Book Review: The Slavery of Death by Richard Beck

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At some point during Richard Beck’s The Slavery of Death, I found my reading transformed into worship. Beck, a regular blogger at Experimental Theology, is a skilled thinker who has mastered the art of integrating theology and psychology. This gift is nowhere more manifest than in this book, self-described as an attempt to “bring modern psychological science into conversation with Orthodox theology to illuminate what the writer of Hebrews describes as ‘slavery to the fear of death.’” (xiii) Beck’s thesis is that the fear of death, observed and analyzed by modern psychology, has demonically enslaved humanity and ensures that we will live selfish and violent lives. Salvation is thus found when death is defeated through Christ’s resurrection and his people, no longer afraid, are free to love sacrificially.

Beck’s work, a relatively short read, is divided into three parts. Part 1 (“The Last Enemy”) lays out the theological foundation for his thesis and explores the Orthodox understanding of sin and atonement. He highlights the Orthodox tradition of emphasizing death as the ultimate enemy of mankind. It is our mortality, inherited at birth, which produces in us the desire to grasp onto our lives and leads us into sin. Part 2 (“Held in Slavery by Their Fear of Death”) is Beck’s description of this slavery to the fear of death and its role in producing the devil’s works from a psychological perspective. He artfully expounds on the distinction between basic and neurotic anxiety as he illustrates the power which death holds over humanity. Beck draws frequently from the work Arthur McGill and Ernest Becker as he explores this specific interaction between psychology and the Scriptures. Part 3 (“There is No Fear in Love”) is Beck’s conclusion that it is love which leads to an emancipation fromthe fear of death. Further, Beck helpfully flushes out examples of how that liberation might be accomplished. He states, “To be set free from the slavery to the fear of death is to be liberated from self-interest in the act of genuine love. Thus the sign of Christ’s victory in our lives over sin, death, and the devil is the experience and expression of love. This is resurrection and life.” (24)

This book is both illuminating and provocative. It is a very brief read, which makes it all the more accessible. I highly recommend it, particularly to anyone interested in:

  • the relevance of Eastern Orthodox theology (including the Christus Victor theory of atonement)
  • the relevance of psychology to Christian theology
  • a thoughtful exploration of the meaning of Hebrews 2:14-15
  • a pastorally practical and theologically rich guide to living a life of resurrection

I received this book from Wipf & Stock (Cascade Books) in exchange for a fair review. 

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