As in time past we felt no distress when the advancing Punic hosts
were threatening Rome on every side, when the whole earth, rocked
by the terrifying tumult of war, shudderingly quaked beneath the
coasts of high heaven, while the entire human race was doubtful into
whose possession the sovereignty of the land and the sea was
destined to fall; so, when we are no more, when body and soul, upon
whose union our being depends, are divorced, you may be sure that
nothing at all will have the power to affect us or awaken sensation in
us, who shall not then exist—not even if the earth be confounded
with the sea, and the sea with the sky.
Life is granted to no one for permanent ownership, to all on lease.
Look back now and consider how the bygone ages of eternity that
elapsed before our birth were nothing to us. Here, then, is a mirror in
which nature shows us the time to come after our death. Do you see
anything fearful in it? Do you perceive anything grim? Does it not
appear more peaceful than the deepest sleep?
This is the standard secular argument against the fear of death. We run across popular variations on this theme in modern atheistic literature. What are we to make of this claim?
1.Some unbelievers taunt Christians who fear death or avoid premature death. They point out that when Christians are diagnosed with cancer (to take one example), the Christian will seek medical care rather than resign himself to death by cancer. Yet Christians are supposed to believe in heaven. Isn’t heaven better than anything we have on earth?
Therefore, when the turf meets the surf, Christians don’t really believe in heaven. So goes the argument.
I’ve addressed this allegation before, so I won’t repeat myself here. For now I wish to make a different point:
When the average unbeliever is diagnosed with cancer, he also seeks medical care. Yet, according to Lucretius, an atheist has nothing to fear from death.
If, therefore, the Christian response to a life-threatening situation is inconsistent, so is the atheistic response to a life-threatening situation.
2.There are also a couple of flaws in the symmetry argument. To begin with, postmortem oblivion is significantly disanalogous to prenatal oblivion.
In the case of postmortem oblivion, death robs you of an experience you had. Life is a cumulative experience. A series of formative or memorable events. One thing builds on another.
But, according to physicalism, death washes all that away in a single wave.
So there’s a fundamental asymmetry between the two states.
In addition, what about prenatal oblivion? To be denied the opportunity to exist is not a trivial or inconsequential deprivation. It may not be the same thing as losing something you actually had, but it does entail the possible loss of a great good. And that’s a genuine deprivation.
Suppose my wife dies of cancer. That’s a loss to me, as well as to her. An actual loss.
But suppose I can’t marry the woman I love. That, too, is a great deprivation.
To the extent that both states are analogous, that parallel actually undercuts the argument of Lucretius.
3.Finally, I think it is possible for an unbeliever to view death as a relief. An unbeliever has a different view of death because he has a different view of life.
To a Christian, this world is a fallen world. It’s a mix of good and evil. But a better world awaits us.
To an atheist, by contrast, this world is all there is. It will never get any better. If it’s full of pain and suffering and disappointment, that’s just a fact of life. That’s the nature of things.
So an atheist may well get to the point where he finds life very tedious. It ceases to be fulfilling. Even if he’s had the best of what a fallen world can offer, what a fallen world can offer is ultimately unsatisfying. It palls.
A Christian can feel the same way, but from a different perspective.