You Are Going to Die Soon
Part of my series “A Satanist Reads the Bible,” in which I explore the Bible, Christianity, and other religions and their sacred texts through the lens of Satanism in order to reinvent religion for myself.
For a long time, I had a post-it note on my bathroom mirror on which I had written: “You are going to die soon.” I had put it there after reading a quote by Steve Jobs expressing a similar sentiment. “Soon,” of course, is a relative term. Statistically, it’s most likely that I’ll be around for another 44 years (I checked the actuarial tables), but if I thought that the end of the world was going to happen in 44 years, would I be justified in saying that it’s going to happen soon? I think that I would, and that will indeed be the end of the world for me. The note disappeared the last time I moved, but I still remember it every time I look in the bathroom mirror in the morning and at night before I go to bed, and my thoughts return to it throughout the day. Others who had seen my note found it morbid; I always found it inspirational. Regardless of what happens after, I know that that much at least is true, and it’s shown its value as a compass for directing my actions and decisions.
But while I don’t base my decisions on it (or believe that I don’t), I nevertheless often contemplate what might happen afterwards. This question lies at the heart of religion: what happens after we die?
It is commonly thought that the Bible details the blissful afterlife of the righteous in Heaven and the torturous existence of the damned in Hell; in fact, the Bible has nothing of the sort to say about Heaven, and has little to say on the topic of the afterlife in general. There is nothing at all to be found in the Torah, the first five books of the Tanakh, the Jewish Bible, which largely corresponds to the Christian Old Testament, save for a single reference to a place called Sheol (Deuteronomy 32:22), which is presented without explanation.
Later books in the Old Testament, in the Ketuvim (writings), we find more detail as to the nature of Sheol. Psalm 49 describes it as the abode of the dead. Ecclesiastes chapter 9 describes the quality of death: “The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no more reward, and even the memory of them is lost. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished; never again will they have any share in all that happens under the sun” (verses 5–6, NRSV), and this does not sound like an afterlife or any sort of existence at all. And in Psalm 6, which is addressed directly to God: “In death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who can give you praise?” (verse 5, NRSV). So it seems very much that the ancient Hebrews believed that nothing followed death, and Sheol was a metaphor for this.
But in the writings of the prophets, we find something else: the dead will, at some time in the future, be physically resurrected: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2).
What about the New Testament? Jesus himself is surprisingly reticent on the matter, saying only: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:2). Jesus was a Jew who preached the message of the coming end times to Jews and taught them to repent and prepare for the coming of the Kingdom of God on Earth (see my essay “In Search of the Religion of Jesus”). Given that we only have the one verse in the one gospel, we can dismiss this quote entirely as not being historical in the first place, but even if we accept it as a saying of Jesus and view it in the context of his message, it seems to be related more to the coming Kingdom of God on Earth than to an afterlife in Heaven.
Elsewhere in the New Testament there are several references to eternal life (John 3:16, Romans 6:23, and others), but these could just as well be references to an eternal life on Earth in a resurrected physical body when the Kingdom of God comes. The Book of Revelation as well seems to portray the afterlife as taking place on Earth rather than in another spiritual realm (21:1–3, and verse 3 in particular: “See, the home of God is among the mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them,” as quoted from the NRSV).
What about references to Hell? We at least have something on this topic in the New Testament that is more concrete than what we have on the subject of Heaven. According to Matthew 25:31–46, when the Kingdom of God comes to Earth, the Son of Man (there is no consensus among Christians as to whom exactly this term refers) will separate the righteous from the wicked. The righteous will be able to enter the Kingdom of God. “Then [the Son of Man] will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’” (Matthew 25:41, NRSV). And more in the Book of Revelation: “And anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15, NRSV). This lake of fire is not directly equated with Hell. It certainly matches up with the common image of Hell, but one has to keep in mind that that conception of Hell came later, which means that it can only be applied retroactively to the lake of fire in the Book of Revelation. There’s no evidence that what the author of the book was referring to was indeed what we now think of as Hell; the verses may be referring to a physical lake of fire created on Earth when the Kingdom of God comes.
There are several references in the New Testament to Gehenna, which is often also equated with Hell. “Gehenna” referred originally to the valley of Hinnom near Jerusalem, where the kings of Judah (a rival Hebrew kingdom which once controlled Jerusalem) sacrificed their children (2 Chronicles 28:3). It was later thought to be cursed (Jeremiah 19:2–6). Given that Gehenna is an actual physical location, Jesus’ references to it may have been metaphorical, or may have been a reference to a conception of Hell that was transitioning towards the modern conception.
One of our earliest images of Hell that concords with the modern conception comes from the writings of the late 2nd and early 3rd century church father Hippolytus of Rome, who, in Against Plato, on the Cause of the Universe wrote:
But now we must speak of Hades, in which the souls both of the righteous and the unrighteous are detained. Hades is a place in the created system, rude, a locality beneath the earth, in which the light of the world does not shine; and as the sun does not shine in this locality, there must necessarily be perpetual darkness there. This locality has been destined to be as it were a guard-house for souls, at which the angels are stationed as guards, distributing according to each one’s deeds the temporary punishments for (different) characters.
translation J.H. MacMahon, 1886
Hades was the god of the dead in ancient Greek pagan religion, with which Hippolytus, as a Roman fluent in Hellenistic Greek, would have been entirely familiar. And the Roman Christians would have been largely pagan converts, or descendants of converts still living in a largely pagan world, so it seems that there has been some transfer of beliefs from the old pagan religions to Christianity, and “Hades,” in this transition, shifted from being the god of the dead to the realm of the dead.
As to what the modern conception of Hell looks like in practice, we have the Catechism of the Catholic Church, article 1033, which states the following:
We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves: “He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren. To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called “hell.”
This seems as though it would neatly resolve the theological problem of how a god of infinite good and infinite mercy could punish someone eternally for transient actions enacted during a finite human lifespan. It isn’t punishment, but rather self-chosen exclusion from God’s love. Article 1034 cites the New Testament references to Gehenna, and then the description of Hell continues in 1035:
The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.” The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.
So Hell remains a real place, the destination of the souls of “those who die in a state of mortal sin.” And it is indeed, somewhat in contradiction to article 1033, a punishment, which implies a deliberate action on the part of God.
This has been commented on extensively, but for the sake of thoroughness I’ll mention what seems to me to be the obvious problem here. A Catholic priest has the capacity to absolve one of mortal sin (defined by the Catechism as being sin “whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent,” and “grave matter” means a violation of the Ten Commandments of Moses). This means that a child rapist who is absolved of mortal sin by a priest before death goes to Heaven, while someone who only cheats on their spouse without being similarly absolved goes to Hell, and both for eternity. This contradicts and even offends our most basic moral intuitions concerning justice, and diminishes Heaven’s desirability as an eternal destination, if that’s the kind of company we must keep.
Does the Bible even indicate that we have souls? This is such common belief in modern Christianity that one would think that it would go without saying, but once again, we find that the actual contents of the Bible and what is said of it are two entirely different things.
When God formed Adam from the dust of the ground in the second creation narrative (Genesis 2:7), no mention is made of Their imbuing the creation with a soul; rather, God breathes “the breath of life” into his nostrils. Perhaps this is a somewhat poetic reference to a spirit or soul; after all, the word translated here as “breath” is נשמה, neshama and the word רוח, ruach, is often translated as “spirit” (the spirit of God in Genesis 1:2, for example) but also means “breath.” But this notion of a soul is a core concept; is there anything perhaps a little more specific that might not just be a reference to literal breath? How about נפשׁ, nefesh, which appears in Deuteronomy 4:29: “From there you will seek the Lord your God, and you will find him if you search after him with all your heart and soul” (NRSV). Looking at the Wikipedia page for that word, it seems that that might well be translated as something closer to “life” or “being.” Indeed, the word is translated elsewhere in that way. Still no clear statement of a purely spiritual aspect of our being, identical to our true selves, and it appears that, throughout the Old Testament, any word translated as “soul” comes from one of these three Hebrew words.
What about the New Testament? Matthew 22:37 says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (NRSV). This is a reference to Deuteronomy 6:5, which states the same thing, using the word nefesh. The Greek word that the author uses in Matthew is ψῡχή, psychē, which is, again, primarily “breath” or “life” in general.
Given the Jewish and early Christian belief that the resurrection would be physical, a separate, spiritual self seems entirely superfluous, and being that there are no clear references to the Biblical conception of the soul being otherwise, it seems that we may be mapping a modern notion onto ancient words, as we often do. The one verse I’ve been able to find that suggests a more modern conception of the soul is Matthew 10:28: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna” (NRSV, substituting the Greek transliteration for the word translated as “hell”). And “soul” again here is translated from the Greek psychē, but even this verse contradicts the modern notion of the soul being an immortal, enduring thing.
Eastern religions have a much different approach to the question of the afterlife. The phenomenal world is Samsara, a realm of suffering in which we are trapped in cycles of reincarnation (in Hinduism and Jainism) or rebirth (in Buddhism) until we achieve liberation. The difference between those two ideas, reincarnation and rebirth, is subtle but critical. Reincarnation posits a soul which is identical with the self, which is is reborn into a new physical body after death. Rebirth stipulates that no such soul exists, and indeed that there is no one thing that is identical with the self, and the elements of the aggregate of which the self is composed, after death, continue existing but go their separate ways. Reincarnation in particular is a little more complex than how I’ve just presented it, though, because the soul that reincarnation posits is identical with Brahman, the one and universal ground of being. Each of these ideas deserves its own exposition; in this work I’m primarily addressing Western beliefs of the afterlife but at least wanted to mention Eastern beliefs by way of comparison.
Beliefs in the afterlife in general are problematic because they can lead to religious nihilism. Much of what I’ve read in opposition to religion in general is in fact targeted at this specific and indeed problematic aspect of religion: the rejection of belief in anything of this world, in favor of belief in some other world. This is what we see in, for example, the Christian Science denomination of Protestant Christianity, which holds that the material world is an illusion born from mortal error and that only the spiritual world is truly real. Particularly devout adherents to this religion will often refuse medical care and even deny it to their children (I wrote of this in my story “The Tragedy of Christian Science”). Such thought is not limited to the Abrahamic religions; I’ve witnessed Hindus and Buddhists in Kathmandu spending their days circumambulating stupas in order to accrue good karma that will ensure a favorable rebirth or reincarnation, rather than working to improve the lives they’re already living. We’re also all painfully aware that people are willing, even eager, to annihilate themselves in large numbers in order to kill infidels for the promise of reward in the next life.
On this matter, Sam Harris writes:
What one believes happens after death dictates much of what one believes about life, and this is why faith-based religion, in presuming to fill in the blanks in our knowledge of the hereafter, does such heavy lifting for those who fall under its power. A single proposition — you will not die — once believed, determines a response to life that would be otherwise unthinkable.
The End of Faith, 2004
The End of Faith is a problematic book, and I’ll be addressing some of its many issues in another essay, but Harris is on point here. This quote brings to mind the particularly virulent nihilism of suicide bombing, but this thought applies to more seemingly-benign actions and lifestyles as well. I could see myself content to toil away on meaningless labor for my entire life if I thought that it was just a prelude to a better one; as it is, the thought of my only life lived in such a way is terrifying. And in this, one might see how religious nihilism might be an advantageous tool for those to whom such labor is valuable. Karl Marx certainly thought as much.
Nietzsche compared the living to those waiting to board a ship.
People have more to say to each other than ever, the hour is late, and the ocean and its desolate silence are waiting impatiently behind all of this noise — so covetous and certain of their prey. And all and everyone of them suppose that the heretofore was little or nothing while the near future is everything; and that is the reason for all of this haste, this clamor, this outshouting and overreaching each other. Everyone wants to be the first in this future — and yet death and deathly silence alone are certain and common to all in this future. How strange it is that this sole certainty and common element makes almost no impression on people, and that nothing is further from their minds than the feeling that they form a brotherhood of death.
The Gay Science, 1882, §278, translation Kaufmann
Nietzsche was a fierce opponent of religious nihilism, and of nihilism in general. Concluding this section, he says, “It makes me happy that men do not want at all to think the thought of death! I should like very much to do something that would make the thought of life even a hundred times more appealing to them.” He was opposed to a reliance on belief in the afterlife, but neither he did not advocate simply resigning oneself to death (which is nihilism as well); rather, he advocated impassioned living at every turn.
And what does the Satanist hold of the afterlife? In reverence to the icon of Satan the Adversary, who pointed humankind towards the way of knowledge, we must consider what it is that we really know about it, and the truth of the afterlife is that we simply don’t know what happens. We don’t know what happens after death, and perhaps we never will, but it seems that the best way to live is to accord our actions with the outcome that seems most likely: the final end of the self. Maybe the aspects of what I am will continue to exist beyond my death, but they won’t be me. Maybe there is self that will be reborn in a new body, but I can’t know that that’s the case. I can’t imagine what it would be like; everything I can think of that I accord with my identity — my thoughts, my memories, my beliefs, my body — these are all things that are part of my physical being alone and that I know will not withstand its dissolution unaffected. Thus the note to myself: “You are going to die soon,” a constant reminder for me to live. I can plan for my death, but I can make no plans for what will happen after, not if I can’t even assume that there’s an I that will continue to exist in any way at all afterwards. This raises the important question of what the self is anyway, and I’ll be turning to that in another essay.