God and mortality
Andrew Sveda | Monday, November 2, 2020
If you talk with Christians about their faith, no doubt many will tell you about a deep crisis in their life — a death of a loved one or a terrible illness — during which they were brought to faith in Jesus Christ. Sometimes people are moved by these stories, but I think most of the time it is met with almost a sense of suspicion and skepticism — Freud’s suggestion of belief in God as an emotional response or “wishful thinking” surely pops into many heads. But might there be good intellectual reasons that one contemplating death and their own mortality might find particularly persuasive? In other words, is there a philosophical train of thought that may especially convince someone dealing with death to believe in God? I certainly think so.
Amidst death and grief, we often find ourselves asking whether God exists. We do this because we, skeptic and believer alike, know in our hearts that death is bad, that it’s not right. Doubting God’s existence after a loved one’s death is an extremely emotional issue, but, intellectually, the emerging argument appears to be a non sequitur, for if there is no God and transcendent source of moral values, then what exactly is objectively wrong about death? It may be most disadvantageous to us that someone we knew and cared for has passed away, and we may personally feel their death was bad and wrong, but if there’s no ultimate meaning or purpose to the universe, we can’t say this was or indeed anything is objectively right or wrong. It’s just part of nature, the circle of life. It just is. Indeed, if none of our lives have any ultimate meaning or intended purpose anyway, then why does it matter when or how I die?
To deny God’s existence is to deny that the universe and humanity has any ultimate meaning or purpose, but we know that this is simply not true (even to deny that we have meaning is to implicitly assume that your objection has meaning). The pain we experience in grief is not evidence against God’s existence at all. Rather, it reminds us that our lives do have meaning and purpose, that some things are indeed objectively bad or good — things that can only be true if a theistic God exists. Death is wrong because we have a design, a purpose given by God, because we know it shouldn’t be like this. And maybe, just maybe, we were meant to live forever.
Isn’t this mention of eternal life, though, just a logical leap? Let’s think about it a little more. As discussed above, our lives have meaning and purpose. What we do and what we think does matter. But if this life is all there is, then, when we die, there will be no consequence whatsoever for how we lived, what we did or what we thought. It won’t matter if you’ve lived like Mother Teresa or Joseph Stalin. This means that my character is not really what matters but how I present myself in order to get what I want. If there is no ultimate consequence to what I thought and believed and what I did, then being genuinely good and pretending to be good for self-gain, or even doing bad things for self-gain, makes no difference as long as the outcome is the same. Put differently, if this life is it, then we must grab all we can, and if there’s no ultimate consequence for my life, then anything goes. Good and bad quickly go out the window, and life becomes a set of calculations to see how I can best play the system to get what I want. It does not matter how I live. All that matters is not getting caught.
But, interestingly, we call and know some things to be objectively right and wrong. Even things that would help us tremendously in this life we say simply cannot be done because they are wrong. This would be extremely strange, and quite disadvantageous, in an atheistic world. Only if our lives have ultimate meaning, only if we will be held accountable after we die by a supreme judge does this make any sense. If theism is true, then there will be consequences for what we do, there will be justice, there will be ultimate meaning. And such a judgment, of course, can only occur if there is a life beyond this one, and, for the verdict to be put into action, it only makes sense that we will continue to exist in the afterlife beyond that point. We begin to see the need, then, for a judge, a judgement and an afterlife if our lives, our character, our thoughts and our actions are to have any genuine meaning and consequence.
Understanding this, it makes perfect sense why someone dealing with death will arrive at the conclusion that God exists and that there is an afterlife. But that, of course, doesn’t mean they’ll accept the implications of this conclusion. This is important to remember. I can show you a ton of reasons why it makes sense to believe in God, and you may intellectually assent to them. But having trust, or faith, in God and what He has done, that is another thing. It will not matter in the slightest if you only accept God as a philosophical conclusion (cf. James 2:19). Your intellectual ability cannot save you; only a savior, the savior, can. In the end, we must either find our righteousness and worth in ourselves — our ability, our strength, our prestige, our salary, our GPA, our dating or marital status — or in the one “who knew no sin” and, out of his love and grace, died so that we, the unworthy and “the ungodly,” “may have life in his name” (2 Corinthians 5:21; Romans 4:5; John 20:31). These are the only two options, and we must be ready to answer even this very day. Which will it be?
Andrew Sveda is a sophomore at Notre Dame from Pittsburgh majoring in political science. In his free time, he enjoys writing (obviously), reading and playing the piano. He can be reached at [email protected] or @SvedaAndrew on Twitter.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.