Harvard scientist Steven Pinker recently wrote a strange opinion piece in The Washington Post in which he claimed that belief in an afterlife is a malignant delusion, since it devalues actual lives and discourages action that would make them longer, safer, and happier. The specific object of his attack was those conservative evangelical Trump supporters who are demanding the reopening of the US economy. In Pinker’s odd logic, evangelicals don’t care about those dying of COVID19 because they are so focused on life in the sweet-by-and-by.
The fact is, though, that study after study proves the opposite – religious people appear to live healthier, happier, more fulfilled lives. There is no evidence that belief in the afterlife makes you careless about life in the here-and-now.
In fact, belief in the afterlife might do the opposite and give you a greater clarity about what’s truly important in life.
I’ve been thinking about this recently as I’ve studied what has become known as “plague art”, the great paintings depicting life during Europe’s bubonic plague from 1347 to the late 17th century. At that time, Europe was stalked by the Black Death, and yet surprisingly, art and culture flourished. Artists like Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Tintoretto worked in the knowledge that contagion could take hold of their city at any moment. Some, including Hans Holbein and Titian, died of it. But what beauty they created!
The art critic at The Guardian, Jonathan Jones writes: “The art of these centuries abounds in images of death, sure, yet it is also full of joy. The Europeans of the 1500s and 1600s created incredible treasures and beacons of civilisation. Far from being driven to despair by pestilence, it is as if they were spurred to assert the glory of life.”
Nowhere is this more obvious than the stunning fresco on the wall of the Santa Maria Assunta Basilica in Clusone, near the epicenter of today’s coronavirus epidemic in Bargamo, Italy. Painted in the 15th century by the rather obscure artist, Giacomo Borlone de Buschis, it is a haunting mural that celebrates the apparently capricious nature of death.
Death is depicted as a crowned skeleton queen, swathed in a cape and straddling a marble coffin, unfurling scrolls from both hands. Flanking her are two fellow death-dealing skeletons, one firing a bow with three arrows, the other taking aim with a harquebus, a kind of ancient gun.
Around this terrifying trio mill a group of powerful, but desperate people, offering to pay for her mercy. But Queen Death will have none of it. She is not interested in their feeble possessions, she demands only their lives.
Proof of this is in the marble coffin beneath her feet. There lies the corpses of an emperor and a pope, surrounded by poisonous snakes, symbols of a quick and merciless end.
Wait, didn’t I just quote Jonathan Jones saying these images of death are also full of joy! Where’s the joy in this painting?
Well, the key to understanding this picture is to know who commissioned it.
The Santa Maria Assunta Basilica was the home of the Confraternity of the Disciplini of San Bernardino, a charitable lay order of Christian brothers who, among other good works, performed elaborate funerals for the region’s poorest citizens. While the brothers considered Death a queen to whom we all submit, they didn’t see her as evil. Satan is sometimes described in the Bible as the ‘prince’ or ‘ruler’ of this world (e.g. John 12:31) because he competes with God for power over mortal souls. But Death’s reign is different – for the brothers, at least, she serves God.
That’s why the scrolls streaming from her bony hands are so important. They spell out her powers; she is impartial and stronger than all; the ungodly will die with bitterness, but the godly and just will pass through the death of the body to eternal life.
For the poor citizens of the region, as they approached the basilica in need of food or accommodation or a funeral for a loved one, Death was revealed as a servant of God, sifting the faithful from the faithless, and bringing us all to judgement.
In their thinking, the certainty of death frees us from the delusion that human wealth and power will protect us from it. And once free from that delusion we are able to evaluate the true significance of this life as a stage in the journey to the afterlife.
Death is only terrifying to those who have placed all their confidence in worldly success.
The poor, the penitent, the devout, these ones would have taken great comfort from the macabre fresco, safe in the knowledge that while Death comes for us all, the wealthy, the powerful, and the haughty are no more insulated from her than they are. The strange joy of this image is in seeing the powerful wheeling and dealing with Death, all to no effect.
Compare that with how we deal with death in the midst of our current-day plague. Everyday we hear statistical updates on the numbers of infections and casualties; we pore over graphs and charts; we speak of flattening the curve and minimizing transmission; we live with lockdowns and quarantines.
But where is Death? She is invisible.
Funerals with more than a few people are banned. Bodies are stored in refrigerated trucks. Mass graves are dug secretly or discretely, far from prying eyes. It’s as if Death herself has been quarantined to the outskirts of our cities.
The fascinating irony in all this is that when belief in the afterlife was at its highest, Death was not a frightening, evil presence at all. She was a reminder to live full lives in the service of God and others. But now that religious faith is at an all-time low, we are more mystified by her than ever. To modern people death seems insensible, random, cruel. That’s because we get death wrong.
Maybe that’s why Steven Pinker can assume that not fearing death makes you careless and irresponsible. But it isn’t borne out by the facts. It’s only when we get death right are we able to live better lives.
Knowing the meaning of death fills you with the purpose of life.
The Apostle Paul’s famous meditation on resurrection and death, (“Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”) results in his simple prayer of thanksgiving, “But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 15:55-57).
According to Paul, confidence in the forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life isn’t a disincentive for living life to the full now. In fact, it is in light of our confidence in Christ that we don’t fear death, and we look forward to eternity with him, but more. Paul continues,
“Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1Cor 15:58).