Do atheists fear death?
Things have been a little quiet on this blog lately. I do apologise, but my mum died quite suddenly at the end of August. This has meant that I haven’t quite been up to detailed and passionate exchanges on life, God and meaning. You can read my eulogy to my mum here published on another of my blogs.
This very real and personal confrontation of death has prompted some significant questioning and reflection in myself. It has confronted me afresh with the reality and permanence of death. I wonder where my mum has ‘gone’. If atheism is true, she no longer feels, thinks or even exists, the consequences of which I’ll outline below). If Christianity is true, I wonder about the intermediate state, is she ‘sleeping’, her spirit gone to be with Jesus or feels nothing awaiting the resurrection at the end of the age?
So I thought I’d share some thoughts on this blog. This post is modified from an earlier post I wrote a couple of years ago after attending several funerals in quick succession.
Funerals remind me of my own mortality – that one day I will die. It’s not a cheery or happy thought, I find it sobering and chilling. Death is something that we don’t really think about and it’s something that’s outside our experience, but we will all go there. We will all die.
Death is catastrophic in the atheist world: it should be feared
I think there is something to fear about death in the atheist universe. Death is so final; its victory over us is complete. In the atheist world, when we die, we are annihilated, we cease to exist and we fail to perceive anything about our world or reality.
Given this comprehensive finality of death, I am somewhat surprised at the almost cavalier attitudes towards death that some atheists propose. Deceased atheist Christopher Hitchens said,
“Do I fear death? No, I am not afraid of being dead because there’s nothing to be afraid of, I won’t know it.”
Another atheist concurred with Hitchens claiming, ‘I was dead for billions of years before I was born and I did not suffer the slightest inconvenience’
If the atheist worldview is right then Hitchens correctly observes that we won’t know that we are dead. But I can’t see how this removes the fear of death, for the fear of death comes precisely because we won’t know it. This is exactly my point.
We didn’t suffer inconvenience before death, but we also had never experienced consciousness, life or the universe. We were never aware of anything (we weren’t actually dead!) We didn’t exist. Hence to go back to that “feeling” of non-existence is chilling. To return to ‘non-experience’ after experiencing the great gifts of life and thought and the universe in all its wonder and mystery. For us not to experience anything, I can’t help but find depressing and meaningless.
Our minds fail to grasp what non-perception is like. We are physical creatures, we perceive, interrogate and experience the world around us – we are the sum total of our experiences. Yet to lose that, to die, ends these experiences. Death ends our sense of perception, it ends our experience. Death is a foreign ‘experience’. I cannot begin to wonder what that will feel like – or more correctly what not perceiving feels like. In the atheist philosophy death is so catastrophically and depressingly final. Life and consciousness become a tragic and cruel joke.
Shouldn’t atheists want there to be an afterlife?
One of the puzzling enigmas of modern dialogue on religion is why so many atheists, notably anti-theists, are so militant in their opposition of God and an afterlife. Thomas Nagel wrote,
It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.
Even if there is no God or afterlife, surely we would want there to be one? Surely we would want to continue to exist and to perceive, think and experience? I can’t quite understand why anti-theists adopt a no God at all costs attitude, particularly if it means ditching any hope after death.
Will we survive death?
So will we survive death? The Christian faith asserts that we will – that that there will be some kind of afterlife. Some will suffer punishment and others experience eternal life. Now, a common criticism of the Christian faith is that the afterlife has simply been invented as a crutch for those who can’t bear the concept of annihilation – it is wish fulfilment i.e. we don’t want to die, hence we really want an afterlife to be true.
Yet, unlike any other world religion, Christianity doesn’t simply assert that there is an afterlife, it demonstrates one, through the resurrection of Jesus. This is why the resurrection is so crucial to Christian hope,
‘And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.” (1 Corinthians 15:17-19)
Jesus’ resurrection changes everything. If the reports of Jesus’ resurrection are true, then there is hope that we can survive death. Christian hope isn’t simply wishful thinking, it becomes an exercise of trust in an historical event. We can trust in Jesus’ resurrection and its historical occurrence and trust that we too will be raised to everlasting life. Alternatively, from the atheist perspective, we can trust that death is the end, the final word. Which invariably makes life utterly pointless, meaningless and empty.
I trust Jesus’ resurrection, and this gives hope that death’s victory is not complete,
‘Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ (1 Corinthians 15:55)