Erik Strandness explores the significance of the afterlife, discerning whether there is any meaning to be found
Queen Elizabeth II’s state funeral was viewed by billions of people around the world. It was a service heavily imbued with Christian symbolism, a fact which didn’t go unnoticed by atheist journalist Ian Dunt who tweeted that he found the promise of an afterlife to be “empty and platitudinous” and nothing but “a cardboard shield against existential despair.” Christian thinker Andy Bannister then wrote a response article to Dunt’s tweet. Justin Brierley, inspired by the thoughts of both men, brought them together on Unbelievable? to discuss the atheist and Christian perspectives on meaning, purpose, and death especially in light of the Queen’s funeral.
The full text of Dunt’s tweet read like this:
“I’m glad religion brings solace to those who are suffering at funerals. But throughout my life I’ve always wondered how. It’s all so terribly empty and platitudinous, a cardboard shield against existential despair.” (Dunt)
Queen for a day
As Bannister watched the funeral, one of his American friends, impressed by the pageantry, remarked “You Brits do pomp and circumstance really well.” Dunt, on the other hand, was less impressed, and while enjoying the occasional bagpipe, felt that the service was largely bereft of real human emotion. He was concerned that the pomp and circumstance diverted attention from the far more important hoi polio. He felt a disconnect between a lionised British icon and the common people waiting in line for hours to pay their respects. For Dunt, the power of the event was found in the anonymous individuals in the queue and not in the heavily publicised Queen.
“I found the ceremony completely absent of human content and in stark contrast to the queue which was full of human content.” (Dunt)
I’m sympathetic to Dunt’s point here because the gospel is about a King who came to serve and not be served, and I suspect Jesus would be more interested in recruiting Kingdom citizens from the queue rather than the royal entourage. It was appropriate to honour such a remarkable woman, but we must never neglect those who will never be queen for a day.
Professor of Sociology Phil Zuckerman, in his book ‘Living the Secular Life’, points out how secular funerals do a better job of honouring the deceased because they focus on a tangible earthly life and don’t waste time speculating about a theoretical afterlife. Is he right? Do we focus so much on where the deceased are going that we forget where they’ve been? Does talk of a heavenly life dilute the importance of a person’s earthly life? Do we focus so much on the deceased seeing God face-to-face that we neglect the times he or she only saw him through a glass darkly? Quoting one of the many secularists he interviewed in his book:
“If you think you are going to go to heaven after you die, well, then this life is sort of a staging area, isn’t it? Then this life is just a precursor or transition to something better. I think that makes people apathetic…But if there is no heaven or reincarnation…then this is actually the whole thing. This is everything. This life is all we get, and that means we have to truly love it. And never, never take it for granted. Because it’s precious.” (Secularist)
A Christian life, however, isn’t measured by how it shakes the earth but by how it reverberates in heaven. The afterlife, rather than minimising the significance of an earthly life, supersizes it to cosmic proportions. I admire the secularists for focusing on a life well lived but it seems to me that without eternal significance all they have done is honour the grit of one who lived with the genetic hand he or she was dealt.
Cardboard shield or welcome mat
The major thrust of Ian’s tweet was the inadequacy of belief in an afterlife to shield one from existential despair. It’s a common atheist trope to link religious belief to a fear of death, and then take that belief a step further and imply that the opiate of the ignorant masses has resulted in a metaphysical overdose for Christian intellectuals. David Bentley Hart, however, in an essay entitled, ‘Death, Final Judgment, and the Meaning of Life,’ points out that the afterlife, for most ancient religious traditions, rather than rainbows and unicorns, was viewed more like a Titanic cruise across the river Styx:
“Strange as it may seem, the textual, historical and archaeological evidence clearly shows that the religious impulse in human society has no clear connection at all with hope in an afterlife…Most ancient cultures had some vague concept of a kind of postmortem persistence, a shadowy, spectral half-existence beyond death, a dark, barren, joyless and pointless underworld or otherworld; very few thought that death would bring a happier existence.” (David Bentley Hart)
Atheists can call the afterlife a “cardboard shield against existential despair” but they must also own the fact that the only thing they have to offer is a welcome mat for the Grim Reaper.
Turn the page
Bannister thought it was strange that an evolutionary process which measures success by the number of dead and dying lying along the road to the most fit survivor would play such a cruel trick on us by evolving the ability to fear and loathe it. Why would the pinnacle of evolutionary success bristle at the death of the little creatures it had to step on as it made its way to the top?
We assume that death is natural but what if it is really the most unnatural thing that could ever happen to us? Why, of the three non-negotiables: birth, taxes and death, do we find the third so odious? Why would we fear the reaper if he was just performing the pruning necessary to sculpt a human topiary from the evolutionary tree?
So maybe it isn’t fear of death that drives religion but disbelief that the story we have spent our whole lives chronicling should end with so many plot conflicts left unresolved. Christianity, rather than closing the book, confirms our suspicions that we should turn the page and then prepare ourselves for a meet-and-greet with the Author at his Book of Life signing. David Bentley Hart once again opines:
“To be human is to possess—consciously, that is—a future, and to be able to turn one’s will and imagination toward it. Death, therefore, must always come as an interruption for us, a guest anticipated but never properly prepared for and always arriving out of season. Before any death’s advent, a particular story was being told, one that has now been brought to an abrupt conclusion; and because our orientation toward the future is part of the very essence of our humanity, even a death long awaited and arriving late in the day is a kind of negation of human ‘nature’.” (David Bentley Hart)
Finishing the score
“In the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable we come to understand that here, in this life, all symphonies remain unfinished.” (Karl Rahner)
Why would we think of life as an unfinished symphony unless we believed that a final score could be penned? Augustine understood this dilemma when he wrote: “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest on you.”
Maybe God has the finished score in his hands, and if we sincerely attempt to find our rest in him, he will hum us a few more bars. If, however, with our atheist friends, we conclude that our illusory search for the lost chord has deceived us into believing in a fictional Composer, then we are left dancing to the muzak of our DNA until the party is over and the funeral dirge begins.
Bleeding religious significance
One of Dunt’s rejoinders to Andy’s article was that atheists can find meaning in their lives and he offered humanity as his own personal source of meaning:
“You are not removed from meaning by virtue of the fact that there is no absolute above you. It is done simply by the content you have in front of you, so the meaning is in humanity. I don’t need there to be a God to find meaning in humanity. I find it in them anyway and in my relationship with them and the need for an external objective scale or test or comparison or framework seems to me to be unnecessary.” (Dunt)
I would generally agree with Dunt’s assessment, but I would dig deeper and suggest that the meaning he finds in other humans is ultimately veneration of beings that bring traits to the world that have no comparable natural antecedent, beings who have far more in common with the heavens than the earth. I would therefore argue that the meaning he finds in humans turns out to be communion with divine image bearers, and as Jesus said: “Where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” It seems to me that when you scratch the surface of atheist meaning it tends to bleed religious significance.
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Nothing from nothing leaves nothing
Why would one pursue meaning in the first place? Why would humans spend the better part of 80 years obsessing over purpose only to conclude that it was all one big mistake? What’s the point of a chemical cocktail thinking about whether it should be shaken or stirred? What’s the point of atoms obsessing over how they should concatenate when in the end they all come unglued?
Atheists may think it’s possible to create meaning but it can only be accomplished by fashioning together things that have no ultimate meaning. Just as life cannot emerge from non-life so meaning cannot emerge from non-meaning. Random genetic mutations selected for survival metrics seems a poor pool of bricks from which to build a solid foundation. It seems to me that combining more pieces of meaninglessness just makes the meaninglessness even more severe. Billy Preston had it right when he sang “nothing from nothing leaves nothing” because you can’t fill a void with more void and feel existentially satiated.
Living on in memory
Dunt believes that the death of a friend or loved one doesn’t feel meaningless to him because he is able to recall how his life was touched by theirs and therefore they live on in him.
“Human beings have meaning to each other, and by virtue of that we can carry something of them in us. The moments we had together mattered even though they have now passed in time.” (Dunt)
Bannister further expanded on this idea by recounting his experience at a humanist funeral where the celebrant explained that the deceased would live on forever in the memories of his loved ones.
The problem is that intimate memories, at best, last only a generation then get filed under the heading of facts-and-figures. Ultimately the deceased just becomes another branch on a family tree, a genetic pedigree bereft of meaningful content. So, why then would an atheist appeal to an immaterial memory to justify a chemical life? Are they not expressing a veiled hope for immortality in a world where entropy gets the last word? Understanding the awkwardness of such an association they are forced to reduce memory to a neuronal loop or persistent pool of neurotransmitters but it still feels as though they are trying to sneak an afterlife in through the backdoor with a chemical wave of the hand.
Poets or priests?
One of Dunt’s concerns was the frequent use of Christian platitudes during the Queen’s funeral. Brierley, however, pointed out that secular tributes to the dead are no less platitudinous. Is it possible that platitudes, rather than being superficial, are actually just awkward human attempts to bring needed poetic nuance to the mysterious interface between life and death?
In the movie Contact, based on the book by Carl Sagan, Jody Foster plays Dr Ellie Arroway, an astronomer obsessed with finding extraterrestrial life. Ellie doesn’t believe in God, but she does believe in aliens. Her persistent search for aliens ultimately pays off when she finally picks up radio signals from outer space. Through a series of events, she is chosen to be the one who will travel through the cosmos to meet them in person. She enters a spacecraft designed by the aliens and sets off on her journey. The beauty she encounters along the way reveals a universe she could never have imagined, and which leaves her speechless until she mumbles the memorable line: “They should have sent a poet.”
The atheist astronomer Ellie Arroway recognised the limitations of the scientific lexicon to describe something meaningful. Similarly, the life of the deceased cannot be reduced to a chemical formula or an actuarial table, but seems to require an anointing with a lyrical chrism. So, when it comes to funerals, maybe we need to be a bit more forgiving of those offering platitudes. Or better yet, maybe eulogies should be delivered by poets and not priests, sonneteers and not scientists, because it may just be that one man’s platitude is another’s poetry.
Click here to listen to this episode with Andy Bannister and Ian Dunt.
Erik Strandness is a physician and Christian apologist who has practiced neonatal medicine for more than 20 years.