Mind over matter: why death is not the end

By Justin Lathlean

Suddenly, I was wide awake. My heart racing at a hundred miles an hour. My thoughts spiralling out of control. As I was drifting off to sleep my fate suddenly dawned on me, as if for the very first time, like a repressed memory that had suddenly resurfaced. Death. The inescapable destiny that awaits us all. The dreadful knowledge that one day you, I and everybody we love will cease to exist and that there is nothing we can do to stop it. This realisation had come out of nowhere. I was not in any immediate danger or suffering from a life threatening illness. The thought had just come over me. The horrible finality of my death had somehow become very real to me and I was gripped with fear.

If we are honest each of us have probably had a similar experience at one time or another. Perhaps not exactly like mine but a sudden moment where life’s brevity and ultimate trajectory have become acutely obvious leaving us feeling hopeless and afraid. And it’s not surprising why, as the American philosophy William Hirstein explains:

“The truth is depressing. We are going to die, most likely after illness; all our friends will likewise die; we are tiny insignificant dots on a tiny planet. Perhaps with the advent of broad intelligence and foresight comes the need for… self-deception to keep depression and its consequent lethargy at bay. There needs to be a basic denial of our finitude and insignificance in the larger scene. It takes a certain amount of chutzpah just to get out of bed in the morning.”[1]

The first time this reality started to sink in for me was as a teenager walking along a beach with a friend. Looking out at the vastness of the ocean they turned to me and asked ‘What do you think happens to us when we die?’ Surprised by their question I shrugged and simply said ‘I don’t know. I suppose we go to heaven.’ Unimpressed with my answer they preceded to ask another, ‘Do you remember what it was like before you were born? Well, that’s what it will be like when you are dead. Nothing. You won’t feel or know anything. You’ll just be dead.’ Hearing this argument for the first time was quite convincing even if it was unsettling. It took me a while to realise the full implications of this idea, and its naturalistic origins, but for a long time I felt hopeless by the thought that everything I did, all that I was, would eventually be forgotten. I think this was where Bertrand Russell was coming from when he said:

 “There is darkness without and when I die there will be darkness within. There is no splendour, no vastness anywhere, only triviality for a moment and then nothing.”[2]

Some people find the non-existence of an afterlife quite liberating. They can cope with the disappointment of not going to heaven so long as they don’t spend eternity in hell. What’s more, without an all-powerful and all-knowing God watching over everything we do we are free to live our lives the way we want, with nothing holding us back. The here and now is all that matters so make the most of it. This is the view expressed by the American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson in a recent interview with Larry King (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ydckb2pefKo).  For Tyson, life is simply a matter of energy. Our bodies require energy to keep us alive and once we no longer can acquire the energy we need to keep our bodies functioning we die, along with our consciousness. There’s no reason to fear death because we won’t know that we are dead.  Rather, fear a mediocre and insignificant life.

This line of argument isn’t particularly new. In fact, King Solomon made the same point in the book of Ecclesiastes more than two thousand years ago:

“As for humans, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth? So I saw that there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work, because that is their lot. For who can bring them to see what will happen after them?”[3]

Whilst Solomon used this type of language to raise important philosophical discussions that would ultimately lead to God, a modern day materialist would argue the same thing but potential end up at nihilism since we are no different to animals. We are just an intellectually advanced species of primates with an unusual capacity to invent languages and tell stories. But why then do we still believe in such fairy tales? What value do we get from believing in a lie? Well, as Jonathan Gottschall and other evolutionary physiologists explain, religion (and belief in the afterlife) are useful stories we tell ourselves to help us cope with the harsh realities of life:

“The conventional secular explanation of religion is that humans invent gods to give order and meaning to existence. Humans are born curious, and they must have answers to the big, unanswerable questions: Why am I here? Who made me? Where does the sun go at night? Why does giving birth hurt? What happens to “me” after I die – not my raggedy old carcass, but me, that endlessly chattering presence inside my skull? This is, in essence, an [evolutionary] by-product explanation of religion, and it is the one that most current evolutionary thinkers embrace. We have religion because, by nature, we abhor explanatory vacuums. In sacred fiction, we find the master confabulations of the storytelling mind.”[4]

So it’s all in our heads. Everything can be explained away by the evolutionary process. Our enlarged brains, which at first gave us a tactful advantage over other species struggling to survive, has now become somewhat of a burden. Whilst it has given as the ability to think abstractly, our human brain has now become liable to self-deception and delusional ideas of self-importance. Science, it seems, has revealed the origins of our obsession with the afterlife and immortality as nothing more than a concoction of our over inflated brains. We can no longer claim to have special access to supernatural knowledge more than a fish knows how to live out of water. This is the narrative being summarised by journalist and social commentator James Le Fanu:

“The ascendancy of science in the mid-nineteenth century left no space for the reality of that inner first-person self or soul, whose non-materiality both falls outside and poses a challenge to its exclusive materialist claims to knowledge. That ascendancy rather required that man be knocked from his pedestal and his exceptionality denied, by incorporating him into the evolutionary framework where his mind would become ‘nothing but’ the consequence of the electrical activity of the neuronal circuits of his brain.”[5]

But if all life is is matter then why does life matter? By reducing human beings to nothing more than a collection of molecules and atoms how can we continue to live lives full of purpose and meaning all the while knowing such things are only an illusion, an unintended evolutionary by-product?

It all depends on whether we consider mass-energy, that is, everything in the observable universe, to be primary or derivative. If mass-energy is primary then nothing exists outside the physical universe. Life and matter has simply come about by purely naturalistic processes without any assistance from a transcendent being. On the other hand, if mass-energy is derivative, that is, it is dependent on a supernatural creator (as the Big Bang Theory suggests) then mass-energy isn’t the ultimate substance in the universe and there could be more to our existence than bone and sinew. C.S. Lewis put it this way: “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”

So on one level we are a collection of atoms and particles doomed to die. Whilst on the other hand we are also part of an eternal spiritual world. If this is true it would explain why, regardless of cultural or religious backgrounds, we have an overwhelming desire to seek meaning and purpose in our lives. If there was a God who created us and placed us in the universe surely he would have a reason for doing so. We shouldn’t be surprised if we find some inbuilt compass pointing us back to our creator. Again, C.S. Lewis does an excellent job at explaining this point: “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” This is also what King Solomon meant when he said:

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”[6]

Once we realise that we are more than the sum of our parts, that there is more to us than what can be observed through a microscope, we begin to understand that life will not ultimately end in death. That we don’t cease to exist but instead continue onto another realm of existence which will last forever. As Jesus told his disciples:

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”[7]

So who is this One who decides whether or not we enjoy this eternal paradise? And what certainty can we have that we will be admitted? Does everyone get a free ticket regardless of who they are or what they have done? Or do some people get rejected? And if so, what happens to them? Will they suffer for all eternity? These are all reasonable questions that usually pop-up whenever there’s a serious discussion about the afterlife.

Whilst every religion or worldview tries to answer these questions in their own way I want to say that biblical Christianity provides the only coherent and intellectually defensible case for what happens to us after we die. For at the heart of Christianity is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who the apostle John identifies as: the ‘Word’ who was with God in the beginning and through whom all things were made. Surely, if anyone knows what lies beyond the grave they should have such credentials.

Throughout his life, Jesus said and did many things that both amazed and confused people. This includes the time when Jesus was speaking to Martha shortly after her brother Lazarus had died. He told her: 

“I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.”[8]

Likewise, when Thomas, with the rest of the disciples, asked Jesus how to get eternal life he responded:

I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” [9]

Essentially, what Jesus is claiming in both these interactions is that He is the One who decides who gets into heaven; He is the One knows what happens after we die; and He is the One who determines what happens to our souls.’

For those who don’t know much else about Jesus this can be quite disturbing. To think, some middle-eastern man who lived two thousand years ago will decide whether or not I am good enough to go to heaven or suffer in hell for all eternity. Sounds ridiculous. However, Jesus didn’t claim to be just an ordinary man, but rather the Man. God himself incarnate, which he proved through many miraculous signs and wonders. In Jesus, we see God’s invisible qualities being made known to us. His unfailing love and compassion for the poor and needy. When John the Baptist’s disciples asked Jesus whether he was the Messiah, he responded:

“Go back and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.”[10]

Jesus’ life was one marked out by service. A life dedicated to the betterment of others. Whilst he could have easily exerted his divine authority over the world, bringing judgment on all of humanity; He instead chose to humble himself by stepping down into space-time to take the punishment we all deserve. So it’s here at the foot of the cross that we are ultimately assured of God’s great love for us. Jesus is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.[11] Once we see Jesus in this way it becomes much easier to trust him with the eternal destiny of our souls, and those of everyone around us.

Now, it would be easy to finish by saying that Christians, therefore, do not fear death for they know that their eternal salvation has been made secure by the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is true that some Christians can honestly say that they no longer fear death. However, this is not something that happens automatically. Like a lot of things it takes practice. We have to continuously remind ourselves that despite the bleak outlook that says we are nothing but stardust, there is an immaterial God – an ultimate Mind behind the cosmos – who thought of us before the world began and will not let us see decay.  It’s when I remind myself of these things that I can say, like the Apostle Paul, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”[12]

[1] William Hirstein (2006) Cognitive Science: An Introduction to Mind and Brain, New York & London: Routledge (pg. 237).

[2] Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic (Longmans Green, 1918)

[3] Ecclesiastes 3: 18-21.

[4] Jonathan Gottschall, The Story Telling Animal (pg. 120-121).

[5] James Le Fanu, Why Us? (pg. 151)

[6] Eccelesiates 3:11

[7] Matthew 10:28

[8] John 11: 25-26.

[9] John 14:6

[10] Matthew 11:4-5

[11] John 10:11

[12] 1 Corithians 15:55