The villain from the movie The Crow said, “Childhood is over the day that you know you're going to die.” If that's the case, my childhood ended in the 3rd grade. I don't remember what specific event set it off, but I would be beset by horrible panic attacks about death. Don't get me wrong, I still watched Saturday morning cartoons and played stupid games like “Climb the Chandelier,” but I would often return to the horrible mystery of the ultimate.
Hamlet called death the undiscovered country, from whose born no traveller returns. It is the great unknown but also the great inevitable. We all must step over the threshold of death and none of us knows with certainty what is on the other side.
Having just seen the movie Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, I was once again confronted with not only my own mortality, but the mortality of the world. This world, this universe is not going to last. It is dying as we speak. And even if the Mayans were wrong and the world doesn't end in 2012 (and yes I know all about the leap year recalibration), the end will come.
I don't know about you, but this freaks me out.
But I think that this is a natural response to death. Many non-believers will claim that the reason we have faith is because we are afraid of death. I've known some who have questioned their motives for believing because they did, indeed, fear the possibility of non-existence. But I reassured them that they need not worry about this. The Christian faith alleviates my fears about the next world. But that is not why I believe it. I believe it because it is true. That it also relieves my fears is wonderful, but irrelevant to its being true. If you look at the Old Testament, there is no strong sense of life after death for the people of Israel. This is why the Sadducees, the ones who ran the Temple, did not believe in heaven (that's why they were sad, you see) (hold for laughs). The holy ones of Israel followed God because He is the true God.
But many of us are still afraid. We wish we could be like the martyrs who were joyous at returning to the Lord. Or we wish we were like Socrates who said that since none of us knows what comes after death, and it is foolish to be afraid of something that you have no knowledge of, we should not be afraid of death. Thus he drank his executioner's cup without hesitation or fear. Well, I am neither a saintly martyr nor a wise Socrates. I am a simple man with simple fears.
But why are we afraid to die?
I really don't think we want to be immortal. In Gulliver's Travels, he describes the Struldbrugs who were given immortality, but their bodies never stopped aging. In the movie “Death Becomes Her,” two evil women try to convince a man to drink an immortality potion, but then he asks, “But what if I get bored or lonely?” Movies and literature are full of stories of the lonely immortals who walk the earth, yearning for death. The Buddha believed that we get reincarnated in a cycle of infinite earthly lives. He did not see this as a good thing, because this only guarantees that we suffer. So Buddha's solution was to commit spiritual suicide (also known as achieving Nirvana), thus extinguishing the soul.
If the Buddha was right about reincarnation, then I think he would also be right about Nirvana. We don't want immortality for the sake of immortality.
Then what do we want?
In Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, two of the characters look at each other on the cusp of the impending doom. One says, “I wish we had more time.” The other replies, “There would never be enough time with you.” This struck me as absolutely true. I think about all the hours, days, and years I have already spent with my wife, but it has only made me greedy for more. The thought of a parting between us is the worst fear I can have in this world. We are not afraid of death per se. We are afraid of the end to our happiness. Particularly, we are afraid to lose love.
CS Lewis said that we don't want infinite life, we want infinite love and happiness. Life just happens to be a prerequisite for those things. And death is the gulf. It is the ultimate barrier that we must go through alone and we do not know if we shall see our friends on the other side. There must be a parting. In the musical Rent, a show filled with moral relativism and despair, the character Mimi comes back to life in the arms of her beloved Roger. Roger sings, “Thank God this moment's not the last.” And yet there will be a last moment. He and Mimi will have to leave each other, just as we all must leave this world single-file through the exit of death.
But there is something that gives me hope.
The Bible says “Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death” (Song of Songs 8:6)
I always thought that this meant that love is one of the few things worth dying for. Even in the face of death, people would choose love. I still think that is part of its meaning, but I may have found another.
Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen once said that love is only interested in two words, and it is not “you” and “me.” It is “you” and “forever.” Real love does not seek after its own interests (1 Cor 13:5), but is only concerned with the other. But it is also concerned with the other forever. Real love is forever. It never ends (1 Cor 13:8).
And don't we get that intuitively in our heart of hearts? The love we hold for the people dear to us is not something only for this world. We cannot imagine it being so. If it was, we feel as though it couldn't be real love. Love is bigger than that. It is bigger than the jaws of death, no matter how sharp and bitter its teeth. When I look at my wife, my heart tells me that this love cannot be only for a few years and then gone. There will never be enough time with her. But isn't that the way love is for all of us: Parents and children, friends and lovers. Love demands eternity.
I was speaking with Pluckarious about the series finale to Lost. He and I were of the same opinion about its profundity. But he pointed out that “If this world is all there is, then every single life is a tragedy because no matter what you accomplish, no matter who you love, you will lose them in the end.”
Now maybe I am wrong and this life is all there is. Maybe life is nothing but one big empty tragedy. But as the Stage Manager said in Our Town, we know that “everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal.” We all universally want love and happiness forever. There is not a single sane one among us who does not want this. CS Lewis said that every other natural desire has an object in reality. We all get hungry, so we want food. We all get drowsy, so we want sleep. It would be very strange if we were hungry, but there was no such thing as food or drowsy but no sleep. In the same way it should be very strange if we all desire eternal love, but there is no such thing.
Love is stronger than death. It is stronger because it is a promise. All death promises is that it will come, but it promises nothing after. Love promises forever. It is bigger than death. When we experience real love for the first time, we get the first taste of heaven. Yes, the Christian faith fulfills the deepest wishes of my heart, but that is no reason to doubt it. Wouldn't a perfectly good God who loves me want me to share in love and joy forever?
What a comfort the faith is when I freak out about death! I still fear for my soul on the day of my judgment, but among the great blessings from God I have this: there will never be a point from now until forever where my wife will not love me and I will not love her. In Christ, our love never ends. And so Paul was right: “When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15: 54-55). I love the way Paul, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, says this. He is not saying that the things of the earth are bad, but that they need to be covered in the things of heaven. Earthly love becomes eternal when clothed with heavenly love.
I think back of that couple in Seeking a Friend For the End of the World and how death came and swallowed them up. But that is not what happened. It is death that has been swallowed up. When the end finally came, they woke up to the real world awaiting them.
Maybe if I can keep in my mind that death is only the gateway to eternity and that real life hasn't begun yet, I will not be so afraid. Maybe a new kind of childhood, a childhood of joy and wonder, a childhood under God, begins when we realize that, in Christ, the love we share with each other will never die.