The beginning of the New Year will take me back to Washington, D.C. to speak on a variety of apologetic issues for RTB. Every time I’m in Washington I try to visit Arlington National Cemetery. Spending time in this celebrated memorial park always leaves me in a very thoughtful state of mind. While there, I ponder life and death, God, and immortality as I walk the hallowed grounds of America’s greatest military cemetery.
While many people try hard to avoid thinking about death, Arlington’s more than 300,000 white headstones make that difficult. Some people take the view that since death is inevitable, why bother thinking about it? Focus on living, not dying. For these people, contemplating death is distracting or even morbid.
However, as a philosopher I take the opposite view. I think honest reflection about death can help a person live a healthier, more authentic, and focused life. While this may sound gloomy to some, I visit cemeteries occasionally for the very purpose of reminding myself of my mortality. Studies in thanatology (the study of death and dying) indicate that some people subconsciously think or feel that by not acknowledging death it may not happen to them. Talk about wishful thinking!
Seeing the graves of others reminds me (like nothing else can) of the brevity of life and the inevitability of my death. Even though I confidently expect to survive the death of my body and enter into the presence of God when I die (1 Corinthians 5:6–8; Philippians 1:21–24), I recognize that I have only one life in this time-space world and I desire to live it to the fullest. Walking through Arlington causes me to think carefully about the way I live my life and about life’s ultimate priorities.
The cemetery’s sacred land also reminded me how many American patriots have been willing to lay down their lives for the greater good of their countrymen. In his classic Christian book, Confessions, Augustine (354–430 AD) asks the ultimate existential question about life:
“I was born into this life which leads to death—or should I say, this death that leads to life?”
Augustine captures the paradox of the historic Christian view of life and death. Because of humanity’s fallen state, people have a temporal earthly life that inevitably will end in death (Hebrews 9:27). Yet death itself is the necessary doorway to experience genuine life eternal (2 Timothy 1:9–10). The Christian world-and-life view presents a clear and distinct perspective on God, death, and immortality.
Because something happens at death (oblivion, reincarnation, divine judgment, or life eternal), people are forced to form beliefs about what lies ahead. Reflection upon death inevitably raises questions about God and immortality. Coming to grips with the ultimate issues of God, death, and immortality forms a critically important part of human existence. I, for one, consider these supreme existential questions as worthy of deep contemplation. Visiting Arlington National Cemetery reminds me once again of the great philosophical questions of life and death.
For more on my own reflections about life and death during my experience with a grave illness in 2003, see the vignettes that precede each chapter in my book A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test.
For more on thanatology, see Lynne Ann DeSpelder and Albert Lee Strickland’s book, The Last Dance: Encountering Death and Dying.