This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 43, number 2 (2020). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
Hebrews 2:15 tells us that those without Jesus are subject to “lifelong slavery” due to their “fear of death.” Indeed, today many non-Christian anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, and philosophers agree that all people, whether they acknowledge it or not, are terrified by the prospect of their deaths. These philosophers and social scientists also agree that people try to transcend their deaths by engaging in symbolic immortality projects. There are many symbolic immortality projects, including but certainly not limited to such things as having or adopting children, creating something of lasting value (writing a book, inventing a vaccine or an artificial heart, building a temple, painting a masterpiece), doing something heroic that will be remembered, engaging in social activism that we think will improve our culture for future generations, and becoming a celebrity or even becoming infamous (like serial killers). There are many other ways people try to symbolically live on and this gives people an ersatz salvation. Although social scientists and philosophers use the term “symbolic immortality projects,” these projects are really the gods of a secular society, and these gods cannot save. Also, these gods — these symbolic immortality projects — are harmful and, whether Christianity is true or not, they are incapable of giving immortality because if nothing else, the universe will ultimately plunge to absolute zero. Christianity, however, answers our greatest need because it promises us eternal life.
The Fear of Death
Christian philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal sums up the human condition in his Pensées: “Let us imagine a number of men in chains, and all condemned to death, where some are killed each day in the sight of others, and those who remain see their own fate in that of their fellows, and wait their turn, looking at each other sorrowfully and without hope. It is an image of the condition of men.”1 Today many philosophers, psychologists, anthropologists, and sociologists agree that humans are desperately afraid of dying. Psychology professors Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski write that if humans had an “ongoing awareness of their vulnerability and mortality,” they would be “twitching blobs of biological protoplasm completely perfused with anxiety and unable to effectively respond to the demands of their immediate surroundings.”2 Indeed, the Bible affirms this very thing. In Hebrews 2:14–15 we are told that Jesus died to “deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.”3 Therefore, except for those who have a robust belief in eternal life through Jesus, the fear of death holds everyone in “lifelong slavery.”
Symbolic Immortality Projects
Cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker writes that “the idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is the mainspring of human activity — activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man” (emphasis added).4 Later Becker says, “All culture, all man’s creative life-ways, are in some basic part of them a fabricated protest against natural reality, a denial of the truth of the human condition, and an attempt to forget the pathetic creature that man is” (emphasis added).5 Having children, writing a book, creating a work of art, building a skyscraper, or inventing a cure for cancer or COVID-19 can all serve as symbolic immortality projects.
Founder of The Skeptic Society and editor-in-chief of Skeptic magazine Michael Shermer agrees that “we live on nonetheless through our genes and our families, our loves and our friends, our work and our engagement with others, our participation in politics, the economy, society, and culture, and our contributions….we can all make a mark, however small” (emphasis added).6 Similarly, atheist Stephen Fry, in a video on Richard Dawkins’s website, asserts, “When we do die, we will live on in the work we have done and in the memories of the other people whose lives we have been a part of.”7
This isn’t new. In his Symposium, Plato writes that his muse, Diotima, says that if we think of “the ambition of men,” we “will marvel at their senselessness,” unless we “consider how they are stirred by the love of an immortality of fame.”8 People seek symbolic immortality in many ways.
The most common symbolic immortality attempts are through giving birth to or adopting children. Plato’s muse, Diotima, instructs him, “Marvel not then at the love which all men have of their offspring; for that universal love and interest is for the sake of immortality.”9 Similarly, philosopher Luc Ferry points out that “by having children, humans assure their ‘continuity’: becoming in a sense a part of the eternal cycle of nature, of a universe of things that can never die.10 Albert Einstein writes, “Our death is not an end if we can live on in our children and the younger generation. For they are us; our bodies are only wilted leaves on the tree of life.”11 In Greek mythology, Medea kills Jason’s children because that is “better than killing Jason himself — it is killing his chance for the immortality that comes through children.”12
Right up there with striving for immortality through procreation is striving for immortality through creating something that will outlive you. People are desperate to create something of lasting worth, such as writing a book, inventing a vaccine or an artificial heart, building a temple, painting a masterpiece, and so on. Miguel de Unamuno is characteristically blunt: “If the man who tells you that he writes, paints, sculptures, or sings for his own amusement, gives his work to the public, he lies; he lies if he puts his name to his writing, painting, statue, or song. He wishes, at the least, to leave behind a shadow of his spirit, something that may survive him.”13 Michelangelo (1475–1564) says, “No thought is born in me that has not ‘death’ engraved upon it.”14 Similarly, a Michelangelo contemporary, sculptor Benvenuto Cellini (1500–1571), writes, “Before I die I will leave such a witness to the world of what I can do as I shall make a score of mortals marvel.”15
Heroism is another way to obtain symbolic immortality. Ernest Becker writes that a fellow who may “throw himself on a grenade to save his comrades” must “feel and believe what he is doing is truly heroic, timeless, and supremely meaningful,” and says this striving for heroics in “passionate people” is “a screaming for glory as uncritical and reflexive as the howling of a dog.”16 By the way, jumping on a grenade is the only guaranteed way of being awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. A former Marine, in telling about a Marine who jumped on a grenade and survived, writes, “Anyone who has ever served in the armed forces has at times fantasized about performing a heroic deed and receiving the Medal….The Medal is a symbol of the nation’s gratitude toward those who have risked, or have given, all for the American ideal” (emphasis added).17 You know what else is an attempt at heroism? Being a famous atheist and proclaiming to a world terrified by death that you can stare at death’s jaws unafraid.
But it’s not easy to find a drowning child to save, so some people do extremely dangerous things to broadcast their heroism. One study reported that more than 250 people have been killed while taking selfies in dangerous situations.18 This is known as “dying for the ’gram” (short for Instagram).
Activism is another way to symbolically live on. Saving the environment, protecting the downtrodden, and fighting discrimination are all good things in themselves (obviously there’s also a lot of activism for evil causes like abortion), but if people see their participation in these causes as a means of accomplishing something supremely meaningful, then they will see their activism as transcending their deaths. The energy available for such immortality is virtually limitless. If I can’t live on, at least the culture to which I have contributed can, and anything that hinders that must be destroyed, or it will destroy my legacy. This explains why so many people aren’t just concerned about promoting their cause, they’re absolutely militant. Of course, COVID-19 magnifies people’s fear of death, so “making a difference” before you die becomes an emergency. After all, if the cause you’ve given your life to fails, then you’re dead-dead. Many causes are worth fighting for; but what often drives the activist’s zeal is self-love.
David Giles talks about the “Christian image of eternal salvation” and says that “the decline of religious faith in the West is in sharp contrast with the meteoric rise of celebrity culture.”19 Thus, many strive for their fifteen minutes of fame. In Irene Cara’s song “Fame,” she says that through fame, she will “live forever” — that she is going to be so wonderful, so famous, and so desirable, all will see her and “cry” (presumably because they would want to be her or be with her or have her). The song’s refrain calls for people to remember her name.20
Then there is this lesser type of fame. There’s the man with the longest fingernails on one hand (a combined length of 358.1 inches — yuck). Of course, that makes his left hand not useful for anything other than getting attention, but Rachel Swatman writes that “his dedication has paid off since he is officially recognised by Guinness World Records as the person with the longest fingernails on a single hand ever” (emphasis added).21 Wow, his not cutting his nails on his left hand since 1952 has “paid off”? Then there’s the record holders for the most toilet seats broken by one’s head in one minute (46 — what made him think he’d have a talent for this?), the most apples held in the mouth and cut by chainsaw in one minute (eight — yikes!), and so on.22 See the desperation?
Charles Lindbergh became the first person to complete a solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean on May 20–21, 1927. But Lindberg and his wife were struck with tragedy when their first child was kidnapped and murdered. The kidnapping garnered national attention and was called “the crime of the century.” Before police captured the actual killer, more than 200 people confessed to the crime.23 Such is the desire for attention — even bad attention.
Another infamy seeker was the BTK killer (short for bind, torture, kill). He murdered at least ten people from 1974 to 1991. But the BTK killer wasn’t getting the attention he craved, so in 1978, he sent a letter to Wichita, Kansas’s KAKE-TV, complaining, “How many do I have to kill before I get my name in the paper or some national attention?”24
These Projects Are Evil and Futile
There are many types of symbolic immortality projects that I write about in my book Immortal: How the Fear of Death Drives Us and What We Can Do About It (Harvest House, 2020) that I don’t have room to explicate here, such as ancestor veneration/ genealogy research, making a difference, correct belief, “want me,” fandom, “just spell my name right,” and victimhood — but they all fail. Seeking to make a name for yourself so that you can “live on” apart from the Creator is idolatry and fosters a profound selfishness in people as they strive to surpass their fellows.
The quest for symbolic immortality drives us to slander, ridicule, and gossip about those we perceive as being more glorious than ourselves. We’ll even injure or kill others if we think we can get away with it. Consider how many murders and wars have been waged because my family, my tribe, my country must triumph over your family, your tribe, or your country for my symbolic immortality to survive.
Also, if we do achieve a symbolic immortality — if we become great before men and women — this engenders jealousy, a loss of friendships, and even sometimes physical harm. Indeed, as novelist and political commentator Gore Vidal puts it, “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something inside me dies.”25 This is why tabloid journalism succeeds — we like our stars taken down a notch…or ten. Thus, if someone believes you hinder their immortality project, they can justify anything. After all, if one’s immortality is at stake, then lying here or there, cheating now and then, or even killing make self-interested sense. If there is no God who will one day judge us, who will give us the crown of life, then everything becomes subservient to our immortality projects. Philosopher Zygmunt Bauman writes, “All too often…the audacious dream of killing death turns into the practice of killing people.”26
Ultimately, all symbolic immortality projects fail. After all, symbolic immortality is only symbolic — when you die, you’re still dead. Symbolic immortality is a far cry from the real thing. As comedian Woody Allen puts it: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying.”27
Further, once the famous are dead, soon dies their fame. Andy Warhol (1928–87) coined the now famous phrase, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.” Ironically, at the 2004 Hollywood Oscars ceremony, Allstate Insurance ran an advertisement that began, “Someone once said, ‘Everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes.’” Warhol had been reduced to a “someone.”28
But there’s a much darker, colder, unrelenting problem for all symbolic immortality projects: if you believe there is no God, then you must also believe that all the stars in the entire universe will burn out, and the universe will go to absolute zero, a chilly –459.67 °F. As atheist Bertrand Russell acknowledged, “All the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.”29 If there is no God, then what’s the point? As philosopher Stephen Cave puts it, “No matter how great our glory, it could only ever be a postponement of oblivion.”30
But it gets worse — much worse. The ultimate emptiness of these symbolic immortality projects will be exposed when we all stand before the Creator to give an account of ourselves. Jesus warns, “Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28–29). And Paul tells us that when the Lord comes, He “will bring to light the things hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart” (1 Cor. 4:5). In the Creator’s opinion, doing a good act for selfish reasons profits nothing. So, Paul says, “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor. 13:3). Thus, doing things to make a name for yourself is eternally worthless — or rather, worthy of only condemnation!
The Christian Hope
Something that surprised me, while writing Immortal, is how often skeptics write that if Christianity were true, then it would fulfill our longing to escape death. Cave says reconciling the fact that we know we will die with our desire to live forever is something “Christianity achieved spectacularly well, with enormous consequences for the development of Western civilization.”31 Atheist Sam Harris acknowledges, “There’s no other story you can tell somebody who has just lost her daughter to cancer, say, to make her feel good. You know it is consoling to believe that the daughter was just taken up with Jesus and everyone is going to be reunited in a few short years. There’s no replacement for that.”32
Ferry writes: “What we would like above all is to be reunited with our loved ones, and, if possible, with their voices, their faces — not in the form of undifferentiated cosmic fragments, such as pebbles or vegetables. In this arena Christianity might be said to have used its big guns. It promises us no less than everything that we would wish for: personal immortality and the salvation of our loved ones.”33 Later, Ferry writes that “the Christian response to mortality, for believers at least, is without question the most ‘effective’ of all responses: it would seem to be the only version of salvation that enables us not only to transcend the fear of death, but also to beat death itself” (emphasis added).34 In fact, Ferry writes that Christianity’s doctrine of salvation “turns out to be ‘stronger than death.’”35
I began by quoting Pascal’s morbid depiction of the human condition. Thankfully, Pascal was a sincere Christian. After he died, a servant found this message sewed into Pascal’s favorite jacket: “‘Righteous Father, the world has not known You, but I have known You…’ Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy…‘This is eternal life, that they know you, the one and true God, and the one whom you have sent, Jesus Christ.’”36 Pascal indeed found the true cure for the human condition: eternal life in Jesus!
Clay Jones is Visiting Scholar at Talbot School of Theology and is the author of such books as Why Does God Allow Evil? Compelling Answers for Life’s Toughest Questions (Harvest House, 2017) and Immortal: How the Fear of Death Drives Us and What We Can Do About It (Harvest House, 2020), from which this article is adapted. www.clayjones.net
- Blaise Pascal, Pensées, 199, trans. W. F. Trotter (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2018), 60.
- Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski, “Tales from the Crypt: On the Role of Death in Life,” Zygon 33, no. 1 (March 1998): 12, http://plaza.ufl.edu/phallman/terror%20management%20theory/312997.pdf.
- Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version.
- Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York: Free Press, 1973), xvii.
- Becker, The Denial of Death, 32–33.
- Michael Shermer, Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia (New York: Henry Holt, 2018), 244.
- Stephen Fry, “What Should We Think About Death?,” Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, July 25, 2014, https://www.richarddawkins.net/2014/07/what-shouldwe-think-about-death/ (1:40).
- Plato, Symposium, trans. Benjamin Jowett (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2007), 170.
- Plato, Symposium, in Symposium and Phaedrus, trans. Benjamin Jowett (Mineola, NY: Dover, 1993), 31.
- Luc Ferry, A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living, trans. Theo Cuffe (New York: Harper, 2010), 34.
- Albert Einstein, “Letter to Dutch Physicist Heike Kamerlingh-Onne’s Widow,” February 25, 1926, quoted in Stephen Cave, Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization (New York: Crown, 2012), 230.
- Bennett Simon, Tragic Drama and the Family: Psychoanalytic Studies from Aeschylus to Beckett (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), 92.
- Miguel de Unamuno, Tragic Sense of Life: Philosophical Thoughts on Life, Death, Adversity, Consciousness, Religion and the Personal Achievement of Authenticity, trans. J. E. Crawford Flitch (Mineola, NY: Dover, 1954), 97.
- This is widely attributed to Michelangelo.
- Benvenuto Cellini, The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, trans. John Addington Symonds (New York: P.F. Collier, 1910), 379.
- Becker, The Denial of Death, 6.
- Jesse Brannam, “The Bravest of the Brave,” Subvetpaul.com, n.d., https://web.archive.org/web/20170423134645/http://www.subvetpaul.com/Bravest.html.
- Agam Bansal et al., “Selfies: A Boon or Bane?,” Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care 7, no. 4 (July–August 2018): 828–31, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6131996/.
- David Giles, Illusions of Immortality: A Psychology of Fame and Celebrity (New York: Saint Martin’s, 2000), 49.
- Irene Cara, “Fame,” on Fame Soundtrack, 1980, RSO Records.
- Rachel Swatman, “Check Out the Longest Fingernails Ever in Shridhar Chillal’s Record Holder Profile Video,” Guinness World Records, September 29, 2015, http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/news/2015/9/record-holder-profile-video-shridhar-chillaland-the-longest-fingernails-ever-398817.
- Asher Fogle, “23 of the Weirdest Guinness World Records Ever,” Good Housekeeping, August 27, 2015, http://www.goodhousekeeping.com/life/entertainment/g2720/guinnessworld-records-60th-anniversary/; Olivia B. Waxman, “17 of the Strangest Guinness World Records of All Time,” Time, August 27, 2015, http://time.com/4013095/guinnessworld-records-60th-anniversary-weirdest/.
- Saul M. Kassin and Lawrence S. Wrightsman, The American Jury on Trial: Psychological Perspectives (New York: Routledge, 2012), 89.
- Caroline Shively and the Associated Press, “Wichita Police: ‘BTK Is Arrested,’” Fox News, February 26, 2005, http://www.foxnews.com/story/2005/02/26/wichita-police-btk-isarrested.html.
- Sunday Times Magazine, September 16, 1973, as quoted in Elizabeth Knowles, ed., Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations, 3rd edition (Oxford: OUP, 2007), 325.
- Zygmunt Bauman, Mortality, Immortality, and Other Life Strategies (Stanford: SUP, 1992), 160.
- Eric Lax, On Being Funny: Woody Allen and Comedy (New York: Charterhouse, 1975), 232.
- Orville Gilbert Brim, Jr., Look at Me! The Fame Motive from Childhood to Death (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2009), 136.
- Bertrand Russell, “The Free Man’s Worship,” in Russell: The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell, ed. Robert E. Egner and Lester E. Denonn (New York: Routledge, 2009), 39.
- Cave, Immortality, 224.
- Cave, Immortality, 100.
- “Sam Harris on Death,” Big Think, January 29, 2008, https://bigthink.com/videos/sam-harris-on-death.
- Ferry, A Brief History of Thought, 51–52.
- Ferry, A Brief History of Thought, 90.
- Ferry, A Brief History of Thought, 91.
- Albert N. Wells, Pascal’s Recovery