C.S. Lewis on Jesus’ fear of death

In 1932, C.S. Lewis wrote a letter to his good friend Owen Barfield on the topic of Jesus’ fear of death, particularly as presented in the Garden of Gethsemane scenes in the gospels. Barfield was apparently troubled by the idea that the Son of God should’ve experienced such terror in the face of death when many lesser men had apparently overcome their fear of death.

In response, Lewis distinguishes three classes of people with respect to the fear of death: the “very bad” who fear death because it represents the defeat of their “false freedom” of egoistic self-determination; the “virtuous,” who are only able to overcome their fear of death with the aid of some other sentiment that depends on a “defect” of some kind (such as pride or weariness); and, finally the “Perfect.”

Lewis suggest that Jesus–as the Perfect One–in some ways more closely resembles the first class than the second. This is because for him, death also represents a defeat of freedom, but it is “Real Freedom”:

What is it to an ordinary man to die, if once he can set his teeth to bear the merely animal fear? To give in–he has been doing that nine times out of ten all his life. To see the lower in him conquer the higher, his animal body turning into lower animals and these finally into the mineral–he has been letting this happen since he was born. To relinquish control–easy for him as slipping on a well worn shoe. But in Gethsemane it is essential Freedom that is asked to be bound, unwearied control to throw up the sponge, Life itself to die. Ordinary men have not been so much in love with life as is usually supposed: small as their share of it is they have found it too much to bear without reducing a large portion of it as nearly to non-life as they can: we have drugs, sleep, irresponsibility, amusement, are more than half in love with easeful death–if only we could be sure it wouldn’t hurt! Only He who really lived a human life (and I presume that only one did) can fully taste the horror of death. (Letters of C.S. Lewis, W.H. Lewis, ed., p. 305)

Note that Lewis is saying that Jesus’ experienced the fear of death more intensely because he “really lived a human life.” Lewis disdains the idea (which he attributes to Barfield) that Christ suffered simply “from the mere fact of being in the body” as “mythological in the bad sense.” Jesus feared death more because he loved life more.

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