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Atheism and the Problem of Death

This weekend at church my pastor was sharing his experiences counseling people who were on their death bed.  I thought of all the pastors and spiritual counselors throughout the country, and world, throughout time, who have been face to face with death, the dying, and those left behind.   Then I thought about some of the recent posts (and comments) on my blog.  In one place, an atheist dismissed apologetics organizations because they only serve to advance ‘their narrow, self-interested, point of view.’   However, this came after I pointed out that it has become increasingly clear just how important addressing the spiritual side of a patient is in facilitating healing.  The presence of chaplains in the military and at hospitals and of course pastors in general indicates that where the tire meets the road- that is, where people are actually in distress and often come face to face with death and dying- it is understood that we are spiritual people, and to dispense with that understanding is to invite peril.

The atheist I mentioned didn’t dispute that, presumably because he knows it to be an absolute truth.  His beef with apologetics orgs, I guess, is that they actually believe all this stuff!  Your local pastor presumably doesn’t.   Apparently, the leadership in religion doesn’t actually believe that Christianity is true, they’re just scamming people.  I am referring of course to what atheist David Silverman told Bill O’Reilly on Fox News recently.  People who actually believe Christianity is true… well, they are nutjobs or power mongers.

Of course, given the atheistic position, those sorts of explanations are required.  They have to find explanations for why otherwise sane people devote themselves to patent nonsense.  As I was reflecting on the matter, though, what I found interesting was that this still leaves the huge mass of humanity… are they just idiots, as Silverman clearly believes?  They’ve just been ‘lured’ in, you see.   Or is there something else going on?

I think that ‘something’ is that the mass of humanity understands that death is a horrific reality that each of us will have to deal with and that this reality represents something unnatural.

By atheism and the problem of death, I mean:  if we are only the result of naturalistic evolutionary processes which have actually used death to create us, why are we so offended by it?  I mean, all of humanity is offended by it.  Even atheists.  We all grieve at the loss of loved ones and we all do our best to resist death for ourselves.  None of us (except perhaps for a handful of truly insane and depraved people) reason:  ‘Why, death is just a perfectly natural and normal thing, like defecating.  I shouldn’t let it bother me.’  Nor do we reason, ‘My death will help improve the race.’  (Although, some truly insane and depraved people have reasoned that the death of others will improve the race.)

Now, most of the human race rejects atheism, and I believe it is because most of the human race understand that it doesn’t account for a huge number of aspects of human experience and I note that all of the world’s religions take the problem of death particularly seriously.   That is, collectively speaking, we are offended by death.  We, collectively, devote huge time, resources, and thought on avoiding it.  Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, New Agers… pretty much everyone gets that there is a problem (death) to be resolved and pretty much everyone realizes that the ‘solutions’ of philosophical materialism are insufficient and not up to the task.  Indeed, we religionists tend to observe that in the main, atheists themselves do not tend to carry out the implications of their own views.  (I can’t help but think of Peter Singer calling for the extinction of the human race and then backpedaling at the end).

So what gives?  Are we really going to resolve this problem by saying that there are just three categories of humans- the enlightened atheists (1% of the world’s population), the idiots in the middle (98% of the world’s population), and the scamming religious leaders (1% of the world’s population)?

It seems to me that this option isn’t open to the atheist, even on the atheist’s own terms.  As I said, it is well documented, and becomes increasingly more documented, that spiritual wellness is instrumental to physical wellness.  Apparently blind, cosmic chance created purely physical organisms that do not heal as well if they only view themselves as purely physical organisms!  Wild!   Recently, a study was published that showed that poor mental health could be correlated with anger at God– and atheists (who, I may remind you, ostensibly don’t even believe in God)- are often angry at God just like the rest of us!  What a funny thing for evolution to do!  It created people who are not as mentally healthy unless they have generally good feelings about God, even in the face of pain, suffering, and death.  Indeed (as the studies show), healing itself tends to come easier and better if one comes to terms with God.  I mean, it’s almost like we were created by God to be in relationship with him, or something.  But what do I know!

As I argued above, all the religions and most of the world’s people deal honestly and seriously with the problem of death, but I should like to point out something truly unique about Christianity:  it believes that at a specific place at a particular time in our history, God himself- knowing perfectly well what an offense death was- dealt death itself a death blow.  He came to earth in a real place at a real time and interacted with real people that we can know from real history and really died and really rose from the dead and really promised to share that victory with anyone who will really accept the medicine he really offers.

In my view, since death is the common denominator for all of us and the one thing that stands in our way of ultimate and meaningful happiness, it is a proper subject of intensive human scrutiny.   If there were hope, real hope, that there is an ultimate answer to death, then it is worth doing everything in your power to find out, and if one finds that hope to be more than plausible, but actual, seize upon it.

And, incidentally, if you think you’ve found such such an answer, it is a perfectly rational thing to devote your life to communicating to others, and about as far from ‘narrow self-interest’ as one can get.

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20 Responses to Atheism and the Problem of Death

  1. The real problem of death is for Christians – why do you mourn something as glorious as passing into the kingdom of Heaven? Surely that is a cause for rejoicing?

    Atheists are “offended” (strange choice of word) because we know it’s the bitter end. Either that or a one way ticket to hell…;)

  2. Hey, you know what’s funny? The Bible actually answers that in a number of places in a variety of ways. If only you had a Bible and if only you would read it… lol

  3. Feel free to share. Concisely.

  4. Not a chance.

  5. Uh, Anthony. Doesn’t that touch on the Gospel itself that could save him if he accepted it? Why wouldn’t you share it?

  6. Thanks for your comment, Jorge. You have to understand that Stathei and I go way back, and more currently we’re having a bit of a lover’s spat. You can check the comments to other recent posts. He has said, for example, that his childhood interaction with the Bible and his knowledge of the ‘tales’ in it is sufficient enough for him to judge the Bible. (I’ve told him that that’s fine, just don’t keep popping in with pot shots and expecting to be taken seriously). Moreover, even if I told him something was in the Bible, he’d disbelieve it. I’ve actually read the Bible, and was trained to translate it out of the original languages, but what do I know? No, I think it’s high time that Stathei moved away from childish understandings of the Bible and actually read it for himself. Then when I say something is in the Bible, he’ll know it for himself, and we won’t continually descend into these ridiculous issues about… well… me. I’d be happy to have an earnest conversation with him. I don’t think he wants one. So, there you go.

    I will here restate my willingness to send to him a Bible on my own dime, however.

  7. Thanks for your quick reply Anthony. I’m not so sure. If someone asks I think you answer. I don’t think it is my place or I would.

  8. I think at some point people have to take responsibility for themselves. This information is readily available to him. At any point he could go out and get a Bible and some simple study tools and read it for himself. Numerous translations are available on the Internet, too. He could read those for free. I don’t think it would be right to enable him by forking over the answer- which he’d only mock, anyway. I think we’re really at the point where he needs to hear things from the horses mouth, as it were. I also have in mind the passage by the tax collector in the seventh chapter, say verse 6.

    If you want to answer him, more power to you. Just remember: be succinct. 🙂

  9. Jorge, you should know that Anthony only preaches to the converted. He doesn’t play well with the rest of us 🙂 .

  10. The rather verbose posts he’s given you out of the last few days shows the lie to that Stathei. I guess when you’ve hit rock bottom a long time ago it just becomes easier to stay down there.

  11. Jorge, meet End Bringer. He’s Anthony’s “yes” man. Browbeating and berating is not the kind of preaching I meant, EB.

  12. Ok, I read the other threads. Wow. I see what you mean Anthony.

  13. Sorry, I felt I should expand on that. I don’t want to be a ‘yes’ man. The thing that really got me Stathei was when you said it was ‘laughable’ that Anthony would have a different point of view about a translation. If it had been left there maybe I would have thought it was arrogant also. Then we find out he has an actual degree in the field and all you do is dismiss it. You can’t even give him that. You must really hate him. It looked like if he said 2+2 was 4 you would fight him. Sorry that is just the way it looked to me. Although I still think he should have answered you here I can see why he didn’t. Sorry. That is just how I feel.

  14. Jorge, you have fallen for Anthony’s ability to varnish the truth and pull the wool over trusting eyes. The guy has, according to the bio on this website, “a bachelors degree in Pastoral Ministry from Concordia University, Wisconsin, with a minor in Biblical Languages”. That is VERY far from a degree in Greek, and it certainly does not equip him to have a sudden insight into fundamental mistakes in translation made by far, far better qualified scholars than he. His claim is the product of his own vanity and arrogance and is, I maintain, laughable.

    Please don’t apologize, if you are on Anthony’s “side” that’s fine by me. I don’t hate him – far from it – but he does need a little dose of the truth occasionally, even though it’s his worst enemy.

  15. Stathei,

    I admit I could have phrased it differently. The point is that my bachelors degree has a recognized specialization in the biblical languages. It’s actually besides my point in that post, which wasn’t that YOU needed to learn the biblical languages, but that there are some things one needs to be minimally aware of regarding the Bible to speak intelligently about it. In your case, we’d add that merely reading the Bible would be a good start.

    You, knowing nothing, wouldn’t have any idea what is required to have a ‘sudden insight into fundamental mistakes in translation.’ You don’t know what you don’t know, but you insist on speaking to it anyway. That’s really funny. I think its funny to watch you scraping every which way you can to evade admitting anything. I have three years of Greek and two years of Hebrew. I then actually taught Greek at the college level for two years. What do you have? Enough apparently to think you know what one needs to know in order to translate! lol

    Set all this aside. I only focused on this because of the irony in your dismissal of me even though I actually had training in the area, which goes to show that such things really don’t matter to you.

    This is the catalog for my university:

    http://www.cuw.edu/Academics/assets/catalog_ug_20102011.pdf

    Turn to page 43. It’s been fifteen years, so there may have been some changes, I think for course names in particular, but I took every class in the theological language major except for the second semester of German. That is, I was one course away from having a double major.

    Turn to page 24, the “BIBLICAL LANGUAGES FOR TRANSLATION AND MISSIONS MAJOR.” Note, I took all of the language courses required for this MAJOR. In addition, I had a semester of German, as well. So, I exceeded the language requirements of this major. What’s the name of the major? “Biblical Languages” yes… and what else does it say? “For Translation and Missions.” Hmmmmmmm. Hmmmmmmmmmmm. What could ‘translation’ refer to? How odd! I didn’t think that this level of education was enough to equip someone with wrestling with translation issues…. huh. It seems like some really smart people seem to think it does.

    As I recollect, this major wasn’t offered when I came through. I will say that I have a handful of friends who took the same language classes as I did and are now Bible translators in Africa, first mastering native dialects before then rendering the Bible in their own language- translating from the original languages to the native dialect (no English in the middle). I’m not saying that I have their level of mastery in the original languages or in translation. I am saying that I had the same level of language training as they did- at least initially.

    I honestly don’t know if a minor counts as a degree or not. I assumed it did. Now pressed, I’m perfectly content to drop that language, because my point was less about the degree and more about the training. I actually have it in that area, and you mocked it anyway. You know nothing, and still you mock. It’s really very funny.

    As you can see, I have one less course required for the major in theological languages (the second semester of German) and one more course required for the major in biblical translation (the one semester of German). Only someone truly desperate could continue to deride this as insufficient.

    For the record, the entire third year of Greek was committed to translation and translation issues. I remember distinctly having to translate Bel and the Dragon for one of the assignments. Such memories. 🙂

    What are your ‘credentials’ Stathei?

  16. Hi Stathei, thanks. I must apologize. Your idea of exposing the ‘truth’ looks to me like uncharitable reading. Sorry, that is just how it appears to me. You keep raising standards and then even when he meets them it isn’t enough. I find his latest comment fascinating. If we are to believe that he took the courses he says he has the education sufficient for a major in that area. Does it matter to you that he does not have the piece of paper? It matters to me that he has the education. What exactly what was the translation matter that you are mocking him about? I feel like I can guess that at the time you did not bother to speak to the merits of what he said but instantly rejected it because you thought he was arrogant for having a different view than ‘great minds.’ I would like to see the actual matter. Do you know where I can read it? Anthony’s last question seems reasonable. Just what are your credentials on Bible translation? You demand them from Anthony. Just how do you know what level of language education is necessary to challenge ‘great minds’? Sorry, so sorry. This is just how I feel.

    To Anthony: is this not just a useless debate about you? Why talk about yourself at all? Just answer his question and take yourself out of it. Make it something between God and Stathei. I think he does hate you. While you are in the middle he won’t see God. I’m not saying that you have done right or wrong. I’m just observing. Sorry!

  17. Jorge,

    I also don’t know what particular incident he has in mind. He said something about the Hebrew language but I’m pretty sure he meant the book of Hebrews (which is in Greek) but nothing springs to mind. I don’t think it matters, either. He generally does not care what evidence is offered. He believes what he believes and if someone makes an argument his only recourse is to appeal to what you called ‘great minds.’ You saw it in the other thread, “Oh, you’re smarter than Stephen Hawking then. That’s what you’re saying!” Even if I never said anything about him.

    Regarding your statement to me, well, yes that would be nice if I could just do that- answer him, that is. Obviously, though, if I’m the one answering, then I’m the one in the middle. This is really why I have been continually urging him to get a Bible and read it for himself, to ‘take myself out of it.’ He’s not going to believe anything I might say, anyway. So, allow me to repeat: YOU could step in and give him the answers he wants. He does not hate YOU. At least, not yet. 🙂

  18. Yes, I understand. He reads the Bible. He does not need you to tell you what is in it. He finds out there is more in it than what he thought. He finds out that things he thought was in it are not. But you could still answer him.

    I am sorry but I cannot bear to watch this more.

    Stathei. Life after death with God in heaven will be great. God did not create us for that. He created us to live on this planet without death. Death is a great evil. Also we were created in God’s image. We are special. Even if we know we are going to a great place we are too special to treat like trash in order to get there. God did not have to save us from Death. He did, and we are thankful, but it is still evil. The best part is we only have to believe in his Son in order to be saved. No credentials or education needed.

    I think Anthony has a lot to say and if you could stop hating them you could learn a lot. I think he is right that you could learn a lot if you read the Bible for yourself. I cannot bear to watch this more though. I hope I see you in heaven.

    Good bye.

  19. Thanks for your comments, Jorge. Glad you stopped by and contributed. May your words have impact where mine could not. Peace.

  20. Bye Jorge – I’m pretty sure you won’t be seeing me in heaven, whichever one of us is right 🙂 .

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