I have refrained from using this blog to plug my new book, The Last Enemy, but I mention it now because it’s an important counterpoint to another new book on death. It’s simply called Death, and it’s written by Shelly Kagan, a Yale philosopher, and published by Yale University Press. Kagan excerpts his book in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Kagan declares that he has intentionally left religious material out of his book. Besides the tragic irony of writing an intentionally secular book for Yale, a university which was founded to educate clergy for New England churches, Kagan’s essay illustrates the futility of trying to make sense of important topics without the benefit of revelation.
Kagan knows that death is bad, he is sure of it, but he admits he can’t explain why. He believes that when we die we go out of existence. So how can death be bad for us, if we no longer exist? There is no one left for death to be bad for.
Kagan thinks hard about this problem for several pages—demonstrating creative brilliance in the process—but he ends in pretty much the same place he began. He concludes: “So is death bad for you? I certainly think so, and I think the deprivation account is on the right track for telling us why. But I have to admit: Puzzles still remain.”
So one of the best professors at one of the best universities thinks hard about death and comes up empty. And then he puts his questions into a book and sells lots of copies. Kagan’s book would help more people if he would have followed the example of his Yale forebears and relied upon revelation.
There we learn that we are right to think death is bad for us, because of what has happened in the past and what may happen in the future. From the past we learn that death is unnatural, the horrible result of Adam’s sin. From the future we learn that death is unbelievably terrible for those who refuse to repent of their sin and put their faith in Jesus. They won’t merely go out of existence, as Kagan unfortunately believes.
These are some of the issues I cover in The Last Enemy, and I commend it to anyone who suspects they may be one of those people who will eventually die. We don’t have to face death with our reason alone, vainly trying to make sense of an awful event that confounds all philosophy. We have the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Update: One other thought that occurred to me this morning–the fact that it’s the past and the future which tell us why death is bad is a reminder that the Christian faith is an historical faith. It’s about what has happened and what will happen in time and space, which means it rests on the contingent events of history. And since these events are contingent (upon the will of God), they are not necessary. And since they aren’t necessary, even the brightest philosophers can’t figure them out. This is the reason why a purely philosophical analysis of death will always come up short.