Our Unreasonable Fear of Death
Posted on 27 January 2018, 15:50
When Samantha was just shy of her fifth birthday—an age when her delight in every manner of living creature was well underway—she noticed a slug on the sidewalk.
This was the same slug she noticed just a few hours earlier, slowly crawling down the front steps of her home. Only now it was smashed on the sidewalk.
“What happened to it?” she asked.
“It looks like it got stepped on, Samantha,” said her mom.
“But why isn’t it moving.”
Her mom looked at her husband as if handing off the conversation. He said, “Samantha, it’s not moving because it died.”
She slowed her walk toward the house and looked puzzled. Then she looked up at her dad and said, “Will you die, daddy?”
“Yes, Samantha, I will.”
“Will sister die?”
“One day, yes.”
“Will mommy die?”
Tears began to fill her eyes. “Will I die?”
“Yes, Samantha. One day, a long, long time from now you will.”
Now inside the house, Samantha began to cry uncontrollably. When she calmed down just a bit, her dad continued, “Samantha, I know that makes you afraid. That’s okay. But why are you so upset? Are you afraid that if you die you’ll miss mommy?”
“Are you afraid you’ll miss your sister?”
“Are you afraid you’ll miss daddy?”
She looked up at her dad, eyes swimming with tears, and said, “I’ll miss myself.”
When I first heard this strangely beautiful story from a friend of mine, it almost took my breath away. Here was a little girl who grasped the human situation in all its sadness.
She hadn’t been introduced to any of the strategies that adults contrive to drown out the terrifying thought of ceasing to be. She saw the truth raw—what most of us feel if we’re honest with ourselves.
In this article we’ll consider the only answer that would have a chance of consoling Samantha—that, while death will certainly mean missing those she leaves behind, it won’t mean missing herself.
Science is king at public universities like the place where I teach. Too often it steps beyond its boundaries and claims, or at least implies, that human beings are entirely material organisms, nothing more than physical stuff. Too often students emerge from their classes thinking that belief in spiritual worlds and beings is for the weak of mind.
But what a forlorn worldview this is, as Samantha precociously saw. Parents and children all annihilated, reduced to nothingness at death. As the celebrated atheist Christopher Hitchens said shortly before his death, “When I speak of annihilation I mean just that the screen goes blank.”
Does the screen really go blank?
Like Hitchens, I’m not capable of believing something just because it’s written in a scripture or promulgated by a religious leader. I need evidence. But this same empiricist bent leads me to conclusions very different from Hitchens’. My impression of him is that he didn’t make a serious study of the evidence.
The eminent English historian Arnold Toynbee was, like Hitchens, a non-believer in survival for almost all his life. But he changed his mind shortly before his death in 1975 and credited research on the near-death experience (NDE) for the shift. The last book he wrote and edited was titled Life After Death (1976).
Since his death the field of consciousness research has grown far beyond anything he could have imagined. Not only do we get assurance that there is life after death; we even get hints of its nature—a spiritual world more plausible and attractive than most of us have been taught.
This evidence will probably not be enough to convince avowed physicalists that they survive death, for they are certain that the brain generates consciousness, so when the brain dies, so do we. My colleagues and I find overwhelming support for a different view: that the brain mediates consciousness while embodied but that the brain is not necessary for consciousness to exist when free of the body.
One of the greatest goods of religion is the meaning it gives to our lives. We are commanded to love and serve each other and are heartened by the promise that a good life in this world will lead to a happy life in the next. This has been the teaching down through the ages of every religion. Faith in this promise has brightened the days of countless generations and saved them from despair in the face of suffering and death.
Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “The future belongs to those who give the next generation reason for hope.” I am confident that Samantha’s tears will dry when she grasps the good news her dad didn’t get around to telling her.
Stafford Betty is a professor of world religions at California State University, Bakersfield. His primary research interest is the afterlife. He is concerned to show that belief in an afterlife is grounded on empirical evidence: the near-death experience, deathbed visions, mediumship, reincarnational memories of little children, spirit attachment and possession, and so forth. Four of his ten books explore the actual nature of the afterlife. He presently has three more under contract, including a novel THE WAR FOR ISLAM, due out in late 2018. His books, The Imprisoned Splendor, Heaven and Hell Unveiled: Updates from the World of Spirit, When Did You Ever Become Less by Dying? Afterlife: The Evidence and The Severed Breast are published by White Crow.