Thank God for DEATH: Could Anything be More Sacred? More Necessary? More Real?

I want address the question of death because most people, religious and non-religious folk alike, are unaware of what God/Reality has revealed about death in the past few hundred years, through science. And this ignorance has resulted in untold suffering — for families and for society as a whole, as well as for individuals.

I am regularly asked (more often since I was diagnosed with cancer two years ago), “Do you believe in an afterlife? What do you think happens to us when we die?” My typical response is to make one or more of the following points…

1. As I discuss in “The Gifts of Death” section of Chapter 5 of my book Thank God for Evolution, it is vitally important when thinking about death in the abstract, when contemplating the inevitability of our own demise, or when grieving the loss of a loved one, to have an accurate understanding of the positive role of death in the Universe. Widespread ignorance of the scientifically indisputable fact that death is natural and generative at all levels of reality, coupled with our culture’s failure to interpret the science in ways that will help us to actually feel that death is no less sacred than life, result in not only distorted but outright disabling views. This does not, of course, take away the anguish and grief of death. Such intense feelings are normal and healthy. They should be honored and allowed time to dissipate naturally—which can often take a year or longer. But what this perspective does do is that it provides a reality-based container for death. We no longer need to think that death is a cosmic mistake or that humans are responsible for the existence of death in the universe.

(Here you can sample testimonials from our travels that demonstrate the emotional gifts of a science-based perspective, meaningfully interpreted. It’s also important to remember that Moses, Jesus, the Apostle Paul, and Muhammad could not possibly have known what we know about death. This evidence-based understanding couldn’t have been revealed in a way that we could have received it prior to telescopes, microscopes, and computers.)

2. Looking at reality through evolutionary, “deep-time eyes”, my sense of “self” does not stop with my skin. Earth is my larger Self. The Universe is my even larger Self: my Great Self. So, yes, “I” (in this expanded sense) will continue to exist even after “I” (this particular body-mind) comes to a natural end. There is deep comfort in knowing that my larger Self will live on. More, I am powerfully motivated to be in action today precisely because I do not ignore or deny the inevitability of death. My small self has but a brief window of opportunity to delight in, and contribute to, the ongoing evolution of the body of life. Truly, this is it; now or never. I am immensely grateful for both the comfort and the compulsion born of this sacred evolutionary perspective.

3. From an evidential standpoint it seems clear that we go go to the same place we came from before we were conceived—the same “place” that trillions of other animals and plants have gone throughout Earth’s history when they died. Some speak about it as “coming from God and returning to God”. Others talk about it as “coming from mystery and returning to mystery”. Still others as “coming from nothing and returning to nothing”. All these I sense as legitimate and emotionally satisfying ways of thinking and talking about what happens at death. And as I sometimes humorously respond, when asked about the afterlife, “If where I go isn’t the same place that all other plants, animals, and species throughout Earth’s history have gone, I’m gonna be pissed!” :-)

4. A universal experience whether or not we can admit it, death is the sole companion to life. From the moment we take our first breath, the inevitable result is death. Thus, any so-called “faith” which doesn’t include trusting that whatever happens on the other side of death is just fine is, in my view, really no faith at all. Fear of a terrifying, hellish after-death scenario, OR attachment to a blissful, heavenly after-death scenario are just that: fear or attachment; not faith, not trust. As legendary Griefwalker and “Angel of Death” Stephen Jenkinson puts it: “Not success. Not growth. Not happiness. The cradle of your love of life … is death.” (I highly recommend purchasing the DVD “Griefwalker”. Once you watch it you’ll probably just keep loaning it out.)

5. The idea of being “rewarded” (condemned?!with experiencing even one year (much less millions or billions of years) of after-death existence free of struggle, challenge, or difficulty, would occur to me as hell, not heaven, were I to think of (or worse yet, witness from on high) the divinely decreed eternal torment and everlasting torture of others who had in some way missed the mark. Adding to the repugnance would be an after-death future in which those relegated to never-ending suffering included not only perpetrators of outright evil but also those condemned for nothing more than holding wrong beliefs—that is, beliefs different from mine.

6. Here is the way I discuss the subject of “the afterlife/what happens when we die” on pages 116-117 of my book, Thank God for Evolution:

My formal training for becoming a United Church of Christ minister culminated in an ordination paper that I wrote and then presented to a gathering of ministers and lay leaders. Titled “A Great Story Perspective on the UCC Statement of Faith” (available atTheGreatStory.org), my talk stimulated a host of comments and queries. A widely respected minister posed a question I shall never forget. “Michael,” he began, “I’m impressed with your presentation and with the evolutionary theology that you’ve shared with us. However, there’s a little boy who lives in me, and that little boy wants to know: Where is Emory?”

Emory Wallace, a well-known and beloved retired minister, had for nearly three years guided me through my ministerial training. He died suddenly, at the age of 85, just a few weeks before my ordination hearing.

“Where is Emory?” My mind went blank. I knew I needed to say something—after all, this was my ordination hearing—so I just opened my mouth and started speaking, trusting the Spirit to give me the words. My response went something like this:

Where is Emory? In order to answer that question I have to use both day language—the language of rational, everyday discourse—and night language—the language of dreams, myth, and poetry. Both languages are vital and necessary, just as both waking and dreaming states of consciousness are vital and necessary. Like all mammals, if we are deprived of a chance to dream, we die. Sleep is not enough; we must be permitted to dream.

We, of course, know that day experience and night experience are different. For example, if you were to ask me what I did for lunch today, and I told you that I turned myself into a crow and flew over to the neighborhood farm and goofed around with the cows for a little bit, then I flew to Dairy Queen and ordered a milkshake—and if I told you all that with a straight face—you might counsel me to visit a psychiatrist. However, if you had asked me to share a recent dream and I told the same story, you might be curious as to the meaning of that dream—but you wouldn’t think me delusional.

So in order to respond to your question, “Where is Emory?” I have to answer in two ways. First, in the day language of common discourse, I will say, Emory’s physical body is being consumed by bacteria. Eventually, only his skeleton and teeth will remain. His genes, contributions, and memory will live on through his family and through the countless people that he touched in person and through his writings—and that includes all of us.

But, you see, if I stop there—if that’s all I say—then I’ve told only half the story. In order to address the nonmaterial, meaningful dimensions of reality I must continue and say something like: “Emory is at the right hand of God the Father, worshipping and giving glory with all the saints.” Or I could say, “Emory is being held and nurtured by God the Mother.” Or I could use a Tibetan symbol system and say, “Emory has entered the bardo realm.” Any or all of these would also be truthful—true within the accepted logic and understanding of mythic night language.

My response was well received in that meeting of nineteen years ago, and it has shaped my theology ever since. Recently, I blended the core of that distinction into my Great Story talks and workshops. I am sure that my understanding of day and night language—language of reason and language of reverence—will continue to evolve and thus inform my preaching, my teaching, and my personal relationship God, the fullness of Reality.

ALSO SEE: Duane Elgin: “Can Death Become Your Ally?”

  • AMG

    I used to think this way until I had a kid who depends on me being around!

    • http://thegreatstory.org Michael Dowd

      In that case, I certainly pray that you are graced to stay around for a long time! :-)

  • Marianne

    Thank you for this. My son has made that journey. I know he is in bliss with his dad.. I surround myself with people who know there is no death, only change. I avoid anyone who is fearful of death. Needless to say, that leaves very few people . Nonetheless, I embrace ‘death’ (change) , as a friend. I know it is merely going home. I know I am much more than this small 3 dimensional illusion. Thank you again for the article.

    • http://thegreatstory.org Michael Dowd

      You’re welcome, Marianne. Thanks for your comment.

  • melanie griffin

    After walking (or rather) sitting alongside my mother on her journey to — wherever — I am absolutely convinced that she went somewhere, that there were people there who love her and that she is at peace. She saw them, pointed to them, named them, told them that she would be along soon. And she kept saying “What are all those beautiful winged creatures?” Wow

    • http://thegreatstory.org Michael Dowd

      Awesome, Melanie!

  • https://sites.google.com/site/holyhugs/a-psalm-for-gloria Jim Fisher

    Death is not the end of life … it’s the start of something new. Been there. Click on my name for more.

    • http://thegreatstory.org Michael Dowd

      Thanks for sharing your experience, Jim. Such beautiful “night language” (literally!) :-)

      • https://sites.google.com/site/holyhugs/a-psalm-for-gloria Jim Fisher

        In the few times I have shared my experience with others, I was amazed at how the “day” language continued. No one asked me to elaborate after mentioning that I have had an NDE. No one seemed interested in knowing from someone with first-hand experience what heaven is like. I suddenly wasn’t even there in the room anymore. It’s really pretty funny. I just smiled and continued to listen to them argue and try to guess.

        Thank you, Michael. You are one of only a handful of people I have run into who “get” it.

  • http://apprising.org Ken Silva

    You do know the God hates death, right…

    • http://thegreatstory.org Michael Dowd

      No, Ken, he doesn’t. To believe that “God hates death” is to confuse ancient mythic inspiration with current measurable inspiration. Besides, does a biblical literalist picture of God such as we find in both the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation: http://evolutionarytimes.org/files/0f47c664e24665c45b6e6001f52499e4-16.php really look to you like one who “hates death”? I don’t think so!

  • Kevin

    So basically what you are saying is that the intuitive philosophical leaps that scientists take from certain scientific data are more authoritative than the Bible?

    • http://thegreatstory.org Michael Dowd

      No, Kevin. What I am saying is that what God has revealed through scientific evidence about death throughout the last five hundred years (see link below) is much more authoritative than the musings of goatherds and fishermen who believed that the Earth was flat, at the center of the universe, and only a few thousand years old.

      ALL of the following can (and should) be considered divine revelation: http://thegreatstory.org/charts/death.html

      • Kevin

        At least it lets me know where you stand with the Bible. Guess I won’t argue any points in it because it would probably be useless.

        • http://thegreatstory.org Michael Dowd

          Kevin, I fully realize that thinking of scientific, historic, and cross-cultural evidence as, in a very real sense, “divine revelation”, or “modern-day scripture”, may seem odd to you. But I invite you to seriously and prayerfully reflect on this claim. Arguing that a loving and all-powerful deity would have communicated all the truly vital and important stuff two or three thousand years ago is dissing God in the most egregious of ways. It also makes it much more difficult to live a victorious life in Christ (because one’s understanding of what this even means will be woefully out of date). Finally, it is precisely what leads some of the New Atheists to promote Bible reading so much. As PZ Myers (an atheist science blogger who is read by 50,000 or more people a day), likes to say, “There is no surer way to make an atheist than to get them to actually read scripture.”

          If you care to, I invite you to see the following links. If you’re not led to, of course, that’s okay too.

          Blessings, in Christ, ~ Michael

          Atheists Promote Bible Reading?!

          The Evidential Reformation: Humanity Comes of Age

          The Salvation of Religion: From Beliefs to Knowledge

          Evolution Isn’t About Darwin—It’s About Salvation Before You Die

          What’s Real? What’s Important?—Evidence as Divine Guidance

  • Mr.E

    Science is only as good as the ethics and morals of those who use and teach it. Todays science means little to those starving everyday. Science like any establishment is susceptible to corruption and infiltration by those whose agendas have nothing to do with the progress of mankind.

    • http://thegreatstory.org Michael Dowd

      I could not possibly disagree more, Mr.E. Do you honestly think that stories of stories of stories passed on from illiterate person to illiterate person two or three thousand years ago would have been able to produce a more accurate version of “what’s real” and “what’s important” TODAY than current scientific, historic, and cross-cultural evidence discerned globally? Please stop trivializing God!

  • Mr.E

    Stop underestimating God. God does not need people to protect his own words. You havnt disproven my point: Modern science is at the mercy of the ethics of the people using/ promoting it. Either your unable to understand that or unwilling. Also, my point was not about word of mouth. Listen to what’s being said. If your able to.


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