When I was a child, I broke Piaget’s rules of child development–I had a developed concept of death by age five–that of complete annihilation. Having a twin brother who died two hours after he was born complicated matters for me since I learned about death at a young age. When my dog, Fuzzy, was killed by a car, I learned first hand that death meant the loved being would not return. And then, while watching the Easter episode of “Davy and Goliath,” when Davy’s grandmother dies the day after she looks perfectly healthy when he’s playing in the attic with her and they’re playing catch in her front yard, devastated me. I could not see through death’s darkness to discover the light of resurrection.
Later I was taught the Christian hope of the resurrection of the body. Intellectually I believe it is true. But emotionally, at two a.m., lying on my left side, hearing my heart pound through the mattress, I wonder if my religion is totally false, whether God does not exist, and whether death really means annihilation, the blanking out of consciousness.
The ancient Epicureans believed in annihilation and the famous Epicurean poet, Lucretius, wrote, “Death is nothing to us,” since if a person is annihilated, he can no longer suffer–so what’s there to fear about death? When I have taught philosophy classes, I find that most students agree with Lucretius.
Few students agree with Miguel de Unamuno, the great Spanish writer, who in his book, The Tragic Sense of Life, considered the prospect of annihilation at death worse than images of suffering in Hell. Nor do they understand Milton’s Paradise Lost, when the demons are damned to hell–they say something to the effect, “Yeah, it’s bad that we’re in Hell, but at least we have our consciousness, our self-awareness.”
Most atheists claim that the prospect of annihilation is either a matter of indifference or of comfort. David Hume horrified Samuel Johnson by his lack of fear of annihilation. Bertrand Russell once said, “When I die, I shall rot,” and had no more problem with the prospect of annihilation that someone would with a minor inconvenience. Is my attitude due to a strange personality, or is there more to the fear of annihilation than meets the eye.
Rene Descartes famously said Cogito, ergo sum: “I think, therefore I am.” Although I do not agree with him that the human essence is consciousness (embodiment is an essential part of human personhood), there is something to be said for his focus on self-consciousness. Consciousness is a gift we take for granted. How wonderful it is to be aware of the beautiful world around us, to be aware of loved ones, to be aware of our bodies and our own thoughts! Can we realize what a wonderful gift that is? Losing one’s awareness totally and irretrievably, blanking out into nonbeing, is not frightening because of any pain I would feel, but because I would feel, think, and sense nothing at all–for all practical purposes, there would be no more me. That is why the promise of resurrection is so precious–it is a promise to restore us to the fullness of life, which includes our self-awareness–and more. But if death is the end, as St. Paul put it in I Corinthians 15, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” That is why I have always thought Hell was a gift of God’s mercy–He gives the unrepentant as much reality as they can have without annihilating them. I have no sympathy for the view of Edward Fudge and others who believe that Hell is total annihilation, for that would be an act of a cruel deity. The concept that I could be annihilated at death if the nonbelievers in an afterlife are correct frightens me, like it did Unamuno, almost infinitely more than the prospect of consciousness in Hell. We, like all creatures, have a natural desire to continue in being (philosophers as diverse as Aquinas and Spinoza recognized that fact). Death in the sense of total annihilation goes against that natural desire. This is why Ambrose Bierce’s short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is one of the most frightening stories I have ever read–I won’t give away the ending–it’s worth reading. I pray for deeper faith, to go beyond, “Lord I believe, pardon my unbelief” to a faith that lives beyond doubt. May we all have such faith.