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In my book, Immortal: How the Fear of Death Drives Us and What We Can Do About It (Harvest House, 2020), I write about how all people cope with the fear of their own death. In the fourth chapter of Immortal, I examine what I call atheist “mortality mitigation projects.” By that I mean ways that atheists try to turn death into something good or, at least, not so bad. I examine such projects as “immortality would be boring,” “death is necessary for life to go on,” “detachment,” “live in the present,” “individual existence is unreal,” “our particles go on.” Here I’m going to examine a mortality mitigation project that has seen quite a revival of late in atheist circles — “death is nothing to us.” What follows is excerpted from Immortal with the modification of my cutting several hundred words out of the footnotes.1
[One] mortality mitigating strategy is to tell yourself that death is no big deal. In fact, death is nothing. The Greek philosopher Epicurus (341–270 BCE) writes, “You should accustom yourself to believing that death means nothing to us, since every good and every evil lies in sensation; but death is the privation of sensation.”2 Epicurus continues, “This, the most horrifying of evils, means nothing to us, then, because so long as we are existent, death is not present and whenever it is present we are not-existent.”3 This is often abbreviated “When we are here death is not. When death is here we are not.” In other words, Epicurus rejects Socrates and Plato’s belief in the immortality of the soul and defines “dead” to mean “does not exist.” If you don’t exist, then in a sense you are not dead — or at least, you can’t experience death because you no longer exist.
Similarly, Sam Harris tells an audience of 4,000 atheists at a Big Think conference in Australia,
The good news of atheism, the gospel of atheism, is essentially nothing, that nothing happens after death. There’s nothing to worry about, there’s nothing to fear, when after you die you are returned to that nothingness that you were before you were born. Now this proposition is very difficult to understand and most people seem to mistake nothing with something….If we are right and nothing happens after death, death therefore is not a problem. Life is the problem.4
Philosopher Victor Stenger (1935–2014), in his book The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason, agrees: “I made my own independent study of Eastern philosophy….I find that when stripped of any implication of supernaturalism I agree with Harris that Eastern philosophers uncovered some unique insights into humanity and the human mind….The sages’ teachings are marked by selflessness and calm acceptance of the nothingness after death” (emphasis added).5 We will talk about these “sages” shortly.
Similarly, former Christian but now skeptic Bart D. Ehrman, in answer to someone who asked whether death was “terrifying” and how to “get over” that fear, replies on his Facebook page, “Now my view is that death is the end of the story. We didn’t exist with consciousness before we were born. And we won’t exist with consciousness after we die.” Thus, continues Ehrman, the thought of death “does not greatly bother me anymore. It’s the reality of life.” In fact, he says the recognition of his death makes him “more inclined to live life to the fullest, now, in the present….We should enjoy life every bit as much as we can now, and see that others can do the same.”6 Emeritus Stanford professor of psychiatry, Irvin D. Yalom, gushes about Epicurus, “The more I learn about this extraordinary Athenian thinker, the more strongly I recognize Epicurus as the proto-existential psychotherapist.”7 Yalom says, “Generally I introduce the ideas of Epicurus early in my work with patients suffering from death terror.”8
Of course, most people will remain horrified by the idea of their nonexistence, but then Epicureans appeal to what is called the symmetry, or mirror, argument. The symmetry argument is that it didn’t bother you to not exist before you were born, so why would it bother you to not exist after you’re dead? These are, the Epicureans say, mirror images. Indeed, there was the popular Roman saying, found engraved on some ancient tombstones, “Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo” (I was not; I was; I am not; I do not care). Arthur Schopenhauer writes, “If what makes death seem so terrible to us were the thought of not being, we would necessarily think with equal horror of the time when as yet we were not. For it is irrefutably certain that not being after death cannot be different from not being before birth, and consequently is also no more deplorable.”9 The Epicurean philosopher Lucretius puts it this way: “Why do you not depart like a banqueter who is sated with life, and embrace untroubled quiet with a calm mind, you fool?”10
Mark Twain regularly mocked Christianity and put the best spin on the Epicurean argument:
Annihilation has no terrors for me, because I have already tried it before I was born — a hundred million years — and I have suffered more in an hour, in this life, than I remember to have suffered in the whole hundred million years put together. There was a peace, a serenity, an absence of all sense of responsibility, an absence of worry, an absence of care, grief, perplexity; and the presence of a deep content and unbroken satisfaction in that hundred million years of holiday which I look back upon with a tender longing and with a grateful desire to resume, when the opportunity comes.11
Although we’ll talk about this more later, notice that Twain and the philosophers hope for annihilation. The Epicurean answer is that you need to think differently about what it means to be dead. As Epicurus puts it, when death is “present we are not-existent.” Indeed, if death is annihilation, then when you are dead, you no longer exist. Christians who abandon the doctrine of eternal punishment encourage the atheist that his desire for the future will be granted. But what if there is eternal punishment?12
It’s the Loss of Life That’s Troubling
Even if there weren’t eternal punishment, should the atheist be consoled? It’s not surprising that many have challenged the philosophical illuminati that death is in no way bad for the one who dies. One common objection is that if the Epicurean doesn’t think it is bad to be dead, then the Epicurean must have no objection to being painlessly murdered (Epicureans agree that pain while you’re living is a bad thing). But almost everyone would object to being murdered even if it was painless. Philosopher Thomas Nagel is right to point out that if the Epicureans are correct that death is annihilation, where one has no negative sensations, it isn’t “the state of being dead, or nonexistent, or unconscious, that is objectionable” but “the loss of life.”13
I’m going to borrow from Nagel regarding the symmetry argument. Suppose you were told that you would soon be reduced to having the mental capacity of a contented infant, and you would be happy as long you had a full stomach and a dry diaper. If you were once a contented infant and soon you would again be a contented infant, how would you receive that news? I doubt you, dear reader, or anyone else, would find the symmetry argument any comfort whatsoever. Now, it’s true that the contented infant — regardless of whether he or she was once a fully functioning, intelligent adult — would still be happy, but for you, the intelligent, purposeful adult, this would appear to be one of the greatest tragedies imaginable.
Nagel clarifies that “this does not mean that a contented infant is unfortunate. The intelligent adult who has been reduced to this condition is the subject of the misfortune. He is the one we pity.”14 Nagel continues, “It is true that both the time before a man’s birth and the time after his death are times when he does not exist. But the time after his death is time of which his death deprives him.”15 A person’s death “is an abrupt cancellation of indefinitely extensive possible goods.”16 Nagel is right that “it can be said that life is all we have and the loss of it is the greatest loss we can sustain.”17 Similarly, David Benatar says, “Each individual, speaking in the first person, can say: ‘My death obliterates me. Not only am I deprived of future goods but I am also destroyed. This person, about whom I care so much, will cease to exist. My memories, values, beliefs, perspectives, hopes — my very self — will come to an end, and for all eternity.’”18
No wonder Vladimir Nabokov (1899–1977), the great Russian American novelist, begins his autobiography, Speak, Memory, with these lines: “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour).”19 Indeed, people like the idea of being alive, and if they didn’t think they would ever die, then they would like being alive even more. Death is the ultimate offense to godhood fantasies. Bauman calls death the “scandal, the ultimate humiliation of reason. It saps the trust in reason and the security that reason promises. It loudly declares reason’s lie.”20 Bauman calls mortality the “ultimate offence against human omnipotence.”21 Indeed, that you can die and decay is the ultimate blow to your self-esteem. It’s hard to think you’re “all that” when your body is going to be eaten by worms.
Consider that Epicurus made it his life’s work to tell his disciples, and the world, that he didn’t fear death and neither should anyone else. But did he succeed in not fearing death? Consider that Epicurus died horribly. Nonetheless, he writes, “Passing a delightful day, which will also be the last of my life, I write you this note. Dysentery and an inability to urinate have occasioned the worst possible sufferings. But a counterweight to all this is the joy in my heart when I remember our conversations.”22 People tell me that kidney stones (the probable cause) are one of the most painful things a person can endure. Imagine what not being able to urinate at all must have felt like! Add to that the severe diarrhea and abdominal cramps caused by dysentery. So I ask you, does it make sense for him to write “Passing a delightful day”? Does that ring psychologically true, or does this sound like the philosophical propaganda of someone who is trying to secure a symbolic immortality by proclaiming to everyone that he didn’t fear death like a true philosopher? After all, those who faced death boldly in ancient Greece were considered philosophical Jedis, so if Epicurus had these fears, would he have admitted them? Who is to say that while he lay there, he didn’t fear the loss of the only thing he had, which was his own existence? How often did he repeat, in mantra fashion, “Death is nothing to us, death is nothing to us, death is nothing to us”?
Psychology professors Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski write that although Epicurean arguments are “worthy of serious consideration,” the
Epicurean efforts to eliminate death anxiety on rational grounds have been spectacularly unsuccessful to date. People have not changed that much in the last three thousand years; they remain steadfastly disinclined to die, and passionately devoted to acquiring literal and symbolic immortality. Death — “the undiscovered country,” as Hamlet portrayed it, from which “no traveler returns” — is, for self-conscious creatures, too terrifying to stop worrying about. Death anxiety may not be rational — but neither are we.23
Apparently his future nonexistence wasn’t enough for Epicurus, since he formed his existence around his teaching, started a school to propagate it, and left a will providing for the school’s continuance.24 That’s quite a symbolic immortality project. But as was pointed out above, maybe the fear of death is all too rational, since our being alive is the only thing we possess.
Here’s the last paragraph of the last page of Duke University philosopher Alex Rosenberg’s book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions: “Epicurus wasn’t right when he argued that understanding the nature of reality is by itself enough to make a person happy. Alas, some people do get everything right about the universe and our place in it and remain dissatisfied…they are still troubled.” So what’s Rosenberg’s answer? Here’s the last sentence: “Take a Prozac or your favorite serotonin reuptake inhibitor, and keep taking them till they kick in.”25 So Rosenberg’s presumably sober advice for dealing with death fears is “Get high!”
Clay Jones is associate professor in the master of arts in Christian apologetics program at Biola University and specializes in issues related to why God allows evil. His most recent reflections can be found at www.clayjones.net.
- Clay Jones, Immortal: How the Fear of Death Drives Us and What We Can Do About It (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2020), 108–113, and the last paragraph is from 157–158.
- Epicurus, “Letter to Menoeceus,” in The Art of Happiness, trans. George K. Strodach and Daniel Klein (New York: Penguin, 2012), 156.
- Epicurus, “Letter to Menoeceus,” 156–57.
- “Sam Harris: On Death,” YouTube video uploaded by Big Think, June 2, 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d_Uahu9XNzU (accessed June 28, 2018).
- Victor J. Stenger, The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2009), 30.
- “Bart D. Ehrman Author Page,” Facebook, September 18, 2016, https://www.facebook.com/AuthorBartEhrman/posts/1210103929061399 (accessed June 29, 2018).
- Irvin D. Yalom, Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death (San Francisco: Wiley, 2008), 2.
- Yalom, Staring at the Sun, 82.
- S. Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Idea, vol. 3 (1883; repr., London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1948), 253.
- Lucretius, On the Nature of Things 3.935, trans. Walter Englert (Newburyport, MA: Focus, 2003), 87.
- Mark Twain, Autobiography of Mark Twain, vol. 2, ed. Benjamin Griffin and Harriet Elinor Smith (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 69.
- Editor’s Note: Elsewhere in his book Immortal, Clay Jones discusses and defends the doctrine of eternal punishment (chapter five) and offers evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ (chapter six), which further establishes the veracity of the doctrine of eternal punishment. See also his book Why Does God Allow Evil?: Compelling Answers for Life’s Toughest Questions (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2017), in which he addresses the question “How can eternal punishment be fair?” See also Robert A. Peterson, “The Dark Side of Eternity: Hell as Eternal Conscious Punishment,” Christian Research Journal, 30, 4 (2007), https://www.equip.org/article/the-dark-side-of-eternity-hell-as-eternal-conscious-punishment/.
- Thomas Nagel, Mortal Questions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 3.
- Nagel, Mortal Questions, 5–6.
- Nagel, Mortal Questions, 7.
- Nagel, Mortal Questions, 10.
- Nagel, Mortal Questions, 1.
- David Benatar, The Human Predicament: A Candid Guide to Life’s Biggest Questions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 104.
- Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (New York: Vintage, 1989), 19.
- Zigmunt Bauman, Mortality, Immortality, and Other Life Strategies (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992), 15.
- Bauman, Mortality, Immortality, and Other Life Strategies, 161.
- Diogenes Laërtius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, trans. Pamela Mensch, ed. James Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 500. Some consider Epicurus’s letter to be a pro-Epicurean forgery intended to portray Epicurus in the best light, but it is possible that it is legitimate — or maybe Epicurus wrote it to let the world know that his philosophy was still intact.
- Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski, The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life (New York: Random House, 2015), 217.
- Martha C. Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 495–96.
- Alex Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011), 315.