High Stakes:

Christians fear death more than most because they've bet everything on an afterlife that they can't be sure is real until after they're dead.

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I once had a conversation about death with a friend who worked in hospice care during a transitional time in her life. Like many of us who deconverted from religious faith to atheism, she wondered how the change of thinking would affect her outlook on death and the brevity of life. Working around death for a living seemed like it should be a traumatic thing to do as a recent deconvert, and yet she explained that she found that wasn’t the case at all.

Working around the dying helped her come to terms with the regularity of it, the inevitability of it, and dare I say the normalcy of it? Being around death helped to normalize it for her so that it no longer looked like a spooky, scary thing that should keep you up nights, worrying. It’s just a part of life. Things and people don’t last forever, and since the only two certain things in life are death and taxes, it only seems logical that we should come to grips with this reality because there aren’t any ways around it.

And yet some religions bank everything on the claim that death can be avoided. Or if it cannot be avoided, perhaps it can be overturned through a promise of resurrection someday when everything changes and those two most reliable elements of life suddenly disappear (I’m not aware of any afterlives with taxes, but if you know of one please let me know). That’s a mighty big claim to make. It’s like walking into a game of roulette and betting your entire life’s savings on a single number.

It’s a really big gamble to bank your whole life on something that isn’t supposed to be revealed until the moment after you die. The immense pressure of an entire lifetime of expectation really does a number on you.

I think Christians fear death a whole lot more than people who don’t believe in life after death.
This assertion is far from a scientific one, and I don’t have any studies for this because I’m mostly thinking out loud here. I am making an observation based on my own deconversion as well as on my experience with both kinds of people (believers and skeptics), and it seems obvious to me that people who believe in life after death seem to fear it even more than those who have already decided there isn’t going to be anything afterwards.

Facing death squarely

It makes sense if you think about it. Once you decide that this life is the only one you are going to get, you get busy making the most of it and you come to grips with the brevity of it. So ultimately non-theists just learn to face death head-on.

They harbor no illusions or expectations that it’s only temporary, or that there is a get-out-of-jail free card available for those who subscribe to the right theology. Instead they spend the precious time they have left getting used to the limited nature of it, making the most of it before their time is up.

Of course nobody really wants to die who isn’t utterly miserable in the life they currently lead. Leaving those folks aside for a second, the fact is that everybody else wants to survive. They want to prolong their lives. That’s not really saying much. It’s not a revolutionary assertion.

But shouldn’t people want to leave this life if they really believe there’s a far better one awaiting them after the first one is through? My observation is that those who say they believe eternal bliss awaits those who believe the right things don’t really seem to draw as much comfort from that belief as it seems they should. On the contrary, I see believers fighting death even harder than those who don’t think they get a second life.

Consider the issue of assisted suicide. Having left the world of religion (and yet never leaving, because Mississippi), I’ve noticed that atheists view assisted suicide far more positively than do most Christians I know. I find this fascinating. When a person is diagnosed with a degenerative disease for which we have no promising treatments, it seems a majority of atheists hold that the person should be free to choose his or her method of death proactively. Some call it “dying with dignity.”

If you believe a person’s life belongs to him or her alone, then it’s ultimately nobody’s business but their own what he or she does with it. The people who object the strongest to this tend to believe that we do not belong to ourselves—personal agency isn’t a thing for them—and that we belong to someone else. Incidentally, Dani Kelly has written a fantastic piece on the subject of self-ownership that I think everyone everywhere should read.

Read: “I Belong to Me: Learning Agency and Consent Outside Christianity

The same goes for keeping people on life support. I’ve watched with bewilderment as Christians have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars prolonging the suffering of people who should just be allowed to pass in peace. I’ve wondered aloud if they really even believe the stuff they say about life after death because the intensity with which they fight the inevitable makes it look like they don’t really believe the stuff they say they believe.

Would the real skeptics please stand up?

The Christian message is now and has always been situated within a promise of life after death. I would argue that the very heart of its appeal comes from this promise. If you doubt me, just try pushing a version of Christian that rules out an afterlife, focusing on the here and now. Only the most liberal of Christians would allow such a redesign of their framework. Even those who have given up on hell still cling to a promise of heaven for those who deserve it, or for everyone, or whatever.

If you doubt the Christian faith draws the bulk of its emotional capital from people’s fear of death, just attend a funeral and watch how compulsively people feel they must use it a platform for pushing their message no matter who the audience happens to be. Come to think of it, watch how quickly the subject of death comes up once you tell a loved one you no longer believe. It never takes long, which shows how fundamentally rooted their system is in the fear of death.

For Christians, every ethical decision they make is weighed against the value of that decision in light of their belief in trillions and trillions of years to be spent in a heavenly kingdom they have yet to see. As a Christian, I was taught to evaluate everything in terms of its relevance to that reality rather than this one. As the apostle Paul said, “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” He used a similar formula for adjusting people’s estimations of the sufferings they endure in life:

For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.

With that kind of outlook, shouldn’t death be welcomed as an eagerly sought passage into a better life? Why is it that Christians put up a greater resistance to things like living wills and assisted suicides for the terminally ill? With the promise of a far better afterlife ahead of them, why aren’t they more eager to leave this life as quickly as possible?

Herein lies the greatest irony in this whole discussion: It is ultimately the “believers” who are the most skeptical when it comes to life after death because they are the only ones who can correctly be called “doubters.” Do you see how the term doesn’t even apply to people like me? I was only a “doubter” while I still believed. After I left my faith (or as many say, it left me), I no longer struggled with those expectations anymore.

I don’t spend nights lying awake, wondering what happens to me after I die. I feel relatively confident I know what happens: When you die, they put you into the ground. I’ve gone through that experience now with multiple loved ones, so I know what that looks and feels like. And not one of them has come back. We’ve been burying people for thousands of years and you know what? They’re all still there. Or what’s left of them, anyway. It is very, very consistent.

Accepting the world as it is

Bodies don’t last forever, and they don’t come back. That’s a harsh reality, yes, but it’s the truth. We seem to be okay with saying that to our children when their pets die; but when it’s about people, we just can’t bring ourselves to do it.

But that’s inconsistent. Why do we think that one kind of body just decomposes but another kind will magically come back in a new form? Is it because we think there’s a ghost in ours but there’s not one in little Fido or Mittens? Is it because a very old book tells memorable stories? That may have been okay for me when I was seven, but I’m not a kid anymore. Grown-ups need to be shown why they can trust what you say. They don’t need more stories.

Death is only confounding for people who have been led to expect something else. Sure, we don’t want to die. But I don’t see any point in refusing to accept the finality of it. You could get on with living the one life that you know you actually get. You’d be surprised how much mental and emotional energy it frees up to devote to other things the moment you finally quit banking everything on a reboot. Life isn’t a video game that you get to start over again.

It’s the people who gamble their whole lives on a future they can’t prove exists who dread its arrival the most. They spend their entire lives rolling the dice, hoping that in the end they won’t have spent 70+ years evaluating every decision in light of a story they were told at their grandmother’s knee only to find out it was just a story.

Are you sure you’re prepared to take that chance? Do your actions belie your own disbelief?
Who are the real skeptics, anyway?

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Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals...

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