This is the second post in a series on The Sickness Unto Death. For other posts in the series, see here.
Now a certain man was sick, named Lazarus, of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha. (It was that Mary which anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick.) Therefore his sisters sent unto him, saying, “Lord, behold, he whom thou lovest is sick.” When Jesus heard that, he said, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby.” (John 11:1-4, KJV)
The title of Kierkegaard’s text is taken from John 11:4 and the story of Lazarus. By this story Kierkegaard makes a distinction between physical death and spiritual death. Quite characteristically, Kierkegaard will refer to both as simply “death” and it is up to the reader to distinguish which he means at any given time. This may lead to confusion, but forces the reader to engage and participate in the text.
Humanly speaking, death is the end; it is the “sickness unto death.” But for the Christian death “is only a minor event within that which is all, an eternal life” (8). Every earthly suffering one can imagine, the horrors of war, plagues, destruction, are not the “sicknesses unto death.” The Christian, by coming to Christ, has learned both the best of all things and the worst of all things. The best, of course, is eternal life. But in coming to learn of eternal life, the Christian is also made aware of the thing which surpasses all earthly suffering and torment, and that thing is the “sickness unto death.” The non-Christian does not fear the “sickness unto death” because he does not know what it is. By fearing physical death, the non-Christian is like a child who runs or cowers from things that are not really horrifying. It is only the Christian that fears what is truly horrifying, and that is the sickness unto death; Kierkegaard calls the sickness unto death the “most appalling danger that the Christian has learned” (9).
Kierkegaard identifies “the sickness unto death” as “despair,” and defining and explaining this “despair” is subject of the book.
Though he does not do so, Kierkegaard could have just as easily made the same point from Mathew 10:28:
And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.
Stay tuned as we turn next to just what the “sickness unto death” (i.e., despair) is.