“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” – John 12:24
“The last enemy to be destroyed is death...Death is swallowed up in victory.” – 1 Corinthians 15:26, 54
"The greater the sin, the greater the mercy, the deeper the death and the brighter the rebirth.” - C. S. Lewis
"This story...has the very taste of primary truth." - J. R. R. Tolkien

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Mystery of Death: Philosophy’s Greatest Problem?

“For the fear of death is indeed the pretence of wisdom, and not real wisdom, being a pretence of knowing the unknown; and no one knows whether death, which men in their fear apprehend to be the greatest evil, may not be the greatest good.” – Socrates, in Plato’s Apology
It has been said that death is the greatest problem in philosophy. If we can find the answer to this mystery, many other things will be understood. Death is indeed a remarkable fact, and it is not to be taken for granted. It’s a remarkable fact about human existence – that life is finite: it starts at a point and then at another point it ceases, it ends. This is true of every human life. And, of course, death is something that we are all confronted with when a loved one passes away – what has become of them? It’s a fact that begs for explanation – not a mere physical explanation of how it is that the body breaks down, but a larger and deeper explanation of why death should be part of reality, and of our experience.

I for one find it inconceivable that we exist merely for a finite span of time. The fact of our existence is so stunning, so remarkable – it is not to be taken for granted. Surely a sentient being – a being with consciousness and thought and emotion – is of great, great value. Consciousness, thought, and emotion – there is such wonder and depth and mystery! Can we possibly say that a thing as significant as a living, sentient being would be simply snuffed out of existence like a candle? Can we answer this miracle of existence by saying we will simply cease to be? No, the heart and mind cry out together against this idea: We know that the road goes ever on, through death and beyond death. We know that there is a meaning and purpose to our existence that goes beyond this mortal life.

There is a seed of hope burning deep in every heart – confident, grounded, self-evident hope* for some great eucatastrophic (see “The Eucatastrophe”) climax at the end of all things – of history, of our lives, even of all reality (see “The Problem of Good,” “Whispers of Eternity: A Deeper Longing”). It is certainly glory and joy that awaits us, not the dark abyss of nonexistence. There are moments for each of us when this becomes clear as day: perhaps it is hearing a beautiful piece of music, or seeing your newborn child, or gazing up at the starry host above. It is self-evident.*

Death is shrouded in mystery. It is a great mystery, this black veil which awaits us all and towards which we hasten in time. We will all come face to face with it. What lies beyond it? What does it mean to pass through it? If our mortal bodies are left behind, what form of existence awaits us? Surely there are answers to these questions, surely the answers are among death’s secrets…

*For my argument that the heart, or emotion, can guide us to truth in a rational and reasonable way, see my posts on “The Reason of the Heart.”

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