Why denying death is not illogical
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.
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