Death always seems to be a negative or morbid subject. Whatever connotation it may have, the only thing significant about it is that it is real – i.e., we are going to die one day. As Blaise Pascal put it into words: “When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill. . . I am frightened, and shocked at being here” (Livingston 2006, 134). Philosophers have given special attention to this reality and have articulated it in such a way that, in fact, from them we can gain insight.
Socrates said that philosophy is for the dead. Particularly in the Phaedo he says, “For I deem that the true disciple of philosophy is likely to be misunderstood by other men; they do not perceive that he is ever pursuing death and dying” (Wartenberg 2008, 101). Death is what separates the soul from the body according to Socrates, and hence, the disembodied soul is then able to pursue “real” knowledge,” and so, the philosopher in his pursuit of wisdom and knowledge should not be afraid of death.
Another Greek philosopher after Socrates named Epicurus suggested that the fear of death should be removed in order to obtain a “pure” pursuit of happiness. He recognized that men try to postpone the ever-moving train of death by pursuing wealth and power, throwing themselves into a frenzy “so that they can forget its inevitability” (Kenny 2004, 94). One of the causes of this fear of death, he said, is religion, which holds fairy tales over our heads to keep us from pursuing happiness. Hence, we must abandon religion and pick up a more favorable, scientific account of the world.
German philosopher Martin Heidegger also made the common observation that it is certain we are going to die, but such a certainty is indeterminate – i.e., we don’t know when we are going to die. As he writes, “[death] is proximally not yet present-at-hand for oneself, and therefore no threat” (Heidegger 1962, 297). What is emphasized by Heidegger and other existential philosophers is that we humans tend to live as if we are going to live forever, but neglect the fact that our morality is one day going to interrupt us.
American philosopher Robert Nozick takes note of the idea that people seem to be unable to take seriously the possibility of their own death. On the contrary, argues Nozick, a person’s death seems to become real to them once their parents have passed. As he writes in his book, The Examined Life, “Until then, there was someone else who was ‘supposed to’ die before him; now that no one stands between him and death, it becomes his ‘turn'” (Nozick 1989, 20). Nozick further argues that a death is considered “untimely” when lives are ended where so much has been left unfulfilled. Hence, “when you no longer have the capacity to do what is undone, or when you have done all that you considered important, then – I want to say – you should not be so very unwilling to die” (21).
Creatures Who Point to Christ
When pertaining to death, there is something of course always lost – a soul, a loved one, and so on. However, from the point of the nihilist, there is no world hereafter for us to give up a spirit or a soul, and hence the anxious power of death is without teeth. To the ancient man, it was the fear of death that captivated him. To the medieval man, it was fear of judgement or Hell. In our present age, to the modern man, it is fear of meaningless – the horror vacui (the fear of emptiness). Where the medieval man once asked, “Why is there a gracious God?” modern man now asks, “Where is God?” In the words of Protestant theologian Helmut Thielicke, “In the place of guilt and judgment we may now speak of anxiety and destiny. Anxiety is the secret wound of modern man*.”
There is an old work of fiction by German author Jean Paul, entitled, The Dead Christ Proclaims That There is No God (1796). Christ upon his resurrection returns to the people to deliver a sermon that leaves everyone speechless:
And Christ spake on, saying, “I have traversed the worlds, I have risen to the suns, with the milky ways I have passed athwart the great waste spaces of the sky; there is no God. And I descended to where the very shadow cast by Being dies out and ends, and I gazed out into the gulf beyond, and cried, ‘Father, where art Thou?’ But answer came there none, save the eternal storm which rages on, controlled by none; and towards the west, above the chasm, a gleaming rainbow hung, but there was no sun to give it birth, and so it sank and fell by drops into the abyss. And when I looked up to the boundless universe for the Divine eye, behold, it glared at me from out a socket, empty and bottomless. Over the face of chaos brooded Eternity, chewing it for ever, again and yet again. Shriek on, then, discords, shatter the shadows with your shrieking din, for HE IS NOT!”
In tears, the people asked: “Jesus, have we no Father?” Likewise, weeping, Christ answered, “We are orphans all, both I and ye. We have no Father.” This parable I think accurately depicts the status of anxiety within modern man. A possible solution to this dilemma I am taking from Thielicke, who writes that “anxiety is a broken bond and love is the bond restored.” The love of God doesn’t so much rid of these realities, but they do lose their strength. “To use a simple comparison – and simplicity is needed in ultimate questions – I need have no fear even in the darkest forest when I hold my father’s hand and I am sure of it.”
There is no power in anxiety because Christ endured it for us. In the moment where he cried, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” he handed over his anxiety to the Father, once and for all. “Everything is now different. We do not know what will come. But we know who will come. And if the last hour belongs to us, we do not need to fear the next minute.”
Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. 1962. San Francisco: Harper Press.
Kenny, Anthony. A New History of Western Philosophy: Ancient Philosophy. 2004 Oxford, New York: 2004.
Livingston, James C., Fiorenza, Francis. 2006. Modern Christian Thought. Fortress Press.
Nozick, Robert. The Examined Life. 1989. Simon&Schuster Press.
Wartenberg, Thomas. Existentialism. 2008. Oxford, England: Oneword Publications.
* – Citation can be found here: http://olbooks.com/meet-our-authors/helmut-thielicke/the-silence-of-god/
** – Citation can be found here: http://www.dayonepatch.com/index.php?/topic/33896-%E2%80%9Cthe-dead-christ-proclaims-that-there-is-no-god%E2%80%9D-by-jean-paul/