February 9, 2024

The Death Thing

Who dies, when, why?

Clifford Goldstein

Every passenger in the non-smoking section of a plane that crashed off the coast of Norway in 1948 was killed. Bertrand Russell, the world’s most infamous atheist, had been smoking, so the 76-year-old was among those who swam to safety.

Historians believe that an ancient version of gunpowder had been accidentally discovered by Chinese alchemists seeking an elixir for—yes, immortality.

Wrote poet Stephen Dobyns:

            He stares down at the cities filled with people

            and thinks how sad it is that they should

            rush backwards and forwards as if they had

            some great destination when their only

            destination is death itself—a place

            to be reached by sitting as well as standing.[i]

It’s hard to make sense of this death thing, isn’t it? Who dies, when, why? Belief in an omnipotent and omniscient God doesn’t particularly help here, either. After all, did God in eternity past plan for those specific 2,996 people (Jeremiah Joseph Ahern, Joanne Flora Weil, Robert Louis Scandole, et. al . . .) to die on September 11, 2001? Or, maybe, death shouldn’t make sense? It if did, then there could be some logic, some reason, some justification for it, and who wants that for “the last enemy” (1 Cor. 5:26), for what’s obviously evil? Better evil make no sense than be justified.

Over the decades I have read secular writers grappling with the purpose of life, and they all flounder and sputter at one reality: death, the cold, hard, inevitable disintegration of our body.  As Russian Nikolai Gogol in the 1800s wrote about the dead: “Look, my good woman . . . ech, what nonsense you talk! What can they be worth? Just consider why, they are dust, you know. Do you understand, they are but dust? Take the most worthless, humblest article, a simple rag, for instance—and even the rag has a value: rags are bought for making into paper, anyway, but what I am speaking of is of no use for anything.  Come tell me yourself, what is it of use for?”[ii]

Or, as Mark Bowden wrote about them in the battle for Hue, in Viet Nam, in 1968—"No matter how dignified or admired or liked a man had been in life, here he was, very suddenly and publicly dead, sometimes left in some ridiculous splayed posture or missing a part. One moment you were an inspiring leader, like Sergeant Alfredo Gonzalez, and the next you were nothing more than dismembered, bleeding remains.”[iii]

However death comes doesn’t, ultimately, matter; what matters is that it does. The living are pubescent versions of the dead, and they know it, and this knowledge is an acid that flows backwards over every conscious moment, eroding whatever meaning and purpose that they, in the moment, give the moment. In A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living, French atheist Luc Ferry wrote: “This combination of the fact of mortality with our awareness of mortality contains all the questions of philosophy.”[iv] His solution? Because (for him) death’s unbeatable, the best we can do—what he calls “salvation without God”[v]—is live without the fear of death. Some salvation. It’s like the difference between one hungry person looking at picture of a Chocolate Souffle and another eating the Chocolate Souffle.

The Girl with the Frozen Brain  

We hate this death thing, perhaps more than anything else, don’t we?  In Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilizations, philosopher Steve Cave argues that our desire never to die “is the foundation of human achievement; it is the wellspring of religion, the muse of philosophy, the architect of our cities and the impulse behind the arts. It is embedded in our very nature, and its result is what we know as civilization.”[vi] Whether he overstated the case or not, we don’t want to die.

A sad story about not wanting to die concerned a woman in her early twenties who, eaten by cancer, raised enough crowdfunds so that at death her brain would be placed in cryogenic suspension. Her hope was that, with sufficient technological advances, it could be thawed and the neural connections uploaded to a computer, thus keeping her, or at least her consciousness (and are we not at least our consciousness?) “alive.” As long they could keep swapping out hardware as needed, she could, ideally, go on forever. (If they kept backups, however, which one would be the real her?)

A 2023 TIME Magazine article, “The Man Who Thinks He Can Live Forever,” was about one of those rich California blokes who—having made more money than they can spend in a lifetime (and probably frustrated, exceedingly, by that fact)—want more lifetimes to spend it. Bryan Johnson, though, wants an eternity of them. 

So far, says TIME, Johnson has “spent more than $4 million developing a life-extension system called Blueprint, in which he outsources every decision involving his body to a team of doctors, who use data to develop a strict health regimen to reduce what Johnson calls his ‘biological age.’ That system includes downing 111 pills every day, wearing a baseball cap that shoots red light into his scalp,” as well as, among other things, “collecting his own stool samples.” [vii]This is all part of daily routine that, he hopes, can beat not only aging but death itself. (Though this strict regimen obviously won’t let him live forever, it might at least make him feel as if he were).

From King Gilgamesh’s (dating to 2100 BC) failed quest for immortality, to the dead girl’s noodle in a vat of frozen nitrogen, to Bryan Johnson collecting stool samples, and everything before, in between, and after—all testify to the human aversion to death. And though most people don’t obsess about it, most know that death holds us by the scruff of our necks, and we hate it, too.

The Long View

From an evolutionary standpoint, this hatred, this fear, of death makes little sense. Death is the means by which we came to exist to begin with. No wonder theistic evolutionist Michael Dowd wrote that death “is no less sacred than life . . . that death, more often than not, is a cosmic blessing.”[viii] That’s not how people view death, and if Mr. Dowd were (heaven forbid) to bury a child, I seriously doubt that he would still proclaim his “cosmic blessing” nonsense.

Beside the pain of losing loved ones, the biggest existential problem with death is what it does to the meaning of life. What does a life mean that always ends in death, and in the death of everyone who ever knew you, and when every memory of you will be forever gone? 

Elizabeth Wurtzel, in Prozac Nation, pontificated on this theme: “Why do anything—why wash my hair, why read Moby-Dick, why fall in love, why sit through six hours of Nicholas Nickleby, why care about American intervention in Central America, why spend time trying to get into the right schools, why dance to the music when all of us are just slouching toward the same inevitable conclusion? The shortness of life, I keep saying, makes everything seem pointless when I think about the longness of death. When I look ahead, all I can see is my final demise.”[ix]

These were, yes, the sentiments of a troubled young woman. But what about atheist Bryan Magee (1930-2019) whose life was going, by his own admission, great until it hit him, in middle age, what his death, whenever it came, meant? “[I]f I was about to be swallowed up by an everlasting void, nothing I did was of the slightest significance, whether I went on to write great books or become Foreign Secretary, or get happily or unhappily married, or proven a failure in everything—none of it would make the slightest difference to me or to anyone else when all of us were nothing, as everyone was going to be, including everyone not yet born; that it could therefore make no difference when I died, and would have made no difference if I had never been born; that I was in any event going to be for all eternity what I would have been had I never been born; that there was no meaning in any of it, no point in any of it; and that in the end everything was nothing.”[x]

Quite a mouthful but, given his premises—touché.

Though scouring art, science, literature music, and philosophy in hope of plundering an answer, Magee near the back of his book conceded that “at the end of it all I have no solutions. I am as baffled now by the larger metaphysical questions of my existence as when I was a child—indeed more so, because my understanding of the depths and difficulties of the questions themselves is now so much greater.” [xi]

What? Watching Hamlet at the Globe, or listening to Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony, or reading A Critique of Pure Reason didn’t solve the problem of his death and the meaninglessness stuffed to the gills in it? Surprise of surprises.

The Logic of Eternity

It’s not hard, from a Christian perspective anyway, to understand our disdain for “when death’s demoralizing shadow slinks out its hole and puddles across our path on its way to some engagement,”[xii] especially because we know that the engagement will eventually be ours. We were created to live forever. That was the original plan. Human beings were never supposed to die. The tree of life was to give us eternal life. “‘Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil. And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever,” (Gen. 3:22).

Logic alone points to the absurdity of death. Ears have a purpose, air has a purpose, dirt has a purpose, the sun has a purpose, cerebral spinal fluid has a purpose, gravity has a purpose, knees have a purpose, water has purpose and on and on. . . .And yet all these and untold other purposes, so finely crafted and majestically balanced—culminate into meaninglessness? How can so many individual and finite things—replete with points and opulent with purpose—so artfully climax into purposelessness? It’s like a string of positive integers equaling zero, or less than zero. It’s not logical.

When studying for his American naturalization, Austrian Kurt Gödel (1905-1978)—deemed the greatest logician since Aristotle—claimed to have found a logical flaw in the US Constitution that could allow for a dictatorship. During his naturalization hearing, he started to tell the flaw to the judge until Albert Einstein (who accompanied him)—fearing Kurt would jeopardize his application—closed his friend down.

When writing to his elderly mother, who was nearing death, Gödel applied his logic in another area. “You pose in your last letter the momentous question, whether I believe we shall meet in the hereafter. About that I can only say the following: If the world is constructed rationally and has a meaning, then that must be so. For what kind of a sense would there be in bringing forth a creature (man), who has such a broad field of possibilities of his own development and of relationships, and then not allow him to achieve 1/1000 of it. That would be approximately as if someone laid the foundation for a house with much effort and expenditure of money, then let everything go to ruin again. Does one have a reason to assume that the world is set up rationally? I believe so. For it is certainly not chaotic and arbitrary, but rather, as science shows, the greatest regularity and order reign in everything. . . . So, it follows directly that our earthly existence, since it in and of itself has at most a very dubious meaning, can only be a means to an end for another existence.”[xiii]

Another existence? Such as in “a new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:13)? Of course. And, despite all the hype of atheism—which is built on leg-splitting leap of faith, on dogmatic adherence to an ideology, and on sheer sophistry—believers in Jesus and in His promises of eternal life in a new existence have logic and reason lopsidedly, even unfairly, on our side.

First, as John wrote about Jesus: “All things were made through him. Without him was not anything made that has been made” (John 1:3). Anything that “has been made,” this is, anything that once didn’t exist, but then came into existence, did so only through the conscious creative power of God. No matter how far back cosmogonists speculate about the early universe, even to a supposed one trillionth of a second after the Big Bang (God said “Bang!” and here it was), they still cannot explain the origins of the energy, matter, time, and the complicated physical laws inherent in their Big Bang creation hypothesis—at least without assuming that matter, energy, time and the physical laws to begin with. Which simply begs the question: where did these natural things (matter, energy, time, physical laws) originate from? They could no more have created themselves than a MacBook created itself, and to claim that they, somehow, did is a leap of faith into irrationality. Instead, the eternally existing Creator, who exists before and outside the natural world, created the natural world. Who else?

And however much we are ceaselessly bombarded by the prevailing world-view, under the infallibly Delphic name of “science,” which dogmatically declares, and brooks no dissent, that all the design, beauty and function in life on earth arose only by chance, with no hint of intentionality—despite all this ideological brainwashing, design and intentionality scream out the natural world. From single cells to the human cerebellum, all are so obviously and purposely designed, and by a mind-bogglingly powerful Creator, too, that only those whose hearts, scared of the moral implications of this Creator (that’s why they need the Gospel), blind their minds to what’s right in their face.

And despite everything that High Critical scholarship throws at Scripture—the prophecies, some fulfilled many centuries after being written (pretty impressive when meteorologists sometimes can’t get tomorrow’s weather right), provide powerfully compelling reasons to trust the biblical promises. And the prophecies concerning Jesus, particularly His death and resurrection, especially His resurrection— (after all, the Romans crucified many Jews but only one, Jesus, rose from the dead), give over-whelming evidence for trusting in the promise of eternal life, which His death and resurrection offers those who claim it by faith.

“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).

 “In hope of eternal life which God, who cannot lie, promised before time began” (Titus 1:2).

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

“And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand” (John 10:28).

“Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, to which you were also called and have confessed the good confession in the presence of many witnesses” (1 Tim. 6:12).

“And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life” (Matt. 19:29; see also Daniel 12:2; John 6:54; John 10:28; Acts 13:48; Titus 3:7; Jude 21; Romans 6:22, and so forth).

That’s a lot of promises. And in light of the death thing, which denudes life of purpose when, obviously, life has purpose—these promises make sense out of what, otherwise, would make no sense. And because death as the ultimate end is illogical and irrational in a reality that, in and of itself, is logical and rational, it’s logical and rational for us to believe in the biblical promises of eternal life, and illogical and irrational not to.                          

[i] Dobyns, Stephen, Cemetery Nights (New York; Penguin Books, 1987), p. 32

[ii] Gogol, Nikolai, Dead Souls  (New York; Random House, 1923), p. 75.

[iii] Bowden, Mark, Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam (Grove Atlantic) Kindle Edition.

[iv] Ferry, Luc. A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living (Learning to Live) (HarperCollins), p. 13, Kindle Edition.

[v] Ibid., (p. 12).

[vi] Cave, Stephen. Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization (Crown), p. 2 Kindle Edition.

[vii] https://time.com/6315607/bryan-johnsons-quest-for-immortality/

[viii] Dowd, Michael, Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World  (Penguin Publishing Group), p. 94. Kindle Edition.

[ix] Wurtzel, Elizabeth. Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America (HarperCollins), p. 29,  Kindle Edition.

[x] Magee, Bryan, Confessions of a Philosopher  (New York; Random House, 1997), p. 252.

[xi] Ibid., pp. 433, 434.

[xii] Goldbarth, Albert, Everyday People (Minneapolis; Greywolf Press, 2012), p. 178.

[xiii] Budiansky, Stephen, Journey to the Edge of Reason: The Life of Kurt Gödel (W. W. Norton & Company), pp. 267, 268, Kindle Edition.