Contrary to the false hopes encouraged by agnostic modern thought and modern medicine, the death of the body is only the beginning of sorrows for those who have been so foolish as to live apart from God and continue in sin. After death there is a day of judgment slated on the calendar of God; all must appear before His tribunal, and none shall be spared (2 Corinthians 5:10).
There is a remarkable difference between how an unbeliever and a believer look at dying, death, and the afterlife. For the unbeliever or the agnostic, death is mysterious and the afterlife is even more dubious. For the believer, death is not an extinction or a terminus but only a transition, a junction. Though solemn, it is demystified in Christ and the afterlife is the best life. Let’s consider this contrast.
After Death—Agnosticism’s Version
Sally, the hospice nurse, stood by Bruno’s bedside.1 Bruno was a prisoner with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), who had been transferred to the hospital with his fifth bout of pneumonia in the past six months.2 He was serving a life sentence for the murder of his elderly neighbor, who had attempted to stop him from stealing his narcotic pain medications. While incarcerated, he developed ALS, underwent a tracheotomy, and became dependent on a ventilator to breathe.3 Bruno had a choice: return to prison on the ventilator until suffering the next bout of pneumonia with the possibility of dying by suffocation; or, have the ventilator withdrawn, receiving medications to manage his respiratory distress, and dying in the luxury of a hospice facility. Needless to say, Bruno, who thought he was the victim of injustice, did not like his choices.
As he lay silent with expressive eyes, paralyzed, his right wrist handcuffed to the bedrail, and a prison guard by his side, Sally presented her case for hospice care: “Bruno, I know this is a difficult choice to make, but we will keep you comfortable after the ventilator is removed. You won’t have to go back to prison—you won’t suffer anymore.”
Sally was presenting the common view that what happens after death is in some way better than persisting in this present state, even for unrepentant murderers who see themselves as victims of the system. In Europe and America, it is quite acceptable to choose or create a self-customized hereafter. If one wants to believe in nirvana, reincarnation, a happy hunting ground, heaven, any combination of these possibilities, or else simple annihilation, the modernist will not object—provided the belief is not imposed on others. According to the modern mindset, no one really knows what happens after death. “What is emphatically clear is that everyone is dying, and one day, we will all die,” says the modernist, “so why not permit the imagination to wander when it comes to the hereafter?”
For many centuries the church was the predominant institution addressing dying, death, and what happens after death, not hospices and medical institutions that could be indifferent to or at odds with traditional Christianity. Following the beginning of the scientific age in the seventeenth century, the medicalization of death in the nineteenth century, and the increasing effectiveness of medical science in the decades that followed, the church was pushed aside. A paradigm shift occurred. The church is now on the periphery and modern medicine has shifted to the center. Moving into the twentieth century, many hospitals in the West, once Christian institutions in purpose, ethics, and practice, have become Christian in name only. Influenced by the rise of higher criticism, liberal theology, and the social gospel, these hospitals no longer affirm a supernatural-natural Christ-centered worldview grounded in Holy Scripture. In the twenty-first century, modern medicine is eager to fill the void left by the traditional, confessional, and biblical church.
Since the two absolutes of dying and death have become medicalized—that is, as aspects of human experience to be addressed by doctors and nurses rather than by ministers of the Word or one’s fellow Christians—it is not surprising to see healthcare professionals, like Sally, asserting an unqualified view of what happens after death to provide answers, comfort, and hope. This position is commonly referred to as agnosticism, which is derived from the Greek agnosis meaning “a state of unknowing,” that is, with respect to metaphysical questions such as the existence of God or an afterlife. Thus, an agnostic claims not to know matters beyond his or her ability to observe or quantify them. This approach to empirical or scientific facts has the appearance of humility. As a philosophical system, however, agnosticism is a proud and unconditional assertion in which all that can be known with certainty must be measured, tested, demonstrated, and verified by hands-on experience. Agnosticism is an outright rejection of non-empirical truth, which claims, without empirical validation, the impossibility of knowing truth outside the process of scientific investigation!
Two major issues stand behind agnosticism in the contemporary West: pluralism and the eventual failure of medical science to sustain life. In western democracies, citizens have a right to believe what they choose, so long as they do not act on their beliefs in violation of civil law and they tolerate other people’s beliefs. All of these personal views address the hereafter in some way, so agnosticism provides a vehicle for tolerance and affirmation.
Another primary factor already alluded to is the innate human need for answers, comfort, and hope. Dying and death are absolute—we are dying, and one day we will cease to be as we are now. This is mysterious, uncomfortable, and even dreadful. Someday medical science will fail us, when the doctor says he can do no more for us. After all the optimistic counsel from well-meaning healthcare professionals and hopeful state-of-the-art medical treatments, dying and death stand firm and fixed on our human agendas—then what? In modern medical practice a referral to hospice is made, and end-of-life experts come alongside to support individualized answers, provide comfort in the midst of suffering, and affirm one’s self-customized hopes for some good or life after death.
Death as a Natural Part of Life
In a similar way, modern medicine commonly promotes the view that death is a natural and normal part of human existence. Since dying is a process running parallel with life, in modern medicine the death of the body has become associated with the outworking of natural laws of life. In medical literature, one will often find dying and death associated with pregnancy and birth, or as a stage in a natural process, much like a caterpillar emerging from a cocoon as a butterfly. This interpretation is rooted in the rise of evolutionary biology in the late nineteenth century. According to this viewpoint, no line exists between dying and the death of the body, because they are both the outworking of natural laws of survival occurring in the larger cycle of life. Thus, people facing death should accept and even welcome death with optimism as a transition to a self-customized hereafter.