The pagan Greek philosopher, Epicurus, who lived three hundred years before Christ, believed that all people should be liberated from a belief in God, the immortal soul, and the afterlife. Epicurus would have us believe that such an enlightened philosophical understanding would make it easier to live in the present.
Yet even Epicurus himself seemed to be tormented by the possibility that he might be wrong. He wrote:
If we could be sure that death was annihilation, then there would be no fear of it. For as long as we exist, death is not there, and when it does come, we no longer exist. But we cannot be totally sure there is annihilation, for what people fear most is not that maybe death is annihilation, but that maybe death is not.
Epicurus is saying that if we could be certain that at death we no longer exist, then there would be no reason to fear it. We would live our lives, and then die and go into what would be the equivalent to an everlasting sleep.
What lies beyond the Grave?
However he also realized that he could not say this with certainty. The problem is, he writes, that no one can be sure of what lies beyond the grave. Therefore, since no one can be sure, people fear death because there very well may be an afterlife and a judgment.
Human beings, no matter how courageous we appear to be, whether we are people of faith or not, we always seem to be drawn back to this question: If a man dies, will he live again?
Stay alive and suffer…or to go ahead, die, and then sleep
Shakespeare makes a similar observation in Hamlet. The main character of this complex tragedy, Hamlet, struggles with whether he should end his life. It is at this point in the play that he utters the line “To be or not to be, that is the question.” In his soliloquy, Hamlet weighs his options. Is it nobler to stay alive and suffer…or to go ahead, die, and then sleep?
He reasons that if he takes his own life he can sleep and end his heartache, but he wonders what might await him beyond the grave. He fears the “dread of something after death.”
He goes on to describe death as “the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler ever returns,” and he realizes that this is what “puzzles the will.” Hamlet reasons that we can choose to stay on in this life instead of flying off to some other realm of existence “that we know not of,” concluding that the fear of death and the uncertainty of its aftermath makes cowards of us all.
One of the foundations of the Christian faith is that Christ abolished death. We are told that one of the reasons he came into the world is to set people free from the fear of death, otherwise they will be slaves to this fear all of their lives. (Hebrews 2:15) Jesus has given us these words to trust in: “I am the resurrection and the life, he who believes in Me will live even if he dies.” A few days later, Christ validated these words by rising from the dead and demonstrating His power over death.
Freedom from the fear of death
This leads us back to Epicurus’ logic. What people fear most is not that Jesus failed to rise from the dead, but that maybe he did. And if He did indeed rise from the dead and live after dying, what would that mean? Well, it would mean everything.
This is at the heart of Pascal’s great wager. He said that every person on the face of the earth is making a high stakes, life commitment to a particular faith view of God. You are betting your eternal life and destiny that your view of spiritual reality is true.