Beck, Richard. The Slavery of Death. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014.
Beck argues that the fear of death (Hebrews 2:14-15) stands at the centre of life. It is our central problem and the cause of our sin. More than this, Satan uses death to enslave us and entice us to sin. But Christ conquers death for us and frees us from the power of the devil, which is death. Within this paradigm, Beck (who is a psychologist) sketches the spiritual implications of our slavery to death (and freedom from it in Christ).
He draws heavily on Hebrews 2:14–15 for his argument (although not exclusively):
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.
His argument, consequently, derives from biblical passages like Hebrews 2. But Beck has failed to account for all the biblical evidence, and I found myself disagreeing with significant parts of his argument.
Where I Disagree
Okay. So, here are the areas that I find unpersuasive.
(1) Beck privileges the Christus Victor understanding of the atonement. While I affirm that Christ defeated the devil at the cross and conquered Satan (and the dark powers), the Bible paints a broader picture than that. The Bible also portrays God as holy and just. So, he demands perfect justice from his people. Anything less than that is sin, and sin offends God. So, we not only need to conquer death, but we need to conquer sin and be freed from the just penalty against our sin. This is why Jesus died for our sake—to receive the wrath due us in our place. he atoned for our sin. He propitiated the wrath of God. So, the Christus Victor (the conquering of death and satan) understanding describes important realities of Christ’s work, but Penal Substitution is still the means by which our sins are forgiven.
(2) Beck defines death as the cause of sin, not sin as the cause of death. He argues that Adam and Eve sinned and then death entered the world, but, after Adam and Eve, everybody is born mortal. So, the order is reversed: we are born mortal and the fear of mortality leads to sin. I find this articulation unsatisfying because it doesn’t match the Bible’s synthesis of sin and death. Both are great powers that work together against us (Romans 6). And sometimes sin leads to death (Romans 6:23) whereas other times sin is death’s sting (1 Corinthians 15:56). And he also has no place for law (Paul says, “the power of sin is the law” in 1 Corinthians 15:56). In short, death motivates us to sin but it’s not the central problem; rather, the unholy of trinity of Satan, Sin, and Death all vie against us in various and related ways.
(3) Beck suggests that Satan and the dark powers are not personal subjects. They are powers of some sort, spiritual powers. I am not convinced. From the prince of Persia to the prince of the power of the air, it seems to me that the Bible views Satan and dark spirits as subjects—as individuals. At the same time, it’s clear that they use powers (sin, law, death, spiritual temptations, etc.).
Where Beck Helped Me
Beck helped me to understand what it means to live in a world ruled by the prince of the power of the air. He helped to understand what it means to live in lifelong slavery to death and how Christians can unwittingly remain in slavery.
As a society, we try to overcome death in various ways, one of which is through success. We want to preserve ourselves and to be successful. Without the need to live day-by-day fearing death through lack of nutrition, we replace that primal fear with something else. Beck explains:
“In affluent societies where self-preservation is not a pressing concern, we begin to worry about living a meaningful and significant life in the face of death. More specifically, in American society this anxiety tends to manifest in the American success ethos. That is, while we might not fear death on a day-to-day basis, we do fear being a failure in the eyes of others (or ourselves). But failure here is simply a neurotic manifestation of death anxiety, the fear that at the moment of death we won’t have accomplished enough to have made a permanent and lasting difference in the world” (Beck, 2014: 59).
In the pursuit of success, we fail to love. Beck notes:
“All of this interferes with our ability to love because our drive to be a ‘success,’ which is often defined by the principality and power we serve, becomes so all-consuming that it absorbs all our time, energy, and attention—valuable resources that could be devoted to loving others more fully” (Beck, 2014: 60).
Even the pursuit of excellence can make us fall into the trap of fear. We need to put in extra time at work to be the best, to always get better year after year. And yet, “The only way I can improve is if I start, say, taking time away from my family or church. Excellence is here revealed to a euphemism for sacrifice and idolatry” (Beck, 2014: 63).
For many of us, we want to be excellent and to achieve success in life. But this can mask a deep felt fear of death, a fear of our own morality. Beck writes:
“Again, being ‘average’ or ‘good enough’ is generally experienced as a form of failure. But this neurotic feeling of failure is really just masking a deeper anxiety. As we’ve just diagnosed the situation—being ‘good enough’ isn’t about our failure as much as it is about our finitude, our being mortal creatures. This is where the fear of death enters in. Being ‘average’ or merely ‘good enough’ provokes existential anxiety as we are confronted with our limitations. Again, there is a delusional anthropology behind the quest for excellence. We’d like to think that we have inexhaustible resources—all the time and energy in the world—to be excellent in everything. Which is to say we’d like to be gods, creatures immune to death” (Beck, 2014: 63)
Beck continues, “Failure—not being excellent—reminds us that we are humans and not gods, that we are mortal creatures vulnerable to death. And this is a realization we’d rather avoid” (Beck, 2014:63).
After reading Beck, I gained an understanding of what it meant to live in a society that feared death, that was under the power of principalities and powers.
Culture is not neutral. We are frail people who fear death, who fear our finitude. We create a hero complex as Beck notes (something that Jordan Peterson interestingly affirms).
But to fight valiantly against the meaninglessness of life is useless. Your years will still flitter away. Like Ozymandias, your power will not outlive you for long. It is fleeting.
To participate in the world’s desire to escape death, whether through the pursuit of success, nationalism, Marxism, or whatever is simply to return a lifelong slavery to death.
But Christ came to destroy the power of the evil one. Christ’s perfect love in us casts out all fear. Our occasional failure (by the culture’s standards) does not make us useless. It often means we are simply mortal. And that’s okay.
Christ has freed us from this slavery. And if he is for us, who or what can be against us? Through Christ, we have victory in this life and forevermore. On Mount Zion, Christ swallowed up death. He conquered death as the firstborn among many of us who will follow him in conquering death through our very deaths.
So, let’s be radically countercultural by putting others’ needs before ours, by loving our families (despite not being as excellent as our peers are who work 17 hours a day), and by living fearlessly.