Death is the Answer

I think about death a lot. I figure anyone alive does, but I could be wrong about. I think I’m more impatient than most people. I’m always abnormally interested in how things are going to end.

Anyway, death is terrible. It’s an unthinkable affront to everything that’s dear to us. Everyone knows that.

So it makes me wonder: Why do we have to do it? And why is it so final? And how come people who die are sooooooo totally gone from this world? All this time, and no one’s come back from the dead to tell us anything about it? How can it possibly be that after eight zillion years of humanhood, we still have no idea what actually happens to us after we die? We can think we know, we can believe we know—as Christians we are in fact confident that we do know—but the bottom line is that none of us on this side of the life/death combo really and truly knows what exactly happens to us after we die. We cannot see from here to there.

So my question is always: Why is our system the way it is? What purpose can there be in constructing a system designed in such a way that when humans stare into the great abyss at the edge of life, all they can see is nothing? If God (or nature, if you’re not religious) is good, then why or how is that good?

The biggest single objective fact about anyone’s life is that it’s guaranteed to end, right? So it just stands to reason that means there must be something about the fact of death that’s meant to teach us something hugely important about life.

I think that something is that, just like we can’t define death, we’re not supposed to define life. I think we’re supposed to take the ever-present fact that we don’t know what death is, and then turn around, and use that same not-knowing, that same mysterious wonderment, to inform and shape the way we experience life.

When you define something, you kill it, insofar as you rob it of its potential to ever be anything else. If I say that I utterly know you—that I know everything about you—then I have denied you the very nature of your personhood, which is to change, to respond, to grow. I’ve closed off what I should see as ever open. I’m saying there’s no more mystery to you. That denies both you and me what amounts to the very essence of life: the potential to change.

All of us are infinitely mysterious and complex. And so is everything else in the world. That’s what makes the world and our experience in it so deeply, insanely fascinating. If we go through our lives acting like we already know everything there is to know about life, then we ruin the experience of it. Then all we can do is be bored and restless and angry—because then we’re telling life what it should be, instead of letting life tell us what it is. Then we’ve closed ourselves off to the only thing that makes life fascinating, which is our lack of comprehensively, or absolutely, understanding what in the heck is really going on out here.

If we act or think that we know it all, then we’re playing God. And that’s as wrong as wrong gets.

As awful as death is, I don’t think we’d want it any other way. I think the fact that death remains such a constant and immediate mystery to us is exactly what we need to remind us that every moment of life is meant to be experienced as a phenomenon exactly as rich as the mystery of death. Just like we can’t define death, we should never be too quick to define any aspect of life.  And I believe that especially includes God.





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  • Greta Sheppard

    This is good, John . . . may I use parts or all on my blog?

    You ask stimulating questions! Of course the theologians will be quick with their scriptures….

    "absent from the body…present with the Lord.' There's Jesus, Lazarus and others who came back from the dead. There have been 20th century books written by folks who 'crossed over' and were allowed to come back. My 96 year old mother looked forward to 'seeing Jesus', but she was terrified of the process involved in the die-ing part. I have stood by saints and watched them breathe their last…no struggle…no fear…. just stopped breathing, peacefully.

    Thanks for the extended insights and thoughts to ponder!

  • Greta: Yes, of course: Use away. Thanks for asking, but you don't have to. That's great about your mom, living as long as she did. What a blessing!

  • What a fantastically agnostic post! 🙂

    My grandad shared his near-death experience with me last month. It has changed him. But even he admitted that all his visions could have merely been drug-induced (he was in a coma for 24 hours).

    p.s. — John, let me know what you think about "For the Bible Tells Me So".

  • Red: As you know, I'm hardly an agnostic. But a mystery's a mystery.

    I thought "For the Bible Tells Me So" was terrific. I'm a massive fan of the documentary genre, and I thought this one was done exceedingly well. I could have lived without the cartoon teachy segment in the middle, but I appreciated its intent. The film had a wonderful heart.

  • Michael Beeson

    "Keep thinking, Sundance, that's what you do best." I agree with your logic and have seen the happy chaos of its practice.

  • Latoya

    I often wonder why Lazarus didnt leave us with an account of what happened in those four days…

  • textjunkie

    I dunno, John–this makes sense when considering human death, but when you consider the scale of death on this planet, everything that died before humans ever showed up, every thing that dies where a human has never set foot, the non-sentient beings who die never knowing that there is this "mystery"–to say that God put this all in place and sentenced every living thing to die, just so humans could have a little mystery in their lives–doesn't that seem a bit barbaric?? Along the lines of saying "I'm not only going to torture you, I'm going to torture innocent beings on the other side of the world that have nothing to do with you, so you will love me?" Yikes.

  • But I wasn't addressing the issue of animal death, at all. This wasn't in any way about the nature of animal consciousness.

  • textjunkie

    ah, ok–I assumed "death" referred to the fact that death is everywhere, and not just for humans. That's what falls under "natural evil" to me.