Atheists & Death

While watching The Monuments Men the other day I entered a morbid stream of thought. Matt Damon’s character accidentally stepped onto a land mine. His comrades then tried to rig a system that would (hopefully) let him step off of it without causing an explosion. But just in case they were all about to be blown to smithereens, he wanted to make sure he told them what an honor it had been serving alongside them. And that got me thinking on a slightly off-topic tangent: What compels us to give the imminently dying (new) information? What about atheists? Do they think there’s anything a person facing death needs to know?

How is mortality viewed through the lens of atheism? (And not being one myself, I claim no authority of knowledge on the subject.) What do atheists think about when they think about the aftermath of death? If you believe nothing (literally) follows life, does it matter to you how you die? Does it matter if someone passes away alone or surrounded by loved ones? Does it matter if it’s painless or if it hurts? Is it important for dying people to know that they’re loved, that you’re sorry, or that “it” wasn’t their fault? And if yes, why so?

If you completely cease to be (think, feel, sense, remember) with your dying breath and final heartbeat, why should it matter if your last living moments are harrowing or pleasant? You can’t take it with you—not the sight of your loved ones gathered by your bed, not their professions of love, not your physical anguish, not even the fact that you’re still mad at whomever. If atheists believe death leads to absolutely nothing, does that differently color their view of living and dying? Is it hard to place value on something that will one day completely cease to be—even if that something is a human being?

Even as a Christian I sometimes wonder why I exist. I’m not sure I’d see my value as an atheist. Where would I find the meaning—the imperative—of life? I can think of only two main options. I could choose to live for myself and seek out all the world’s pleasures, but the minute I died it would all cease to be relevant. If I instead chose the altruistic route, I’d being doing good for people who were all going to die and become nothings too.

I’m not saying God and Heaven must be real because I find the alternative too bleak. (Although, if I do turn out to be wrong, I don’t see how it hurts me.) I simply believe. Sometimes I know God is real without being certain. Occasionally He feels like an imaginary friend that a bunch of us have in common. But even when I doubt, I find myself asking Him to help me believe. Even if my faith is sometimes shaky, its roots run deep.

Being a Christian doesn’t mean I’m completely calm about the hereafter. Sometimes the idea of eternity is enough to give me a panic attack—both the idea of an eternity of nothing and one spent in Heaven. If I sit with the idea of forever for too long, the air’s texture starts to change and I begin to wish I could momentarily turn my brain off.

Eternity is simply too big for me to comprehend—whether thinking about time going forwards or backwards. Sometimes when I’m half awake in the middle of the night the idea of forever fills my whole being with dread. I can only imagine what’s milling about in an atheist’s head—if I’m expecting an eternity in paradise and the idea of forever is still sometimes frightening to me.

My fears and doubts also make me wonder if atheists hope they’re wrong or want to be right. Because if all existence ends in a void—if death is to life what a black hole is to light, knowing that ahead of time doesn’t earn anyone a prize.

I can’t prove that God is real. I admit I even have my doubts. But I also can’t erase my belief—even if my faith is flawed. Sometimes I find myself hoping in more than believing in God. But my uncertainty doesn’t deplete my faith; it makes me pray for more.

Death Et Cetera

Death. What a small yet ominous word. I remember being so afraid of death as a child that I put off reading “Superfudge” for a whole year. Of course, once I actually read the book I loved it. In fact, Judy Blume was my first favorite author. Why did I procrastinate? You see the first word in “Superfudge” is “life.” I was so afraid of death, that its antonym gave me pause. Technically birth is death’s opposite, but I didn’t know that at the time.

Death made me think about the afterlife, and as a Christian, I believed in a forever afterlife. So death made me think about forever, and sometimes, late at night, trying to grasp eternity would make my stomach fall out from under me. So, as a child, I avoided anything that might make me think about death with great vigilance.

Then my mother died. All of a sudden I was acutely aware of death. I wanted to understand everything about it. Up until then death hadn’t really hit home. Until then I’d only buried a pet. He was a much-loved pet (Timothy—the greatest dog in the world), but his death wasn’t enough to propel me into an existential thought tangent.

Once I had to bury someone who had framed my whole existence with her own, my questions about life and death changed drastically and became urgent. And unfortunately, my mother was the person I used to take such questions to. Who was I without her? Who and what was she now? What did I believe? Suddenly “You live, you die, you go to Heaven (if you’ve lived your life for Christ),” wasn’t enough for me. I wanted all the spaces filled. I wanted a more detailed itinerary. What happens in between? What was the route from point A to point B? Where was my mother now…where was she? Was she in heaven or did that come later? I knew where her body was buried, but where was her spirit, her consciousness, her love? And if I told God I loved and missed her, would He pass along the message? Could He? Couldn’t He do anything? My faith was at its thinnest then.

Death. It is no respecter of persons, and it is diligent. It is at once simple and inscrutable. It takes us out of birth order—parents burying children, some never being born, others born but never given time to mature. The dying bury the living and then live on. When my grandfather got sick, we all travelled to see him one more time. He was on his deathbed, but he lived to see my mother die. Death caught us all looking in the wrong direction for its arrival. And after we’d turned to look the other way, my grandfather died.

So why am I thinking about death today? Yesterday in the midst of all those that chose to get married and those that happened to be born or have birthdays on a numerically interesting date, my uncle died.

“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” ~ Romans 8:38-40