Death. It is the thing we fear the most. The inevitable state that propels us to endlessly ponder life’s intrinsic meaning. It is the event that creates the most unease for while we know there is no way to escape it, we somehow hope we will be the exception. We regard death as the greatest enemy of the human soul – the one that snuffs out all we have lived and worked for and the great equalizer of persons. Many of us view the dying process as being intensely lonely and marked with regret, pain, and suffering. Yet, in some strange way, we are grotesquely enamoured by it. We are intrigued by the unknowable and it has resulted in our cultural preoccupation with angels, demons, and all things other-worldly. We are drawn to it at the same time as we are trying to hold it at a distance. This strange dichotomy has existed since the beginning of time, yet, death has now found its market and its niche in the Western soul. We have commercialized death in every way possible: large advertisements for funeral homes, expensive caskets, life memory boxes for those who live on. We have turned death into a multiple million dollar industry that is sure to never go out of business. All the while, one is forced to ask: why? Are we doing this because psychologically we want to move on, spiritually we want to cling to some naïve hope that there is truly something beyond the grave, or because in some twisted way we see death as entertaining – something that is sure to happen to everyone else. Except us?
Recently, I have come across many thought provoking articles on the issue of death, and as I am preparing to enter into a chaplaincy vocation, have been forced to compete with these many viewpoints for myself. Two articles in particular have greatly influenced my thinking on this topic. In the first article, the author whose name I presently cannot recall mentioned that death is the most recurring theme portrayed in the media. It seems that every T.V. show and movie has some dark element of death attached to it. Our culture is in love with Twilight, Murder Mysteries, and the Zombie Apocalypse. Young adults are fascinated by vampires, ghosts, and the world of the undead. This phenomena has piqued such interest that I have known a handful of graduate students who have written extensive academic papers on topics such as these. Including yours truly. Yet, the author in question believes that such preoccupation stems from the very fact that we see death only as something that takes place in the movies. You see, movies are the place where fact and fiction come together in a convincing enough way, while still reminding the human soul that what is occurring on the screen is not truly happening. This is why many of us are able to watch the most horrible tales of wars and brutal shootings, while remaining relatively emotionally detached. We can recognize that such things ought not to happen, while at the same time reminding ourselves that they likely never will occur. At least not to us. It would be virtually impossible to find a mature, educated adult who still believes in Peter Pan or Mary Poppins. In the same way, it is becoming increasingly harder to find anyone who still believes in the reality of death.
In the second article, “Is Hell Dead?” Pastor Rob Bell spoke to Time Magazine and addressed the issue of whether or not there was really anything beyond this life. The end result was that fewer and fewer North Americans believe in the reality of heaven or hell. Most people today either believe that this life is all there is or else they believe that heaven exists but not hell. They have a philosophy which says everyone will end up in heaven one day and those who have done terrible things will simply cease to be. In a sense, it hardly seems fair.
Nevertheless, I find myself wrestling with this question of “is hell dead?” for there is a part of me that once again feels this is little more than a defence mechanism – a belief that we will live on forever. After all, if there is nothing that will occur after this life, we need not fear or focus on anything but this present reality. This can be beneficial in a way for it has the ability to propel us to reach our highest potential for good recognizing that since we will never have a second chance, we should at least impact the world in some great way. However, this belief also comes at a dangerous cost. It is a cost which fails to address the inevitable, so when death happens (even after years of illness), we are all struck blindsided by it.
Our culture is little more than a “Tuck Everlasting” culture. A culture which tries to advance itself medically and ethically, though without ever finding a resolution for what is bound to occur. The honest truth is that we are not in control, and that absolutely freaks us out. We like to have our lives planned, but the reality is that none of us truly knows how much longer we have. We can try to eat healthy, exercise, and treat people with kindness, but ultimately good health and karma can only get you so far. And they can’t get you passed the inevitable threshold of this world to the next.
Is this a depressing blog post? Perhaps, but it doesn’t have to be. You see, death doesn’t have to be this pretend reality, this scary and lonely time, or this fearful event to be avoided. However, it does have to be addressed. We cannot continue to hide behind this cultural façade of avoidance. If we truly want to heal and find hope, we need to believe in something more. We need to believe that there is good and that there is even better. We need to believe that there is life beyond the grave. It is only in doing so that we can move from denial into a glorious hope which enables us to do great things, to reach our full potential, and then to encourage others to reach theirs. It is only in doing so that death loses its sting and gains its respect.