Staring Into The Abyss


John Danaher, one of the greatest Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu instructors of all time, gave a fascinating interview where he opined on death and the meaning of life. Danaher’s background is in philosophy—he dropped out of a PhD program at Columbia when he fell in love with martial arts and decided to teach grappling rather than philosophy—and he is a materialist atheist. Danaher was asked if he was afraid of death. After giving a biological explanation that every part of the human body is “programmed” (by whom?) to keep living and avoid death, Danaher turned to the deeper question and calmly answered “no.” He explained that there was a time before his birth where he did not exist, and he was not afraid then. And there will be a time when the body dies and he will return to non-existence. He confidently opines that there is no reason to fear non-existence after death any more than to look back with terror on the time before one’s conception when he did not exist.

The materialist attempt to reconcile with the inevitability of death is not new. The Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius understood the one great question about life: “either there is providence or atoms.” Either there is a spiritual reality, a life beyond this earth, or there is not. Aurelius—himself a believer in providence, not merely atoms—attempts to reconcile the human mind to the concept of death, whether there is an afterlife or not: “to go away from among men, if there are gods, is not a thing to be afraid of, for the gods will not involve thee in evil; but if indeed they do not exist, or if they have no concern about human affairs, what is it to me to live in a universe devoid of gods or devoid of Providence?” This view that it is not worth clinging to a meaningless life devoid of God is slightly different from Danaher’s “I can’t be afraid when I don’t exist, so why be afraid of non-existence” approach. But both views attempt to calmly accept the possibility of eternal non-existence.

These two materialist attempts to deal with death seem to be the best one can do to live in the world as an atheist without a crippling, constant anxiety. One can calmly state that non-existence does not hurt, that we were once non-existent and there was no fear then. Or one can say that if there is no God, no providence, no meaning to life, then there is no reason to want to cling to this meaningless life anyway. Perhaps this allows one to cope and function. But it is hard to see how one can truly embrace life, find meaning, and thrive in the world if the ultimate end is nothingness. Existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre seem to deny any sort of life after this world and still seek to create their own meaning. But are any of these outlooks really convincing and satisfying to the nonbeliever?

One can’t know the inner lives of atheists and determine whether such people are truly convicted of and at peace with death as eternal non-existence. But it is hard for the believer to accept this. Anecdotally, the thought of death and eternal non-existence nearly drove me to despair as a teenager. Sartre wrote two years before his death: “I think of death only with tranquility, as an end. I refuse to let death hamper life. Death must enter life only to define it.” I don’t buy it. Perhaps some people truly possess a different mind or soul and are able to face eternal death and non-existence with tranquility. But it seems that terror in the face of such a notion is part of what it is to be human, to possess consciousness, life, and reason. Aristotle captures what should be the universal experience when facing death: “Now death is the most terrible of all things; for it is the end, and nothing is thought to be any longer either good or bad for the dead.” It is human to tremble at death. To face nothingness with such calm seems more likely to be a mask than an inner reality.

Throughout much of human history, the default philosophical position was that God existed, that creation was intelligently designed and ordered, that the human person possessed an immaterial soul, and that death was not the end of man’s consciousness and existence. Since the Enlightenment, a shift occurred where intellectuals increasingly posited a scientific materialism: everything that exists in the world can be explained by atoms and physics and chemical reactions, and all previous appeals to the existence of God, spirit, and the immortal soul were based on man’s lack of scientific understanding.

Plenty has been written about the errors of Enlightenment-era materialism. Clearly, fundamental categorical mistakes have been made about what science is (and is not) capable of doing. If science is properly the process of studying and observing the material world, it is absurd for people to claim that they do not believe in God because of science. Science has no means of observing, studying, or knowing the immaterial realities of God and spirit. Yet the baffling claim that the study of the material world has somehow disproved the existence of the immaterial world has taken hold.

What is most surprising about the modern state of things is not that so many intellectuals have created and adopted a materialist atheism, but that so many ordinary folks seem to have accepted this view so unquestioningly. Let the academy debate whether Aquinas’ five proofs are philosophically sound or whether science is out of its element trying to speak of God. But what has happened to normal people? Even if there are now a plethora of experts, sages, scholars, and scientists telling the population that science explains everything and that there is no need to believe in medieval notions of God and the soul, it is disturbing to observe so little fear, so little gravity, accompanying the average person’s decision to accept life in materialistic terms.

Doesn’t the human mind, the very depths of the human soul, shudder an existential shudder at the thought that there is nothing after death? Even for the believer, a person living here in space and time is not able to grasp what eternity is like: what does it mean to live, to exist (or not to exist) forever? That “forever” should scare us. Facing such questions should be like standing at the edge of a precipice, before an abyss so deep and dark that one cannot see the bottom. Pascal, reflecting on the depth of human thought and existence, expresses the fear well: “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.” The question of whether God exists, whether we who possess consciousness will remain conscious beings forever or be snuffed out into non-being after death, should not be easily cast aside. Shouldn’t we approach these things with fear and trembling, with the idea that these are deadly serious questions?

Every person who lives should not let this reality go unexamined: eternal non-existence is dark and terrifying. Even blessed eternal life, where pain and suffering are wiped away, is quite frightening. If there is life after bodily death, there are profound questions concerning how one ought to act in this short life to obtain happiness in the next. And if there is no life after bodily death, accepting that should have a profound impact on what one believes and how one lives as well. To be clear, I hold that belief in God, in a spiritual reality, in the existence of an immaterial soul, and therefore of life after bodily death is both the better, healthier belief for human living and the more reasonable one. But that aside, it is crucial that people do not live the shallow life that never even considers the question.

In reflecting on the reality of death, eternity, and the consequences of materialism, it is important not to flippantly prefer materialist atheism simply because it is the philosophy du jour. After all, if the believer is correct, then the way one believes and lives has drastic, even eternal, consequences. If the materialist non-believer is correct, if we all return to non-existence after bodily death, then we only have a short life to live, and it doesn’t really matter what we think or what we do between now and the moment of death. Therefore, it is quite dangerous that so many people default to materialist atheism, to non-belief. The benefits are minimal—some freedom to engage in hedonism in this short life, perhaps. But the potential consequences are eternal. It seems reasonable that man, with his infinite longings and natural dread of non-existence, should want to believe. One would think that Pascal’s Wager would lead more people to prefer belief to unbelief: if God and eternity are real, belief or unbelief have profound, eternal consequences. If God and eternity are not real, it makes no difference what one believes in the end. Why doesn’t modern man default towards belief rather than unbelief?

The rampant atheistic materialism that has infected the academy for centuries now has created a cultural climate that encourages the cavalier disregard of non-material realities to spread. Generations of students have been trained to believe nothing that science cannot verify. But perhaps the deeper problem is not what we are taught in school but what our senses experience on a daily basis.

For most of human history, man lived among the marvels of God’s creation. When one rises with the sun, works in the farms and fields, is surrounded by mountains and trees, feels the gentle breeze, takes shelter from the raging storms, listens to birdsong and the babbling of brooks, and observes the might of the roaring ocean, it is much easier to be open to the glory of God and man’s humble place in creation. Living naturally disposes man to receive the reality of God, the soul, and eternity. The beauty and order of the world somehow point toward eternal realities.

Contrast that with modern life, especially city life. Buildings wall off the landscape and block the natural breeze. Telephone poles and electric wires interfere with the view of the pristine horizon. Birds rarely chirp, engines roar. One feels, not grass and dirt, but rubber-soled shoes and concrete beneath his feet. From birth in a brightly lit hospital building to death in a nursing home staring at a flashing television screen, man risks living his life surrounded by the work of his own hands. If man’s vision and his ears are constantly filled with the lights, sights, sounds, and screens of his own making, it is much easier to believe that there is nothing in this world but what man has created for himself. And if man has created everything there is, then when man dies there is nothing.

As Socrates said while facing his own imminent death in the Apology, the unexamined life is not worth living. Man must face the reality of his own existence and his ultimate fate. To stare into the abyss of eternity, to examine and grasp the meaning of life, is a necessity. Otherwise, we merely meander through this life, consuming goods and staring at screens, waiting for an inevitable death we have not even considered.

Even if one ultimately accepts the statements of men like Danaher that non-existence is simply not a big deal and that we shouldn’t fear it, one certainly should not accept this lightly. The materialist conclusion is in no way obvious, and the consequences are profound. Despite what the existentialists may say, materialism leads to a view of life as pointless, death as meaningless, our ultimate end as non-existence.

All men should face the reality of death and eternity openly and honestly. Do not be afraid to stare into the abyss. But in doing so, let us lean into the reality that our natural reason, particularly when informed by life outside human-manufactured artifacts, can access: that life is created, meaningful, God-given, and eternal. Thankfully, it is not nothingness but God’s eternal truth, goodness, beauty, and being that lie on the other side.

Image Credit: Philips Augustijn Immenraet, “Temptation of Christ” (1663) via Picryl



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Exit mobile version