I subscribe to a daily reflection from Richard Rohr. Yesterday’s edition got me thinking (quite morbidly) about death. It said this:
We fear nothingness. That’s why we fear death, of course, which feels like nothingness. Death is the shocking realization that everything I thought was me, everything I held onto so desperately, was finally nothing.
Now, I find myself thinking about death quite often. No, not in a suicidal way, but in a way that wrestles with what death means, what comes after it, why it means so much and why we try to evade its inevitable clutch so much? Personally, Rohr has hit the nail on the head: I fear death because of it’s apparent nothingness. And this got me thinking about people I know who believe that death is in fact nothingness (and who are fine with that) and those who believe death is a doorway into something else (but who fear it). In short, I wonder if atheists are better prepared for death than us Christians are?
In a strange way I admire my atheist friends and how they confront and accept the apparent nothingness of death. I mean, when you speak to an atheist worth their salt, they are just unperturbed by the issue of death – on surface of it all at least. You ask them what happens after death and they’ll tell you it isn’t an important question. That what happens at the point of death is that you end, you then decompose and you go back to the ground. That is the cycle of life. Ashes to ashes, so to speak.
Now, have a conversation with a Christian about death and you’ll hear a different story. Most Christians (worth their salt) would like to speak with conviction about the after life and how the promises in the Bible of a heaven are true for them personally, but there’s inevitably a sense of “I’m not totally sure” coming through in their talk. This uncertainty isn’t what most people ascribe it to be – a tussle between knowing whether you’re going to heaven or hell. No. It is actually an uncertainty rooted in not knowing what comes after death. It’s a mental speedbump before you get to thinking about heaven/hell, but is disguised as the heaven versus hell issue. It is an issue of whether after death there is something, or nothing.
Isn’t it strange that a belief in ‘something’ after death creates more anxiety than a belief in the nothingness of death?
I remember my mom reflecting on the death of her parents and saying that my Gran seemed to pass on relatively easier (in the context of her cancer) compared to my Grandpa when his time came. My Grandpa just seemed to want to hang on to life. My mom also said that my Gran had a sense of knowing where she was going after death, whereas my Grandpa wasn’t as convinced.
So maybe a certainty is the differentiator regarding levels of anxiety associated with death?
I’ve been to the funerals of Christians that have been spiritual giants and the sense at those funerals was one of celebration of a significant life that was now elevated to something (heaven), not a mourning of a loss to nothingness.
I guess my point is this: what can we learn from an honest acknowledgement of the ‘nothingness’ of death? I wonder if this is where Rohr was heading with his reflection, which ends like this:
The nothingness we fear so much is, in fact, the treasure and freedom that we long for, which is revealed in the joy and glory of the Risen Christ. We long for the space where there is nothing to prove and nothing to protect; where I am who I am, in the mind and heart of God, and that is more than enough.