One of January’s feature articles was “Death is not an Event in Life” by James Still. Let me begin by saying how truly sorry I am that Mr. Still lost his father. I too have had loved-ones die. It can be very difficult to deal with and I’m sure he misses his father immensely. This feedback is in no way to belittle Mr. Still’s feelings. I hope only for his comfort and peace in this difficult loss.
There were, however, several remarks he made in his article which were obviously intended to strongly criticize those who feel both epistemologically and ethically justified in believing in an eternal afterlife. I would like to make some suggestions of my own with regard to several of his points. To begin on a more agreeable note, like Mr. Still I often hear the phrase “God called her home” or “God took him home” uttered by well-meaning people in the wake of death. And like Mr. Still, I believe such conclusions are misguided (though, again, those who make them mean well and are usually only repeating what they’ve heard before). I do not believe God “takes” anyone (suicides alone counter such an idea in my estimation). No, while we will all indeed die, I don’t have any reason to believe God causes our deaths. (The question as to why we die if God exists is another matter entirely and worthy of a separate discussion).
But here is where my concurrence with Mr. Still’s article ends. For, next he begins a philosophical assault on any notion of life after death by saying it robs life of its poignancy, even going so far as calling “eternal bliss in the Kingdom of God” the “ultimate insult” to a well-lived life. He further asserts that the desire to believe in heaven is “greedy” and one that denies the very purpose of death as well as the value of this life.
Is this correct? Well, to be sure there are some Christians out there who emphasize beliefs of heaven to the exclusion of this life and the meaning of death; I have met some of them. But the truth is, those Christians have not grown very deep in their faith or their understanding and their lives are usually marked with other emotional problems (another subject worthy of discussion elsewhere). Actually, there is a plethora of theistic philosophers out there who have written a great deal about the value of this life and the meaning of death. One idea in particular (which, by the way, is not opposed to biblical teaching) that has had great fecundity among philosophers and theologians hinges on the notion that this life is a means by which we build our character, a character that will carry on after death. We learn, grow, make choices, mature through good times and bad, etc., so that what we do or don’t do with our lives will indeed make a difference in some way as to how we will experience eternity (i.e., the well-lived life does matter). In such case, there is not some “magical transformation” that takes place when we die so that we all become blissful clones whereby our earthly lives no longer matter. Rather, we would take with us what we have become.
Now there is much here that I am leaving undone about this idea, but merely the option alone (without getting into logistic details) is enough to answer Mr. Still’s assertion. Such an explanation would mean that it is not an irrational or insulting belief to hold that one’s life matters both in how it is carried on in the hearts of those we leave behind as well as with us in the life to come. This is because such a belief would only encourage me to make this life count all the more. With the “soul-making” understanding of earthly life, no longer would eternity overshadow the importance of this life; no longer would this life be seen as only an “annoying preface” to “eternal bliss”.
But what of Mr. Still’s charge that belief in the afterlife will make one “inevitably fail to appreciate just how priceless is this life here and now”? Frankly, and I write this with all respect and sincerity, my heart just about broke with such an indictment. I believe in the afterlife, but I can tell you from the depths of my soul that every time I talk with my parents or hold my precious sons in my arms I am reminded of just how precious life is – mine and theirs. Mr. Still has made at least one grave error in his article if he supposes that those who believe in heaven “inevitably fail” to appreciate just how priceless this life is. Indeed, even the Bible makes it clear that life is precious and sweet and should never be taken for granted.
In a somewhat abbreviated point, Mr. Still asks a rhetorical logic-based question “How can one live after death?” and then answers it “Death is the very cessation of living…”. While his answer really doesn’t provide a very powerful argument against belief in the afterlife, his question does deserve an alternative response. Death is indeed the cessation of life as we know it; of that we can be certain. But the fact that death ends our current physical life says nothing about the possibility of living again later if some agent were capable of resurrecting us from the dead. After all, there was a time when I did not exist, now I exist, and when I die I will once again cease to exist for all practical purposes. But who’s to say that I cannot exist again? If I myself believe that when I die that I’m truly dead, why is it irrational to believe that God is able to bring me back to life one day? While this belief may not square with someone else’s belief metaphysically speaking, there is nothing illogical about it that I can see.
Finally, I would like to make note of Mr. Still’s honesty regarding the logical ends of the atheistic worldview when it comes to life and death. Indeed for the atheist this life has no inherent purpose and death is the end of all things. Of course, I fail to see how nihilism could ever be encouraging or joyful, but Mr. Still takes a good crack at it. He suggests that such a life devoid of any preexisting purposes or expectations allows us to be truly “free (perhaps even obligated) to fill the void with meaning.” In response let me say that life as we know it does indeed both give us freedom and mantle us with obligation, but since obligation carries with it a certain sense of bondage, none of us are truly and wholly free no matter what our metaphysical stance. Pure freedom has no outside limits or persuasions, but our choices are framed by consequences that persuade us in this direction or that, they are limited by our finitude and shaped to some degree by our circumstances and backgrounds, like it or not. Truly, the atheist has no more free agency in his “void” world than the theist does in his world founded on divine purpose. Further, it is a misrepresentation of Christianity to suggest that Christians do not believe in filling their lives with as much meaning as possible. Just because a Christian may believe God has an overall purpose for life, death and the afterlife by no means entails that she is not free (perhaps even obligated) to fill her life with additional meaningful things.
In conclusion, I am glad Mr. Still finds joy and happiness in this life. I truly wish him nothing less. But speaking as a believer in God, I can honestly say that I too have found joy and meaning in life. The difference is that in one case personal joy and meaning is snuffed out by the grave, but in the other, if true, not even death can take it away. As for me, I’ll choose the latter.