Here are some things I’ve learned regarding my beliefs about death in the last week or so. If we need an overarching theme, I suppose it’s that my beliefs about death (which are, I suppose, a subset of the Christian beliefs about death) are weird. That’s not to say paradoxical, or inconsistent, but I have to admit they are weird.
Here’s an example. It turns out that I view death as an almost wholly biological phenomenon. I am highly skeptical of claims that dying people are seeing those who have passed on, or heaven, or have any extraordinary insight that the rest of us don’t have. This is not to say that I think it’s impossible to see those who have passed on, or heaven, or to have literally superhuman insight. It’s just that I think those are relatively extraordinary events, and in any case I don’t see what at all they have to do with death. If anything, I suppose that the dying perceive less than the rest of us.
On the other hand, it’s very important to my conception of death (and, indeed, to my conception of humanity) to affirm that a person is bodily. In Phoenix Earth terms I would say that humans are animals; i.e., they are meant to have bodies and their bodies are an important part of who they are. I reject wholeheartedly the view that the body is merely a shell or a vessel, unconnected from the “real” or spiritual person. When a person dies, in my opinion, they are dying – death is not the mere release of a person’s true self from a wasted shell. When we say that a person dies, I think that they really are dying, and I prefer to call it that. Euphemisms (and I don’t mean the term perjoratively) such as passing away, going home, or even that most ancient of Christian euphemisms, falling asleep, make me uncomfortable.
Of course, it is equally important to my conception of death (and life) to affirm that people are spiritual. That is to say, I believe that we are animals, but also that we are animals with spirits, and those spirits are no less a part of us than our bodies. So while I believe that when a person dies it is they and not a container that is dying, I also believe that there is a part of the person who is not dying.
And what happens to that part after death? The truth is, in most of the ways a person observing a loved one dying might care about, I don’t know. My beliefs don’t include anything on the subject of whether the dead can or cannot hear us when we talk to them, or whether they care about what’s happening on Earth, or are aware of it, or just how it is they remain distinctly themselves separated from a vital part of themselves. My sacred texts are silent on those subjects, and I decline to speculate. My understanding of angels prevents me from imagining that the dead turn into angels (and I wouldn’t find the thought especially comforting even if I did, since as I understand angels they are a warlike and thoroughly inhuman race). But I don’t really know what a person does “turn into” when he or she dies.
For that matter, what do I mean when I say “death?” Christians frequently speak of the first human sin as allowing “death” into the world, and we look forward to a day when there will be no more dying. I look forward to a day when there will be no more dying. But what does that mean? Once upon a time, did organic life really never terminate? Is the existence of carnivores a result of the fallen state of the world (for that matter, is the entire animal scheme of feeding a result of the Fall)? Perhaps, although I admit I find it hard to believe that a lion’s feeding reflex (or a zebra’s) is evil simply because it results in the termination of the food’s biological existence. And were humans truly intended never to die of old age? Do our bodies wear out faster now than they were supposed to, or were they never supposed to wear out at all?
I don’t know the answers to those questions, but I suspect that when we say “death” in this context – death entered the world after the Fall, Jesus conquered death, there will come a day when there is no more dying – we mean something like destruction, and not the mere termination of biological life. So we can speak of the “second death,” when some human spirits will really be destroyed forever. And human death really is death, perhaps not because the animal part of the person is dying but because the person is being sundered.
It is conventional to assume that one holds one’s beliefs about death partially (if not chiefly) as a comfort. Here I am believing that death is merely biological – but also that people are inherently biological. I have no real clue as to what existence is like for a person who has died. I suppose that Christian people probably go to “heaven” (whatever that means, although it certainly sounds not-bad), but I’m not even positive of that (c.f. Ecc. 9:5). These are not especially comforting beliefs. I do have one belief about death which is comforting, and that is the advent of the Phoenix Earth.
It turns out that I really do believe in a day when the Earth (and perhaps, by implication, all of existence) is made new and all those people (or at least, all the ones who were Christian when they died – I’m agnostic about the rest, although I am firm in my belief that there is a bad outcome to this story as well) whose very humanity was sundered by death are given new bodies, when people can be spiritual animals again and in some cosmic not-very-well-understood sense, all is as it should be. I haven’t the slightest idea what those bodies will be like – I suppose they will resemble our current bodies as much as a seed resembles a sunflower. And I haven’t the slightest idea what that new Earth will be like, or whether that Earth will eventually be swallowed up by a dying star as this one is supposed to be, or how the laws of nature will have to change so that all is as it should be, except I imagine we will be surprised by the depth of the corruption worked when “death” entered the world. But it turns out it is enough for me to look forward to a day when the sundering is undone and will never be worked again.
As I said at the beginning, it seems to me that my view of death is pretty weird. But it turns out that it really is my view. And it turns out that it really is comforting after all.