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The following is the third installment of an address given at FAIRMormon by Daniel C. Peterson. It is republished here with permission. To see the previous installment, click here.
On one understanding, life arose, simply and exclusively—but, to current scientific understanding, still quite mysteriously—from chance events in a warm little pond or, perhaps, near a volcanic vent deep in an early sea. We humans emerged billions of years thereafter via cellular mutations in the line of apelike organisms who are our ancestors.
One way of looking at this evolutionary history—that of Sam Harris, for example—concludes that it leaves no room for purpose or even freedom of the human will. All is the result of natural processes that we call random only because we don’t know all the factors involved; if we knew them all and possessed enough calculating power, we would be able to see that it was entirely inevitable. And, of course, there’s no room for the soul’s survival after death because there’s no soul. We’re, essentially, temporary cell colonies, doomed to annihilation.
But this viewpoint seems to entail some potentially disquieting things: If, for instance, our thoughts are merely neurochemical brain events set in motion by a deterministic process that goes all the way back to the Big Bang (perhaps with some quantum uncertainty tossed in to make it a bit less rigid but no less pointless), what can it possibly mean to say that our thoughts are “about” something? Other bodily functions—digestion, respiration or blood circulation, for example—aren’t “about” anything. They simply “are.” And what reason do we have to trust such “thoughts” regarding the nature and meaning of the universe? If our brains evolved to help us survive and reproduce—which is what the Darwinian principle of survival of the fittest strongly suggests—how can we be sure that they’re reliable beyond those limited functions?
If “meaning” of any sort is to survive, it’s not clear that atheistic naturalism can deliver it. These things make a difference.
Trials and Death
During my mission in Switzerland, we showed the German version of Man’s Search for Happiness so often that I think I still have the German script memorized. “Die grösste Prüfung deines Lebens,” it says at one point, “hast du am Grabe eines deiner Lieben zu bestehen.” “The greatest test of your life will be at the grave of one of your loved ones.”
As a young man, I knew this in theory. I can now bear witness to it from personal experience.
According to an early story, a despairing mother whose little boy had died once came to the Buddha, begging him to restore her son to life. The Buddha told her to go about the town collecting mustard seeds. But she was to do so only from houses in which nobody had ever died.
Hopeful, she set about her task. But she found only disappointment, because each house had experienced death. Finally, she returned to the Buddha without a single mustard seed. Now she understood that death was universal and inescapable. And, though still sorrowful, she had come to accept it.
The simple, unavoidable fact is that we all will die. And all those whom we love, and every thing that we love, will also die. All earthly relationships end in death, if not before.
When you hear the funeral bells ring, the English poet John Donne said, “send not to know for whom the bell tolls: It tolls for thee.” And, he might have added, for thy family and friends.
Nevertheless, many of us energetically (and fairly successfully) try to avoid reflecting on our mortality. “I’m not afraid to die,” Woody Allen said. “I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
But Mr. Allen has no choice. He’ll be there, like it or not.
Every day, each of us draws nearer to the end. In the words of the unexpected Nobel laureate Bob Dylan, “He not busy being born is busy dying.”
Is this life all there is? Are all the love, hopes, attainments and talents of an individual nothing more than a random, transient and ultimately meaningless collection of neurochemical impulses?
There are, essentially, only two possible answers to this question. One is eloquently summarized by Shakespeare’s Macbeth, for whom the close of mortal life was the absolute and irrevocable end. Upon hearing of his wife’s suicide, Macbeth exclaims:
All our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Others respond with less anger: “Apatheism” is the witty term coined for the complete indifference to great issues of faith and religion that’s fashionable in some circles.
“If there were a God,” a supremely complacent atheist once told me online, “I think (s)he’d enjoy hanging out with me — perhaps sipping on a fine Merlot under the night sky while devising a grand unified theory.”
“If you live in this very moment,” another atheist wrote to me a year later, “you’ll find happiness. You realize that life isn’t about getting to the shore. It’s about enjoying the feel of the water glide against your skin, feeling the power in your arms as you systematically push water behind you, deeply breathing the fresh salty air, feeling a moment of awe as you turn your head and see the sunset, and feeling the love that you share with your fellow swimmers. This life is a precious thing in and of itself. There may be something beyond it, there may not. But this life is wonderful enough.”
I understand his attitude; things can be very good indeed for those who win life’s lottery. But it hasn’t been so good for many, and there’s nobody for whom it’s always grand.
Most of us don’t die suddenly, for example, passing painlessly from robust health into oblivion while accompanied by a first-rate string quartet. We commonly endure physical deterioration and mental decline.
What’s the difference between a good long life and a fine meal? Fine meals end with dessert.
And for too many, this follows lives of frustration, hunger, humiliation, pain, injustice and oppression.
Life “in this moment” can be hellish.
Perhaps 40 percent of the population of classical Athens were slaves. In ancient wars, husbands and fathers were often put to the sword; their women and children were enslaved without rights. But urban slaves were the lucky ones. Others went to the Athenian silver mines, where, rarely seeing the sun, they were harshly beaten, starved and worked to death.
Nearby Sparta depended upon a population of “helots,” fellow Greeks—seven for every citizen—who farmed the city’s lands under continual military occupation. Sparta’s teenagers honed their military skills by roaming in gangs through the helots’ settlements, terrorizing them and destroying their hovels. And every year, somewhat in the spirit of The Hunger Games, Sparta’s rulers declared ritual war on the helots, murdering anybody who showed signs of leadership.
Such was life for many in classical Greece, at the fountainhead of Western civilization. And conditions surely weren’t better under the ancient Assyrians or Babylonians, or the medieval Huns and Mongols.
While comfortable people often observe that money doesn’t bring happiness, poverty and hunger make happiness very elusive. According to the United Nations World Food Programme, one person in nine is chronically undernourished, therefore lacking the energy and mental acuity needed for a full life. One quarter of those in sub-Saharan Africa suffer from malnutrition. More than 3 million children under the age of 5 die from malnourishment each year. And I’ve said nothing about the cruelty of oppressive armies and murderous tyrants.
In his 1870 Grammar of Assent, John Henry Newman quotes the words of a dying factory girl from a then-popular story:
I think if this should be the end of all, and if all I have been born for is just to work my heart and life away, and to sicken in this (dreary) place, with those millstones in my ears for ever, until I could scream out for them to stop and let me have a little piece of quiet, and with the fluff filling my lungs, until I thirst to death for one long deep breath of the clear air, and my mother gone, and I never able to tell her again how I loved her, and of all my troubles, — I think, if this life is the end, and there is no God to wipe away all tears from all eyes, I could go mad!
Historically, most of the human race has lived like the dying factory girl, not “sipping a fine Merlot under the night sky.” Beyond a relatively small number of privileged places, her story typifies much human experience even today.
For many, life isn’t wonderful. And, for virtually all, it’s punctuated (and often ended) by moments of terrible pain and acute sorrow. If there’s no redemptive life after death, viruses, child murderers, gross physical deformities and random accidents—not to mention history’s Hitlers and Stalins—have had the last word in billions of lives, and will continue to have it.
None of these sad realities proves the existence of God, of course, or of life after death or ultimate justice. In fact, quite understandably, many see in them a powerful argument against God. Surely, though, they illustrate why the hope for eternal joy and compensation is so deeply important.
“In light of heaven,” said Mother Teresa, who was well aware of poverty and human agony, “the worst suffering on Earth, a life full of the most atrocious tortures on Earth, will be seen to be no more serious than one night in an inconvenient hotel.”
If she’s right, that’s fabulous news for everybody who has ever lived.
Even successful lives are often marred by terrible pain. Consider, for example, the cases of three eminent scientists:
The obvious one, I suppose, is Stephen Hawking, widely considered one of the foremost theoretical physicists since Einstein. His brilliant mind is trapped in a body twisted and ruined by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. He communicates now via a speech device activated by a single muscle in his cheek.
Another is Charles Darwin, surely among the most important scientists who have ever lived. His was an extraordinarily accomplished and influential life, and his fame is imperishable. But two of the Darwins’ children died in infancy, and he worried deeply every time any of the others was sick. Then his beloved oldest daughter, Annie, became ill. When she died just after turning ten, Darwin, already probably an agnostic, was so overcome with grief that he couldn’t attend her burial.
Finally, there is Max Planck, originator of quantum theory, winner of the 1918 Nobel Prize for Physics. The elite German scientific institution known as the Max Planck Society is named for him, as are its 83 prestigious Max Planck Institutes. In physics, Planck time is the unit of time required for light to travel a distance of one Planck length in a vacuum, expressed in a system of natural units known as Planck units. Planck’s constant is a central concept in quantum mechanics.
Max Planck died in Göttingen in 1947, nearly ninety years old, laden with honors.
But what happened along the way? In 1909, Planck’s wife Marie died suddenly after twenty-two years of happy marriage. In 1914, during World War One, his son Erwin was taken prisoner by the French and his son Karl was killed in action. In 1917, his daughter Grete died while giving birth to her first child. In 1919, his daughter Emma died in childbirth. In 1944, his house was completely destroyed by fire following an Allied bombing raid. In January 1945, Erwin, to whom Planck had been particularly close, was sentenced to death by the Nazis for his participation in the July 1944 assassination plot against Hitler. Erwin was executed on 23 January 1945, just three months before the end of World War Two.
Another issue: Human potential is never fully realized in mortality. Too often, in fact, it’s scarcely realized at all.
Consider Ludwig van Beethoven, certainly among the foremost composers of all time, perhaps indeed the very greatest.
A prodigy born in 1770 to a commonplace court musician and a chambermaid who died of tuberculosis when he was 16, he began to perform professionally at the age of 10. Thereafter, he received no further education except in music.
His health was terrible almost from the start. Although some have suspected that he brought his illnesses on himself through alcoholism and immorality, this seems to be false. He already suffered from chronic colic and diarrhea, and from frequent fevers and septic abscesses, by his 21st birthday.
When he was only 27, he began to go deaf. Experts now think that he suffered from otosclerosis, an abnormal sponge-like bone growth in the middle ear whose cause is unknown (though it may be genetically transmitted). This growth prevents the ear—and usually both ears—from vibrating in response to sound waves, which is essential to being able to hear. Even today, the disease is progressive and incurable.
Well before his 30th birthday, Beethoven suffered from incessant ringing and whistling in his ears, and, especially in winter, from terrible earaches and headaches. By 1805, when he was in his mid-30s, he could scarcely hear wind instruments. Yet noises caused him pain; he often stuffed his ears with cotton wool, and, in 1809, he covered his head with cushions in an attempt to escape the horrific roar of Napoleon’s cannons bombarding Vienna.
By 1812, his visitors had to shout to be understood. He destroyed piano after piano, pounding upon the keys out of his desperation to hear. Five years later—when he was still only about 47—he was completely deaf and could no longer hear music at all.
His great Ninth Symphony premiered on May 7, 1824, in Vienna. He was there, standing near the conductor, but he never heard it. (You may have, but he never did. Think about that.) Reportedly, several in the orchestra wept as they played. Afterward, the contralto soloist turned him around to see the passionate applause of the audience who, seized by emotion, applauded all the louder and more visibly.
Beethoven died less than three years later, at 57, apparently from complications of jaundice, which he had contracted roughly seven years before. The autopsy revealed a ravaged, worn-out liver, and modern scholars suspect that he may have suffered for many years from an immunopathic disease called systemic lupus erythematosus, which begins in early adulthood—at about the same time, in other words, that his otosclerosis began to manifest itself—and, though it may come and go for a while, eventually becomes chronic. Its symptoms include not only liver disease but rashes, redness in the face, rheumatism, and emotional instability.
And Beethoven certainly had emotional issues. Ravaged by constant stomach pain, frustrated by his uniquely tragic combination of musical genius and deafness, he was quarrelsome, suspicious, rude, commonly in a state of rage. And, thus, he was desperately lonely. His living quarters were disorderly and often filthy. He was perpetually in debt—partly, perhaps, because he lacked basic skills in arithmetic. He never married; he couldn’t even keep servants. “Oh, God,” he begged in his journal, “may I find her at last, the woman who may strengthen me in virtue, who is permitted to be mine.” But he never did.
It’s impossible not to wonder what this musical titan might have accomplished had he been healthy, had he lived longer and had he been able to hear. It’s impossible to believe that he achieved his full potential as either a composer or, even, a human being.
Beethoven’s heart-rending biography—and many millions like his, or worse—is no argument for a future life. Perhaps, a skeptic might say, there’s no purpose to the cosmos. That’s just the way it is. We live briefly, we die meaninglessly and then our little candle is extinguished—as all light and life ultimately will be extinguished in the vast heat-death of the universe.
But it should certainly cause us to hope for a future in which wounds are healed, deep yearnings satisfied and human potential fully realized.
Fortunately, in the Resurrection of Christ and the Restoration of the gospel there’s a firm foundation for that hope.
Be still, my soul: the hour is hast’ning on
When we shall be forever with the Lord.
When disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last.
Jesus didn’t only teach theoretically about life after death. He demonstrated it. His physical resurrection and his empty tomb lift the concept of a life beyond the grave from the realm of airy speculation to that of specific, concrete history.
“All your losses will be made up to you in the resurrection,” testified the Prophet Joseph Smith, “provided you continue faithful. By the vision of the Almighty I have seen it.”
“Weeping may endure for a night,” says the Psalmist (30:5), “but joy cometh in the morning.”
“O death,” wrote the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:55, “where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”
The glorious message of Easter is that Death doesn’t win. It doesn’t have the final say.
“And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes,” testified John the Revelator, “and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
What difference does this make? It changes everything.