Fearful Unto Death

The following is based on a true story. . .


It was summer and the old man was curled in a fetal position under a heavy quilt. He was upset. He’d been having hard dreams that left him confused. He dreamt she was sick, but was going to get better. He dreamt she was about to die. He dreamt she had been dead for three days.

From each dream he would awaken to a new reality. He knew one of them was true, but he had no idea which one. He would speak his last dream to a nurse, as if it were true, and she would help him adjust to reality. He would grieve and then doze again only to awaken from another dream whose veracity could only be confirmed when spoken aloud.

His family walked into the room and gently nudged him awake. They would be going home soon, so they didn’t mind disturbing him.

He awoke with understanding. He knew where they had been. His wife had been buried just an hour before, while he was trembling in his bed. Alone for the first time in 65 years.

The family gathered around to say their goodbyes. He was enjoying a pocket of clarity that would last for a few minutes. He could remember names and faces and carry on a conversation.

Each member of the family took their turn, knowing this could be the last time they would ever speak to him: granddaughter, grandson, daughter-in-law, and then son.

The old man had something on his mind and he waited to tell it to his son.

“I’m worried,” he said.

“About what, Daddy?”

“I’m worried about your momma. That maybe she didn’t live right the last few days. That she won’t make it.”

The son’s gut tightened in sympathy for his father, while his heart pounded in anger towards the twisted religion that produced such a confession. His parents had been Christians all their lives. Not just occasional “Christmas and Easter Christians” either. They were “go to church every time the doors were open” Christians. Sunday mornings, Sunday and Wednesday nights, and special events and meetings. They were always there in the pew, demonstrating their faithfulness.

They were afraid not to be. They believed that to willfully miss a religious service would constitute rebellion against a God who loved them, but only up to the point of their obedience.

For God so loved the world he gave his one and only son, along with the Holy Bible, full of commandments, examples, and necessary inferences that must be obeyed by everyone wanting a fighting chance of going to heaven when they die.  This was the gospel they heard and obeyed. It’s the gospel they’d impressed upon their children, friends, and neighbors.

Their gospel said that the Bible tells us what God expects from us, and if we do what the Bible says, there is a good chance we will be saved, because Jesus died to forgive and save those who do their very best to please the Father, especially those who are passionate about restoring the ancient pattern of the New Testament church, as long as they are faithful unto death.

Good news shouldn’t have that many commas.

It was a grueling version of Christianity that left its adherents feeling superior to those who didn’t conform to their right way of reading the Bible, while at the same time leaving them feeling perpetually insecure about their future salvation.

How could you ever know that you were doing enough to please God? What if you made a mistake somewhere along the way that you didn’t catch, but God did? What if you sinned and never had a chance to ask for forgiveness before you died?

This is what the old man was worried about. Had his precious wife, in the last few days of her life, as she oozed in and out of consciousness, said, or maybe even thought, something sinful? What if she cursed God in a moment of pain? What if she doubted something essential to salvation in her final moments? What if in her delirium she had failed to confess her sins and died in a state of lostness? Had she been disqualified from the prize?

These were not the irrational fears of a senile old man. This was the code that had governed his life, and his son knew it. He recognized the insecurity in his daddy’s voice.

“All we can do is try our best and then hope that on the Day of Judgment we’ve done enough.”

“Take heed, lest you fall.”

“Faithful unto death.”

He’d heard his parents say these lines so many times that his heart was forever hardened against the church in which he was raised.

The son wasn’t sure what to say. He looked to the others for help, but they had nothing to offer but sad expressions. He knew it wouldn’t do any to challenge the old man’s beliefs this late in the game.

He also knew his daddy well enough to understand that he wasn’t just worried about his wife. He was worried about himself as well, that he wouldn’t remain faithful unto death. This was terrifying prospect for someone who believed in a God who refused to make exceptions.

“Don’t worry. Momma’s fine. She’ll be all right and so will you. You did the best you could. That’s all you can do. You get some rest and don’t worry.”

Soon enough the window of clarity would close and the old man would return to his dreams. His family slipped out of the room with moist eyes, knowing the old man would awaken later and relive it all over again. Their best hope was that if death didn’t take him soon, then senility would eventually envelope his religious insecurity in a random pattern of incoherent dreams and worry-free awakenings.

What do you do with a gospel that causes a frail old man to tremble in his bed because he’s afraid that his just buried wife of sixty-five years might not be waiting for him in heaven because she made a mistake on her death bed?

What do you do with a gospel that fills a dying old man’s mind with worry because after living a life dedicated to obeying God, he believes he still might lose the prize and fail to join his wife in heaven, assuming she was able to do her part to meet him there?

What do you do with a gospel that makes old men and women fearful unto death?

I say you call it false and cast it into the depths of hell, where it belongs and where there is plenty of room for it.

Just as there is plenty of room in heaven for two sincere, but spiritually tortured Christians like my grandma and grandpa.

Maybe after half an eternity with Jesus, they’ll finally accept that they have nothing more to worry about.


  1. H.K. Ballard says:

    Thanks for the thoughts. I was raised in a Christian home. It was not until my older years I depend on God’s grace. I personally now believe the message we need to leave with people (ourselves) is God’s grace is greater than any sin we commit. God shared that message on the cross, His name is Jesus, the Son of God.

    Thanks again

  2. Damn good story telling. Thanks Wade.

  3. It is heartbreaking that people have to doubt God’s saving grace because of such teaching. It makes me so angry, too. This is beautifully said and written. Thank you.

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