Death - a reason to fear?

Death may seem a dangerous subject to write about! The stimulus for this piece arose from correspondence circulating between members of ACWG.

My (so far) one and only television appearance was on an experimental quiz programme which formed part of the BBC's early attempts to fill the Sunday evening 'watershed'. In previous times they had shut down for an hour following the children's' programmes. I was just eighteen and still at school, but I was an enthusiastic evangelical and keen to make my moment of fame count for God. One question they put to each member of the teenage panel put us in the imaginary situation of being at sea in a life raft with a bishop, an eminent surgeon and a young mother. If one person needed to abandon the raft to ensure the survival of the rest, what did we suppose we would do? Without hesitation I declared that I would sacrifice myself, because death held no fears for me as a born-again Christian confident in my salvation.

That was a long time ago, and my naive arrogance appals me in retrospect, but I still don't fear death. However, my reasons for not fearing are far more complicated than the ones I announced over the airwaves all those years ago. I am less certain, though equally at peace.

Death is the certainty that none of us can be really certain about. We know, for sure, that it must happen to each of us. But we do not, and cannot, know what lies beyond that event. Other events of our probable or possible future are clearer. We can seek advice about marriage, about retirement or about bereavement from people who have married, retired, or been bereaved But we cannot sit down for a chat with people who have died. Our only guide to a future beyond death is religion, which involves faith; and faith can never be a certainty.

Faith involves us in a commitment to something that cannot be proved. It would be a misuse of the word to say I have faith that the rain is wet or the ground is hard. These are elements of experience and bodily sensation. To say I have faith implies that I am committed to a proposition that I know could be untrue. I am taking a conscious risk.

If faith is a matter of risk, then it is reasonable to view it in the same manner as other risks that we encounter in life. There is a risk that your house could be burgled so it may be worth paying an insurance company to cover that risk. If there is no burglary you may have wasted your premium payments. Many people take conscious risks in order to experience particular pleasures. Until you climb the mountain you cannot enjoy the view from the top. This brings us closer to the nature of the religious view about death. Death might be an end to individual, personal existence, in which case the burglar has not called. Or it could be the gateway to judgement. If that judgement goes in our favour we will have reached our mountain top and can enjoy the view.

But my view has not been formed by religion in general but Christianity in particular. I believe that Jesus of Nazareth experienced physical death and resurrection, and that his resurrection involves a guarantee of life for others like myself. I remain in that faith, despite having increased my knowledge and broadened my outlook since those arrogant declarations I made as a precocious teenager.

Apart from the biblical beliefs that first fuelled my confidence about death, years of subsequent experience have given me a vaguer, but much less assailable, confidence in God. Compared with my younger self, I am much less able to make confident statements about the nature of God, but far more content to trust in his nature without definition. To repeat a quote from Blaise Pascal, "(God) is infinitely incomprehensible ... (and) we are incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is". As an infant I did not understand the meaning of 'mother', but I trusted her necessarily and absolutely. In the same way I trust my incomprehensible God. Dying is also incomprehensible.

I know life, because I experience it constantly. But the passage into non-life, or beyond-life, is outside my experience. The nearest I can imagine is to compare it with my daily passage into sleep and, in that sense I see no reason to fear. I was at the bedside of each of my parents as they took their last few breaths. It was awe-inspiring, but not frightening, as they slipped away from me with their former pain anaesthetised by an ever deeper sleep. Two other relatives of mine (my brother and grandmother) seemed to have willingly chosen to die in the same manner as I sometimes yearn for sleep at times of great exhaustion (they didn't commit suicide but, towards the end, they refused medication).

So dying itself need not be frightening, but what then? The journey may prove painless, but what of the destination? I do not fear hell, not just because of my experience of salvation but because I believe that God is at least as loving and merciful as I am (forgive the understatement). If I have a fear it is this - were death to be an absolute end then what would be the point of life? A plant's existence may be judged worthwhile because of its success in producing progeny, but a plant has no consciousness of its own individuality. My life is more than a minor event in a genetic journey, despite what some people claim. If that is the complete story, what reason is there to be moral, or to care about anything? Consciousness demands its own continuation.

My ultimate faith-answer is to see myself as a reasonable being in a reasonable universe. Human consciousness and intelligence are not pointless accidents, but the inevitable outcome of an incredible set of principles (call them evolutionary or creative, whichever you prefer). I look for reason because reason is there to be found, and my destination will also prove reasonable. I can't prove it, but I am prepared to trust.

So I end up with a religious commitment that fits my twentieth century reasoning, but complies equally with Paul's first century exhortation. "Present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service" *. I'll take a chance on that.

* Romans 12:1 (KJV)

© Derrick Phillips - 1998