Joshua Keel

My Denial of Death

May 19, 2018

As an evangelical Christian, I didn’t believe in death, not really. Sure, I thought someday my heart would stop, and I would breathe my last, but I didn’t think of that as the end. That was just the beginning of my real life. My immortal life would start when my body was physically raised from the dead, just like Jesus‘, which would happen at Jesus’ return to Earth in the last days, at the end of the world as we knew it. Then he would re-make the Earth, and we the faithful would live and reign on it forever. It would be the paradise Adam and Eve had briefly enjoyed, but it would never end.

When I think about what I used to believe, it feels so preposterous and arrogant. To think that I, through no fault or goodness of my own, would somehow wind up as a king in a re-made Earth. It’s just too much. Yet I believed it, and death had no hold over me. I simply thought of it as passing through from one life into an even greater and deeper life. I never had to worry about life being cut short, as long as I kept the faith.

The trouble is, I didn’t keep the faith so well. I was, at times, a desperate sinner. I was often wracked with guilt over my supposed crimes, and compulsively prayed for God’s forgiveness. I do believe this desperation was ultimately my undoing. Over time, the desperation turned to paralysis and apathy. I stopped caring so much what God thought of me, because I couldn’t seem to change his perspective, no matter how much I prayed. I also couldn’t change my behavior, addicted as I was, ashamed and stuck in a cycle of despair.

I never felt like I had any victory in Christ, or at least if I did, the victories were fewer and smaller than they should have been. And slowly, my belief crumbled, and I found myself watching videos from men like Christopher Hitchens, who considered himself an anti-theist. Not only did he not believe in God, he found the very idea of Christianity abhorrent and wicked. I soon began to feel the same way, as I heard talks from Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. They were never afraid to point out the many problems with religious belief, and the ways it diverged from what we know of the world through science.

After proceeding through more and more liberal forms of Christian belief, I ultimately felt that I had no leg to stand on anymore. Like a game of Jenga, I had removed one too many important planks, and the structure of my belief collapsed around me.

I was elated and devastated at the same time. I felt an enormous surge of freedom, of wild, passionate relief. I had been carrying around heavy burdens of guilt and shame and addiction that were almost immediately annihilated in the flood of sweet freedom. No longer was an overbearing deity watching my every thought, word and deed to ensure I was obeying his whims instead of my own conscience. I had tortured myself with thoughts of God, and now he was dead. Yet I was sitting in a pile of rubble. My belief system had supported and informed my behavior for decades, and now it was gone entirely. I didn’t know what to do with myself.

As long as I can remember, having a personal philosophy has been important to me. When I was a Christian, I was extremely keen on theology, attempting to understand and theorize on the nature of God and the world around us. I was a philosopher from the moment when, as a teenager, I read of Socrates and the questions with which he probed his fellow citizens. I adopted his mindset, and wanted to get to the bottom of things for myself, to find the truth behind everything. And also, to know how to pilot my fragile life. To know how to be, what to do, what is worthwhile and meaningful.

In the aftermath of my religious deconversion, I had no philosophy. Or at least no coherent one, one that could guide me. My life had been a sham, and now it was the time of reckoning. I was rudderless, but so curious and excited, and so deliciously free to explore. I could finally think and feel without chains. I could determine my own morality, rather than having it handed to me by a god.

Because I didn’t believe in it, I had never truly faced death. But now I found myself grappling with the reality that someday I will die, and that I won’t be raised from the dead. I felt horrifically ripped off. I had believed a pack of lies for so many years, and the seething anger I felt at having been deceived was with me for months. I was angry with God, but also with the people who were part of this deception, the ones who had told me the stories as if they were true. It took me quite a while to understand that they too had been deceived, and are only doing their best. So while their beliefs were destructive, they held them without malice or ill will.

I started to feel the reality that I may die more keenly. In airplanes and cars, I often thought of death as we hurtled along, trapped in a metal box, often out of my control. There was a letting go that came in those moments, where I realized that whatever happened, I would be OK. If this is the moment death will take me, so be it. I have lived a life. I have done and seen things. I have transformed in so many wonderful ways. I have become something beautiful. I am ready.

Larry, my therapist at the time of this philosophical drought, said death gives life meaning. I didn’t care for that notion at first, but now I’m inclined to agree. It’s not so much that I think life would be meaningless without death, but that death brings an urgency to life that wouldn’t otherwise be felt. To face the inevitable loss of not being can give us the courage to take risks, and the willingness to do the work of making our life mean something.

I make my peace with death by accepting my fleshly limitations, my frailty, and learning to enjoy them if I can. In the light of death, the pathway to a rich and fulfilling life is more starkly illuminated. For me that path is to emotionally open myself to life, to love deeply and vulnerably, and to create and share something of value with anyone I can.

I haven’t escaped the fear of death. To shake it entirely seems impossible, although there are people who have experienced profound spiritual shifts in which fear falls away. I have not yet achieved that. But I do know, as much as anyone can, that what lies beyond my last breath is simply the end of consciousness. Death is an experience that leads to no experience. It’s like the trailing off of a sentence. Movement, and then silence.

I don’t want to die; I am passionately in love with life; yet I am ready, I am willing, to die. Living a life is not an easy burden to bear, but it is lightened by the joy of simple experience, the mystery of consciousness itself. In my most lucid moments, I pinch myself just to make sure it’s all not a beautiful (but haunted) dream. To be alive is itself wonderful, and I long to cultivate more of that wonder, to find gratefulness for the next breath.

In that spirit, G. K. Chesterton artfully captures the ordinary wonder of life in his poem Evening, which I leave with you as my own benediction:

Here dies another day
During which I have had eyes, ears, hands
And the great world round me;
And with tomorrow begins another.
Why am I allowed two?