Two contributors present brief essays in response to some
perennial questions. Each writes independently of the other. One comes
from a person closely linked to a Christian denomination. The other
comes from a person at the fringes of the traditional Church.
Should we fear death?
been near death on three occasions in the past few years, I have a deep
interest in the question, “Should we fear death?”
Allow me to
be a bit pedantic and parse the word, “Fear.”
In a biblical sense it can mean reverence and awe such as the fear of
God. In more common usage fear
can mean fright and alarm anticipating danger.
the embrace of retreating consciousness and the real possibility of
imminent death I was truly frightened. There was no time to engage in
philosophic reflection about fearing death in a biblical sense. It was
in my face. I was alarmed and frightened.
Yet I was
able to muster my long-held faith and pray fervently for help, to ask
for courage to withstand the assault on my physical and mental
faculties. That did not fail me. The fact I am still alive and
functioning well is a testament to the efficaciousness of my prayers. I
don’t think the physical realities were necessarily changed in my
favor but the psychological factors certainly were.
these ordeals my mind was filled with thoughts of my wife and family and
what disruption and pain my death would cause them. Certainly it would
be unthinkable to inflict pain on loved ones even though it could not be
helped. I even had a sense of guilt for putting them through the moments
death even with the Christian hope of eternal life can still be
frightening similar to going to a dentist. You may have the reassurance
that all will turn out well but in the meantime you will have pain and
your endurance will be tested.
I know the
concept of eternal life is ridiculed by many as hopelessly naïve and
Pollyanna-ish. For me it is an essential component of life. I have
previously contended that human consciousness is composed of time past,
time present and time future. When any of the three elements is absent
there is discord and dysfunction. One might consider it similar to an
unresolved musical cord. The concept of eternal life (time future)
resolves the cord of human consciousness and life.
It is our
consciousness that enables our fright and fear of death. Were we not
conscious during the ordeal of dying it would cause no alarm. In our
dying we relinquish our consciousness, the very cipher of our humanity.
Thus, we are destined to be frightened of death by our physical nature.
The drive for self-preservation and avoidance of death must surely be
written in the human genome as an evolutionary mechanism. Depriving life
must be abhorrent to that mechanism and thus facilitates fright in the
face of death.
We can fear
(stand in awe of) death for its necessity and inevitability by appealing
to our spiritual resources for a sense of meaning at the end of life. We
need a sense of time future to complete the harmony of the human cord. I
recently attended a Russian Orthodox Church service during which the
following bidding prayer struck me:
Christian ending to our life:
Painless, blameless, and peaceful;
let us ask of the Lord.
it, O Lord.
it be so for me and you.
Death as a negative event has dominated Christian
thought over the centuries. In contrast, the Hebrew Bible is quite clear
that there is no “life after death”. Humans are like animals in the
sense that their life or essence returns to the Creator when they die.
Only later did a rather vague idea of a shadowy after-world called Sheol
arise amongst the Hebrews - perhaps through contact with Greeks and
Persians. Death for the Hebrew is natural and normal and does not usher
in either heaven or hell.
It is Paul in his letters who perceives death as a
profoundly hostile force. This death, inherited willy-nilly by us all,
derives from the primal sin of Adam and Eve. It is ultimately more than
just physical death. It is utter separation from God, a separation which
amounts to the death of the soul or self, for only in God do we live and
move and have our being. Only wholehearted commitment to Jesus of
Nazareth can save us from this terrible outcome. Perhaps it is this
teaching which has often given Christians stubborn tenacity in the face
of threats of suffering and death. Better to die a physical death true
to Jesus, they have said, than to suffer an eternal spiritual death
through denying him. Death by persecution is to be welcomed, not feared.
In our times, many of us find ourselves harbouring
a strange mixture of approaches to death. Always in the background are
dreadful medieval images of eternal torments inflicted with pleasure on
unrepentant sinners by a sadistic Satan and his cohorts. While we would
not easily admit these persistent images to anyone ( perhaps not even to
ourselves), they are often there. We can’t help wondering if we’re
“Going to heaven” or “Going to hell” when we die - as though
both are places in an afterlife of some sort.
It would be wrong to assert that these medieval
fears have lessened in the modern age. Christianity, while slowly
diminishing in the secular West, is alive and growing fast in Africa,
the south Americas and Asia. Many millions, no doubt, think of death in
much the same terms as did Westerners some time ago. That is, they fear
it both for its earthly finality and for the uncertain prospect of
either joy or torment.
In the secular West, however, it is only death in
the former sense which is more usually the source of any fear. Not only
is death the final unknown, but we also must still face the process
of dying. That is, we tend to fear dying rather more than death itself.
We know that we are part of a natural world in which death is the
universal norm for living creatures. We are nevertheless acutely
self-aware and able to reflect on death as the point at which our lives
end. Fear of the unknowable is normal and natural. It is not easy for a
self-aware being to fearlessly anticipate absolute termination of self.
But we more and more tend to banish (or try to banish) thoughts of
reward and punishment connected with “life after death”.
Not only do we tend to see ourselves as part of
nature, but we also look to hard evidence to provide us with good reason
to draw conclusions about our world and about ourselves. Despite
accounts of near-death experiences (note that these are near-death,
not death experiences), there is no convincing evidence from beyond the
grave. Nor, if a scientific view of the universe is correct, can there
be. Death, the point at which all our cells stop functioning and then
decay, is final. We can’t experience anything from that point onwards.
And if that is correct, then dying has a sting -
but not death itself.