Do you fear death?
I have attended 2 funerals in the last six weeks, the latest one for my Poppa who died at 91 two weeks ago. Both funerals were sad occasions. After the funeral last week I heard on the news about the 10 year anniversary of the Bali bombings – more reminders of death. The Bali bombing services were particularly sad because the dead were young people, people my age.
These funerals reminded me of my own mortality – that one day I will die. It’s not a cheery or happy thought, I find it sobering and chilling. Death is something that we don’t really think about and it’s something that’s outside our experience, but we will all go there. We will all die.
I think there is something to fear about death. Death is so final; its victory over us is complete. Given this comprehensive finality of death, I am somewhat surprised at the almost cavalier attitudes towards death that some atheists propose. Recently deceased atheist Christopher Hitchens said,
“Do I fear death? No, I am not afraid of being dead because there’s nothing to be afraid of, I won’t know it.”
If the atheist worldview is right then Hitchens correctly observes that we won’t know that we are dead. But I can’t see how this removes the fear of death, for the fear of death comes precisely because we won’t know it. In the atheist world, when we die, we are annihilated, we cease to exist and we fail to perceive anything about our world or reality.
Our minds fail to grasp what non-perception is like. We are physical creatures, we perceive, interrogate and experience the world around us – we are the sum total of our experiences. Yet to lose that, to die, ends these experiences. Death ends our sense of perception, it ends our experience. Death is a foreign experience. I cannot begin to wonder what that will feel like – or more correctly what not perceiving feels like. In the atheist philosophy death is so catastrophically and depressingly final. Life and consciousness become a tragic and cruel joke.
One of the puzzling enigmas of modern dialogue on religion is why so many atheists, notably anti-theists, are so militant in their opposition of God and an afterlife. Thomas Nagel wrote,
It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, hope that I'm right in my belief. It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that.
Even if there is no God or afterlife, surely we would want there to be one? Surely we would want to continue to exist and to perceive? I can’t quite understand why anti-theists adopt a no God at all costs attitude, particularly if it means ditching any hope after death.
So will we survive death? The Christian faith asserts that we will – that that there will be some kind of afterlife. Some will suffer punishment and others experience eternal life. Now, a common criticism of the Christian faith is that has simply been invented as a crutch for those who can’t bear the concept of annihilation – it is wish fulfilment i.e. we don’t want to die, hence we really want an afterlife to be true.
Yet, unlike any other world religion, Christianity doesn’t simply assert that there is an afterlife, it demonstrates one, through the resurrection of Jesus. This is why the resurrection is so crucial to Christian hope,
‘And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.” (1 Corinthians 15:17-19)
Jesus’ resurrection changes everything. If the reports of Jesus’ resurrection are true, then there is hope that we can survive death. Christian hope isn’t simply wishful thinking, it becomes an exercise of trust in an historical event. We can trust in Jesus’ resurrection and its historical occurrence and trust that we too will be raised to everlasting life, or we can trust that death is the end, the final word. I trust Jesus’ resurrection, and this gives hope that death’s victory is not complete,
'Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?' (1 Corinthians 15:55)
Photo by Northwoods Murphy from Pexels
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Hey Robert, some quick observations from someone who does not 'fear' death either. Please don’t interpret my bluntly honest writing style as being emotionally critical of you. I am critical of the ideas and don’t see the reason to dance around my communication with you because i know you understand my style. Cheers.
"But I can’t see how this removes the fear of death, for the fear of death comes precisely because we won’t know it."
This is factually incorrect. In a broad sense we all know we are going to die, after that we are quibbling about dates.
Secondly, many of us die of diseases and ailments and such in which we DO know when we will die. The percentages in this category would be massive.
And why does it stand to reason that not knowing something is cause for fear? I think this is more a result of indoctrination on the reasoning processes, a causal connection created in the brain. This is what i mean. From my experience Christianity is the easy fix, easy answer to hard questions, answers of which are actually subjective, unknown, unknowable or just one of a marketplace of ideas out there for the choosing. Thinking without the religious indoctrinations effects during childhood means there is simply no connection in the brain leading from the unknown to the emotion of fear. In the same region of thinking i can also claim that doubt is a source of strength whereas for the religiously thinking person its a negative. The WAY we think is everything here. I would simply offer that perhaps to seek out ways of knowing and thinking that you need to think outside your own box. Work at imagining how you would view these things should there be no such thing as a god or an afterlife. Until you have actually explored this what you are left with is finding meaning within the box. I have not read the rest of your article yet but am certain that your search for meaning will be wholly limited to the way you habitually think and reason. Personally i can lay claim to thinking from at least four different perspectives. Each one offers different insight and conclusions about death.
“Death is something that we don’t really think about and it’s something that’s outside our experience”
I do think about death. I have faced death once and confronted the death of my mother. I have contemplated dying and read about death and am even considering changing careers to something dealing with dead bodies such as undertaker. Death does not bother me and thinking about it dispels those lingering fears even more. Learning and being mindful of death, considering death and seeing death has been invaluable to my life.
“Death is so final”. I don’t think it is when i consider my part in a genetic chain and secondly finality is nothing to be afraid of either. Finality is everywhere in our lives and there is no rule or reason to associate finality with something negative. Its a throw away quote but its apt – “just because the evening had to end doesn’t mean the party was any less enjoyable”. You must concede that you don’t actually HAVE to think that way, its your choice or more specifically its what you are lead to by choosing Christianity as an ideology. Im sorry for that because its so negative and it doesn’t have to be that way. So much of the message of religion is born of or comes from negativity. And adding to that i don’t see my life as a war or a race and therefore death can not be victorious over me, im not in the race!
I reject the idea of death as a comprehensive finality because of my above points and so much more. I simply don’t think of it that way. Its a choice you make there and i can see why it leads to fear. For a practical example, should you die before your lovely wife, would you be ok for her to tell your kids that their Dads death is comprehensively final, that their own memories of you, the words you wrote down, the genes you passed on are nothing because your death is wholly final. Even with the inclusion of heaven your wife will still surely include these other things as a way to understand and feel good about ones life continuing in some way after death. I think you should reconsider using that term.
“If the atheist worldview is right then Hitchens correctly observes that we won’t know that we are dead. But I can’t see how this removes the fear of death, for the fear of death comes precisely because we won’t know it.” Another point on this – we don’t remember that we didn’t exist before we were born, we didn’t know when we would be born and yet we do not fear that. Two sides of the same coin. Before we were born we did not exist in the first place let alone cease to, before we existed we perceived nothing about our world or reality. And yet you don’t fear that.
“we are the sum total of our experiences. Yet to lose that, to die, ends these experiences”. I disagree, because my mothers experiences flavoured her dealings with me, i took part in some of her experiences. Experience is passed on, its how we teach. Experiences are shared and repeated among humanity and therefore don’t have to be lost when one person dies. My parenting is coloured by my mothers experiences as a parent.
“In the atheist philosophy death is so catastrophically and depressingly final. Life and consciousness become a tragic and cruel joke.” This is not just wrong but terribly insulting Robert. Like i said before, you have partly chosen and partly are a result of one way of thinking. You say the above with an authority i don’t accept or agree with. You have AN opinion and its no more valid than mine. So why say such a thing. I would love it if you could entertain the idea that you may be wrong here and not only that but you may be getting the rough end of the stick.
“why so many atheists, notably anti-theists, are so militant in their opposition of God and an afterlife.” And follows with one mans quote. So what? He also didn’t mention an afterlife or even allude to one. I am not militant about God or an afterlife, i have merely tried to be an honest seeker of meaning and truth and gone where it has lead me. You didn’t mention an Atheist like me in the blog and we both know why. It doesn’t suit the tone or conclusion of the piece, which while i still have not got there know whats coming. My name is Dan and i am a conscientious objector to the militant thought regimes of some Christians and Atheists. My voice is suppressed because it does not suit the machinations of these militant forms of organised thought.
“Even if there is no God or afterlife, surely we would want there to be one? Surely we would want to continue to exist and to perceive? I can’t quite understand why anti-theists adopt a no God at all costs attitude, particularly if it means ditching any hope after death.” Sooo wrong. I hope desperately for the prolonging of life. I am certain that death will become rare then meaningless within the coming generations. I point you to The Last Mortal Generation: How Science Will Alter Our Lives in the 21st Century by Damien Broderick as a starter read.
Secondly i don’t see how wishful thinking is at all useful a point to make. I truly wish that when i die i am transported to Middle Earth, im serious. That would be my idea of the perfect after life. But because i know existence and non existence doesn’t revolve around my wishes means my wishes are just that. Nobody is obliged to action them. Its the religious mind that is given these ideas of individual specialness and entitlement. Without that indoctrination it simply does not occur to my brain. That had to be implanted which thankfully it wasn’t until too late.
“Yet, unlike any other world religion, Christianity doesn’t simply assert that there is an afterlife, is demonstrates one, through the resurrection of Jesus.” Actually the afterlife is demonstrated by many religions in many ways including the way they choose the next Lama. The caste system is a demonstration of the actions of your previous life. Many religions have reincarnated leaders that those members absolutely believe. The evidences of behaviour and action observed by others when seeing the reincarnated soul of someone emerge in this new person is direct demonstration of the afterlife for them. And in its favour we have current examples and don’t have to rely on thousands of years gap. Should you be writing this as a Hindu you could use the exact same reasoning. The hope for the lower caste Indian in doing good in this life to be born into a rich family is truly powerful. That my friend is a hope that billions rely on and its a little cheeky of you to claim the resurrection has a special connection to hope and no other religion can offer similar. These people also trust in their own eyes and their experiences and beliefs. It gives them hope of victory over oppression and death. Thats the experience of the Hindu etc. Its the reasoning of a mind in a box marked ‘Christian thinking only, do not open’ that either ignores that or glosses over it with special treatment applied to one idea.
I wish i could lend you my mind just for a while. The experience of reading parts of this is interpreted in my mind as your being incredulous that people don’t think the way you do or unaware (or doggedly trying to ignore) that there are other ways of seeing death. I have hopefully offered just a few insights into why i see death differently to you and i hope its of some value in future writings. I think a wonderful thought experiment would be for you to re-write this blog from the perspective of someone who has concluded the resurrection was historically unrealistic and therefore death is by necessity something you need to consider without that Christian hope. I would love to read what conclusions, what ideas, what comforts, what hopes arise when you put on this new pair of shoes (even if its just for an hour) and look around with new eyes. You may discover things hidden or see things that have been right in front of you but never noticed. I dare you ;)
I have to concur with Dan. My father in law died two days ago and the knowledge of his good life is enough for me. I cannot see the sense in falling for the trap of thinking he has gone to one of manifold better places that various religions invent to ease the natural grief we experience when a body dies.
I was dead for billions of years before I was born and I did not suffer the slightest inconvenience...
Sam and Dan, Both of you raise this point about not being conscious before we were alive.
I was dead for billions of years before I was born and I did not suffer the slightest inconvenience
I recognise what you're saying, but this is exactly my point and why in the atheist universe life becomes some cruel joke. My point is that we didn't suffer inconvenience before death, but we also had never experienced consciousness, life or the universe. We were never aware of anything. Then to go back to that feeling, where there is nothing after experiencing the great gifts of life and thought and the universe in all its wonder and mystery I can't help but find depressing and meaningless.
Dan, thanks for the lengthy post, I'll try to respond, but I fear for much of my post you've missed my point.
"But I can’t see how this removes the fear of death, for the fear of death comes precisely because we won’t know it."
Your response to this misunderstands what I'm talking about. I'm not talking about when we die (agreed we are quibbling about dates) nor knowledge about this, but that in the atheist world we are no longer conscious of anything after death. I think this is the big fear of death (well it is for me).
“Death is so final” Your comments on here again completely miss the point. I wasn't reflecting on the goodness of the life before the end, but on the fact that it has to end. I can't see how Christianity is negative, because at this point I'm actually reflecting on atheism (and please remember this is a genuine existential quest I'm going on here!) I'm actually trying to embrace and understand atheism and it is atheism which is negative because no matter how good the party was, it still ends - and that is sad.
In your reflections on how final death is, sure, our existence and our experiences live with others for a while (until they all die and we are all lost to the world forever!), but for ourselves and our own consciousness, it is the end. It's final. We might like to think we live on in the memories of others, but that doesn't help my own conscious existence.
“In the atheist philosophy death is so catastrophically and depressingly final. Life and consciousness become a tragic and cruel joke.” Your comments on this again misunderstand me - it is me attempting to enter the atheist world. I'm puzzled, how have I got this wrong? What personal hope is there in the atheist world? As I reflect on it, I can't see anything but finality, lack of consciousness, nothing - that is depressing to me.
I also appreciate you being an honest seeker of truth. My subtle challenge to you is, why are you so passionate in rejecting the evidence for the resurrection?
As I said, I agree about wishful thinking - and I did address this in the post. My point is not that religion is wishful thinking, but that we should want there to be hope.
Your comments on Hinduism and reincarnation is interesting (and again, I feel you misunderstand my point). Can you give me a concrete example of someone who has demonstrated reincarnation? i.e. who can draw a clear and undisputed line of people/animals who they were in previous lives? I would suggest if you can't do that, then it reincarnation is merely assertion. The difference with resurrection is that Jesus was dead and was seen alive and no-one has ever produced a body.
In terms of your final comments - I have written this blog from my own atheist perspective. As I have contemplated atheism and death, these are some of my observations and reflections. I would certainly like to read or perhaps write a blog post like the one you have suggested, although I would suggest that my reflections would be quite similar to this one, except without the hope bit. I would find that a useful experiment, but also perhaps more depressing. I take up your dare!