Wednesday 1 July 2020

Death and what ends

I have fairly often seen it asserted in the products of modern mass media the idea, intended to be consoling, that we 'live-on' in the memories of those who live after we have died.

Strangely, this is often put-forward as if it was believed to be some kind of original insight, a notion that other people might not have stumbled across; apparently assuming that we moderns have discovered this (purportedly) new and satisfying form of life beyond our personal death...

Wheras the reality is surely that almost everybody who has given a moments thought to the matter has had this idea and rejected it because it is so obviously unsatifactory!

For a start, people who knew us and live-on may not actually think much (or at all) about us, they will surely misremember (with gaps and distortions), or have mostly unpleasant thoughts. And anyway sooner-or-later - naturally - they themselves will all die; and before long all traces of 'biological' memory of our-selves will be utterly lost from among the living.

So, what is death? How do we really feel about it?

From what one can read in old books and from recollections of early childhood, it seems that we are (once we have reached some years old - four or five?) born with some innate understanding that we ourselves will die and be lost from this mortal world.

In other words, there really is a thing called death, and - from the perspective of the living-world - it really is an end to our everyday selves.

Also that death really is a Big Thing. All attempts at reassurance by saying that our lives are trivial or that we are not personally present at our own deaths etc. are beside the point. We all know that death is real, and know that in some important way (or more than one way) death is a terrible loss. 

On the other side (and again going on what past people wrote, as well as the spontaneous apparently-inborn understandings of childhood) there has always been a traditional wisdom that death is not the end.

Up to now (i.e. very recently in history) there seems a broad agreement, a human consensus: death is real, death is a loss; something comes after...

But it is at this point that opinions begin to vary; and vary widely. It is a further consensus that death is a transition - but transition to what? 

Some-thing survives death; but what that 'thing' may be, and what condition it survives in, varies in many ways including rebirth into another human, or animal; loss of the self and reabsorption into divine spirit; a witless wandering ghost; a blissful spirit, or a suffering one; a person in permanent paradise, or one that is stuck in some eternally recurring cycle - and so on. Or the Christian Heaven.

Many ideas.

But modern Man has decided that these are all false and that death is an annihilation.

This means that a typical modern Man understands his life as being bounded by birth and death with nothing on either side.

This further means that modern Man is in an unique position of trying to make sense of his mortal life without any reference to anything outside. He is trying to live a life he 'knows' to be temporary and with nothing left-behind; and he is trying to make sense out of it: trying to discover (on this basis) some purpose, some reason for being.

He is trying to discover why to be moral - indeed whether to be moral because - why anything

Modern Man is, indeed, faced by the question of, on such terms and with such constraints, whether life is worth having At All? 

So far, the 'best' answer to this question seems to be that life is worth living if it is pleasurable here-and-now (or maybe the confident expectation that it soon will be) - but otherwise... Why Bother?

And it is on this slender and feeble basis that billions of modern Men are supposed-to get up every morning, work and do stuff, be nice/ kind/ compassionate to everybody, fall in love, raise a family, build and maintain a community/ a nation/ civilization; be a useful citizen...

Considering this; it is no surprise that the developed world is not just collapsing; but actively destroying-itself.

No surprise that life has become a progressive societal suicide. 

After all, there is no reason for it not to be.


Ingemar said...

This is one of those intuitive things as a youth that made me reject the notion of soul annihilation. The Marxists embraced it heartily because it removed from their thralls a fear of punishment after destroying the social order; yet at the same time it destroyed any notion of pursuing any good that would require bodily sacrifice. For hero and villain alike meet the same reward.

For we Catholics, not only do we not believe that death is not the end, but the dead who die in a holy state can intercede to God for the sake of their loved ones still living.

Jacob Gittes said...

Thank you for this. I've always despised that anodyne cliche about "being remembered by those you leave behind," etc. etc.
It always left me more than cold - a cold despair, from the utter banality of it.

Thank you.

Your inner knowing as a child tells you that you have significance, that God is real, and something wonderful and spiritual animates the world you were born into.

Then the Evil One and his minions start to work on your mind. They did a number on me, that's for sure.
Only slowly have I been escaping the grip of that nihilistic despair.

Anonymous said...

And yet so many atheist, materialist moderns don't seem to worry at all about their own final end as they see it. I cannot understand it at all. Why don't they worry? How can they not be gibbering in terror? It is truly astonishing. I was in that position once, and when I thought about it (really thought about it), I was terrified. Terror persisted and I began to search in desperation for meaning now, and evidence for continuation of self into eternity. After much thinking, and reading, and more thinking, I became sure that Christ had the best message and answers, and that they were true and founded in love. And most of the time, I believe in him and his message when I just 'know'. But I am weak and I backslide into terror sometimes. Then I repent and carry on living and believing. It is a struggle to be sure, but I would rather be the me of now with all my weak vacillation than the me of the past who believed in the materialist 'death is the end' message of the moderns. But I have to confess that I am envious of the certainty displayed by you and the other people who comment on your blog. You all seem like CHRISTIANS, whereas I always feel like a christian in lower case whose strength in faith comes in fits and starts.



Bruce Charlton said...

@Jacob - I followed a similar path - which is maybe why I can see things from both sides, more than most people.

@Barry Barry - "materialist moderns don't seem to worry at all about their own final end as they see it" - IMO they do not worry, but they do despair - which is worse - and we see the consequences all around us. Humans have almost stopped reproducing (despite conditions of peace and plenty), and lost their basic biological instincts. In an animal, we would regard modern Man's behaviour as pathological. Indeed, it literally is pathological.

Even from a purely biological standpoint, human psychology evolved in a context of religion and a belief in the spiritual and life beyond death. That was all we ever knew.

In a world lacking these, indeed actively-denying these; we are behaving like those zoo (or battery farm) animals that stop reproducing, engage in self harm and just give-up.

Cererean said...

As someone who is only still living due to modern medicine (I have asthma, and a malformed heart valve that, fortunately, has not needed replacing *yet*), I've been thinking about my own death in the event of a total collapse... and whether to try to survive in that case, given my short life expectancy anyway after the initial event. I am inclined, at the moment, towards a 40 day wilderness fast if that happens, as Moses, Elijah, and Jesus did. If God wants me to remain alive after it... well, He can do miracles. If ravens come bearing food, I won't refrain from eating.

If (when...) it comes to it, I want to be able to say, as the quote from Indiana Jones puts it, "My soul is prepared. How's yours?".

Or as Seneca wrote, "Rehearse death. To say this is to tell a person to rehearse his freedom. A person who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave. He is above, or at any rate, beyond the reach of, all political powers."

David Earle said...

The idea of infinity terrifies me. So much that I don't even want to think about it.

If there is Heaven after death, then we are there forever? What comes after Heaven? Will we not be bothered by this since Heaven exists outside of time?

What if there is no Heaven. Then it is black forever? Are we reincarnated? And does that take place forever?

Are we immediately transformed to the End of the Universe/time upon death? Then what?

Is there no End? Just infinity? All scenarios are equally bothersome to me. I only take comfort in the idea of Heaven after death and it must be good so don't worry about that part.

I'd often think about this at night as young as 10 years old and I could never solve it in my mind. It would just lead to a dark hole and I'd have to distract myself and think about something else because the whole idea is terrifying to me.

Even to this day I haven't worked out a solution and still get existentially bothered when thinking about it.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post with some really important food for thought on the topic of death!

One thing that bothers me though - here you insist that "We all know that death is real, and know that in some important way (or more than one way) death is a terrible loss", and yet throughout your blog there is a consistent refrain of Christian theology that posits that death is a transformation, a gateway, to our real life and to our real selves, in the world that we were really made for as opposed to this world ruled as it is by a godless system that intends for the damnation of as many souls as possible.

Leaving such a world in favor of Heaven seems to be anything but negative. As Paul puts it in the NT – “Christ is life and death is gain”.

Death seems to me to be viewed in the Scriptures (at least the NT) in a universally positive light, with the only negatives upon those bereaved left behind who must carry on without their departed loved ones.

The poetry and prose of Tolkien also suffuses your writings, and he wrote in The Silmarillion, (second edition, page 42 of "Of the Beginning of Days"): [italics emphasis is mine]

"Death is their fate, the gift of Iluvatar, which as Time wears even the Powers shall envy. But Melkor cast his shadow upon it, and confounded it with darkness, and brought forth evil out of good, and fear out of hope. Yet of old the Valar declared to the Elves in Valinor that Men shall join in the Second Music of the Ainur; whereas Iluvatar has not revealed what he purposes for the Elves after the World's end, and Melkor has not discovered it."

It seems to me that you are declaring death a bad thing, as opposed to God’s gift to man, when both the Scriptures and also one of your biggest influences (Tolkien) would appear to argue powerfully the opposite way.

I enjoy your writing thoroughly and if I’ve misinterpreted anything that you’ve stated, I apologize in advance. Hopefully I can request some clarity on this point.

Thank you!

Wayne J.

a_probst said...


I guess you'll have to take it as it comes; we all will. One transfiguration at a time.

Joseph A. said...

Insightful, as usual. This sad development has indeed robbed the modern world of much charm. Myself, I tend to suspend judgment about these matters. I acknowledge and accept what the Church tradition teaches, but I'm personally wary. My inner Hebrew is suspicious of heaven; it sounds too good to be true -- like peddled snake oil and hucksters' promises. And, in my pride, I don't want to be tricked! Then, when I consider the words of Christ, I relent. Jesus doesn't lie. And so my soul holds both of these psychic stances in tension. I'm far more accepting of hell -- perhaps too much so. I transitioned from a bleeding heart believer to a "law and order" one around the age of 14 . . . and daily life since has amply confirmed that orientation. But his mercy endures forever . . . so I don't know. In any case, I fully trust that it will be as it should be according to God's goodness and justice.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Wayne -

Of course death is sad! - or most deaths, anyway; and some deaths are very sad. Fear of death is naturally a very powerful motivator and shaper of behaviour.

That death is a transition, or a transition to a better place, does not remove that fact. Death just will not be explained-away!

All transitions are sad - because they mark the end of an era, and often a separation. Graduating from college, getting married, moving house - all may provoke weeping even when chosen and desired.

Tolkien on death:

Bruce Charlton said...

@Joseph - "My inner Hebrew is suspicious of heaven; it sounds too good to be true -- like peddled snake oil and hucksters' promises."

If that was the case, why don't other religions offer Heaven. Why don't some compete by offering heaven at no cost?

The proper question is whether You actually Want Heaven. Far from being snake oil, most modern people regard Heaven as an undesirable situation; and are more like to mock and scorn it, than to desire it.

My belief is that - broadly - each religion delivers what it offers; if its adherents genuinely want that. Because God (as loving Father) presumably tries to give his children what they sincerely desire after death, so long as this does not interfere with Heaven - or at least the subjective-experience of what they desire.

So, if you genuinely want what the Ancient Hebrew religion offers - ie. a minimal (not painful) life as a witless ghost without self-awareness in Sheol; then I would guess that that is what you will experience. Indeed some such annihilation of awareness seems a popular post-mortal aspiration these days.

John Fitzgerald said...

@Wayne - On this topic I think of the death of Caspian at the me of The Silver Chair. It's a really sad and painful moment. Lewis emphasises this strongly. But then comes his resurrection and with that it's not like the pain is cancelled out and was all illusory - no, not at all - but it's transcended and transmuted and put in its proper context and frame of reference. The death and resurrection of Aslan is similar - it's this difference between the 'deep magic from the dawn of time' (death) and the 'deeper magic from before the dawn of time' (resurrection, the eighth day, etc.). The former needs to happen and be felt in all its weight before we can get to the latter.

@Bruce - I remember when my Dad died, a well-meaning relative said that he'll live on in the streets and roads he used to drive down. I thought that was utter nonsense and I should perhaps have told him so but I let it pass. It felt more appropriate for me to pray for my Dad as he approached the Seat of Judgement after his earthly pilgrimage had come to a close. But a lot of people have lost the knack of thinking and seeing life in that way and have replaced the Four Last Things with blandness and platitudes.

Anonymous said...

' "materialist moderns don't seem to worry at all about their own final end as they see it" - IMO they do not worry, but they do despair - which is worse - and we see the consequences all around us. Humans have almost stopped reproducing (despite conditions of peace and plenty), and lost their basic biological instincts. In an animal, we would regard modern Man's behaviour as pathological. Indeed, it literally is pathological.'

I look around and don't see much worry or despair, at least not on the surface - I think there is an inner emptiness that people try to fill with material goods and 'good times'. If there is despair, it is pushed right down remaining unacknowledged for most. And they are largely 'successful' in suppressing it (because they never stop the merry-go-round and get off it to think), whereas I was not. I am glad that I felt terror because it sent me on a journey into myself and out towards God. In the current materialist, 'science is golden', and 'death is the end' culture that western people inhabit (I won't say live because is it really living?), where religious belief is the exception, I think the personal jolt of terror is the only likely way that most people will begin to examine the meaning of everything. Terror motivated me to ask for help, and it has come. But for most, the natural unwillingness to feel pain easily beats a willingness to let down their guard. This, combined with satans everywhere encouraging them to party on, makes it unlikely that many will seek real meaning and help in understanding God's plan. It is so very sad.


Sean G. said...

@islanti eternity sounds terrifying in the abstract out-of-time way you put it but I imagine living one day at a time, with heavenly sleep, endless creation and wonder! I don’t tire of living here in this twisted fallen world, how could I ever in heaven? Perhaps this is not something you want but you might consider re-examining your assumptions about what heaven could be.