Comfort, Nothing, and Fear of Death
When I was younger, during times of deep depression and suicidal ideation, I found comfort in death. I was under the impression that my consciousness, and by implication my psychological and emotional turmoil, would cease. I would have peace once and for all.
But would I?
Over the years, I began to reason more clearly.
If death is the cessation of my conscious existence, then it follows that being-dead is not something I will experience.
And if I will not experience being-dead, then death is neither something to be welcomed nor something to be feared.
Since I won’t exist to experience being-dead, then it is irrational to fear or hope in my annihilation.
So this gave me neither peace nor anxiety – I felt what I anticipated: Nothing. The Epicureans believed that in discovering that death was nothing to be feared, one would find ataraxia, a kind of peace resultant from freedom from distress and worry. But it didn’t. It just made every thought, word, and deed pointless – neither good nor bad.
This changed, however, as I continued to reflect on God’s justice in Genesis 3. I couldn’t shake the idea that I was somehow a character in a similar story, if not another chapter in the Bible. I heard the voice of God thundering in my conscience, but I hid myself within creation, pretending to not be the image of God, even as Adam hid himself among the trees. I justified my behavior by appealing to “natural” instincts, even as Adam covered his nakedness with the leaves of the trees among which he hid himself. And I continued to place the blame on others who bear the image of God.
My desire to become one with creation, to become a guiltless cog in the machinery of the universe was an impossible task, I soon discovered. There were no neutral behaviors, since I would be affecting someone somewhere in some way by whatever I chose to do. This, coupled with the fact that I cannot know when I will die, made me fear death. I knew that I deserved death, and more than merely physical death, for the things I had done in my past, and for the things I would do in the future. Athenagoras, the 2nd century Christian apologist, summarizes some of what I was thinking at the time:
…the robber, or ruler, or tyrant, who has unjustly put to death myriads on myriads, could not by one death make restitution for these deeds; and the man who holds no true opinion concerning God, but lives in all outrage and blasphemy, despises divine things, breaks the laws commits outrage against boys and women alike, razes cities unjustly, burns houses with their inhabitants, and devastates a country, and at the same time destroys inhabitants of cities and peoples, and even an entire nation-how in a mortal body could he endure a penalty adequate to these crimes, since death prevents the deserved punishment, and the mortal nature does not suffice for any single one of his deeds? It is proved therefore, that neither in the present life is there a judgment according to men’s deserts, nor after death.
[On the Resurrection, emphasis mine.]
If justice were meted out to me by God, how could it consist in merely one death? Had I not abandoned my atheistic doctrine of atonement because of the fact that my own guilt was nearly impossible to calculate, being as great as it was? I had. I understood that if I was responsible for my direct and indirect actions toward God and neighbor, my recompense would be eternal.
I saw death around each corner, haunted by sporadic images of my car veering off the road, crashing, and killing me. I went to sleep knowing that there was no way for me to know if I would die that night. And if I died, I deserved whatever was coming to me. I wasn’t a Christian, but I was moving toward a general belief in God.
If I am guilty for acting against my neighbor, and this act causes them to act out against another, and this chain of effects continues on through the rest of the history of humanity, would this not, in some sense, be my fault?
And if it were my fault, which it would be, would I not be justly condemned to punishment for my transgressions’ direct and indirect effects?
And would not perfect justice require compensation for hatred, physical violence, lust, backsliding, slothfulness, covetousness, and blasphemy be recompensed to the full?
Now, supposing that men live on after death in some way, would it also not follow that whatever retributive justice is dealt to them by “God” has been earned in part because of me?
Would it not, therefore, be the case that I would be the recipient of a punishment due to one who has caused others to perish in hell?
I found myself thinking about “God,” mentally scribbling scare quotes around who I knew was real, present, and warning me of oncoming judgment.
[Continued in Pt. 10]