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Why denying death is not illogical

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Nov 02, 2017

For several years now, I have been wrestling with the notion of “brain death,” which I believe to be a false category. My research into the subject has led to questions about what death actually means—which turns out to be a more complicated matter that it might seem.

Today, as we prayerfully remember the faithful departed, it seems appropriate to reflect on the meaning of death. We are praying for people who, from the purely secular perspective, no longer exist. (The secularists also think of our prayers as meaningless, but that’s a topic for another day.) We pray because we believe they do exist—that they are still with us.

The 2nd reading from today’s Mass reassures us:

But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him.
For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over Him. [Rom. 6:7-9]

The Lord’s own words are completely unambiguous: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” [John 11:25-26]

There’s an interesting fact about the human condition: We don’t quite believe that we’re going to die. We acknowledge the premises—all humans are mortal, and we are humans—but we avoid the logically inescapable conclusion. We recognize intellectually that we will die, but for practical purposes, in ordinary life, we think of death as something that happens to other people. And of course that is true, until…

This is not an original observation, I realize; it is a commonplace. But let’s take a step further, and ask why there is this odd psychological phenomenon. Why is it that all human beings seem to proceed on the implicit belief that they will live forever?

Let me suggest an answer to that question: We’re hard-wired to believe in eternal life because it’s true. Our souls inform our consciousness, and although in our fallen state our poor minds can’t follow the logic of eternity, a glimmer shines through the clouded intellect. We anticipate living forever because, as a matter of fact, we shall live forever!

Jacques Maritain made a similar argument, in a more rigorous form. He offered this as his own “sixth proof” of the existence of God: that a rational intellect, fashioned in such a way that it cannot even imagine its own non-existence, points toward the notion that it always did exist, and always will, in the mind of God.

Yes, we will all face death sooner or later. But belief in an afterlife makes death less fearsome. It may be a hopeful sign that in just the past few years, it has become conventional to say that someone “passed”—using a verb that suggests a change rather than an end. Pagan warriors in ancient days could face the prospect of death with courage, believing that it offered a passage to some other, better form of existence. As Christians we have much more reason for confidence.

Our loved ones are still with us, in a way that we do not fully understand. But we will.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Nov. 12, 2017 8:55 AM ET USA

    Yes! Jesus tells us over and over "Do not be afraid". Not liking the prospect of terrible pain or being torturously treated to death is not fear of death. But even in these extreme prospects where fear of 'how' one dies is understandable, Jesus asks us "where is your faith". And he goes back to sleep in the bow of the boat! I like to think he is resting in the Father's heart and encouraging us to do the same. Trust and hope in Jesus promise, "I am with you always".

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Nov. 06, 2017 5:56 PM ET USA

    Wow! Where does one begin? "...knowledge makes it worse...petrified with fear...deny the possibility of eternal punishment." Fr. John Hardon gives these definitions for sins against the Holy Ghost: despair of one's salvation, presumption of God's mercy, and 4 others. There is another condition that is relevant here. Scrupulosity: "The habit of imagining sin where none exists, or grave sin where the matter is venial. ...the...remedy is absolute obedience (for a time) to a prudent confessor."

  • Posted by: dmva9806 - Nov. 05, 2017 1:04 PM ET USA

    "But belief in an afterlife makes death less fearsome." Not so, Phil, not so. The knowledge make it worse - one becomes petrified with fear that one may somehow turn against God, or that one's slovenly observation of Jesus' commandments don't hit the mark (sin), and afterlife will be endless horror and pain. For some people, an endless afterlife may be a fate worse than final non-existence. Luckily (?) Pope Francis seems to deny the possibility of eternal punishment.

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Nov. 04, 2017 10:03 AM ET USA

    I would really appreciate hearing the results of your research into brain death. From my own reading there seems to be more and more scientific evidence that brain dead people are frequently still physically alive and aware of what is going on around them.