moral musings

Smiling at death: A Christian perspective on the reality of dying and afterlife

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AMOLE, VICTOR ABIMBOLA

A tribute to Peter Atoyebi. May your soul rest in peace dear Peter. In spite of your pain, you had the courage to smile at death.

“Know well, Socrates,” Cephlaus said, “that when a man faces the thought that he must die, he feels fear and anxiety about that which did not trouble him before.”     -Plato’sRepubic, I 330d

Introduction

There are some realities in life that appear to be self-evident. Without giving extensive explanation of themselves, a wealth of  aposteriori realities just simply strike you so much so that you have no option but to acknowledge their fact and presence. Death would seem to be one of such. This thinking fits in with my experience of an 8-year old who was witnessing the burial of his grandfather. All the while, this little boy saw several adults doing the dust-to-dust rite, yet seemed unperturbed in his innocent state. He merely looked on. He even conversed with his friends. When he was however given the shovel to toss some soil on the coffin, he simply burst into tears. The grief of death at last got even to the seemingly unperceiving lad. He did perceive the agony in the air in spite of his age.

Death brings us grief and misery, and understandably so. This article however considers reasons why the Christian cannot afford to stop at grieving at death as if all were lost. The argument is that the very kernel of the Christian kerygma indeed invites us to an embrace of the cessation of the mortal life, for a realization of a life that is even much better.

Death: An inescapable enigma

Human life is almost always prefixed with the word “mortal”, to describe the certainty of its earthly cessation someday. If there is anyone who claims to be skeptical about the reality of earthly death, we only need to wait for such to die and then such claims needs no further rebuttal. The Christian faith describes our life here on earth as that of pilgrims journeying towards the heavenly Jerusalem.[1]

Since the fact of death cannot be debunked, the nearer option that human beings have embarked upon in trying to confront this enigma is to work towards elongating life. In other words, given the fact that death is a certainty, there are moves (which are gaining more grounds in contemporary days) for a ‘life extension’.[2] By extension is meant a delay of death to at least 150 years. Till date, this is still utopian.[3] Thus the reality of death is very much with us, established and proved not in books but in our mortal, daily decaying bodies. In fact we use the term “terminal disease” to indicate diseases that are really grave and can quickly bring earthly life to an end. It would seem plausible to however think of whole of human existence itself to be a terminal reality. The very day we enter, we begin to die.

Eventual death is therefore not a phenomenon which is merely near to human experience; it inheres in us since we have lived it right from the first day of birth. It’s coming to the fore in the form of the coffin of a loved one however presents this phenomenon in newer, forceful light. It does not only remind us that a certain beloved friend, spouse, parent etc. is gone and no longer with us in body. Much more, it slyly paints before the eye of our mind a certain repetition of this scaring play someday: with a substitution of the corpse with our very self, and others giving the condolences which we now give.

In spite of our understanding of its certainty however, the thought of death hardly leaves us without a grimace, without some bitter feeling in the mouth. Millions of people, Christians included, still continue to ask “why do we have to die?” There are several reasons often proffered as explanation of death, from within Christian parlance but also outside of it. Ranging from the understanding of death as a consequence of the fall[4], to death being part of God’s design to restore the created order to its pristine nature of goodness[5], to a conception of death as a logical necessity of embodies souls[6], Christians have always sought an explanation of this phenomenon. Almost all the reasons given for the reality of death, even though with credible arguments, fall short of  sure conviction. They can hardly excuse the being of God from the reality of what has been perceived as a natural evil. The fact that a creature which has come into being as a result of the love of God has to suffer the privation of life is not explainable by such models cited above.

A tempting tendency: a freefall explanation

In the face of the insufficiency of these explanation of death, the natural human tendency is to discard its reality altogether. Man has a funny way of deriding that which he cannot explain, or at least playing it down to a minimal level of significance. Hence it is not surprising that several thinkers have come up with teachings contrary to Christian beliefs, claiming that nothing happens after the earthly life. Several atheists and other secular apologists of great minds have argued for the here-and-now-and-nothing-more theory of man and of the entire universe.[7]

It would appear the testimonies that arise from the scriptures, testimonies of the Fathers of the Church, and some human experience speak contrary to these atheistic positions. Leaving the scriptures behind, (since that is the very corpus of belief accused of being conjectures of an afterlife that is not real), and also not bothering to use the positions of the Fathers (since naturally such positions arise from the basis of the scriptures, and thus from basis of mere faith), yet a body of human experiences equally speak loud on the seriousness of immortality and afterlife. Several people have had what is referred to as near-death-experiences of the afterlife which present to us amazing testimonies of an otherworld experience. Some of such people who have these experiences were in fact staunch atheist before such experiences that called to question their reductive views of the universe.[8]

Life after death: a reality that gleams bright only in the light of faith

Interesting and important as these experiences are however, they make much more meaning only in the context of faith. The wealth of experiences of hundreds of people who have had near-death experiences are often described as hallucinations by people with positivistic stance to life, and thus who seek evidences for such claim as afterlife. Hence, even the best of explanation or detailed experience of an afterlife would count for nothing in the face of such scientific quest for evidence. It is the light of faith alone which throws a lustrous glimmer on the issue of an afterlife. The gospel of Josua, the son of the carpenter Joseph, reveals to us the life of the Father who wishes to communicate eternity with his creatures. By his life death and resurrection, he gives an assurance of the veracity of his words “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, even if he dies, will live.”[9] Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and his promise of such a life as his Father is the greatest assurance of the afterlife for the Christian. It is on this dais that the early Christians have based their faith. It is on this promise that the Church has always preached the article of the creed, “…the communion of saints, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.”

It is true that the argument sounds circular. We have made a sort of double-back from our refusal to use the scriptures and the Church Fathers to support the Christian hope in life after death (i.e. in the last sub-section of this article).  We have now ended up with recourse to a belief in the resurrection of the body in the light of Jesus’ promise of life after death. Such a promise gives room to doubt and intellectual attacks. For one, because it is based on faith. And secondly, because it takes a full going-away forever to put such a faith to test and prove it to be true.[10] But before such a lack of proof is pointed out as a reason for a labelling of the afterlife as a delusion, it is wise to consider the discussion in another light.[11] Supposing you have some positive, expert information about an imminent rise in the price of some stocks, would it be wise to invest in them? Or if some friends were to testify that there was a wonderful restaurant in town whose food is superb, would it be gainful to try it out? In both instances, full data is wanton. There are only good indications to their plausibility, particularly because such indications have been given by friends whose words we trust. To make a decision to accept the plausibility of such indications in the light of the available information would not be reckless. It would in fact be wise. This pattern of reasoning in matters of faith is usually ascribed to Pascal Blaise.[12]  However Blaise himself borrowed such reasoning from the medieval Muslim thinker, Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali who had used same argument to support his faith in life after death. In a presentation of Al-Ghazali’s argument for after life, D’Souza writes,

In his book The Alchemy of happiness, al-Ghazali describes an encounter between a believer in the afterlife and one who rejects the idea. The unbeliever persists with his doubts, and so the believer changes his approach. The issue, he says, is not what we can know for certain but how we should act in a given situation. The believer says, suppose you are about eat food, and someone tells you a serpent has spat venom on it. Would you still eat it? The obvious answer is no; it is better to endure the pangs of hunger rather than take the risk and eat, even though the informant may be joking or lying. Or imagine, the believer says, that you are incurably ill and a charm-writer tells you, give me a few coins, and I will write a charm that you can tie around your neck, and you will be cured. In a desperate situation, it`s obviously worth a few pennies to give it a try. But if this is so, the believer says, consider all the wise men through history who have held that there is life after death. Isn’t their testimony worth more than that of charm-writers?[13]

Conclusion: Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum

The succinct question of Al-Ghazali is whether an unbeliever, an atheist, an agnostic would act on the wise words of a friends who warns such an unbeliever against eating a poisonous food. That great friend who has given enough reasons to be found worthy of trust is Jesus the Christ, the immolated lamb who saves his faithful not only with wise words of advice but with his very life. And millions of wise men and women have given their words about the veracity of his teaching about life after death.  The knowledge of a loving God gives us the strength to look beyond the tears of the grave. His presence in the life of the Christian banishes the cold fear of death and warms us towards the excitement of what Aquinas calls the beatific vision. We are surrounded by such a great crowd of witnesses[14] who attest to the wisdom of such a hope. The ardent St. Theresa of Avila instructs us with her courageous words of desire, “I want to see God and, in order to see him, I must die”.[15]  The voice of St. Ignatius of Antioch echoes our hope, “my earthly desire has been crucified; . . . there is living water in me, water that murmurs and says within me: Come to the Father”[16]; the simple but reassuring faith of St. Therese urges us on our journey to real existence in the fullest meaning of that word, “I am not dying; I am entering life.”[17]

Paul’s admonition not to grieve relentlessly like people without hope is therefore apposite.[18] With reassurances of such credible voices already cited, we find the strength to say in union with St. Paul, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”[19]


[1] Cf. Roman Missal, Preface of All Saints

[2] In his “Life Extension: Rolling a Technological Dice”,  Callahan chronicles contemporary man’s preoccupation with making elongating life with all sorts of technological attempts. Cf. Daniel Callahan, “Life Extension: Rolling a Technological Dice”, in Society, (May 2009), Vol. 46, issue 3.

[3] The latest fact on record of a “fully authenticated age to which any human has ever lived is 122 years, 164 days by Jeanne Louise Calment (France). Born on 21 February 1875 to Nicolas (1837 – 1931) and Marguerite (neé Gilles 1838 – 1924), Jeanne died at a nursing home in Arles, southern France on 4 August 1997.”  Cf…… Guinness Book of Records,

[4] The popular “sting of sin is death” teaching (cf. 1 Cor 15:16), supported with citations of the consequence of man’s trespass of God’s first injunction (Gen. 2:17) resulting in his condemnation to return to the dust of the earth (Gen. 3:19), and Paul’s unequivocal teaching that death entered the world through that initial fall (Rom. 5:12) are cardinal points which render such an understanding of the entrance of death into human reality popular.

[5] Augustine of Hippo is often cited as a major representative of this view. Augustine argued for natural evil (suffering of the innocent and death included) as being temporary ways of divine restoration of order.  According to Augustine, “it is, in fact, the very law of transitory things that, here on earth where such things are at home, some should be born while others die, the weak should give way to the strong and the victims should nourish the lives of the victors. If the beauty of this order fails to delight us, it is because we ourselves, by reason of our mortality, are so enmeshed in this corner of the cosmos, that we fail to perceive the beauty of a total pattern in which the particular parts, which seem ugly to us, blend in so harmonious and beautiful way. Cf. Vernon Bourke, ed., St. Augustine,City of God, (New York: Doubleday, 1958), p. 211.

[6] As in the thought of C. S. Lewis,  The Problem of Pain, (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1962), p. 29.

[7]Notable amongst them is Victor Stenger,  with his The New Atheism:Taking a Stand for Science and Reason (New York: Prometheus Books, 2009),  which argues that all of reality is reducible to matter; And also his “Life After Death: Examining the Evidence”, in The End of Christianity, John Loftus (ed.),  (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2011), pp. 305-32. Christopher Hitchens, Richard Darwkins are other popular vocal voices of such “here-and-now-and-nothing-more” theories of the universe.  

[8] A seasoned record of these experiences is that published by the celebrated Dr. Raymond Moody, Life after Life: The Investigation of a Phenomenon- Survival of  Bodily Death, (New York: HarperCollins, 2001).  Originally published in 1975, this outstanding book puts together hundred case studies of individuals who have had been certified as clinically dead and eventually got revived. As Moody argues, the near-death experiences of these individuals provide avid testimonies on the reality of a life that extends further than the ordinary life we are used to in the present.

[9] John ll:25.

[10] Indeed Jesus’ words that “no one has gone up to heaven except the son of man who is from heaven”, meant to fortify the faith, are  often classical prongs with which atheists turn the hot burden of proof on Christianity.

[11] Here we depend on the insightful book of Denish D’Souza’s Life After death: The Evidence, (Massachusetts: Regnery Publishing, 2009 ), p. 210.

[12] The logic is popularly called Pascal’s wager. Pascal had meant to demonstrate the existence of God, arguing that it would be wise to have believed there was a God, keep his precepts and later find out there was none. Nothing much would have been lost in one’s short, mortal life. Whereas it would be very foolish not to have believed such an existence as God’s, never keep his precepts and eventually discover there was one.  Cf. Columbia History of Western Philosophy, s.v. “Blaise Paschal”.

[13] Denish D’Souza, Op. Cit., p. 211.

[14] Heb. 12:1

[15] St. Theresa of Avila, Life, chapter 1.

[16] St. Ignatius of Antioch, Ad Rom., 6, 1- 2: Apostolic Fathers, II/2, 223-224.

[17] St. Therese of Lisieux, the Last Conversations.

[18] Cf. 1 Thess. 4:13-17

[19] Phil. 1:21

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