“When I was a lad of thirteen, I had a sudden insight that solved for me the puzzle of religious belief. The answer I had found to my question was: fear of death. People accept religious teachings because it assuages their fear of dying…Because we human beings re able to think about our future, have long memories, and form deep bonds of affection without comrades and family members, facing the fact of death is more difficult than for any other animal species. Nearly all of us fear death. But because our culture is permeated by a religiously grounded belief in an afterlife, loss of faith in God raises the question of death in a different and more anxious way than would be the case if religion had never offered the hope of eternal survival,” E. Fales, “Despair, Optimism, and Rebellion,” R. Stewart, ed. The Future of Atheism (Fortress Press 2008), 97-98.
Since necrophobia is often postulated by unbelievers as a reason why Christians are Christian, this is worth commenting on.
I, too, remember when I was a lad of 13. And that was the age when I, too, began to contemplate my own mortality. I was in junior high at the time.
At one level, it might seem odd for a 13 year old to contemplate his own morality. Barring premature death, that’s a long ways away.
But, I suppose this was a natural coming-of-age experience. On the cusp of manhood, it was natural for me to think ahead and consider how I’d live my adult life from start to finish.
And as I thought about it, the prospect of my own mortality cast a backward shadow on my life. Yes, I knew that was a distant prospect, but it was still waiting for me. I was living under a death sentence. How you end is more important than how you begin.
But the fear of death didn’t make me a Christian. Had I been a Christian in junior high, I wouldn’t have felt this way in the first place.
It wasn’t until high school that I became a Christian. And necrophobia was not a factor in my conversion.
As I’ve grown older, I feel differently about death than I did when I was 13. As an adolescent, I was afraid of my mortality. My extinction. As a Christian, I lost my fear of death.
But as middle-aged man, what I find bothersome about the prospect of death is not my demise, but the demise of others who make life worthwhile. That’s not a perspective which the average adolescent can enjoy. That perspective is inherently retrospective rather than prospective. It takes a certain amount of life-experience to look in the rearview mirror.
Or, to vary the metaphor, it’s like being on a passenger boat. Some passengers came aboard before you do, and disembark before you do.
When I was 13, I hadn’t lost anyone or anything I deeply cared about. But by the time you arrive at a certain age, the losses have a cumulative impact.
This is a theme in the vampiric genre, where immortality can be a curse. You outlive everyone and everything you ever cared about. The isolation is unbearable.
If I were an unbeliever, this would pose a dilemma. I’d retain my fear of death. But life would also become unbearable. There’s a point beyond which it ceases be fulfilling. Death is bad, but life is bad.
Indeed, many people die because they lose their will to live. There’s insufficient reason to carry one. Too many inconsolable losses. To few compensations. When a loved one dies, a part of them dies. Like a tree with heart rot, they look healthy on the outside, but they are dying from the inside out.
It’s hard to enjoy life if you can’t share a pleasant experience with someone else. To be sure, there’s a sense in which a spouse and kids take the place of parents and grandparents. But certain people are irreplaceable. And kids grow up, move away. And one spouse predeceases another. And childhood friends pass away.
Seeing others die can be more painful than lying on your own deathbed. You’re left with memories—bittersweet memories which remind you of the loss. The gaping hole where a person used to be.
You mourn your loss, but in some cases you mourn their loss as well—in case they died in unbelief. You grieve for your own loss, but more so for theirs.
Beyond a certain point, believers are waiting to die because most of their life is both behind them and ahead of them. Waiting for them on the other side. But many unbelievers are waiting to die because their life is behind them. They have nothing left to live for. A past without a future. Nothing ahead, only behind. (Actually, they do have a future, but a very grim future.)
At the same time, I haven’t revised my theology to accommodate my revised outlook. I’m not a universalist. I don’t assume that everyone and everything I cared about will be restored to me. So the atheistic explanation doesn’t explain my outlook at any stage of life. And that’s true of Christians generally.