Death stories: four stories the world tells about death, and one hellishly simple rationalization

I recently watched this 15 minute TED talk by Stephen Cave, and was at turns fascinated, intrigued, depressed and appalled. I share it with you now (along with my thoughts) because I think it’s important: it helps us to engage with different thoughts people have about death, which in turn drive the way they live their lives.

Cave starts with a story about how he first became aware that he would die. He reflects on the fear he felt. When he asked adults about this fear, I was immediately saddened by his comment (2:24): “the grown-ups around me at the time answered with a typical English mix of awkwardness and half-hearted Christianity.” What has been the impact of half-heartedness?

At 1:27 he notes “at some point in the evolution of our species [science speak, not endorsed, mind you –J.] some early human’s sense of self and time became sophisticated enough for them to become the first human to realize, ‘I’m going to die.’” Compare this with Genesis and realize this event did in fact happen: mankind’s eyes opened to death.

Cave’s discussion of our “bias” (beginning at 3:40) is put in deeply scientific terms from an evolutionary perspective but is fascinating nonetheless. He’s suggesting a fear of death is built into our brains. He talks about studies which prove humanity it is much more open to religious thoughts when it is reminded of its mortality. We tell ourselves stories about death as “terror management theory.”

He focuses most of his talk on four categories for the “stories we tell” : the “elixir of life” story, the “resurrection” story, the “live on as a soul” story, and the “immortality through legacy” story. These stories are diversely told and found throughout the cultures of earth, as if they are genetic as well, embedded in the spirit. That means you can see them in the approaches to life of everyone around us.

There are people doing everything they can and spending everything they’ve got to cheat death. No advanced medical technique or quack theory is beyond them. This happens in Western and Eastern cultures (and, I imagine, in African cultures as well). The best way to avoid the ‘hereafter’ is not to go to the ‘hereafter.’

He gives two stories common to most religious thinking­—resurrection (which he notes is orthodox dogma for Christianity, Judaism and Islam) and the ‘soul.’ Notable is how he separated ‘resurrection’ and ‘soul’ approaches. The resurrection means the body is restored; the ‘soul’ is more of an ‘upload to Heaven’ idea. A lot of Christians believe the ‘upload’ but miss out on how this is fundamentally different from resurrection. It is very Greek. The difference is discussed in detail by N. T. Wright in Surprised by Hope.

Resurrection is less common outside of monotheistic religious circles. The idea of a ‘soul upload’ in some variation is at work in pantheism and polytheistic religions. It’s also at work in some of the current scientific thinking: the idea we can ‘upload’ ourselves into a computer and live on after our body dies.

Finally, Cave discusses how some find immortality through the memory they leave on the planet, and through the children they leave behind. This is immortality-as-legacy, and for those most satisfied with theirs this is palatable, but for many it does not ameliorate the fear.

Depressingly for me, Cave spends the last 4 minutes discussing his response to the fear of death and these four stories: in essence, instead of trying to resolve death, we should simply ignore it. He quotes Epicurus: ‘the fear of death is natural, but not rational.’ Then he goes on to argue since we won’t “be here” for death (e.g. death is essentially the cessation of life), we shouldn’t “worry about it.” The most “rational thing” is to ignore the beginning and the end and live fully in the middle, “in all the moments that take our breath away” (to use sugary pop proverbs).

He argues against any need for legacy, against any need for thinking about or planning for what comes ‘after we are gone,’ and simply live for the full sensuality of the now.

The reasoning is simple and profound. These ‘last four minutes’ are a concise image of a life lived when we hold the view that when you’re gone, nothing matters. “Imagine the book of your life, its covers, its beginning and end, and your birth and your death. You can only know the moments in between, the moments that make up your life. It makes no sense for you to fear what is outside of those covers, whether before your birth or after your death. And you needn’t worry how long the book is, or whether it’s a comic strip or an epic. The only thing that matters is that you make it a good story.”

Christianity says this view is efficient in its rationality and hellish in its results.

It is an ultimate version of Screwtape’s “Materialist Magician”, and demons should be jumping up and down in glee at the thought: “If once we can produce our perfect work–the Materialist Magician, the man, not using, but veritably worshipping, what he vaguely calls ‘Forces’ while denying the existence of ‘spirits’–then the end of the war will be in sight.” How more if we could create a thoughtful, rational creature who mindfully, intentionally, willfully denies the existence of life-after-death, and so justifies quite rationally living any way it wishes ‘so long as it makes for a good story’—something Tweetable or Made Into A Lifetime Movie (it matters not which, so long as it’s good entertainment)? And if nothing matters, is any story worth dying for?

Fortunately, it appears to me the fear of death is a little too dark, monstrous, and a little too strongly embedded in our souls for this to really work for most. Let’s not dismiss Cave’s talk outright, however. Here is what it tells us:

First, we must not be half-hearted in our answers. We must have a full “answer for the hope that is in us” (1 Peter 3:15).

Second, we need to understand the ‘story’ about death the person in front of us is buying into and living out; responding to the wrong story could lead to being dismissed. For people for whom ‘hell’ is an important component of their evangelistic offer, this is even more critical. (Differing death stories can also be a point of cross-cultural differences: consider the difference between Buddhist, Muslim, Christian and agnostic death stories, for example. If you’re appealing to a Buddhist as you would an agnostic, you might be confronting the wrong death story.)

Third, we must be careful ourselves of living as though nothing happens after death. We can theorize about eternity while functionally living as those death is the end. One day, death will die—but we will live on. We must make choices today with an eye toward their eternal ramifications.

Believers, non-believers, sex, marriage, cohabiting, and how we engage with the world

I do not write for controversy, but I can see this could be a controversial post. (And I should probably say my thoughts are my own, and not those of the agency I’m with!)

This past month, our church has been going through a series on the Song of Solomon. That’s been interesting.

Yesterday, we covered the idea that marriage involves forgiveness–an important point, clearly.

In the sermon and in the small group, we discussed the idea people getting engaged really had no idea what marriage was all about. They had unrealistic expectations.

This is true of some, yes, and it is probably more likely for those raised in evangelical circles.

However, it got me thinking about all of the research that indicates the marriage rate is down, and cohabitation is up. A few examples:

People who cohabit probably have a pretty good idea of the expectations of living together.

Now, I am not writing this to excuse cohabitation or to endorse it. I certainly do not.

However, I do think we ought to consider this:
… the marriage norms within an evangelical church (dating/courtship, marriage, and then the “reality check” of married life and dealing with unrealistic expectations)
… are likely not the marriage norms outside the evangelical church.

And, if the church is to reach unbelievers, then we have to expect to engage with some things that are not the ‘norm.’

Let’s say a church forms with the intentionality of reaching the unsaved – people who are not in a church at all. Let’s say it’s a successful church plant, and unsaved people start attending the church (or coming to Bible studies). If you encounter a solid couple, research suggests the odds are pretty good that couple are either physically intimate and/or cohabiting. How will the church respond?

The Biblical response, of course, is no sex outside of marriage. So–break it up! Back to your corners! Out of the house!

But, hold on–who does that Biblical response apply to?

These are non-believers we’re talking about. The rules that apply to believers aren’t expected of them.

What I’m walking us through right now
is not how should believers act in regards to marriage, sex, love and commitment
but should we demand unbelievers act as believers in order to come to church?

Now, the maybe controversial part: Marriage revolves around concepts of love, commitment, and sex.

Much of the talk in church about these ideas, in my experience, tends to be stop-bad-behavior and encourage-right-behavior. And that’s good–for believers.

And I don’t think we should condone sex outside of marriage for all nonbelievers. Clearly, that’s not leading us anywhere good.

But: what to do with non-believers who are coming regularly to church and still cohabiting?

(Yes, this does happen, especially in churches geared to reach nonbelievers. This is not an airy hypothetical.)

So, to figure out what to do, let’s just stop and ask ourselves – where, precisely, does marriage begin?

The instant response of any ‘Good Christian’ is ‘at the wedding ceremony.’ Ok, yes, true, but in what sense? Spiritual? Legal? Financial? Religious? Social? Other?

Really controversial: Where did it begin for Adam? Where for Abraham, or Isaac, or Jacob? We don’t have a lot of wedding ceremonies recorded in Biblical history. Yes, the wedding ceremony is incredibly important. But it is only one ‘beginning point.’ Marriage also ‘begins’ in another sense at the point of the sexual union.

Where does the spiritual bond between two people get forged? Paul was pretty clear on the issue: “And don’t you realize that if a man joins himself to a prostitute, he becomes one body with her? For the Scriptures say, ‘The two are united into one.'” (1 Corinthians 6:16).

Do you think this is true? If it is, then first sexual contact is incredibly important, because at that point you are married to the other person. A spiritual and physical bond has been forged.

This is not something to take lightly. Sex is not just the reward of marriage–it is both the beginning and regular renewal of it, the bonding force. In this understanding, the insidious and destructive nature of fornication and adultery become even clearer. The two are flip sides of the same coin. Fornication is a kind of intentional adultery, and more the premeditated murder of a relationship. You bond and then break the bond in order to bond with someone else, and you do it purposefully. It’s as if you glue two boards together with superglue, and then break the boards apart. The result is always damage. Likewise, fornication–sex outside of marriage–has no intention of commitment. It makes a spiritual, emotional and physical victim of two people, damaging them for all eternity. Adultery does much the same thing: it takes two people, one or both of which are bound to someone else, and adds more bindings that cause the first bindings to break. Horrific damage is the result. I read “After a first time, many second thoughts” (New York Times, Arla Knudsen) with something like horrified fascination, as it exhibited many of these dark shadows.

But–is cohabiting the same thing? Isn’t it sex outside of marriage? Yes–yes, it is.

But… I have a little more grace in me for people who cohabit. Why? The behavior is wrong, isn’t it? Yes, it’s wrong.

But… In this day and age, it’s not hard (or even, to our shame, shameful) to have sex outside of marriage. You don’t need to move in together.

If people have moved in together, and are living together, this can indicate a spiritual hunger in its willingness to take a step of commitment. Yes, not full commitment–cohabiting demonstrates a lack of self control, or maybe fear, or maybe other issues. Still, these are unbelievers we’re talking about–and when people aren’t Christians, you can’t expect Christian behavior out of them, so when they are closer to Christlike behavior (and cohabiting is closer than fornication, because at least there’s some semblance of commitment), then… we shouldn’t give the a “pass,” excusing the behavior, but I think we should be slow to “bring the hammer down.”

Since sex is so easily available, the reasons for getting married–and for not getting married–in most instances probably have very little to do with sex, and everything to deal with commitment issues. In order to address these, the right response might not be insisting on their breakup. Instead of demanding less commitment, let’s disciple to more commitment (Christlike behavior).

This may demand that we endure some cohabiting folks attending church, while gently and lovingly asking–why have you not taken the step toward marriage?

It may demand that we consider and model the value of marriage as a commitment, not just a license to have sex. What is it about marriage that is important? How do we communicate that?

Truly listening and considering the answer and the discussion might be enlightening.

Perhaps in engaging with cohabiting couples, we need to be reminded of the love chapter, 1 Corinthians 13, and its command: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Or, the NLT version I like even better: “Love is patient and kind… not boastful, proud, rude, demanding its own way… Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.”

Can we love cohabiting unbelievers among us in this way, encouraging them to come “higher up and further in” on the Way of Christ?