Death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart. (Ecclesiastes 7:2, NIV)
Over the last few weeks, I have made some interesting sociocultural observations. For example, a local grocery store has limited the number of sanitizing wipes available for its customers and has offered to disinfect shopping carts for shoppers entering the building. A local soccer club has sent me an email message with instructions on how to deal with the coronavirus. The county school district has left telephone and email messages about the virus. And I have seen many news headlines on the subject. One of them is from The Washington Post and is available on the internet; it is entitled Coronavirus anxiety is everywhere, and there is no cure. Clearly, people are concerned about illness and death. Naturally, they want to avoid the latter – although it cannot be dodged forever.
Plato wisely wrote that those who properly apply themselves to philosophy are preparing for death and thus should not be troubled by it.[i] How does one prepare for death? It depends on what one expects death to be. Empirical evidence indicates that, at death, a human body stops functioning. It becomes a corpse. But what about mental activity? With bodily death, a human being either permanently ceases to be conscious, or does not permanently cease to be conscious.[ii] In the former case, preparation for bodily death is readiness for an irreversible event, namely, the annihilation of consciousness. In the latter case, to plan for physical death is to arrange for continued mental life; although the body expires, and one shuffles off this mortal coil, one’s conscious life proceeds in a way that is not connected to the deceased body.
How do ontological naturalism and Christian theism compare regarding the topic of death?[iii] Let us examine these worldviews by addressing four factors: meaning, morality, postmortem hope, and fear. First, consider meaning. Let us suppose that an objective meaning for human life requires immortality. If this is the case, then on ontological naturalism, the inescapability of death entails nihilism. Consequently, one’s agenda for death is shaped by a nihilistic perspective. However, on the Christian view, physical death does not preclude objective meaning. Death is a transition to further meaningful and valuable experiences, not a meaningless end to an absurd life.
Second, consider ethics. Suppose that the existence of God is a necessary condition for objective morality. Suppose also that (as Kant held) the immortality of the human soul and the existence of God are postulates required to make sense of the morally plausible belief that virtue, duty, and happiness eventually conjoin. If this is right, then according to naturalism, there is no objective morality and no ultimate happiness for the virtuous and morally dutiful in this life. Furthermore, the universality of death means that one’s behavior in life makes no ultimate difference. Christianity holds a different position. The stakes are serious. Objective morality is real. Human choices matter. The existence of God and the immortality of the human soul ensure that virtue, duty, and happiness unite in a proportionate and lasting bond. On Christianity, human life is endowed with great significance.
As General Maximus put it: “what we do in life echoes in eternity.”[iv] For a naturalist, Maximus’ claim is a literal falsehood, even if it has poetic and motivational uses. What we do in life makes no difference in eternity. But for a Christian, preparing for death involves planning to experience the endless echoing of his pre-mortem choices and actions. The fact of death encourages reflection on how one ought to live and on how moral normativity relates to final judgment.
Third, consider postmortem hope. For a naturalist, there is no reason to anticipate any mental states after death. Planning for death does not involve any postmortem expectation whatsoever. Since there is nothing more to mental, biological, and social existence than aggregates of physicality, bodily death is the end. Anything further is hopeless. However, a Christian ought to expect a postmortem future of endless and indescribable flourishing. As Jesus taught, eternal life is knowledge of God.[v] And as Paul reported, the experience of postmortem paradise is inexpressible. Moreover, a Christian can take death as a learning opportunity. For instance, death is a humbling experience which demonstrates in dramatic fashion that human beings are contingent and powerless to maintain their own existence beyond the frailties of the body. Thus, a Christian can learn from death to be properly humble, to recognize the reality of the human condition, and to accept the fact of our ontological reliance on God.[vi] One takes such lessons with him into the hereafter.
Lastly, consider the fear of death. Should a naturalist be afraid of death? Perhaps. If naturalism is true, then one might be quite uneasy about the implications of annihilation (e.g., the permanent loss of intimate relations, the cessation of meaningful work, the end of all hope for excellence or joy, the sheer fact of finality). But maybe fear is avoidable. If human life is fundamentally a meaningless striving in a world marred by pointless suffering[vii], then one might reasonably welcome death as an end to the absurdity and misery of human existence.
The Christian ought not to fear death. Death is a portal from this vale of soul-making to a vastly greater kind of life. Further, as Jesus taught, those who follow him will not experience the event of bodily death.[viii] Their bodies will cease to function, but their souls will continue forever, not sensing any unpleasant experiences associated with disembodiment.
It is a good practice to compare the worldviews of different philosophical and religious traditions. How do they account for the various good and bad aspects of human life? Here, we have compared ontological naturalism and Christian theism. We have juxtaposed their respective explanations of death and its bearing on meaning, morality, postmortem hope, and fear. I leave it to the reader to evaluate which worldview provides the better explanation.[ix]
[i] Phaedo, 64a.
[ii] Plato did not take death to be the annihilation of consciousness. Like the Christian, Plato held that human postmortem existence is a conscious activity and, moreover, that one’s postmortem experience is somehow influenced by the moral quality of one’s life before death.
[iii] By ontological naturalism, I mean what David Papineau means: ”A central thought in ontological naturalism is that all spatiotemporal entities must be identical to or metaphysically constituted by physical entities. Many ontological naturalists thus adopt a physicalist attitude to mental, biological and other such “special” subject matters. They hold that there is nothing more to the mental, biological and social realms than arrangements of physical entities.” See https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/naturalism/#OntNat
[iv] See the 2003 film Gladiator.
[v] See John 17:3. For Paul’s statement about paradise, see 2 Corinthians 12:4.
[vi] By studying and coming to terms with death before experiencing it, one can learn these lessons prior to one’s demise. Reading Scripture and good novels can help. Practicing philosophy can help, too.
[vii] Schopenhauer’s philosophical system emphasizes this view of human life. On the Sufferings of the World and On the Vanity of Existence are two accessible summaries of this view. See https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/On_the_Sufferings_of_the_World and https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/On_the_Vanity_of_Existence
[viii] See John 8:51.
[ix] We are only considering the factors addressed in this short article. A complete abductive comparison of naturalism and Christian theism is beyond the scope of this essay.