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A puzzle for believers in an afterlife

Death has dominated the news recently, first with Terri Schiavo and then the Pope, whose funeral was today. It is perhaps inevitable that this has caused practically everyone to think, however briefly, about how they would like to die and what kinds of steps they would like to have taken if they should be incapacitated towards the end of their lives.

Robert Friedman, an editor of the St. Petersburg Times, has a funny take on it that I recommend reading.

But lost in the news was the fact that evangelical leader Reverend Jerry Falwell lost consciousness briefly recently and was hospitalized twice for pneumonia. After he recovered, he gave an interview to CNN where he compared his case to that of Terri Schiavo’s situation and also made his own wishes known. He said “I’ve already given my living will. Don’t you dare pull the plug on me. I want to wake up in 14 years and say, “What day is it? What time is it?””

Falwell’s decision that he would want all the stops pulled out to keep him alive as long as possible puzzles me. Having grown up in the Christian tradition, and having been around many evangelical, born-again Christians throughout my own life, it seems to me that a basic belief among them is that this life on Earth is merely a stepping-stone to a much, much better eternal life after death, and that if one is born-again, then one is guaranteed to enter heaven to enjoy that good life. In fact, they go out of their way to describe this life as temporary, full of misery and sin, and generally pretty awful, and that death is a welcome release from it.

Country and western singer Jim Reeves summed it up when he sang (and I am quoting from memory):

Across the bridge, there’s no more sorrow
Across the bridge, there’s no more pain
The sun will shine across the river
And you’ll never be unhappy again

So I am genuinely puzzled as to why, given that view, one would want to postpone death at all costs. If any readers of this blog can share their insights, I would appreciate it.

Let me be clear: I am not questioning Falwell’s personal decision to be want to be kept alive at all costs. That is his right and one has to accept it. I can also understand why one should not kill oneself just because one thinks the afterlife is going to be wonderful. That is also not the question.

The question is why someone who fervently believes that the next life is everlasting and far better than this one, and that she or he is guaranteed to enjoy the afterlife because they are born again Christians (or an equivalent reason), would want to hold on to this life at all costs, when it seems fairly clear that the end of one’s life is near and that it can only be prolonged at the price of barely existing, with prolonged sadness for one’s loved ones.

Falwell seems to think that, against all the odds, he might one day recover and be fully functioning again. But why would someone who is in that situation prefer those tiny odds to the certainty of going to heaven, if getting there has been your goal all along?

I have mixed feelings about the Pope’s legacy. I agreed with his stance on some things and disagreed with others. (Juan Cole has a nice compilation of quotes and stories about the Pope that captures the complexity of the Pope’s message on a whole range of issues. And Justin Raimondo also weighs in on his legacy.) But I have to say that, to the extent that one can tell these things from a distance, he seemed to have been at peace with himself when he died. He seemed to know the end was near, he seemed to feel that he had lived his life fully, and he seemed to be accepting of death and ready for whatever awaited him after that.

Given his stature and resources, there is no doubt that he could have ordered extraordinary steps to be taken to try and keep him alive if he had so desired. But he seemed to choose not to and it was a graceful way to die.

And whatever else one thinks of him, one must admire him for that.

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