave us” or “are no longer with us.”

Death is often placed at a distance. A major percentage of people die in a hospital or hospice and are cared for in their final days by professionals rather than by their loved ones. And once they die, in most cases, professionals tend to their lifeless bodies. In our aging Western world, the “funeral industry” (the term is meaningful in itself!) has become big business. In the United States, 130,000 people are employed in this “industry,” which has a turnover of more than $20 billion a year.

But whatever we think of death, we cannot stay ahead of the grim reaper. Time is relentless: we live and we die!

Yet just as it is not easy to come up with a definition of life that satisfies everyone, there is also no simple answer to the question of what death exactly is. Most dictionaries agree in defining an important aspect of death as the permanent end of all vital functions. This may seem quite obvious, but dying can be a slow process, and a person may be “brain dead” before all functions have completely stopped. Is a person who is in a vegetative state still alive in a meaningful sense of the word?

Of course, the question of the nature of death is not just a matter of biology, just as life is not confined to the realm of chemistry and biology. What is death from a philosophical or religious point of view? What happens when life ends? Is death the absolute and final end of who and what we are now? Or is it the gateway to a new kind of existence?

To be or not to be is the very existential question we all face in one way or another.

My leap of faith

I take a leap of faith to believe that both life and death involve a dimension beyond our human comprehension. Because life has its origin in the divine Source of life, “death” is ultimately caused by a total separation from this Source of life. Both life and death have supernatural dimensions. The traditional Christian response to the phenomenon of death is that human sin is its cause. I accept this premise, but realize more and more sharply, as I continue to reflect on this topic, that this Christian solution raises many other questions.

The biblical story tells us that humans were created perfect, and originally lived in a paradisiacal situation where death was unknown. As a result of the failure of the first humans to follow the rules God had given, they were punished, and death made its entrance, not only for the first humans but for everything living.

Through the centuries, many have racked their brains about whether they like such a God. They have wondered why God could not have dealt with the violation of His commandment in a gentler way. Many of us shudder at the explanations of theologians who speak in terms of “original sin,” and of “man’s corrupt, sinful nature.” They ask: Was death the only disciplinary measure a God of life (and of love) could think of?

Another question that keeps coming up: What would have happened if the first human beings had not gone against God’s commandment? Would they have continued indefinitely to obey the instruction to be fruitful and fill the earth? Or would there perhaps have been a point at which, for lack of space—when the earth had, say, ten billion inhabitants—human reproduction would have slowed down or even stopped altogether?

Or would death have occurred anyway, even if there had been no sin? According to the biblical story, the earliest diet of the first humans and of animals was plant-based. Doesn’t this imply that there was already some kind of death from the very beginning, since the plants that were eaten clearly ceased to be alive?

The Christian hope

Perhaps you, too, have these questions about life and death, and especially about our hope for what comes after we die. I have been thinking more and more about the subject of death and resurrection—even wrote a book about it a few years ago. I agree with the apostle Paul, when he wrote to the church in Corinth that without the hope of the resurrection the Christian faith no longer makes sense (1 Corinthians 15:14).

For me, a few points are central:

God exists. God is eternal life. And in final analysis all life owes its existence to God.
Christ came to this earth to heal the breach between God and humanity that resulted from man’s failure to trust the Creator.
God provided information about God’s gracious dealings with humanity through the life of Jesus Christ and in the revelation that found its way into our Bible.
Christ lived an exemplary life, suffered and died, but rose from the dead and thereby gives us the hope that, if we believe in Him, we will also one day rise from the dead.
These basic beliefs are my starting point. I take a further leap of faith and build on this basis, as I try to think through the issues surrounding life and death, and as I focus particularly on the question of what follows death.

Many questions remain. I am not trying to ignore them, but I realize that they will remain unanswered because on this side of eternity our knowing will always be partial (1 Corinthians 13:12). I pray that my appreciation for the miracle of life may continue to strengthen my devotion to the God of life, and will fortify my faith in the new miraculous kind of life He wants to give me after my present existence has ended.

Paul thought a lot about life and death, and what his faith told him about it. He came to the conclusion: “Whether we live or we die, we belong to the Lord!” (Romans 14:8). What more can I add? I know deep down that “Whether I live or die, I belong to the Lord!”