Radically different views of Death

A couple months ago I received an email from someone who stumbled onto TempleStudy.com.  It read in part,

[The Bible] is purely a creation of man to placate the ego’s fear of death and nothing more. All religion was invented to buffer the ego against the fear of death.

That’s certainly one way to think of death.  Another way to think of it is that religion gives meaning to life and death.  Hugh Nibley often quoted a poem by A.E. Housman about man’s preoccupation with death:

. . . men at whiles are sober
And think by fits and starts,
And if they think, they fasten
Their hands upon their hearts.1

The prominent literary scholar Harold Bloom once said,

What is the essence of religion? … Religion rises inevitably from our apprehension of our own death. To give meaning to meaninglessness is the endless quest of all religion.2

I recently came upon two vastly different modes of thinking about death.  The juxtaposition of these two starkly different views is very interesting.  

Raymond Kurzweil

Raymond Kurzweil

Raymond Kurzweil

Ray Kurzweil is an American author, inventor, entrepreneur, scientist, and well-known futurist.  He’s been instrumental in the fields of OCR, text-to-speech synthesis, the flatbed scanner, speech recognition, and electronic musical keyboards.

He’s also on a quest to abolish death.  He takes 150 pills every day, consisting of supplements, vitamins, and other agents to hopefully slow down his body’s aging processes.  He explained why on a recent NOVA program “Can We Slow Aging?

In my view, death is a great robber of all the things that give meaning to life.  It destroys knowledge, and wisdom, and relationships. And there is actually a lot of things you can do to slow down these aging and disease processes…  The goal right now is to live long enough to get to a future point where we will have technologies that will extend our longevity even further.

Ultimately, Ray hopes that a future day will come when our advances in science, medicine and technology will become so sophisticated that we will be able to completely do away with death and essentially become immortal, choosing if or when we die3.

As with many secular scientists, he is extremely fearful of death.  In his view, the only way of overcoming it is by preventing it, with science.  Not only that, but in a future day he believes we may be able to bring people back from the dead through science and technology (either Jurassic Park-like and/or intelligence), as Raymond hopes to do with his late father4.  His latest book is entitled Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever.

Monk from Mt. Athos, Greece

Monk from Mt. Athos, Greece

Monks of Mt. Athos

Contrast that view with that of the Orthodox monks of Mt. Athos in Greece.  Recently 60 Minutes did a special program (Part 1, Part 2) about these ultra-secluded monks; they visited them and interviewed them about their way of life.  One of the topics discussed with them was their view of death.

60 Minutes: Total union with Christ is only possible when they leave this world.

Monk: “The first thing a monk does is embrace and love death…”

60 Minutes: “Embrace and love death?”

Monk: “…because death is the ticket to the other life.  Without a ticket, you can’t travel.”

60 Minutes: “Where do you get the ticket?”

Monk: “In this life.  That’s what we do each day.  We prepare for death.  And we’re joyful about our journey to heaven.”

These monks are not fearful of death; it’s quite the opposite.  They embrace it, long for it, look forward to it, love it, and prepare every day for the time when they will take their journey to heaven to be with Christ again.  There is no need to overcome death because death, to them, is the passageway to Christ.  Death is not an end, but another glorious beginning.

Latter-day Saints

In Harold Bloom’s quote about men’s apprehension of death cited at the beginning, he also said,

Of all religions that I know, the one that most vehemently and persuasively defies and denies the reality of death is the original Mormonism of the Prophet, Seer, and Revelator Joseph Smith.5

Wow.  What was Bloom talking about?  Of all the religions he encountered, which were probably quite a few, the one that most defied and denied death was the religion of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  This is quite a statement.  But why?  Why does Mormonism have such a strong position against death?

I think there are several reasons why, which form a framework of belief that makes death a necessary step in our progression, but otherwise is inconsequential:

  • We believe in a physical, corporeal, resurrection from the dead. We believe that since Christ died and was resurrected, that ALL death was ultimately vanquished in Him (he reversed the effects of the Fall on our mortal bodies), and that ALL will rise from the dead some day. (Alma 40:23, Alma 22:14, Mosiah 16:7–8, Mormon 7:5, 1 Cor. 15:55)
  • Sealing of eternal families. We believe that our relationships do not have to end at death.  We can be with our husband or wife, parents, brothers and sisters, children, grandparents, grandchildren, etc. for all of eternity.  We spend much of our most important time during our mortal lives tending to these precious relationships, and it makes perfect sense that a loving God would make a way for us to continue those relationships beyond the grave.
  • Eternal life & exaltation. We believe this earth-life experience is a step in a much grander plan, and is a stepping stone for greater things to come.  Life goes on.  We believe that through the gospel of Jesus Christ, we can become heirs of God, and co-heirs with Christ, and become like them (Romans 8:17, Gal. 4:7).  For those who follow God’s commandments, we may continue in our social and family relationships for all of eternity, and participate with God in the plan of salvation.

Besides the universal resurrection, these blessings are promised by God through the covenants and ordinances available in temples of God throughout the earth.

What are your thoughts on these vastly different views of death?  Why does the LDS faith have such a unique position on death?  Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

Notes:
  1. Qtd. in Nibley, “Prophets and Glad Tidings,” The World and the Prophets, 259-67,http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/bookschapter.php?bookid=54&chapid=515 []
  2. http://newsroom.lds.org/ldsnewsroom/eng/commentary/what-is-this-thing-that-men-call-death []
  3. See also the recent documentary film about Raymond Kurzweil titled Transcendent Man. []
  4. Ibid. []
  5. http://newsroom.lds.org/ldsnewsroom/eng/commentary/what-is-this-thing-that-men-call-death []

8 Comments

  1. Posted April 30, 2011 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

    Did Bloom give his own reasons for his statement?

  2. Howard
    Posted April 30, 2011 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    Excellent post. The restored gospel is true and offers much but the monk is right embracing death frees us from the fear of death. What is the sting of death? In my view it is the loss of five of our six senses sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste and the rich stimulation and entertainment they bring leaving us to “sleep” with only telepathy to communicate with the divine until the resurrection.

  3. Posted May 2, 2011 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    At sixteen, I lost my father to death. Previously, I had lost my half-brother and my grandfather. I had to come to terms with death quite early on in my life. For me, though I miss them, the perspective provided in the restored gospel and the ordinances of the temple provide a complete peace in these matters. In fact, it was odd to me that so many friends and acquaintances would say, “I’m sorry to hear about your father”. What is there to be sorry about? I know that he is busy working in the world of the spirits, and that this time here is my opportunity to merit the blessings he’s gained and yet to gain.

  4. picardy4th
    Posted May 12, 2011 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    You said that Bloom said:

    Of all religions that I know, the one that most vehemently and persuasively defies and denies the reality of death is the original Mormonism of the Prophet, Seer, and Revelator Joseph Smith.

    It is interesting his word choice: original Mormonism. Is he excluding the Mormonism of today? Were the early saints, Joseph Smith included, more in touch with the doctrine of life-after-death than those today?

  5. Posted May 12, 2011 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure of Bloom’s word choice, but I suspect he was referring to the mainstream LDS Church, not its offshoots.

  6. Lynn Merrill
    Posted November 10, 2011 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    Ask any nurse who has been at the bedside of one dying…or ask any Hospice worker if there
    is life after death. You can’t shut them up….soooo many stories.

  7. Andrew Lacayo
    Posted April 25, 2013 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    Harold Bloom’s comment is not true. We don’t deny or defy the reality of death technically speaking. We accept death as part of the plan of salvation, but don’t look at it dreadfully. We know that Christ overcame death, so we shouldn’t be afraid of it. But to say we deny or defy death is completely absurd. We don’t deny it, we accept that all of us must die. What we defy is that death is not forever, it will only last until we are resurrected.

  8. Robert McGregor
    Posted June 16, 2013 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    My mother died when I was twelve and it wasn’t until I stopped living where denial and lies live that I could move forward with my life. Her dying with me so young I got an insight to the the rest of my family behaved, they took it out on each other. Death is the end for her, but she lives forward in me and my children. I see so much of her in my daughter and that makes me swell with happiness . We need to transcend the ideals of religion, how can the fear and paranoia of dying be cured by living forever. Maybe we should ask ourselves why we treat this jewel of a planet with contempt because we don’t.

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