Facing death-9: The fear of dying alone

In the previous post in this series, I discussed the fear of death that arises from thinking that one will not be remembered by posterity and that this implies that one’s life did not matter. This can drive people to acquire great wealth and fame hoping that this will ensure that their names will live on.

A more disturbing manifestation of this dread are those people who, even if they firmly believe they will go to heaven and have eternal life, still resent the fact that the world will go on without them. They want the world to end along with them. They want history to end when they do. These are the people with an apocalyptic worldview, such as those awaiting the Rapture, the Hale-Bopp comet, or other end-of-the-world scenarios. I always found it a little weird that such people seem to be actually enjoying the prospect of an imminent end to the world, eagerly relishing the thought of some cataclysmic event that will destroy the world and all its inhabitants in one go.

They may say that what they are really looking forward to is the return of Jesus or some such nonsense but there has always seemed to be more to it than that. Such people seem to think the end of the world is actually a good thing, something to be desired. People like John Hagee of the group Christians United For Israel seem to eagerly seize on any political and human crisis as signs that the end is near. This is why such apocalyptic people always predict that the end of the world is just around the corner, say the next week or month or year but at the very least within their own lifetimes. It is not enough for them that the world will end some day in the future, which of course it will when the Sun burns itself out millions of years from now. They want it to happen while they are still alive, preferably when they are old and have already had the satisfaction of having lived long lives. They will not be satisfied if you tell them it will occur in a hundred or thousand years because the desire to see Jesus come again is merely secondary. What they really want is for the world to not go on without them and they draw some comfort from the belief that when they die, the world, and history, will also end. They are like spoiled children who, if they cannot play some game, want to make sure that no one else does either.

These are not just harmless crackpot beliefs. They have consequences. For example, take climate change. The late Jerry Falwell said that God will maintain the Earth until Christ’s second coming, so although Christians should be responsible environmentalists, they shouldn’t devolve into what he calls “first-class nuts.” Since Jesus is coming soon, you really don’t need to worry about the long term effects on the Earth, just take care of the immediate needs.

And such people are not some marginal fringe, especially in America. According to Bill Moyers, “A 2002 Time/CNN poll found that 59 percent of Americans believe that the prophecies found in the Book of Revelations are going to come true.” According to Newsweek, “A majority (55%) believe in “the Rapture,” that before the world ends the religiously faithful will be saved and taken to Heaven; and more than a third( 36%) say the Bible’s book of Revelation is a “true prophesy” that predicts the end of the world as it will happen”.

Why America should be so welcoming of such crackpot thinking is puzzling. They cannot even take pride that this idiotic idea is home grown. Barbara R. Rossing in her book The Rapture Exposed says that the particular form of the apocalyptic vision that seems so appealing to many American Christians these days was originated quite recently, by a nineteenth century Scottish evangelist named John Darby.

It is likely that the appeal of the Rapture has its roots in the fear of dying alone. Death is the ultimate lonely act. For those of us who do not believe in an afterlife or heaven or hell, we may feel deep regret at dying which can manifest itself in a strong desire to live as long as possible but there is no palpable fear of dying, the way that religious people may feel, of not being sure what lies ahead for us. And when it comes to facing fearful situations, it is easier to do so in a crowd than alone, so the idea of everyone dying together may appeal to some so that one has company while making the journey into the great unknown.


  1. Paulo Borges says

    One of the most intriguing aspects of humankind is how we believe.
    Do we really believe or we just pretend to ourselves to believe? Can we believe by proxy, meaning that if someone else believes it the same? Why is belief contagious? Why are we afraid of the death if we really believe and therefore know what is going to happen?
    I tend more and more to see these extreme religious behaviors as a passage a l’acte , people needing to prove that they really believe in what ever they must believe, not to a god but mostly to themselves. In this sense their actions are not the expression of real belief.
    The fear of death comes here as the final exam on one’s beliefs, from where there is no escape of the justice of the grade, no appeal or complaint. For the first time and last time, we a forced to confront the reality of who we are, in the ultimate state of loneliness, where incidentally we also find true freedom.

  2. leni says

    “A majority (55%) believe in “the Rapture,” that before the world ends the religiously faithful will be saved and taken to Heaven; and more than a third( 36%) say the Bible’s book of Revelation is a “true prophesy” that predicts the end of the world as it will happen”.

    That is actually scarier than my dying alone phobia, which involves having a stroke while I’m off work for an extended period of time. I’m not saying I’ve planned for this, but let’s just say I don’t leave my cat’s food in a place he can’t get to if he really needs it. Hopefully he’ll go for that before me. (Though if he does it’s ok. I won’t notice if he does, but kitty kibble first is better.)

    I can talk myself down from those fears and leave the kibble in an accessible place, but that 55%? I have nothing but the fear that I am stuck on a planet filled with misanthropes who would like nothing better than for everyone “good” to die. That is a little bit terrifying.

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