The Reality of Death and the Wretchedness of Man

I am afraid of death. I have been afraid for as long as I can remember, and that fear can often manifest itself in the form of an episode of major anxiety (sweating, shaking, etc.). I have lost sleep over my fear of death, and I have had to even excuse myself from situations with other people because the anxiety will hit me so bad. I have tried to have conversations with others about my problem so that I might find some sort of remedy – so as to divert the psychological tension associated with my own end. However, strangely I have often received the advice of “repression” -in other words, somehow aim my attention elsewhere so that the fear doesn’t come back. Consider what Psychoanalyst Gregory Zilboorg once wrote on this issue:

For behind the sense of insecurity in the face of danger, behind the sense of discouragement and depression, there always lurks the basic fear of death, a fear which undergoes most complex elaborations and manifests itself in many indirect ways. . . No one is free of the fear of death. . . The anxiety neuroses, the various phobic states, even a considerable number of depressive suicidal states and many schizophrenias amply demonstrate the ever-present fear of death which becomes woven into the major conflicts of the given psychopathological conditions. . . We may take for granted that the fear of death is always present in our mental functioning. [1]

Zilboorg nonetheless interestingly argues that the fear of death must be present within us – i.e., “the fear of death must be present behind all our normal functioning, in order for the organism to be armed toward self-preservation” [2]. The question of death became a relevant biological/evolutionary one in the post-Darwinian period (in the psychological sense). For instance, as some have argued, “early men who were most afraid were those who were most realistic about their situation in nature, and they passed on to their offspring a realism that had a high survival value” [3].

Apart from this conversation, solutions to my fear of death have not been necessarily fruitful. However, my conversion to Christianity became a game changer. When I first became a Christian, my situation thence turned to not only accepting the reality of my own mortality, but to almost embracing it. As Paul wrote to the Philippians: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). He even later admits to my own shock: “If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far” (vv. 22-23).

Jesus even makes his own shocking statements that were at one point hard for me to swallow: “Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:34-35).

Why do I bring up this subject? What can the reality of death tell us about God? What can the reality of death tell us about man? It’s these kind of questions (and many more) that I believe provoke a serious consideration of the overall conversation regarding man and his relation to the universe – and ultimately, God. So, for those of you that don’t like talking about religion, or don’t want to have anything to do with it in your daily lives, there is something knocking on your door that simply can’t be ignored.

 

The Absolute Distinction

We as modern citizens often lose sight of the absolute “either/or”: God or no-God, happiness or misery, and so on. This was utilized by one notable Christian philosopher (Pascal) who truly believed that old Augustinian truism: “Thou has made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee” [4]. This distinctive thinking is what shapes the “cities” of Augustine: “The City of God” (civitas Dei) and “The City of Man” (civitas Mundi). It’s ultimately a distinction between salvation and damnation, Heaven and Hell, as well as “happiness of man with God” and “wretchedness of man without God.”

However, what is often ignored is the reality of the former – man’s depravity. Namely, that apart from the good news of Christianity we often ignore the reality of the “bad news” (i.e., sin). As philosopher Peter Kreeft once wrote:

In the past, the difficulty in accepting Christianity was its second point, salvation. Everyone in premodern societies knew sin was real, but many doubted salvation. Today it is the exact opposite: everybody is saved, but there is no sin to be saved from. thus what originally came into the world as ‘good news’ strikes the modern mind as bad news, as guilt-ridden, moralistic and ‘judgmental’. For the modern mind is no longer ‘convinced of sin, of righteousness and of judgment” [5].

French philosopher Blaise Pascal was convinced of these two truths: (1) Wretchedness of man without God, and (2) Nature is corrupt, proved by nature itself. One of the biggest evidences for (1) – in the sense that Pascal means “wretched” – is the fact of death. Indeed, it is the only certain fact in our lives. Why is death support for the wretchedness of man? To borrow a few reasons from Kreeft: “it is a great attention-grabber; it is a solid, sound, secure, and indisputable fact; and it slaps us in the face with our own wretchedness, our utter helplessness before the loss of everything” [6].

Pascal thence declares: “Anyone with only a week to live will not find it in his interest to believe that all this is just a matter of chance. Now, if we were not bound by our passions, a week and a hundred years would come to the same thing” [7]. However, you are more than welcome to any of the five following solutions when facing death:

  1. “Don’t look at it. Look the other way. Be an ostrich; hide your head in the sand, your mind in worldliness. Stay diverted. . .
  2. Look at it with a heart dulled by pop psychology. ‘Accept’ it. Be bland and indifferent to it. . . Do go gentle into that good-night; do not rage against the dying of the light.
  3. Look at it and despair. This is the admirable but unlivable honesty of nihilism. . .
  4. Look at it and put your hope and faith in science to conquer death by technology, by cryogenics or by artificial immortality by genetic engineering. This is a  faith as old as Renaissance alchemy and occultism. . .
  5. Put your faith in God, in Christ, in Resurrection” [8].

Pascal offers reasons for rejecting all the others, although, as Kreeft admits, “the problem itself eliminates all other contenders” [9]. One of the most important considerations among our questions of existential worth should be the question of the immortality/morality of the soul (whether it is either/or). Why? “The last act is bloody, however fine the rest of the play. They throw earth over your head and it is finished forever” [10].

In other words, our lives (in a particular sense) gain its “unity and point from its conclusion, or end” [11]. Therefore, the question of our own immortality is vitally important. In fact, this reality should provoke us to the question of the truth of religion – however, as I mean Christianity in particular. “Death kayos all philosophies; only Christ kayos death” [12].

____________________

Notes:

  • [1] Quoted from Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (Simon & Schuster: 1973) p. 16
  • [2] Ibid., p. 16
  • [3] Ernest Becker, 17
  • [4] St. Augustine, Confessions I, 1, 2
  • [5] Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans (Ignatius Press: 1993) p. 26
  • [6] Ibid., p. 141
  • [7] Blaise Pascal, Pensees. Penguin/Krailsheimer trans. (Penguin Classics: 1966) 326.
  • [8] Peter Kreeft (1993) pp. 145-146
  • [9] Ibid., p. 146
  • [10] Pensees, 165.
  • [11] Kreeft, 144.
  • [12] Ibid., p. 146.
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