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The Shaking of the Foundations by Paul Tillich

Paul Tillich is generally considered one of the century's outstanding and influential thinkers. After teaching theology and philosophy at various German universities, he came to the United States in 1933. For many years he was Professor of Philosophical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, then University Professor at Harvard University. His books include Systematic Theology; The Courage to Be; Dynamics of Faith; Love, Power and Justice; Morality and Beyond; and Theology of Culture. This book was published by Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, in 1955 and is out of print. This material was prepared for Religion Online by John Bushell.

Chapter 21: The Destruction of Death

Forasrnuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might 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. For verily, he took not on him the nature of angels; but he took on him the seed of Abraham. Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people. For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succour them that are tempted. Hebrews 2:14-18.


The darkness into which the light of Christmas shines is above all the darkness of death. The threat of death, which shadows the whole road of our life, is the dark background of the Advent expectation of mankind. Death is not merely the scissors which cuts the thread of our life, as a famous ancient symbol indicates. It is rather one of those threads which are woven into the design of our existence, from its very beginning to its end. Our having to die is a shaping force through our whole being of body and soul in every moment. The face of every man shows the trace of the presence of death in his life, of his fear of death, of his courage toward death, and of his resignation to death. This frightful presence of death subjects man to bondage and servitude all his life, according to our text. So far as I stand in fear, I stand not in freedom; and I am not free to act as the situation .demands, but am bound to act as the pictures and imaginations produced by my fear drive me to act. For fear is, above all, fear of the unknown; and the darkness of the unknown is filled with the images created by fear. This is true even with respect to events on the plane of daily life: the unknown face terrifies the infant; the unknown will of the parent and the teacher creates fear in the child; and all the unknown implications of any situation or new task produce fear, which is the feeling of not being able to handle the situation. All this is true to an absolute degree with respect to death -- the absolutely unknown; the darkness in which there is no light at all, and in which even imagination vanishes; that darkness in which all acting and controlling cease, and in which everything which we were is finished; the most necessary and impossible idea at the same time; the real and ultimate object of fear from which all other fears derive their power, that fear that overwhelmed even Christ at Gethsemane.

But we must ask what is the reason for this fear. Are we not finite, limited and unable to imagine or to wish for an infinite continuation of our finiteness? Would that not be more terrible than death? Is there not a feeling within us of fulfillment, of satisfaction, and of weariness with respect to life, as is evident in the words about the Old Testament Patriarchs? Is not the law -- dust to dust -- a natural law? But then why is it used as a curse in the Paradise story? There must be something more profoundly mysterious about death than the natural melancholy which accompanies the realization of our transitoriness. Paul points to it, when he calls death the wages of sin, and sin, the sting of death. And our text, as well, speaks of "him that had the power of death, that is, the devil" -- the organized power of sin and evil. Death, although natural to every finite being, seems at the same time to stand against nature. But it is man only who is able to face his death consciously; that belongs to his greatness and dignity. It is that which enables him to look at his life as a whole, from a definite beginning to a definite end. It is that which enables him to ask for the meaning of his life -- a question which elevates him above his life, and gives him the feeling of his eternity. Man's knowledge that he has to die is also man's knowledge that he is above death. It is man's destiny to be mortal and immortal at the same time. And now we know what the sting of death is, and why the devil has the power of death: we have lost our immortality. It is not that we are mortal which creates the ultimate fear of death, but rather that we have lost our eternity beyond our natural and inescapable mortality; that we have lost it by sinful separation from the Eternal; and that we are guilty of this separation.

To be in servitude to the fear of death during our lifetime means being in servitude to the fear of death which is nature and guilt at the same time. In the fear of death, it is not merely the knowledge of our finiteness that is preserved, but also the knowledge of our infinity, of our being determined for eternity, and of our having lost eternity. We are slaves of fear, not because we have to die, but because we deserve to die!

Therefore, salvation is not a magic procedure by which we lose our finiteness. It is rather a judgment which declares that we do not deserve to die, because we are justified -- a judgment which is not based on anything that we have done, for then certainly we would not have faith in it. But it is based on something that Eternity itself has done, something that we can hear and see, in the reality of a mortal man who by his own death has conquered him who has the power of death.

If Christmas has any meaning, it has that meaning. Ask yourself, as you listen to the prophecies of Advent and to the stories of Christmas, whether your attitude toward death has changed; whether you are any longer in servitude to the fear of death; and whether you can stand the image of your own death. Do not deceive yourself about the seriousness of death -- not death in general, not the death of somebody else, but your own death -- by nice arguments for the immortality of the soul. The Christian message is more realistic than those arguments. It knows that we, really we, have to die; it is not just a part of us that has to die. And within Christianity there is only one "argument" against death: the forgiveness of sins, and the victory over Him who has the power of death. It speaks of the coming of the Eternal to us, becoming temporal in order to restore our eternity. The whole man is mortal and immortal at the same time: the whole man is temporal and eternal at the same time; the whole man is judged and saved at the same time, because the Eternal took part in flesh and blood and fear of death. That is the message of Christmas.

Summary Statement: The frightful presence of death subjects man to bondage and servitude all his life, according to our text. So far as I stand in fear, I stand not in freedom; and I am not free to act as the situation .demands, but am bound to act as the pictures and imaginations produced by my fear drive me to act.

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