It is often alleged that religion is simply wish-fulfillment. I think it was the famous physicist Stephen Hawking who once claimed that religion is for people who are afraid of the dark. It is said to be the creation of the minds of people who want eternal life, who want freedom and justice for all, but who realize they can’t have it here. Belief in God and in heaven provides them with comfort, and so that’s where religion comes from. It isn’t real; it is just pie-in-the-sky. Or others say that religion is created by oppressors to keep the serfs obedient – keep them focused on heaven and they won’t bother with their earthly chains.
One of the problems with this argument is that it goes both ways. The Oxford mathematician John Lennox responded to Hawking by saying that “Atheism is for people who are afraid of the light.” In other words, if religion is wish-fulfillment, it can equally be said of atheism. Maybe atheism is the projection of the minds of folks who want self-sovereignty and don’t want to stand to be judged by the living God.
I personally don’t buy the wish-fulfillment explanation for religion because it doesn’t adequately explain the existence and many of the features of religion. For example, I don’t know of any religion that comes up with a God who is not also in some sense just. And that creates a pretty big problem: it means that just because there is a heaven doesn’t automatically guarantee you will make it there; for if God judges us, then that opens the possibility that what is on the other side is possibly worse than what we are dealing with here. This is especially true of the Judeo-Christian worldview which posits a God who is holy and just and will by no means look on evil (Hab. 1:13). There is not only a heaven but there is also a hell. It’s frankly hard to see how hell would be a product of wish-fulfillment.
Another thing that the wish-fulfillment hypothesis can’t fully explain is the universal desire for heaven and eternal life. If there is no God, why is there this sense of the transcendent? Some people will say that it is an evolutionary trait that allowed the human race to survive. I don’t buy it. How does hoping for the age to come over this present age aid survival? This idea seems counter-intuitive at best. For example, the Christian religion teaches that giving your life for others (even, or perhaps especially, for the weak) is a good thing. That is not a survival technique, it is the opposite!
C. S. Lewis gave a better explanation in his famous sermon, “The Weight of Glory.” I will put it to you like this: imagine waking up in a boat in the middle of the ocean with absolutely no memory of anything that went before. Suppose there is nothing in the boat except yourself. There is nothing around you except ocean as far as the eye can see. Now obviously, you would eventually get hungry. He asks, would it be wrong to assume from the fact of hunger that eatable substances exist – even though you had no observable proof they did in fact exist? Though one in that state could neither prove they existed or if they did exist that they would be able to fill their hunger with them, yet it would clearly be a reasonable thing to assume that they do exist. From this Lewis argues that the well-nigh universal longing and hunger for heaven is a good argument that heaven exists (even though this hunger for the eternal is not necessarily proof that you will enjoy it!).
That is to say, we humans long for eternity because that is what we were made for. Religion exists because God exists, and the soul exists, and heaven and hell exist. As Solomon put it in Ecclesiastes, God has put eternity into the hearts of men (Eccl. 3:11, ESV). We were not made to live under the soul-shrinking philosophy, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Cor. 15:32). We were not made to be shackled by death.
And yet . . . death is another universal reality. It is a universal reality that seems to stand against our hunger for eternity. If we were meant to live forever, why do we die? Though we have this innate sense that death is not really natural, that this is not the way things were meant to be, it seems that death is more certain and sure than anything else.
So it begs for an explanation. If death is not the way things are supposed to be, how come it is the universal experience of mankind? A closely related question is this: why is the world so messed up, not only by death but by injustice and evil and suffering on every side?
It is the glory of the gospel that it gives us both the explanation as well as the solution to the problem. It not only explains why we suffer and die but also how we can overcome both suffering and death. And we see both these things in Hebrews 2, and especially in verses 14-15. In these verses, we have the great blessing of the incarnation given to us especially in terms of our Lord’s victory over death and sin.
The Explanation for Death
How then does the Christian message account for death? The simple explanation is this: even though God created this world “very good” (cf. Gen. 1:31) with human inhabitants who were innocent and blameless, it did not take long for the first pair to try to wrest sovereignty out of God’s hand through disobedience to the Divine command not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We know from Genesis 3 that the serpent deceived Eve, who then tempted her husband. Sin entered into the world. And from sin came death: “for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Gen. 3:19). The apostle Paul sums it up like this: “Wherefore, as by one man [Adam] sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (Rom. 5:12). Death, both physical and spiritual, is the inevitable consequence of sin.
We see this in the text. Note that the devil (who is elsewhere identified with the serpent in Genesis 3; see Rev. 12:9) is described in the text as the one “that had the power of death.” Now how can Satan have the power of death? Is not life and death solely in the hands of God? Remember the story of Job – Satan couldn’t even touch Job without God’s permission. How can Satan then have the power of death?
Satan has the power of death in the sense that he tempted Adam and Eve to sin and through sin death came into the world. In other words, though the devil does not have the ultimate power of death, yet he is able to deceive people into sin. And sin brings death. Here is how our Lord put it to the Pharisees: “Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it” (Jn. 8:44). Notice what our Lord says here. The devil is a murderer from the beginning – a reference no doubt to the Fall. Satan tempted Eve, Eve enticed Adam, Adam and Eve sinned, and sin brought death. It is in this way that Satan had the power of death. He is the murderer of the human race.
Thus, when in the text of Hebrews we are pointed to the devil as having the power of death, we are meant to be reminded of the Fall of man into sin. Sin is the ultimate reason for death, therefore, and is the explanation as to why the world is the way it is.
And it’s not natural. We can see this from the fact that fear of death brings bondage: in verse 14 we are told that the reason for the bondage was the fear of death, and that this is what we need to be delivered from. Why? Because death is not natural. Our fear of death and the sense of bondage that death brings is a testimony to the reality of sin and its punishment. Death is not part of the original order of things. It is an unholy intrusion on God’s good order. It is the punishment for sin. Our hatred and fear of death is a witness to this reality. It is a witness to the fact that the human race is in rebellion against God and under his holy and just wrath.
You see this also in verse 17. There we are told that our Lord Jesus Christ came “to make reconciliation for the sins of the people.” Now, as we’ve already pointed out in an earlier sermon, the verb translated “to make reconciliation” could also be translated “to make propitiation.” It refers to the removal of God’s wrath against sin. We are reminded again that things are not right with the world, and the reason they are not right is that men and women are sinners by nature and sinners by practice. Sin brings guilt and guilt brings down upon us God’s just wrath, of which death is part of the penalty for our sin.
And this explains why we fear death and why this fear of death produces bondage for us. We fear death and we feel in bondage to this fear not only because death is not God’s original purpose for humanity, but also because we have this innate sense that death is the wages of sin (Rom. 6:23). The apostle Paul thus not only argues for universal sinfulness, but he also argues that there is on some level a universal awareness that our sins deserve death. He said this is true even of pagans who did not have the special revelation of Scripture. He argues that they know “the judgment of God, that they which commit such things [the sins listed in the previous verses] are worthy of death” (Rom. 1:32). As Paul would put it to the Corinthians, “The sting of death is sin” (1 Cor. 15:56).
We are of course aware that there are folks out there who claim very confidently that they do not fear death, even though they want to have nothing to do with the Lord. They may even claim that they believe that there is no afterlife. They say that don’t fear any judgment of God, they don’t fear hell, and they don’t fear ceasing to exist when they die. However, this does not vitiate the argument of Hebrews 2:14. The Bible recognizes that even though we have God’s law written on our hearts and that conscience testifies to this reality (cf. Rom. 2:13-15), yet it also testifies to another reality. It tells us that men can harden their hearts, that they can sear their consciences (e.g. 1 Tim. 4:2) and deaden their responsiveness to this awareness that death is an echo of the Fall and a harbinger of God’s judgment. But it is certainly not a proof that God does not exist or that death is not something to be feared. It is proof that they have willingly deadened their conscience to reality through repeated sin.
People like this remind me of those who are suffering from leprosy. Dr. Paul Brand for many years worked among leprosy patients. He was one of the first doctors to appreciate the fact that one of the main problems with leprosy is that it deadens the nerves and the ability to feel pain. As a result, people with leprosy will do destructive things to their bodies without knowing it, precisely because they do not feel pain. It is not, as is often believed, that they lose limbs as a direct result of the disease; they do so most often indirectly as a result of self-inflicted injuries.
I would say that sin is like leprosy. In fact, I would say that we have OT justification for this. It’s the reason why leprosy is dealt with in terms of uncleanness and ritual impurity (Lev. 13-14). It kept you from God’s presence in the tabernacle under the law of Moses. In the same way, sin is that spiritual leprosy that defiles us and keeps us from God’s presence and fellowship. And just because spiritual lepers don’t feel the pain caused by the conscience, this is not a sign that they are in a better state of mental health than those who do. On the contrary, they are in a worse state. As a result, they will continue to devastate their souls with the poison of sin without even feeling the sting of it. If that describes you, then you are not to be congratulated, you are to be pitied and wept over.
On the other hand, it is not necessarily a bad thing to be afraid of death. In fact, everyone who is apart from Christ and in their right minds should be afraid of death. It’s not a sign of cowardice; it’s a sign of moral sanity. Therefore the author of Hebrews does not say that we are delivered from the bondage caused from the fear of death by coming to see that this fear is irrational. It is not irrational; it is a supremely rational fear. Nor does he say that we are supposed to rid ourselves of this fear by feeling better about ourselves. A person whose fingers and toes are falling off should not try to convince themselves that they look better that way. And you shouldn’t allow the culture, the devil, and your own sinful nature convince you that you are better off for losing the propensity to feel the thrashing of your conscience.
What then should we do? How is this fear to be dealt with in a realistic fashion? Our text helps us see how. And that brings us to our next point.
Deliverance from Death and the Fear of Death
If there is one thing that should be patently obvious to each one of us, it is that death is both inevitable and inescapable. We are prisoners awaiting execution. And yet, the Bible describes the godly man and woman as those who do not need to fear death. So you have verses like this: “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints” (Ps. 116:15). Or consider the ardent desire of the prophet Balaam, when he considered the death of the righteous: “Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his!” (Num. 23:10). Or think about the apostle Paul’s estimation of death: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). How in the world can you call death gain, especially when death is the penalty for sin? And if it is right for some to fear death, why is it also right for the righteous to celebrate it, as Paul seems to do?
The answer is to be found in our text. We do not deliver ourselves from the fear of death. We are delivered. And the one who delivers us is Jesus Christ: “through death” our Lord was able to “destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; and deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Heb. 2:14-15). He is “a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people” (17). Verse 17 tells us then how our Lord was able through death to defeat death. He did so by becoming a sacrifice for us, by propitiating God’s just wrath against sin, by taking upon himself the judgment due to sin.
Notice that technically the text does not explicitly say that Christ defeated death. This is of course the obvious and clear implication. Yes, he defeated death! Nevertheless, it is important to hear how the author frames our Lord’s victory in terms of what he says explicitly here. What he says explicitly is that our Lord defeated the devil who had the power of death. And then it says that as a result of that we are delivered from the fear of death which brings us into bondage. I do think this is important. Because the fact of the matter is that even believers will pass through the valley of the shadow of death. Unless Christ returns, we will die physically. Our souls will be rent from our bodies. Christ defeated death, but not in the sense that we no longer have to die. What he did is this: he defeated the devil, and he took away the fear of death on the cross. What that means is that the sting of death has been removed. Death is no longer a judgment but an exodus (cf. Lk. 9:31). Death no longer has the final word. For those who are in Christ, death will be followed by resurrection.
We no longer have to fear death because in Christ death is no longer the visible sign of God’s wrath; it is rather the way into his presence. This is why Paul said that to live is Christ and to die is gain. The two go together. If Christ is your life, then death is gain. It is why our Lord was able to say to his disciples these two seemingly contradictory statements: “and some of you they shall put to death. … But there shall not an hair of your head perish” (Lk. 21:16, 19). You can die and not lose a single hair because of the reality of resurrection. What is sown (in death) in dishonor and weakness will be raised (in the resurrection) in glory and power (1 Cor. 15:43).
Why then do we not fear death? Let me summarize it for you in the following statements.
We no longer need fear death because in Christ death is no longer an instrument of God’s judgment but the entrance into everlasting joy in his presence. Christ died for us and fully took away the punishment we deserved due to sin (including both temporal and eternal punishments). Behind the fear of death is the fear of God’s wrath which was fully propitiated in Christ’s death on the cross. Instead of fear, we are looking at the joy set before us (Heb. 12:2).
We no longer need fear death because the basis for our participation in Christ’s victory is grace not works. What motivated the cross and the redemption and deliverance from death accomplished there was the grace of God: “that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man” (2:9). We have nothing to add: we are simply slaves, “all their lifetime subject to bondage” (15). Christ alone is the champion, the captain of our salvation (10). We don’t approach death wondering if we did enough to balance the scales in our favor, we simply rest in the finished work of Christ for us.
We no longer need fear death because death is no longer final. Death is followed by resurrection. But not just any resurrection. We know that there will be a general resurrection in which the unrighteous and the righteous will be raised. “They that have done evil, [will be raised] unto the resurrection of damnation” (Jn. 5:29). There is no hope in that resurrection. But that is not what those in Christ look forward to: “they that have done good [through grace, will be raised] unto the resurrection of life” (Jn. 5:29). What the wicked are raised to is not truly life; that alone belongs to the righteous.
This not only has implications for the future but for the present as well. This is Paul’s point in 1 Cor. 15:57-58, which reads, “But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory [over death] through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmovable, always abounding the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.” This is a significant statement, because in the previous verses he had argued that if Christ had not risen from the dead, everything is in vain (cf. 13-19). In fact, if that is the case, “we are of all men most miserable” (19). But because Christ rose, and in him we will rise, our labor now is not in vain.
We no longer need fear death because God will bring us through it. I heard a prominent theologian once say that he didn’t fear death, but he did fear dying. I concur. It is a fearful process. However, we know that God will not abandon us in death. Jesus is our merciful and faithful high priest; and having suffered the travail of death he is able to help those who are passing through the veil of death (Heb. 2:18). He will hold us as we die, and he will meet us when our souls have departed these bodies. When Stephen was dying, he saw Christ standing at the Father’s right hand, to welcome him as he departed into his presence (Acts 7:56).
This is true for all who are in Christ. If you belong to him, if you have repented of your sin and turned to Christ in faith, if he is the captain of your salvation, then you have every reason to hope. There is hope in no other. But there is fulness of hope in Christ. What a Savior! He has conquered death, he has taken away its sting, he has “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim. 1:10).
Believer, if this is true, how could we ever turn back to other things? To whom shall we go? Only Christ has the words of eternal life (Jn. 6:68). Shall we turn to a culture which makes science the final arbiter of truth? Then there is no hope for any life beyond the grave. Scientific materialism can not only offer no hope, it tells you that there can be no hope after death. What about other religions? The common theme that ties all other religions together is that in some way or other they make salvation a matter of works. And this inevitably undermines assurance and hope. Standing against its alternatives, Christianity announces sure hope in Christ for all who belong to him. It can do this because salvation is not through our works but through Jesus Christ and what he has done for us by his perfect life and his atoning death. He is the captain of our salvation. Through Christ the Father is bringing many sons to glory. We not only embrace Christ for ourselves, we welcome others to join us. As the hymn puts it,
“Oh who will come and go with us/ and help us sing that song/ the song of Moses and the Lamb/ the song of God’s dear Son.”
 “A man’s physical hunger does not prove that that man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man’s hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist. In the same way, though I do not believe (I wish I did) that my desire for Paradise proves that I shall enjoy it, I think it a pretty good indication that such a thing exists and that some men will. A man may love a woman and not win her; but it would be very odd if the phenomenon called “falling in love” occurred in a sexless world.” From his sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” see https://www.wheelersburg.net/Downloads/Lewis%20Glory.pdf.
 I highly recommend the biography on Dr. Paul Brand by Dorothy Clarke Wilson, Ten Fingers for God.