On making death certain.
Indeed, what does it mean that we are “mortals” if not that we are subjects above all to fear? Because the fear that traverses us or rather constitutes us is essentially the fear of death; fear of no longer being what we are: alive.
Roberto Esposito, Communitas: The Origin and Destiny of Community (1998)
And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
We sat on wooden benches set out in rows that striped the incline of the amphitheater’s grassy slope. The sky had darkened toward the black end of blue. I do not remember whether the fireworks came before or after, but I do remember the scene in general as another one filled with crowds of young Christians. Many of the vignettes that strike me as I think back on the telling moments in my Christian life involve crowds, usually children or teenagers, usually singing, crying, desperately asking Heaven for some help, some gift, a word, a sign, some peace. Now and then we were jumping. Sometimes we danced. But it was always the crowds of those who strained our fingers around a common desire, hope, fear.
Whether before the fireworks or after, a man, perhaps a pastor, asked us if any of us wanted to seize the moment to confess repentance and accept Jesus as ruler in our hearts. We needed only to raise our hands. The speaker would say, “Yes, I see you, thank you. There’s another, thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Hands going up all across the room tonight. I see that the Lord is moving tonight. Thank you.”
This scene, a recurrent pattern, often unfolded with our eyes closed so that all the kids could feel free to express themselves truly and individually under the dark. So many times I felt the strong compulsion to peek and spot the formerly unsaved ones, but some powerful moral impulse always seemed to simultaneously adjure me to keep them shut. Others peeked, I was sure of it. Yet I wondered, who needed it this time? Was it anyone I knew who had messed up and needed Jesus? Had anyone I knew been running from God all this time? Was the speaker being honest about how many hands had actually gone up?
But then the question often followed that would turn my perspective inward – “Does anyone here want to rededicate their lives to Christ? Maybe you were saved before but something makes you feel unsure and you want to make a new commitment to Jesus here tonight.” We were maybe nine, ten years old, but still this question would throw us. How could I be sure? Have I sinned this week without asking forgiveness for those sins? Maybe I hit my brother out of irritation and frustrated rage. Maybe I gossiped about a friend at school. Maybe I lied about how much I had actually practiced my trumpet this week (a real source of guilt for me). I would find myself, again and again when that question was asked, raising my hand, wandering to the altar at the front, and pleading with my Jesus that he would forgive me, that he would make my salvation a sure thing, this time.
Back then, we were so afraid. We were raised by our church leaders to feel as though we constantly teetered over the edge of apocalypse and oblivion – at any moment the sky could open, the trumpet could resound, and Jesus could come back to rapture his believers. If we were caught unprepared, like the foolish virgins without lamp oil in the parable of the swiftly returning polygamous bridegroom, we would be left behind. I remember having the sorts of philosophical conversations that children have, querying whether, let’s say, sinning one extra time after asking forgiveness for our sins would cause us to get left behind at the sudden moment of the Rapture. Some would stumble prematurely upon the meditation of the Philokalia (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a miserable sinner”) not because we felt at the time any need for liturgy but only because of the practical urgency of forgiveness’s implications. Forgiveness was the only antidote to Rapture, and to be forgiven, we needed to ask.
In that desperate pursuit of constant forgiveness, we kids made ourselves continually recognize our deserved precariousness: that something about our little human conditions painted us as those naturally owing to ourselves an outcome of being forgotten by God, forsaken by grace, doomed to our absolute punishment for our sins. We needed salvation, and salvation was a gift, not something we could construct ourselves, only wish after – or at best, something we could sign the contract for, so long as we kept to its terms.
We were so afraid, because fear was inscribed as the most important motivator for all our most important decisions. If it wasn’t Rapture, it was the more concrete possibility of dying at any given moment and not being ready for what came after. To be left behind would be a grace compared to the eternal conscious torment of Hell that we would be consigned to if we died unmarked by salvation. Another question that I heard so often – “If you died tonight, do you know where you would go?” The implication being that when the trapdoor drops open underneath our lives, we slip through one of two thresholds, Heaven or Hell, both absolute and eternal in their respective visceral bliss or torment, and the threshold is decided by a single decision we make while we’ve still got breath in our lungs. There was a Christian rock song – one I used to sing and dance to with so much delight – that made light of our imminent death and its eternally determined aftermath. When I sang along, I would sing lyrics like, “It could happen anytime, it could happen anywhere. Could happen while you’re napping in your easy chair. Could happen at home, could happen at school…” and so on. Even our fun held this blistering core of absolute, immeasurable fear concerning our fundamental existence.
Heaven and Hell, hope and fear, absolute good and absolute evil, so inextricably woven into each other. You can’t have one without the other, and these binaries are stitched across the self-concepts we inherited in Sunday school and worship gatherings. They stitched us to each other then. In Communitas, Esposito identifies this conception of hope and fear in Thomas Hobbes’ philosophy of the terrible origin of political community. “Even if in daily life fear is never alone, it is also accompanied by what man opposes to it, namely, hope, in the illusion that hope is its opposite, while instead hope is fear’s faithful companion.” He writes that, for Hobbes, hope is a sort of fear with its head hidden, “that hope is born from conceiving an evil together with a way of avoiding it, while fear consists, once a good is in view, in imagining a way of losing it.”
As children we were taught about the wonderful, beautiful plan God had willed for our lives. If he had his way, we would all be with him in paradise when we die. But in imagining this affirmative hope that would pull us onward through life, we also imagined its companionate fear, that Hell, the everlasting undying death that would face us if we faltered from the narrow path to Heaven. Our God was a god of a black and white balance that pivoted on a decisive yet precarious justice: a single choice tipped the scale toward hope, a lifetime of alternatives tipped it back toward horror. How could we say God is just, if his justice never condemned the guilty? How could we say he is good, if his goodness never rejected the evil ones?
It was on this doctrine of Hell that I first saw the substance of my faith leaking through the seams of my reason. No matter how hard I tried to reconcile the doctrine to myself – and I did try, very hard, because my eternity depended on my coming to the right conclusion – I could not see the mercy or even the justice in this sadistic doctrine.
Sadistic, that’s how I would put it to myself upon finally letting go of the doctrine, but while this may be partly correct of the nature of the belief in itself, the belief works differently, I think, in the hearts of its believers. Sadism connotes a pleasure that someone receives through the pain of others, but none of the eminently decent Christians I knew – and I knew multitudes of them – derived any pleasure from this imagining the unending torment of others at the hands of God. But they did fear it. They feared that future. They feared the way its fingers wickedly groped toward their friends and loved ones who needed the salvation that only came through Jesus’s sacrificial atonement.
Hell, while an idea rightfully absurd in the minds of unbelievers, reveals itself to be an example of that perfectly pernicious nature of beliefs that hold the power to reproduce and propagate themselves perpetually. Hell as a concept is groundless, dependent on the truth or falsity of no self-evident factual matters but only on its axiomatic acceptance. And yet, merely by introducing itself as a concept, it lays claim in the most extreme ways to the table upon which we prudentially strategize our existence. It’s Pascal’s Wager: if the cost for not believing an idea that turns out to be true is infinitely horrible, and the cost for believing it though it turns about to prove false is minimal, then reason says we ought to cast our lots upon whatever saves us from those infinite consequences.
Yet there is a cost to this doctrine, this fear. For one, there is the cost to the Christian institution in the flocks of young doubters exiting sanctuaries because they cannot stomach any version of accepting that infinite horror. For another cost, the fear of Hell and its correlate (founding?) fear of death motivates costly strategies of self-preservation. If we fear death and eternal death, we must find a way to protect our life and our eternal life, and since eternity is in the balance, the means of protection can reasonably be drastic.
For Hobbes, the thing which founds a political community is everyone’s mutual fear of one another in the state of nature. As the story goes, when we’re all milling about individually within the natural chaos of the world, we have so little to protect ourselves from the homicidal tendencies of others, of the masses. So we enter into a mutually beneficial contract – namely, the civil state – in order that our fear of one another may be channeled into structural powers that protect us from one another and from the society’s outside.
If we think this more fundamentally, as related to my last post on the blog, our “communities” are often constructed as a way of protecting ourselves from whatever is outside or beyond that community. City walls defend against the wilderness, the stranger, and the enemy, and our walls, while protecting us, simultaneously tell us who we are, where we end and another begins. In the case of evangelical Christianity, we built our communities to protect ourselves from those terrible fears of Hell and death that our hopes had imagined for us. It is difficult to determine what came first, the fear of death and all its friends or the hope for eternal life – like the chicken and the egg. They need each other; they are the origin of each other’s coming-into-being. And perhaps there is a more originary fear which is vague and which preempts the writing of a stronger, clearer fear. Esposito writes, “This is how the infinite dialectic of fear begins and unravels: to escape an initial and indeterminate fear, men accept an amount of fear and indeed institute a second and certain fear with a covenant.” Like the state, whose task is “not to eliminate fear but to render it ‘certain’,” the religious institution can only live as an institution of a certain fear, a fear which the church can offer the protection against. The certainty of that fear informs the identity of those who enjoy the certain protection that the fear requires.
Growing up, my fear of dying and suffering a certain Hell told me who I was. I was not only the son born guilty of original sin, destined for a dark justice, but I was also one of the saved, a son born again into life, adopted by my Father in Heaven into the community of believers. With all of the momentary joys and pleasures that my life of devotion to a loving savior gave me, it also shut me out to a world of people with minds unlike my congregation’s. Since our lives were on the line, the beliefs that saved us also marked out the territories in which the enemies waited to entrap us.
Many identified one such territory as the secular university, in such a way that when I told them I was going to a secular institution to study English and philosophy, they quoted to me Colossians 2:8, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” Every time, I got irritated at the mantra, the lack of trust I felt from them for my being able to take care of myself, to work out my own salvation with fear and trembling. But there was always a side of me that felt grateful for their sentiment – that their quoting that passage to me betrayed the kind of love which is embodied in fear for the life of another. They feared that while in the territory of the enemy I would begin to sympathize with them, that the spectre of atheism, or humanism, or Marxism, or simple skepticism would infiltrate my internal grasp on those beliefs which would save me from Hell and eternal death.
They were not wrong. My vulnerability to alternative conceptions of the world has killed me, insofar as the me that is dead is the me that had life only in relation to a particular belief about what life is. I have teetered over the brink, gone off the deep end, looked into the abyss and become the abyss that looked back, etc. But I am not afraid of Hell anymore, and I am not afraid of the God whom Hell implies. I have known that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of a certain sort of wisdom – a philosophy founded in a faith that tells the faithful whom to watch out for, who threatens their faith and thus their very existence. In turning from that fear, at least I have kept for myself the capacity to abide with that other in this valley of death – that other to whom I owe a part of myself, to whom I am exposed and yet from whom I have chosen to fear no evil.