September 09, 2016
The Bible tells us that our allotted span is threescore years and ten. Advances in medicine and public health”sanitation, for example”have made nonsense of this in the developed countries of the West where life expectancy is being pushed well up into the 80s, at least among the affluent. Nevertheless, there comes to each of us the day when we become aware that the grave is yawning or the crematorium doors are being held open. Benjamin Franklin famously declared that “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes,” and though Apple, Google, and many multinational corporations have made nonsense of that second certainty, the first remains inescapable. Someday the worms or the flames will have our body, and as you advance through your eighth decade, you can”t avoid the awareness that that day may be any day now. William Wordsworth wrote a great poem entitled “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” but it’s intimations of mortality that any stabbing chest pain or mysterious lump, or simply feeling bloody awful a lot of the time, is more likely to provoke. “Old age,” Charles de Gaulle wrote, “is a shipwreck,” or, as the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes has it, the day comes “when the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail.” Too bad, in other words.
Mortality? Immortality? The question hangs over us all. It did so even in the centuries when religious faith went largely unquestioned. As Andrew Marvell, 17th-century poet, reminded his “coy mistress””his playing-hard-to-get girl, we might say now: “The grave’s a fine and private place/But none, I think, do there embrace.” Too true they don”t. Nevertheless, Marvell, like almost everybody of his time, surely believed in the immortality of the soul, life after death, even (probably) the resurrection of the body. Read the bloody annals of history, and time and again you find men and women going to death on the scaffold confident that this wasn”t the end. The Scots royalist general, the Marquess of Montrose, in lines written the night before his execution in 1650, anticipated that his body would be dismembered and his ashes scattered, yet declared, “Lord! since thou know’st where all these atoms are, I”m hopeful Thou”lt recover once my dust, And confident Thou”lt raise me with the just.” A hundred years later one of the more notorious scoundrels in Scottish history, the octogenarian Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat, went serenely to have his head cut off on Tower Hill, declaring that he expected to be in paradise by noon”though there were some who thought that as a convicted traitor and unconvicted rapist, Lovat was more likely to find himself in the other place.
That was then. What about now? Some seventy years ago George Orwell wrote that the decline of belief in personal immortality was one of the most remarkable features of the 20th century. Clearly, as he admitted, the belief in life after death hadn”t quite disappeared. But the certainty had diminished. People might still recite the Apostles” Creed with its affirmation of belief in “the Resurrection of the Body and the Life Everlasting,” but did they believe as their forefathers had? Even bishops of the Church of England might, if pressed on the question, express no more than a belief in the survival of a sort of something after death.
You may think Orwell exaggerated. He probably did exaggerate. We all, surely, know people who believe with what appears to be absolute confidence in the immortality of the soul and the life everlasting. Moreover, even the most skeptical, attending a funeral service and listening to the words of the Bible or prayer book, are likely to be moved and, for a moment at least, to question their own skepticism, doubt their unbelief. Nevertheless, Orwell was right, at least to this extent: that the 20th century was the first in the Christian era in which agnosticism was common and atheism generally acceptable. The trend has accelerated since he wrote about it. Church attendance has continued to fall. The number of people who describe themselves as being of no faith has continued to rise. Belief in the immortality of the soul”let alone the resurrection of the body”continues to dwindle, and I find it hard to believe that many now agree with Peter Pan, who declared that “to die will be an awfully big adventure.”
This skepticism hasn”t invaded other religions, or at least not Islam. The readiness of Islamist suicide bombers to go happily, or at least willingly, to their death attests to their belief in an afterlife. Some may even eagerly look forward to the 76 virgins reputedly promised them in their Muslim paradise, no matter how unlikely it is that there can be quite so many dead virgins waiting there to welcome them. For many in the West, however, it is precisely this sort of belief that leads them to regard Islam as a backward religion.
Few of us, I would surmise, now imagine a future life in the old-fashioned sort of paradise with angels strumming harps and all that, even if we imagine any sort of life after death. Yet even if we retain some vestige of belief in a sort of heaven, we seem to have abandoned the idea of hell. There are doubtless still hellfire preachers who conjure up its horrors to thrill their congregation, but they are on the fringes. The established churches seem to have sidelined hell. This is curious if only because hell was, for most of the Christian era, imagined more vividly and precisely than heaven. Read Dante’s Inferno or look at the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, and you find a detailed representation of everlasting torment. For hundreds of years, as George Steiner wrote, “the imagination dwelt on the flaying, the racking, the mockery of the damned, in a place of whips and hell-hounds, of ovens and stinking air.” Devout Christians like Dr. Johnson were awestruck and terrified by the images and idea of hell. We may now mostly have thrust the idea of hell aside, though, as Steiner remarked, it was only when we no longer believed in hell after death that it was translated by the Nazis into the hell on earth of the death camps. Indeed hell on earth, hell in life, is an undeniable reality. Look at Syria today. Look at the devilish practices of ISIS.
For most of us in the West such horrors are, happily, confined to our television screens. They are things that happen, repulsively, appallingly, to other people. The prospect of our own death is different, and that prospect eventually becomes inescapable, either on account of some terminal illness or simply because of age. For decades you may never think of it, but unless you are suddenly carried off without warning, the day comes when you hear death shuffling up on you, when, if you don”t believe in an afterlife, you sense that the curtain is going to come down.