What Awaits Us at Death: 1999 Brown Lecture Series | First Presbyterian Church Dallas, TX

What Awaits Us at Death? We begin with a statement acknowledged by atheists as well as by people of faith. Death is the one certainty of life and it is an issue with which we shall all have to deal. 1. The nature of life and death in biochemical terms. Biological life derives from the capacity to generate high-energy phosphate bonds, the key molecule being adenosine triphosphate or ATP. There is a property of matter that is called entropy. In plain terms, the natural history of both the universe and individuals is that everything is running down. We see entropy in action all the time: buildings crumble and fall into ruin, fruit rots, we age and die. Death is defined as the state caused by the inability to generate ATP so that everything runs down. This can occur by multiple mechanisms. While the electron transport chain can be poisoned by drugs, most often the terminal event is an inability to deliver oxygen to the tissues secondary to failure of the heart or lungs or the controlling centers for these systems in the brain. Less often hemorrhage or infection can cause shock, a disastrous fall in blood pressure, that even a sound heart cannot overcome thereby producing the oxygen deficit. Operationally death is declared when the physician finds no pulse or respiration. For those on life support, absence of brain waves by EEG represents clinical death. 2. The nature of humans and the concept of spirit or soul. There is not much mystery at the gross level about the human body. We know almost everything about how it works and what can go wrong with it. The real problem comes in understanding the essence of life. What is it that gives life to the body? Philosophers and theologians have called the unknown life force the soul or spirit or some similar term. In one sense there is no mystery in death. Its sign are clear: no heart beat, no respiration, no brain waves. But there is mystery in the event of passage from life to death. From many years of observing death first hand, let me describe the act of dying. Death is usually peaceful when it does not occur from violence. That is because in moments of injury or in disease with impending death the brain releases wonderful molecules called endorphins - opiate-like signal transducers that act to minimize pain and fear. One does not have to fear the act of dying. Sometimes eyes are closed but often they are open in the final hours. They usually rove up toward the ceiling and around the room. It is as though the one dying sees something we can’t see, that they are searching for something. It is like they are seeing or searching for God at the threshold of death. Then death comes. One moment life is there and the next it is gone. What has left? The organs still work. They can be transplanted and last for years. But life has gone. What is “it?” The only answer I know to give is that the soul has gone. 3. The negative fears and positive hopes of death. There are, fundamentally, two subset serious questions that comprehend the larger question before us, what awaits us at death? The first is: When I die, do I cease to be? The second is: If I do not cease to be, is there judgment in the universe? And if so will I be found wanting, guilty of an insufficient mortal life? In the first lecture, “Does God Exist?” heavy weight was given on the positive side to the fact that humans generically have always worshiped a higher being. It is likely that thoughts of God are intrinsic to human hood, induced by the God who wishes His creatures to find Him. The same is true about actions presupposing life after death and judgment in the universe. We now know that Neanderthal man (70,000-50,000 B.C.) already believed in the continuation of life after death. A classic later expression of belief in the afterlife coupled with judgment is seen in the Egyptian Book of the Dead around 1,500 B.C. According to the book, after the soul entered the afterworld and recited shortcomings during life, the heart was weighed against “the feather of truth” to determine worthiness to enter the company of Osiris, the chief deity of the dead. From earliest history in India the theory of reincarnation was operative, with future life based on the consequences of actions in earlier life. 4. The Christian answer to what awaits us at death. The answer of Christianity to the subset questions is straightforward. In death we do not cease to be and there is judgment in the Universe after death. The God of the Bible is a transcendent God who stands outside humanity and makes moral demands on our lives. His ultimate demand is that we love Him exclusively. Failure in morals or failure in divine love brings judgment. Judgment is present from beginning to end in the Bible. Only mercy is of equal or greater importance.