Athanasius and Terror Management Theory

Being married to a psychologist, sale I always get excited when I find areas where theology and psychology intersect. One of Chuck’s areas of expertise is Terror Management Theory, pharmacy established in 1989 in an article by Abram Rosenblatt, here Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, Tom Pyszczynski, and Deborah Lyon published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Terror Management Theory (TMT) is a theory of motivation with strong existential roots. TMT describes humans as unique in our ability to think about the future, which gives us the tremendous advantage of being able to plan and anticipate. But this advanced cognitive ability has a downside. Thinking about the future makes us aware of our mortality, which causes intense anxiety. We buffer ourselves against this anxiety (“managing” our “terror”) by holding to a shared cultural worldview that provides us with an explanation for why our brief lives have meaning, what life is all about, how we should live it; and ultimately provides a promise of some form of immortality. The promised immortality can be literal (heaven, resurrection) or symbolic (creating long-lasting works of art, having a positive impact on society, raising children who outlive you, etc). By pursuing a meaningful life, we are pursuing immortality, and our existential anxiety is overcome.

It’s interesting to see where TMT appears in theology, especially when it’s old theology that dates well before the psychologists put a name to it. (Ecclesiastes comes to mind, in which the author rejects symbolic forms of immortality in favour of the literal immortality associated with one’s relation to God). In On the Incarnation, Athanasius has an extended discussion of the effects of the Resurrection on the lives of Christian believers. Based largely on an examination of 1Corinthians 15, Athanasius argues that before Christ came, died and was resurrected, even the holiest of men feared death. But because of Christ’s resurrection, death has been defeated, and Christians are promised resurrection like Christ. As such Christians no longer fear death, but instead embrace it.

Athanasius points to the martyrs as examples of this. They are the ones who “prefer to die rather than to deny their faith in Christ.” He argues that before these martyrs knew Christ they did fear death, and having encountered the risen Saviour, do so no longer. In fact, now men, women and even children mock death. Athanasius even uses the martyrs’ willingness to die as evidence for the reality of the Resurrection of Christ. Everyone is afraid of death, but not these Christians. The change is because of the power of the Resurrection.

He writes,

If you see with your own eyes men and women and children, even, thus welcoming death for the sake of Christ’s religion, how can you be so utterly silly and incredulous and maimed in your mind as not to realise that Christ, to Whom these all bear witness, Himself gives victory to each, making death completely powerless for those who hold His faith and bear the sign of the cross? No one in his senses doubts that a snake is dead when he sees it trampled underfoot, especially when he knows how savage it used to be; nor, if he sees boys making fun of a lion, does he doubt that the brute is either dead or completely bereft of strength. These things can be seen with our own eyes, and it is the same with the conquest of death. Doubt no longer, then, when you see death mocked and scorned by those who believe in Christ, that by Christ death was destroyed, and the corruption that goes with it resolved and brought to end. (pg. 59-60)

Of course, we might wonder if the accounts and testimonies of the martyrs of the early Church are exaggerated so that confidence is highlighted and any fears, doubts or even public recantations are minimized, but the modern psychology of TMT does suggest that religion is indeed a powerful buffer that minimizes death anxiety.

That being said, TMT is powerless to support Athanasius’ argument that the ability to face death proves the truth of Jesus’ Resurrection. One of the best books on TMT is In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror, in which the September 11th attacks are analyzed using TMT research and principles. The ability of the terrorists to willingly sacrifice themselves in suicide attacks points to the power of religious worldviews to overcome death anxiety. Similar willingness to die can be seen in the practice of self-immolation, which is becoming increasingly-common in Asia. In 2001-2002, for example, over 3,000 Indians burned themselves to death, many in protest of government policies perceived to be anti-Hindu. Self-immolation is also a common form of protest among Tibettan Buddhists. Willingness to die does not prove that Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism is true, only that, as TMT predicts, these religious worldviews have the power to overcome the fear of death. The ability to buffer against death is not unique to the Christian worldview; rather, if TMT is correct, it is a function of all worldviews.

Do you fear death? Has the proclamation of the Resurrection changed how you see death? Have you found that your Christian worldview buffers against death anxiety?