Death and Annihilation

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"All is Vanity" by C. Allan Gilbert....

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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.

The Nanny State and Big Government

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Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to four term...

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Many Americans (not all, thank God) are spoiled. They don’t mind selling their children and grandchildren to a world of financial ruin as long as they are comfortable. They desire benefits from government without understanding the cost. So the nation is in debt to a degree that would have been unimaginable even under the free-spending George W. Bush administration. How did the country get into this mess? How did the traditionally hard working American people turn into a group of soft, spoiled brats who believe the government is there to give them things?

The problem started with the Great Depression. Instead of allowing the private sector to correct the economic downturn, as President Harding did in 1919, first President Hoover, and to a much greater degree President Franklin D. Roosevelt, tried to end the Depression with massive federal intervention. Despite the claim by liberals that the New Deal helped to end the Depression, unemployment was high up until the boom due to World War II. Artificially inflating wages led companies to lay off more workers, which led to less spending, which led to more of an economic downturn–it was a vicious cycle. The jobs programs, to give them credit, resulted in fine roads and beautiful buildings, but did little to lessen unemployment. But as permanent federal benefits were put in place (even though there were state benefits such as old age pensions so that older people were not left destitute), Americans increasingly saw the government’s function to give them things–at first jobs, later money, health care coverage, and other benefits.

Even after Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy continued Roosevelt’s federal benefits, federal spending after World War II was generally under control. Eisenhower balanced the budget three times. But the largest expansion of the federal government in history took place with Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society.” Medicare, Medicaid, federal housing programs, and huge expenditures on welfare only made worse the public attitude that the government was a “nanny state” whose function is to take care of people’s physical needs. Programs that would have done more good at the local level were in the hands of distant bureaucrats, and a permanent underclass dependent on welfare payments was created.

But the government has also been guilty of corporate welfare. The unholy alliance between business and government began with the Whigs’ strong support of the new industries springing up with the Industrial Revolution and continued with the Republican Party’s alliance between the federal government, the railroads, and the banks. It was mainly the tension between the industrial North and its alliance of government and industry and the agricultural South that led to the War between the States (slavery, which was supported by the majority of the public in both the North and South, was not the primary issue over which the war was fought). Industrialism triumphed, and the unholy alliance led to numerous scandals beginning in the Grant administration. Today people vote for the presidential candidate and congressional candidates whom they believe will improve the economy. This is also a position that the government can give the people things–this time, a sound economy. Although some government regulation of business is required because people are not saints, the revolving door between big business and government officials only makes matters worse. Overall the economy tends to move in cycles that are only predictable in part due to their nature as dynamic, chaotic systems. The government can do a lot to help wreck the economy, but generally what it does best beyond essential regulation is to stay out of business. But people believe that one of the chief roles of government is to guarantee a good economy–and voters become prostitutes. It is just as bad for voters on the right to “vote their pocketbooks” as it is for voters on the left to vote due to their desire for more government benefits. But between the two, I prefer the right–at least they recognize that government does more harm than good to business.

Americans need to realize that concentrations of power and money tend to corrupt and tend to bankrupt. There are only so many resource available for people to share, and the government cannot keep spending at the rate it does on benefits and job programs (and defense!) without the Chinese eventually calling the United States in on its debt. When that happens, God help us. Perhaps then families will realize that they must work for themselves and for the good of their local communities instead of receiving handouts from a nanny government. They may have no choice. The sad thing is that such a scenario may be a good thing–it may be the only way to restore virtue to those in the United States who have been spoiled by a sense of entitlement.