In a 1973 Pulitzer Prize winning work of psychology, The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker argued that much human effort is spent grappling with the reality of death and attempting to overcome (deny) it. Becker traced this frustration to humanity’s duality: “Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever” (26).
Much of the book is given to Søren Kierkegaard and Sigmund Freud’s differing analysis of this duality and its effects. Becker discusses the ways that humans push back against this fear of death—sexuality, relationships, heroic accomplishments, etc.—and chronicles the psychological effects of most people’s recognition of their failure to cheat death. Principally, he notes, we deny death by producing various shields to block or distract ourselves from really reckoning with it, often to damaging psychological and spiritual effect.
Kierkegaard concluded that the way through this impasse is to confront directly our dependence upon the Ultimate Power, and our fundamental inability to transcend death or make our lives eternally meaningful. Becker summarizes: “One goes through it all to arrive at faith, the faith that one’s very creatureliness has some meaning to a Creator; that despite one’s true insignificance, weakness, death, one’s existence has meaning in some ultimate sense because it exists within an eternal and infinite scheme of things brought about and maintained to some kind of design by some creative force” (90).
The psalmists’ model just such a response. Living lives far less buffered against the reality of death than we, they confront death directly. They speak of the “cords of death”, the pit, and Sheol. “What man can live and never see death? Who can deliver his soul from the power of Sheol?” (89:48). Their confrontation with death and the meaninglessness of life is raw and honest. Yet they do not confront death alone. Nearly as frequent are affirmations such as, “Bless the Lord, O my soul…who redeems your life from the pit” (103:4).
That said, the psalmists rarely seem to have a clear picture of how God will redeem them, nor how their lives will be made meaningful in the larger scope of God’s dealings. This confidence can be seen in the final verses of Psalm 102 where the psalmist both stands in awe of God’s utter vastness and unchangeability and yet also affirms “the children of your offspring shall dwell secure.”
“Full humanness,” Becker asserts, “means full fear and trembling, at least some of the waking day” (59), a daunting prospect no doubt. But denial, distraction, or defiance provide no way forward. Rather, we can be schooled by the psalmists in embodying a humble embrace of our frailty trusting our transcendence of death to God’s mysterious grace.