BY JORDAN HEPBURN
Last semester was hard, and not only because I couldn’t gorge chocolate chip pancakes at 4 a.m. from Pitchforks or play basketball six days a week in a packed Wilson gym. The biggest challenge was that the COVID-19 pandemic forced me to ask important existential questions. I had thought I had answers to these questions. But I soon realized I had failed to live out their consequences. So, last semester, I began thinking about death and pondering faith.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, it was incredibly predictable to ask Duke students how they were doing and what their plans were on any given week. The universal answer, with rare exceptions, was “I’m tired,” followed by “I got [this thing], [this other thing], and a midterm I didn’t study for.”
Such conversations made me wonder how it was possible for me or any of my peers to find time to reflect on some of life’s big questions like “What is my purpose?” or “What do I want my life to look like?” In high school, I thought a liberal arts education would furnish college students with all the tools necessary to answer such questions. My personal experience, however, suggests this isn’t the case: while many of us are seeking answers to these questions, we often struggle to come up with a coherent answer brought about through introspection and learning. This is understandable, mostly because we’re young (what do we know?) and most of us can barely get seven hours of sleep, let alone think seriously about the purpose and direction of our lives.
With a surplus of productive distractions—schoolwork, career prep, extracurricular activities—we pack our schedules so tightly that most of us don’t have the time for anything but the grind. But as the pandemic rages on and many of us find ourselves with more free time than we expected, what are we going to do with ourselves? Are we going to fill our time with yet another resume-padder? Some mindless entertainment? Or, are we going to try to answer the questions that we know need to be addressed?
I recognize these questions are quite nuanced and take longer than the length of a blog post to flesh out, but my hope is that an initial discussion of the options before us will enable us to articulate them a little more clearly and understand their implications on our lives.
In that spirit, let’s think about death.
Why must we ask big questions in the first place? Because of the reality of death: it will happen to us all, regardless of whether we’re ready or unprepared, willing or resistant, miserable or content. If nobody died, the question of purpose might not be so urgent—with an infinite time span, we could just live however we wanted until we happened to stumble upon the meaning of life. However, the reality is that we will all die, and, not only that, none of us knows when it will happen. Thus, the reality of death necessitates the pursuit of purpose. At the same time, it’s unlikely that the meaning of lives will appear cut and dry to us without some initiative on our part. We have to seek out this purpose.
This is part of the reason the pandemic has been so anxiety-provoking. In the United States, our culture lacks a unified set of beliefs about death, so that most people do not think seriously about its reality. The coronavirus is thus an intrusion: every interaction is marked with a fear of unknowingly spreading the disease to others who would not be able to handle it, so that we are constantly aware of our own, and others’, mortality.
This being the case, there is no better time to think about death. Since we’re going to be forced into daily confrontations with death, let us at least make it a constructive battle. And for this battle to be truly beneficial, we must align our actions with our beliefs, so that whatever we conclude about death has a tangible outcome on our lives.
If we were fully consistent, what we believe about death would have an easily calculable effect on the way we live our lives. To be inconsistent with a given belief would be to build habits incongruous with that principle: for example, a vegan whose favorite meal is surf ‘n’ turf. It would be questionable whether such a vegan truly believes in and adheres to veganism at all. Inconsistency is recognized as unhealthy by psychologists, who generally refer to it as cognitive dissonance.
Furthermore, some philosophers have evaluated cognitive dissonance as the cause of existential turmoil and anxiety. Carl Jung, a prominent 20th century philosopher and psychologist, claimed that when cognitive dissonance caused people to lead inconsistent lives, what ultimately happened was a disillusionment with their self-concept, or their conception of their own personality, characteristics, and so on. This disillusionment results in feelings of inferiority, existential angst, and general discontentment, as people begin to feel ashamed of their real self. In response, their psyches create coping mechanisms to help them live consistently. The final result can take two forms: a justification of one’s action through lying to one’s self and detachment from reality (changing one’s beliefs to fit one’s actions) or listening to the anxiety and aligning one’s actions with one’s beliefs.
Other psychologists have formulated the same sentiment. The crux is that if we are to live healthy, fulfilling lives, it is important to live in harmony with the beliefs to which we cognitively assent, abiding by their implications. A vegan who follows a vegan diet, according to this model, should be more at peace than a vegan who doesn’t practice veganism faithfully. So when it comes to death—arguably the biggest existential issue facing mankind—we should articulate our beliefs and draw their implications so we can live accordingly.
Is death the end of everything (i.e. existence, consciousness, and sentience)? Such a view stems from a worldview that affirms only material reality and denies the spiritual world, arguing we cannot measure or observe spiritual entities like we can material bodies. This worldview also denies the existence of God, the origin of spiritual reality.
The implications of this perspective are vast and grim, creating difficulties for how we think about ethics, relationships, and purpose. Dr. Alex Rosenberg, R. Taylor Cole Professor of Philosophy at Duke, sums up this point of view:
“Is there a God? No… What is the purpose of the universe? There is none… What is the meaning of life? Ditto. Why am I here? Just dumb luck… What is the difference between right/wrong, good/bad? There is no moral difference between them. So much for the meaning of history, and everything else we care about… You will have to be comfortable with a certain amount of nihilism… And just in case, there’s always Prozac.”
In other words, a belief that death is the end of everything in a godless universe should lead folks to deny any transcendent meaning in their life, deny the existence of right and wrong, and chalk any profound human experience up to the clattering of biological materials. Rosenberg, like many other atheists, stoically accepts this premise, and he acknowledges that only Prozac makes such a world endurable.
On the other hand, death may not be the end of everything. In the case that God is the ground of being and there is a different sort of reality than the purely material, not all hope is lost. But how would such a perspective affect one’s life on Earth?
This is a question that Jesus addressed multiple times during his life. He asserted that God exists, and that this God created humans as both physical and spiritual beings. This type of reality rebuffs everything asserted by the atheistic worldview: our lives have purpose, conceptions of right and wrong are not pure nonsense, and there is something significant and transcendent about each of our human experiences. Our pains, hardships, and struggles do not happen in the emptiness of an impersonal universe, but in the caring awareness of a loving, personally relatable God.
The staggering amount of pain and suffering in this world—realities like the pandemic or growing political unrest, along with the testimonies of the depressed and broken-hearted—show us that it is possible to live and yet be dead, to exist but to have no life. Nonetheless, the Bible shows that Jesus strives to bring all people into a loving relationship with Him so that they can know true life—a mutual relationship of loving and being loved by the most perfect being.
If all this were true, and God really desired for us to be in relationship with Him, then how could we reciprocate? To give a glimpse of one of the most unexpected answers in history, Jesus stated that He was God: to initiate any true relationship with God, we need to believe His claim to be God incarnate, God in the flesh.
What we’re discussing here is not so much a religious exploration, but rather an examination of the practical implications of contrasting worldviews. Many people think of religion as a devotion to being good arising from moral guilt or intellectual curiosity. For some this is true, but to those who reflect seriously on religion, and Chrsitianity in particular, it’s more than that. It is the natural expression through one’s life and behaviors of an underlying belief in Jesus as our Savior and Lord. Our actions show what we believe; our beliefs make sense of our actions.
So, we must ask ourselves: What do I believe about death? Does my life express these beliefs? If we truly believe in a purely materialistic world, then our lives should reflect that worldview. But if we do not want to live like this—if we hunger for something more—then perhaps we should reevaluate our beliefs.
I believe there is more to reality than dirt and chemicals. A spiritual reality undergirds every experience of love and transcendence that we’ve ever known. If we know Jesus, our lives do not end merely with death. As Jesus Himself said, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.”
 https://www.ncronline.org/news/people/pandemic-narrows-americans-cultural-distance-death-and-dying “Pandemic narrows Americans’ cultural distance from death and dying”
 McGehee J.P. (2014) Jungian Self. In: Leeming D.A. (eds) Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion. Springer, Boston, MA. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4614-6086-2_368
 An Atheist’s Guide to Reality, Rosenberg
 John 11:25 NIV