Day in and day out I wage war on the Great Grendel; that perennial, merciless foe of life that in all its incarnations makes a mockery of that innate desire in all of us to thrive and perchance depart this world full of years and wisdom. I speak of helping folks in their personal battles with disease, injuries, malignancies and such; incipient death in all her myriad manifestations and machinations.
In the midst of sharing a yoke with so many ailing people and their caregivers, I am sometimes struck by the element of futility to it all; futility insofar as the very best outcome is death deferred. When you think about it, we all wind up defeated as it were here in the physical realm. Even this world which most of us love so dearly and cling to ferociously — as well the cosmos of which it is a part – are likewise destined to die and enter a perpetual night (Barring what at this point appears unlikely – a “reverse course” and repeat big bang).
This “resistance is futile” state-of-affairs is rather obvious, yes and though true begs the equally obvious: What other recourse is there? One of the earliest and no doubt strongest drives to evolve is that of self-preservation (3 Primal Drives, Essay), without which this world would be for the most part a vacant planetary lot. So we strive to live and flourish, take a stab at leaving some kind of legacy — be it children or ideas or a body of work or some such monument — and hold death at bay until our strength is exhausted or we are otherwise left with little choice but to release our grip on this world. There is continuity in all this, but we all realize somewhere deep down that family and achievement do not confer immortality; that everything will be consigned to a vast, universal graveyard. And besides, there would be very little gratification in any sort of immortality predicated on familial or other forms of physical continuity, unless (of course) we were to find a way to actually become physically immortal, ageless and free of infirmity or debility.
Until we can confer immortality sans aging and debility — something that lies on the far side of tomorrow – we are left with but a single recourse: Resignation – with or without a belief in a postmortem spiritual life. This acknowledgement of inescapable inevitability can be a liberating, even positive thing for those who hold fast to a religious faith, as well as for those who do not. For example, the atheist who believes existence ends with one’s physical demise might tend to view death as freedom from infirmity, debility or such. Since he does not anticipate a postmortem life review and reckoning, there is little to fear other than the physical process of dying itself (If prolonged or painful). The “death as freedom from suffering” theme is a logical no doubt shared by most religionists, to which is tacked on the erstwhile conviction that there is a “life after life” that has a pleasant outcome (At least for those who share a specific set of beliefs or who otherwise are deemed or made worthy of sharing the Almighty’s presence).
I can appreciate both perspectives, but must confess that some species of religious belief concerning the afterlife is antithetical to assurance, hope or anything positive. For example, many fundamentalist Christians believe that most (if not all) non-Christian folks will wind up consigned to Hell or something like it forever. Now this is not too disturbing if you belong to the minority whose beliefs and practices guarantee one a privileged slot at the Divine banquet table. But – and here is where things get interesting if only from a psychological perspective – many of these true believers go through life uncertain as to whether they will actually merit a place in Heaven. I know, because during my nearly half century sojourn through life I have met or otherwise dealt with scores of devoutly religious people, mostly fundamentalist Christians, who are plagued by fears that they will somehow far short at Judgment and be consigned to Hell. So consider: We have a segment of religious believers – possibly a large one – who believe that despite their faith and pious efforts, they will probably fall “short of the mark” and be tossed into a house of horrors for eternity (For those who read this who are religious and believe otherwise concerning these matters, set aside theological or scriptural arguments to the contrary and focus instead on what this spin engenders in those who harbor it). Among the things I have noted in these often “quietly tortured souls”: A deep seated pessimism and sense of hopelessness, though not of the sort to send them running amok in the streets armed with an AK-47 – if only because this would surely turn the likelihood of going to Hell into a certainty. So what we have here is an incarnation of religious faith – faith being by its very nature a vehicle for instilling values, imparting hope, inspiring love and charity, promoting worship and social responsibility, and so forth – that is suffused with an undercurrent of agonizing uncertainty and fear, self-loathing, and a maddening sense that one would probably have been better off not being born at all.
Interesting, most Christians I’ve interacted with down through the years hold to a “trust and obey and all will be well in the great by-and-by” expression of their faith, while often confessing that those who do not embrace this are probably going to Hell. Surprisingly, I have found few among them I would characterize as intolerant elitists who defend their faith in inappropriate ways. And while what they profess appears to infuse many in their ranks with abject uncertainty and fear for their own eternal fate — and portrays those outside their ranks as holding one-way tickets on the fire and brimstone express – these folks by-and-large do not seek to impose their beliefs on others or deny those outside their ranks the right to disagree with their views or reject them outright. This probably reflects the influence of America’s democratic values and traditions on religious folks, which is good all the way around.
And let me lay to rest the notion I am singling out fundamentalist Christians by widening the proverbial lens: To whit, various surveys taken down through the years here in America indicate that most people believe themselves to be essentially good and (among believers) bound for something upbeat after their mortal demise. Many of these no doubt feel that while this is true of themselves, it is not going to be the case for those who do not share their religious beliefs or spirituality. And this conviction is not exclusive to fundamentalist Christians by any means, for one can readily find abundant examples of the “I’m in, but you’re not” mentality among many Jewish and Muslim clerics and laypeople.
Whatever reckoning and subsequent purgation or punishment there is that follows this life, I can’t help but marvel over these two primary, interwoven futilities: We wage relentless warfare with disease, age, decline and infirmity that sometimes buys us time but not a reprieve from walking life’s final “green mile”. And then following death for some – many – maybe most – depends on who you listen to — there is consignment to purgatory or Hell; a fate which surely constitutes the grandest futility conceivable – that of ever having lived at all. And if most folks do go to perdition, does this outcome not signal that the divine experiment is a failure? “Rats in the Cosmic Laboratory: Is God A Scientist?
It can be argued that the experiment was by design geared to winnow out the wheat from the chaff, and is a success by virtue of the fact it is achieving this end. But if this is the case, then it is a success that truly is eclipsed by its horrific cost. And even though the responsibility for this colossal failure lies in human missteps and bad choices and not with the Almighty, it begs the question: Once it became clear that more folks were going to Hell than to Heaven, why not bring everything to fruition quickly and end the experiment? To do otherwise – to leave such an apparatus running – surely constitutes both a wanton cruelty… and the penultimate futility…in anyone’s book (“Good Book” or otherwise).
Is there a perspective more consonant with logic and fairness? (Both are crucial attributes of the Divine according to most religions). There are many, chief among which in my opinion is reflected in this positional statement from the Judaism 101 website:
Although there are a few statements to the contrary in the Talmud, the predominant view of Judaism is that the righteous of all nations have a share in the Olam Ha-Ba. Statements to the contrary were not based on the notion that membership in Judaism was required to get into Olam Ha-Ba, but were grounded in the observation that non-Jews were not righteous people. If you consider the behavior of the surrounding peoples at the time that the Talmud was written, you can understand the rabbis’ attitudes. By the time of Rambam, the belief was firmly entrenched that the righteous of all nations have a share in the Olam Ha-Ba.
- Submitted for your thoughtful consideration by Dr. Anthony G. Payne
© 2005 by Dr. Anthony G. Payne. All rights reserved.