I have never been all that comfortable thinking about death, but I do it a lot. In recent years most of my grandparents have died, and this has made me feel somewhat isolated and disconnected from my deeper heritage — perhaps my reactionary tendencies are partially a means of compensating for this.
About a month ago my grandmother died somewhat unexpectedly, and it threw me into an internal crisis. I came to the following conclusion:
There tend to be three popular ways of viewing death.
- Most atheists and Jews believe that when you die, that is it. You’re dead. Your personality is nonexistent upon death. The end result of this belief is hedonism and base utilitarianism.
- Most Muslims and perhaps the majority of conservative Christians believe that most people are tormented in hell forever, and only a few escape this grim fate through being part of the right religious persuasion. The end result of this belief is wasteful religious wars over who is and isn’t going to hell.
- Many polytheists, Buddhists and a few Christians (link) believe that the soul is both eternal and that the there is no eternal torment. There may be chastisement in the afterlife followed by a more pleasant eternity, or, in certain religions, reincarnation into a bad life if one has committed moral wrongs, but the idea of eternal torment is alien. The end result usually depends on the IQ of the nation holding these beliefs. India, for instance, is poorer than Japan, but both have religions (Hinduism, Buddhism) which teach some form of reincarnation.
I am not saying the following to insult any religious opinion, but I wish to be honest: Options 1 and 2 are basically pessimistic. Option 2 is often made very pessimistic when it is combined with ideas like total depravity, and the belief I find common among ultra-conservative Christians, that the nature of man is not just sub-par or corruptible, but actually ‘evil’.
Option 3 is the only option which is actually either neutral or optimistic.
I admit I have often been frightened by options 1 and 2. The idea that we die and that’s it (option 1) means that if you lived an incomplete life, you will never have a chance to live a full one, and you will also never be reunited with those you love who have perished.
If option 2 is true than anyone you loved who was not part of the right religion is burning in hell forever and you better figure out which religion is the correct one and become obedient to it, or you will be joining them in eternal torment.
Being somewhat of an empiricist, I consider option 1 more likely than option 2. [Sorry, weird Youtube videos by people claiming to have been in hell don’t count as science]
Nietzsche and Heidegger would likely say that I am staring into the abyss. It takes a lot of courage to stare into the abyss, and it is certainly something I would rather not be doing. In this sense, staring into the abyss, even reaching the point of nihilism, is ascetical and can provide a kind of catharsis, but it is a horrifying catharsis that many, perhaps most people try their best to avoid and that I myself wish to exit.
My sincerest hope is that option 3 is true, although it is something of a conundrum of how to harmonize an afterlife with Nietzscheanism. In order to do this, the concept of the afterlife cannot teach that this life is to be denied in favor of the next. Rather, one would need to either assume that any life after the present one is like the life we live now (reincarnation, perhaps eternal recurrence), or that the rewards of an afterlife depend not upon looking forward to that afterlife, but engaging in this life in a highly world-accepting, life-affirming manner. One version of this is the Norse Valhalla, a reward for valiant fighting in a war, an earthly endeavor with an earthly purpose. One might also consider reincarnation itself to be life-affirming in that it encourages one to build or maintain an earthly civilization which one can both reap the fruits of in this life, and return to in a future life — the mindset here is not escapism but is indeed life-affirming, and world-accepting.