Welcoming Death without an Afterlife
[My initial thoughts as I approach my personal death.]
An unexamined life is not worth living. –Socrates
An unexamined afterlife is not worth waiting for. –Milavec
Most people think that their soul survives after death. How they come to this is very murky indeed. Spiritualism, the practice of contacting the souls of those deceased, gives perhaps the greatest credence to such a belief. Near-death experiences also provide some experiential glimpses of living outside one’s body. Yet, even ordinary Christians find themselves praying for the souls of the faithful departed that the Lord of Creation would pardon their sins and admit them into the heavenly realm. Most Christians, I dare say, believe in some conscious afterlife and if the choice is between heaven and hell (or purgatory); the beatific vision with the saints in heaven seems naturally preferable.
The first thing that 99% of Christians would find strange is the fact that the older layers of the Hebrew Scriptures establish Judaism as a religion of faithful service to God and humanity without any rewards in the afterlife. In a word, they believed that holiness was its own reward and the sight of one’s family and children living a productive life that is a blessing to those close and those far is reward enough for the good life. [See Stanley B. Marrow, S.J., “The Road not Taken”]
Sometime during the Maccabean revolution (2nd cen. BCE), those Jews who had seen the pious punished with terrible torments came to the conclusion that the Lord himself remembers the injustice done to them and, on the last day, when he comes to judge the living and the dead, he would surely resurrect these holy martyrs and given them a place of honor in the earthly kingdom of God. Note here that none of these Jews believed that true bliss was to be found in a world or in a place outside of our present planet-home that God created for us.
How Belief in an Immortal Soul Came About
Starting with Socrates, the beatific vision of truth, justice, and beauty would be the overwhelming delight of those “philosophers” who spent their lives cultivating these things. This “beatific vision” was possible only for an immortal soul released from the body at death. Augustine and others imported this message into the faith of our fathers; hence, Thomas Aquinas, in the 13th century, named the “beatific vision” as the greatest joy that our souls would find in heaven.
When one considers a prolonged future in heaven, the notion of living an existence as a disembodied soul in a realm where one praises God night and day (there being no necessity of sleep) would become exceedingly tedious, repetitious, and dull. The so-called joys of heaven, accordingly, might be highly overrated. The loss of a body and life on earth are highly underscored. How could a violinist or a gardener or a wood-carver survive in a heaven where they could only envision (in their imagination) making something beautiful with their hands when, in fact, they would, both night and day, lament the fact that they have no hands? How could imagined gardens or imagined musical performances give joy to those who have no ears or eyes or noses with which to feast on them?
The Joys of Heaven Have Been Overrated
In fact, what joy could one give to another person in heaven? One could not stroke their cheek or play a game of ball or trek in the snow-capped mountains. Maybe one could (supposing that there is such a thing as soul to soul communication that is wordless and earless) communicate about things long gone. Yet, this very communication would generate a great sense of loss and be more apt to evoke a sense of longing and annoyance that one’s entire past has been obliterated by death. Let this continue for a few hundred years (since one speaks of eternal life as the natural quality of the immortal soul) and one would have a society of malcontents who found very little to live for or to communicate about. Even singing praises to God could degrade into a tedious choir practice that, after a few short months, would surely leave bitterness and grumbling in its wake. If one could miraculously hear the heavenly choirs, that would be one thing. But to live in a society of disembodied souls would mean that such music would be produced without vocal cords and without musical instruments. Thus, the music itself would evoke a great sense of longing for a body and for the things of this present world. So, from these brief examples, one can see how soulless an eternity in heaven would be.
I thank God, therefore, that he did not give me an eternal soul and I thank him that none of those that I love have immortal souls either. Socrates willingly embraced death because he wrongly imagined that his eternal soul would escape his body and enter into its eternal bliss. Socrates also wrongly misinterpreted “sleep” as the time when the soul leaves the body in order to explore strange cities and strange places. If Socrates was promoting a very inaccurate notion of “dreams” during sleep, then it might be allowed that he was also peddling a very inaccurate notion of the immortal soul as well.
What our Jewish Jesus Anticipated
Jesus, needless to say, knew nothing of “souls existing outside the body.” Nor did he ever propose that anyone should long to die so that their soul would be released from their body in order to enjoy a “beatific vision” in heaven. Jesus never believed that one has to go to God in order to be with him only after death. Jesus, accordingly, firmly anticipated a future when God would be coming to earth “to wipe away all our tears” (Rev 21:4). This same Jesus taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth. . . .” (Matt 6:9-13). And when Jesus rose bodily into heaven on a cloud, the two men in white [angels?] say, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven will come [return to earth] in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Thus, heaven is not the final resting place for Jesus. Nor is it the place where the “beatific vision” takes place. Heaven is merely the temporary holding tank where God is preparing to send Jesus back to earth where he can be the Messiah on the Last Day (Acts 2:36, 3:20-22, 5:42).
The earth is properly our home, and what a home it is! We were formed from the dust of the earth [that originated in the death throes of giant red stars] billions and billions of years ago, and God saw that it was good! Life is good. I enjoyed seeing my daughter play her violin in the beginning strings tonight! I also enjoyed hearing Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” being performed by accomplished musicians in a small church in France the first night that we arrived. I’ve enjoyed making music of my own (the guitar, the recorder, the spoons) purely as an amateur. So I say:
“Dear world, you are so beautiful! Blessed be the Maker of the heavens (the stars above) and the earth (below my feet which attracts me toward its center even when I am upside down).”
Has the Resurrection Been Overrated as Well?
For a good ten years (1970-80), I persisted in believing that there would be a resurrection of the dead on the last day (even after I had abandoned any belief in a soul). It might have made good sense for a few Jewish martyrs to be rewarded with a resurrection for offering their lives to God in the face of torturing tyrants; it is positively repellent however to imagine the chaos that would result from a general resurrection. Our fragile planet earth has barely enough resources to support eight billion humans. So how can one imagine the impossible situation of providing clean water, wholesome food, and shelter for fifty billion (the total of all the righteous persons who would be raised on the Last Day).
For the pious, it would seem entirely feasible for Christians to invite six times their number to share their homes. Modern homes in the suburbs could indeed squeak by with six times the number of inhabitants. There would be little privacy left and no one would ever again have their own bedroom; yet, who knows, maybe the advantages of communal living would far outweigh the limitations of space.
Yet, what about those situations where a family of five share a two room apartment in the center of Mexico or where a similar family shares a one-room shack in the slums of Calcutta. It would be a slight bit monstrous to expect these families to welcome thirty people into their living situation.
Hospitality is a blessed virtue, to be sure. It would work in the suburbs but never have a chance in the slums. Just the use of the flush toilet by a world population six times our present size would quickly overtax all our current water purification systems. Meanwhile, in those parts of the earth where untreated sewage is disposed of by dumping it into natural water sources. I am thinking here not only of cruise ships and slums but of the hundreds of municipalities that routinely dump raw sewage into the Ohio River whenever their waste treatment facilities are overtaxed by incoming sewage. You get the picture. Increase the population of our planet by six and you get an entire planet drowning in its own shit.
Well, to save the day, there has been a lot of talk about the resurrected body being in some way “spiritualized” such that it doesn’t need to eat or to drink, ergo, not to pee or to defecate. On the other hand, Jews like Jesus imagined eating and drinking in the Kingdom of Heaven (on earth) since, truth to say, not to have enough to eat and to drink was always considered a hardship. On the other hand, Jesus liked to eat and drink with his friends and I’m sure he’d be a bit disappointed at finding that his resurrected friends had “spiritualized bodies” that no longer took any pleasure in or had any necessity to eat and drink.
So, to back up a bit, it might be important to examine whether resurrection from the dead is indeed what God has in mind for those who love him. First off, it must be conceded that “spiritualized bodies” are not natural bodies and that their existence is just as problematic as that of the existence of immortal souls. The blessing indeed is to be found in the natural condition of the human physical body that we are very familiar with.
What a piece of creation we are! A true miracle. Any cleaver bishop or theologian who tries to convince us (using either the bible or church dogmas) that the human condition can be improved upon and that God (since s/he can supposedly do anything) surely has an improved model ready for us in the resurrection from the dead should be shouted into silence. What an affront to God to imagine that s/he has not already done his/her best in creating man and woman in his/her image and likeness!
A World Without Privacy
Moreover, those who imagine that our spiritualized bodies will walk through walls, transport themselves effortlessly through the skies, and never grow hungry or sick or old are talking fables and nonsense and pious gibberish. It’s one thing to imagine a perfect situation in the future. It’s quite another thing to denigrate some of the best aspects of the present situation in so doing.
Walking through walls, for instance, would mean a world without privacy. People could walk in on you at any time from any direction and have no way of signaling that they were coming. What a problem that would be. And what is so terrible about growing hungry, getting sick, or growing old? Are these not the patterns within the miracle of creation that have been tried and tested and found beneficial?
The Blessings of Growing Old
Just take the last point—that of growing old. I, for one, have found a blessing implicit in the human cycle of birth, infancy, adolescence, adulthood, old age, death. As starters, the US situation is growing increasingly difficult because the old are living longer. A full life, in the nineteenth century, meant living into the 60s or 70s but now, with improvements in medicine, most are anticipating living into their 80s and 90s. Like it or not, those in their productive years are now having to work harder and longer to take care of the aging members of their immediate families. The old now no longer live with their families, but are shunted off into assisted living, then nursing homes, then round-the-clock care. This is not the best scenario for growing old; yet, the modern productive couple doesn’t have time to spend with their own children much less to spend with an aging parent. Moreover, the young don’t want old people meddling in their lives—a thing which many aging parents do because they have the habit of taking liberties and advising their children in almost everything.
The Blessings of Dying
But this is getting off the point. What if people never grew old? What if people remained in their prime for an eternity? Well, to begin with, this would lead to a great population problem. In any given society, the number of deaths makes room for a certain number of births. Choke off one or the other and you have either a world population mushrooming out of control or moving toward human extinction. In a word, the system of being born and dying appears to be a divinely ordained design feature originated by our wise Creator in order to keep a balance between the new and the old, the coming to be and the passing away.
Once this is realized, it appears as an offense to the Creator to even imagine that giving creatures “eternal life” would be some sort of surpassing gift; rather, it would be a surpassing mistake.
I recently read a short story that discussed a society in which aging was stopped and all sicknesses were cured. It was a society in stagnation. Very few new ideas were originated because those living had already made up their minds on just about everything that they were willing to accept or able to tolerate. In a world in which not much changed, there was even less incentive to originate anything—new music, new gardens, new wood sculptures. The repetition of human skills and crafts leads to dullness. Hence, in the sci-fi novel that I read, the solution for stagnation was to invent a competitive game that led to the death of the loser. Then and only then did excitement reenter into the social fabric. And so it was that the perfect society that had achieved “eternal life” had to later reintroduce “death” in order to bring back excitement into living.
PS: Here is the essay by Charles Hartshorne that was most helpful to me in coming to accept death as a gracious act and service to my family and friends. I reproduce it here so that you, the reader, might come to understand how an old philosopher can be of service to the world.
THE ACCEPTANCE OF DEATH
By Charles Hartshorne
Since all of us die, it is clear that the meaning of life must be inseparable from the meaning of death. If we cannot understand death, we cannot understand life, and vice versa. Life and death are two sides of one reality.
In principle life is good while it lasts. The meaning of life is, in part at least, the simple goodness of living. Normally we are glad to be alive. We may imagine circumstances in which we would be much more intensely glad to be alive than we actually are, but still life seems better than just no life. Even when things go badly with us, I think we deceive ourselves if we think that we derive no satisfaction from the activities of the living. The person who proclaims her or his misery derives some value merely from breathing and eating, some value from choosing the words in which the self is expressed, some value from making one’s troubles an object of attention and observing the way other people react to them. I believe that living is essentially voluntary, and that no one can be compelled to exist, unless on a largely unconscious level. If the will to live really dies, then we are already virtually dead. The person who decides to commit suicide gets some satisfaction out of thinking, “now it will soon be over.” This satisfaction is what keeps the person still among the living until performing some physical action which ends life, but then the bullet or poison, not directly the will to die, is what ends the life. Willing to live and finding life better than nothing are, I hold, the same things.
Take the person who stays alive because of fear of hell. Then what sustains the will to live is the thought, “I am better as I am than I might be in hell; I don’t have to be in hell, at least not yet.” Thinking thus gives present life some value. Or, if a mother lives for the sake of her children, the interest in the children and approval of herself as living for them make it possible for her to achieve at least some mild satisfaction in her own activities.
Though living is always more or less voluntary, dying can be either with or without our choice, not only because, on the one hand, external forces in action ourselves, but also because we can will not to live beyond a certain point of time. Or at least, we can be entirely content with the thought of not living forever or much beyond some specified point in our individual careers. We can choose to stop trying particularly to live, accepting death as coming from old age or terminal illness; we can be on the side of the physical forces that tend toward our death.
There are three principal ways of trying to make death as such acceptable. We can believe, or try to believe, in personal immortality in the conventional sense, meaning that after death we are to become conscious again; somewhat as we do in waking from a deep sleep, but this time in some supernatural heaven or hell, or on some other planet or in some other animal body. This may or may not be with memory of our previous earthly career. In either case this is a view which cannot appeal to any definite well-documented or scientific evidence to support it. I think that the appeal of this view is largely a consequence of misconceptions about the nature of life as such, no matter where or when.
Another way of arguing that death is good, or at least not too bad, is that it is like going into a dreamless sleep and never waking up again. Thus, there is no suffering in being dead, though there may be in dying, and so we escape from the evils of life once and for all. Note, however, that only for the others, the spectators, can it be “better” that we are no longer suffering. The suicide who reasons, “I shall be better off dead” will not be better or worse off, not yet just the same: simply he or she will not be in any state whatsoever, good, bad, or neutral. Into no future will the person survive to benefit since the future after death will not be hers or his at all. The suicide must act whether for personal satisfaction in the moments before death, or else for the benefit of those who survive. My conclusion is that the comparison of death to dreamless sleep is not enough to show that death is a good thing for the individual who dies.
The third way of making death acceptable is that of transcending self-interest as our final concern. If, and only if, we can regard our entire lives as contributing to the good of those who will survive us and if we can find part of our present satisfaction in the thought of such contribution to the future of life beyond ourselves, can we find death positively acceptable. I call this doctrine “contributionism.” It includes, but is more than, what is sometimes called “service” to others, for that is too much confined to things we do for others, actions from which others may benefit, like giving lectures. By “contributionism” I mean more than this. I mean that simply by being what we are in ourselves we contribute to the future of life. Our present happiness is a central factor in this contribution.
Miserable people, even if they are useful, contribute less than happy people who are also useful. By giving posterity our misery to look back upon, we do them no special favor. It is joys one wants to recall, more than sufferings. Even admitting the truth in the poet’s phrase, “our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought,” still, in the composing and singing of these songs, there is more than misery; there is satisfaction in the beauty of the expression of grief.
To accept death as ending our personal career is to regard that career as a finite or bounded thing. We are finite in space and time; indeed, we are mere fragments of reality spatially and temporally, but then any work of art or beautiful thing is such a fragment, apart from the entire universe throughout time. Contentment with mortality is contentment with the finitude of our ultimate contribution to the whole of life. Should our careers have a last episode? Should a book have a last chapter? A poem, a last verse? Without beginning and end a work of art has no definite form or meaning. I personally regard a life as, with normal luck and good management, having something of the qualities of a work of art, and I see no reason why it should be endless; rather the contrary, it ought not to be endless.
Part of the interest of life is that it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. There are dramatic contrasts between infancy and youth, youth and maturity, maturity and elderliness, and these contrasts are spanned by certain life purposes, finite in scope, that bind them together. What more does one wish? If going to sleep is nothing dreadful, why is it dreadful to think of a sleep without waking? For the sleeper the fact that he or she does not awaken is as nothing. There is no pain or joy. There is endless dreamless sleep. Only the friends and family of the dead person wake in the morning and are prone to mourning because the one who has died is no more.
What bothers people is perhaps the idea that death is the mere absence of life, but my death is only the absence of my continued living, it is not the absence of all living. New lives make their finite contributions to the future of life as a whole. [My death makes room for others to live life differently–more generously, more boldly and more securely.]
THE ACCEPTANCE OF DEATH
by Charles Hartshorne
The Hazards of Believing that Death is not the End
#1 Ecology Gone Amuck in anticipation of the Apocalypse
When the Lord-God comes, should we actually believe that he will provide everyone with a new suburban home complete with a washer and dryer in every basement and a brand new fuel-efficient automobile in every garage? Should we actually believe that God will miraculously fill thousands of dry oil wells so that these engines can burn gasoline for another hundred years? What? If God has already said a resounding “No” to Western Culture and its notion of development and well-being, will he/she suddenly change his/her mind on the last day. More importantly, however, even supposing that God did (for some crazy reason) decide to play Sugar Daddy, how would the Lord teach ecological responsibility if he/she used miraculous powers to overcome the results of our greed and waste? The same thing, of course, can be said of modern-day parents who lavish so many clothes and toys upon their children that they promote their thoughtless use and the throw-away mentality that goes with it. Will God, in the world to come, then have to continually save us from our garbage? [Didache, pp. 908-909]
#2 Celibacy Now In Anticipation of a Sexually-Charged Afterlife
One of my early students at St. Leonard’s College, GF, OFM, once told me that he was going to be lavishly generous in accepting God’s calling to the religious life in order that, in the afterlife, God would be lavishly generous is satisfying his sexual intimacy desires with “the perfect wife.” This formula for “delayed gratification” may be very unhealthy and very wrong-headed (esp. since Thomas Aquinas never anticipated any need for “sexual gratification” in the world to come). Did Jesus mean to mean to include eating and drinking but to exclude sexual intimacy in the world to come?
#3 Allow Me to Die: Euthanasia in Belgium
Simone, a Belgium woman in good health has chosen euthanasia because she has no compelling reason to live and she wants to meet her daughter in the hereafter. This comes up four times in her 44-minute video [URL = <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uTpmQI0VoSI>]. She says goodbye to others with the expectation that she will see them in heaven. Her vision of the afterlife as promoted by her Catholic Church thus promotes, like it or not, voluntary euthanasia. By law, physician assisted suicides have been accepted in Belgium.