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In the Christian New Testament, we find the following:

Hebrews 2:14-15 (NASB)
14Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil,
15and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.

At first glance, the context here seems to indicate that unbelievers are subject to the dread of physically dying, and therefore they are "subject to slavery all their lives." In other words, they live in this life dreading the prospect of their eventual physical death, and therefore they are slaves.

However, many unbelievers do not seem to exhibit such a dread. For example, one thinks of the kamikaze pilot in WWII, or perhaps the extremists of today, who commit violence and in the process end their own lives. For these people there is no fear or dread of dying, but rather an eager anticipation of perpetual honor and bliss.

So does the term "fear of death" here have a wider connotation that actually means something other than dread of physically dying? In other words, does the word "fear" connotate something more than fright (being scared)?

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5 Answers 5

To an unbeliever, there are two deaths. First the physical death, then the eternal death. An unbeliever will not acknowledge the second and therefore can only fear the physical.

"But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death(Rev 21:8, KJV)."

To a believer, there are two deaths, but he will endure only one because he has been spared by Christ.

"He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death(Rev 2:11, KJV)."

So the end result is the fear of death is physical in both cases.

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Short Answer: Yes, the "fear of death" refers to being afraid of physically dying, as shown by the context in which it is used. The point is that Christ's solidarity with His people gave His people hope, thereby freeing them up to live the life He was calling them to without concern for what it might cost them. The passage is not about unbelievers and whether they are willing to die for a cause.

Exegesis: Groundwork

Since you're asking this question on BiblicalHermeneutics.SE, let's put theology and personal observations on hold for the moment and just look at what the author was attempting to communicate in the text. (Aside from site restrictions, that is just good practice in general when interpreting a passage.)

In order to determine how the author is using this term "fear of death," we're going to want to pay careful attention to the clues from the context of this speech-act. I will start with the big-picture and move down through the layers of context to that specific instance of the term. (Since this is not a Christian site, I'll skip the context of Redemptive History, and of the complete canon.)

1. Purpose of the complete literary work

Hebrews was most likely written around AD 68 to Jewish Christians of Hellenistic influence. This was a time of great persecution and trials for those of the Christian faith. Hebrews was a "word of exhortation" (13:22) to these Christians to persevere and continue in their decision to follow Jesus no matter what it cost them.1

2. Function of the passage in the literary work

The passage (2:10-18) serves to:

  • (A) expand on v.9, which says that the Son was made lower (i.e. human) so that He might taste death for everyone, and

  • (B) introduce the bulk of the work (Ch. 3-10), which presents Jesus as our High Priest.

3. Purpose of the passage:

The purpose of this passage is to show that it is was necessary for the Son to have solidarity with the people of God in order to be their High Priest. Here are a few examples from the passage:

since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death -14

He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest -17

since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted. -18

In other words, the author is showing that it is because the Son become like the children of God that He is able to come to their aid.

It is important to note that the author is emphasizing that the Son became like the children of God -- not like unbelievers. For example, consider the author's choice of words in the following verses: "sons" in v.10, "brethren" in v.11, "brethren" and "congregation" in v.12, "children" in v.13 and v.14, "descendants of Abraham" in v. 16 (cf. Gal. 3:6-9), "brethren" and "the people" in v.17.

4. Function of v.15 in the passage:

The NLT does a good job of conveying the author's flow of thought in v.14-15:

Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death. Only in this way could he set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying.

What the author is saying here is that Jesus had to come in the flesh and die (thereby breaking the power of death) before He could free those who had lived their lives enslaved to the "fear of death." (Remember, the children are in view here, not the unbelievers in general.)

Exegesis: The referent

Keep in mind that Jesus died, and many of His closest followers also died. The author of Hebrews is well aware of this. This is not a claim that He set the children free from the expectation of physical death, but rather, that He set them free from the "fear of death." How did He "set them free from the fear of death"? Both the author and the readers were familiar with the Gospel message -- namely, that Jesus not only died, but also rose from the dead. This is a big deal to the NT authors. For example, at one point Paul exclaims:

if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. . . . If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied. But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. -1 Corinthians 15:16-20

. . . Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord. -v.58

The NT writers held Jesus' resurrection from the dead as the reason for their willingness to live the Christian life of persecution and self-sacrifice. It is precisely because Jesus rose from the dead that the early Christians were not afraid to die. Likewise, the author of Hebrews is explaining that Jesus had to come in the flesh and die so that He could set the children free from their fear of death -- so that they could live a life of following Christ without concern for what it may cost them.


What about those kamikazes and suicide bombers?

Though this is less of a hermeneutics question, there are several important notes to make about the exegesis of the passage as it relates to these two examples:

  • The author of Hebrews is presenting the Son of God as one who became like the children of God so that He could help the children of God... the unbeliever is not in view here

  • In this passage, the author of Hebrews focuses on Christ's ability to come to the aide of those children who face what He faced. There is no indication that the children will not face these things, or that they will not have to experience these things -- the indication is that Christ is able to aide the children when they face these things

  • In this passage, the author of Hebrews is presenting Jesus' conquest as a means for helping the children. The point is not really that "everyone fears death" or even that "no follower of Christ will ever fear death." The point is that Christ is able to aide those children who are facing what He faced (e.g. death)

So, in summary, I don't know if every unbeliever is terrified of dying. What I do know is that the author of Hebrews wants his readers to know that the believer has nothing to fear when faced with death, because he can hope in Christ, since Christ also faced death and conquered it.


1: Dr. Thomas L. Constable, Notes on Hebrews: 2013 Edition, http://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes.htm (accessed February 6, 2013), 1-4

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The context is under the idea that Christ assumed human nature in order to suffer death that sinners might be free from its bondage. In other words enabling us to say:

“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.( The New International Version. 2011 (1 Co 15:55–57).)

This actually answers the question for the Devil having introduced sin into the world became the prince of death and sin. By his malice mankind fell under the penalty of death under God’s law making us horrified at the thought of entering into God’s holy and eternal judgment for our guilt through transgressions. Under God’s condemnation and sentence of death against sin, it has become the power of Satan to terrify and affright our conscience with the expectation and dread of it, bringing us into bondage. This Christ came to destroy. The fear of death is a trouble of mind which men have in the expectation of death to be inflicted on them, as a punishment due to their sins. This fear Christ has removed in dying for us.

John Owen explains well how although this ‘apprehension is common to all men’ and ‘arising from a general presumption that death is penal’ and that it is the ‘judgment of God’ that they which commit sin are worthy of death‚ as Rom. 1:32, 2:15 – yet not all men are sensible of it:

But sinners in their natural state fear death as it is penal, as an issue of the curse, as under the power of Satan, as a dreadful entrance into eternal ruin. There are, indeed, a thousand ways whereby this fear is for a season stifled in the minds of men. Some live in brutish ignorance, never receiving any full conviction of sin, judgment, or eternity. Some put off the thoughts of their present and future estate, resolving to shut their eyes and rush into it, whenas they can no longer avoid it. Fear presents itself unto them as the forerunner of death, but they avoid the encounter, and leave themselves to the power of death itself. Some please themselves with vain hopes of deliverance, though well they know not how nor why they should be partakers of it. But let men forego these helpless shifts, and suffer their own innate light to be excited with such means of conviction as they do enjoy, and they will quickly find what a judgment there is made in their own souls concerning death to come, and what effects it will produce. They will conclude that it is “the judgment of God, that they which commit sin are worthy of death,” Rom. 1:32; and then their own consciences do accuse and condemn them, Rom. 2:14, 15; whence unavoidably fear, dread, and terror will seize upon them. (Owen, J. (1854). Vol. 20: An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, Volume 3 (W. H. Goold, Ed.). Works of John Owen (441–442). Edinburgh: Johnstone and Hunter.)

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Do you see fear of death in this context as physical death or spiritual death? If spiritual death, what meaning would fear take? Please see Eph 5:21 for an alternative use of "fear." In other words, could the term "fear of death" in Heb 2:15 mean that unbelievers are subject to slavery because of the power of the sphere of spiritual death? In Eph 5:21 we see the use of the word "fear" to mean subjectivity to the power of the love of Christ (spiritual life). In Heb 2:15, that "fear" is subjectivity to the power of spiritual death. "Fear" is thus what subjugates. What are your thoughts? –  Joseph May 2 '13 at 5:09
    
@Joseph - I do not think this fear is anything like a holy reverent fear which makes us willingly subject to God - that is liberating fear. This is fear over physically dying (due to the final judgment) and is a tormenting fear of bondage. The two fears are almost opposites. Deliverance versus bondage. Fear of Christ delivers sinners from fear of death. One fear is replaced by a different kind of fear. –  Mike May 2 '13 at 9:38
    
There is the parallel of slavery to life and to death in Rom 6:15-18. In that context, life is not physiological life, but spiritual life; and death is not physiological death, but spiritual death. Paul highlights the slavery to spiritual life and to spiritual death, respectively. Do you think that the context in Heb 2:15 could be referring to slavery to spiritual death? In other words, there is the fear of God (slavery to righteousness) and the fear of death (slavery to unrighteousness). Do you see the parallel? Fear therefore is subjugation - either to spiritual life, or to spiritual death. –  Joseph May 2 '13 at 20:36
    
@Joseph - Subjection does not change the meaning for me as that is already understood. Sinners are subject to death and subject to the fear of physical death because it is the entrance into the 'final subjection' of the second death. Same difference to me? –  Mike May 2 '13 at 22:59
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@Joseph - yes. This fear is 'one' of the aspects of their slavery that Christ frees us from. It is one of those bondages that the Devil personally uses to torment those who are subject to his malicious rule. –  Mike May 3 '13 at 3:33
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It is a good question that gives a lot to think about.

For terrorists we must assume that their human ability to feel fear (and anticipate guilt) is narcoticized by blinded hatred and utter delusion about themselves. Paul wrote that there is a certain insensibilty of the heart which can darken a human's perceptiveness of his mind. So a terrorist (as any evil person) would not consciously feel the fear. But still he inflicts it on others, and by doing this he indulges in a feeling of superiority even more, knowing he causes fear (an anticipation of pain) to others.

Christ himself suffered fear unspeakable. He was not overcome by it. (So fear is not the object of critique. Even the most rightful one faced it.) It is the anxiousness that leads into a cowardice of wrongdoing which is to be feared more than death.

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pls see my comment to "Mike." Do you see the use of "fear" in Eph 5:21 as bearing on the use of "fear" in Heb 2:15? In other words, if "fear" is the subjectivity to the power of love (in Eph 5:21), then could the slavery in Heb 2:15 be referring to subjectivity to the power of spiritual death (as opposed to bodily death)? Most interpreters take the reference to death in Heb 2:15 as meaning the death of the body, but do you think there is room to interpret "death" here to mean spiritual death instead? That is, unbelievers are subject to the slavery of the power of spiritual death? –  Joseph May 2 '13 at 5:16
    
Hi Joseph! Thanks for asking me. I'll think about it. –  hannes May 2 '13 at 15:32
    
We fear what we know has an impact on us. We fear what is mightier than we are. God for this reason is to be feared most. However, if one chooses not to know God, there remains in his mind nothing to be feared more than death. Death is the ultimate loss to be suffered, once there is no trusting in God anymore. God alone is able to bring us to life, even if we have died. –  hannes May 3 '13 at 0:16
    
God does not torment anyone. This fear of death, however, remains because eventually it is inevitable. Someone cannot forever escape it. –  hannes May 3 '13 at 0:34
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When Jonah was thrown overboard the boat, he had already embraced his fate, and of course he died when he was swallowed by the great fish. (Please click here or here.) When Job was in the midst of his suffering, he stated on many occasions his immanent expectation of entering Sheol without compunction. Even Shadrach, Mishach, and Abednego had no assurance that the Lord would deliver them from the fiery furnace of Nebuchadnezzar, and declared their resolve to die which only served to enrage Nebuchadnezzar (Dan 3:16-18). So there are examples in the Hebrew Bible of people who had no fear of physical death, but had in fact embraced their fate with stoic anticipation. Even the thief on the cross had accepted his immanent death with resolve before he was told by Jesus that he would be in paradise (Luke 23:41-43).

Of course there is no need here to demonstrate or document at this point that the same stoic resolve to embrace death exists today among both believers and unbelievers (for example, the terminally ill).

So, in the context of the Hebrews passage, what is "the fear of death," if there are examples in the Hebrew Bible of those who were not frightened by the prospect of their pending physical death? What kind of "fear" are we talking about?

Hebrews 2:14-16 (NASB)
14 Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives. 16 For assuredly He does not give help to angels, but He gives help to the descendant of Abraham.

The passage at first blush may refer to sheer fright at the prospect of physical death, which makes perfect sense. But the mention of Satan and slavery forces us to the Book of Romans, where one encounters the relationship between fear and slavery in the context of death. In the following passage from Romans, the release from the slavery to "fear" stems from the liberty we receive from the Holy Spirit, who is eternal life.

Romans 8:12-15 (NASB)
12 So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— 13 for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. 15 For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!”

In other words, the sons of God (Romans), or the children of God (Hebrews), are not slaves to "fear" because in context they are now freed from the domain of darkness, which is spiritual death. In the Hebrews passage, the children of God are set free from fear of the devil's power of spiritual death, and in Romans, the sons of God are made free from the power of the flesh, whose power has died. This freedom is from the power is spiritual death. That is, believers no longer live in the thrall of spiritual death, which is slavery. In other words, the "fear of death" is not talking about being frightened, but being a slave or living in thrall to the power of spiritual death.

Thus all unbelievers live in the thrall of spiritual death. That is, they live in "fear of death" because they are slaves to spiritual death, which is the power of the devil.

Revelation 21:8 (NASB)
8 But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”

The "cowardly" are those who live in the thrall of spiritual death, which is NOT limited to the idea of the fear of physically dying. (In the passage above, unbelievers are resurrected and appear before the last judgment only to suffer a second physical death upon entering the Lake of Fire.) In other words, an unbeliever who exists in the thrall of spiritual death may NOT necessarily live in the fear of physical death. In either case, existing in the thrall to spiritual death is living in the "fear of death," and thus one is a slave to sin.

Thus the biblical concept of fear not only means to be scared, but to be in thrall of some power, and thus the idea of slavery. (For example, "slavery to righteousness" is living in thrall to God's power according to Romans 6:16-22.) In both the Romans passages and the Hebrews passage, the idea is either to be in the thrall to spiritual death (Hebrews) or in the thrall to spiritual life (Romans passages), and thus the idea of slavery. In one case, the thrall is to the power of Satan (Hebrews 2:14) and on the other hand, the thrall is to the Spirit of God. As sons of God (or children of God), we are released from the power of spiritual death, and therefore no longer live in the thrall of that power, but live in the thrall of the Spirit, which is why we are "slaves" of righteousness, or even "bond servants" of Christ Jesus as the preface of so many New Testament epistles would indicate.

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