1. Human beings, to whatever degree of the scale to which they belong, from the savage state upwards, have an innate presentiment about a future life; they feel an intuitive urging that death is not the end of existence, and that those whose demise they regret are not lost to them forever. This spontaneous belief in a future state is vastly more general than the belief in annihilation. How is it, then, that we find among those who do believe in the immortality of the soul, so strong an attachment to the earthly life and so great a dread of death?
2. The fear of death is at once a proof of the wisdom of Providence and a consequence of the instinct of self-preservation that is common to all living creatures. It is, moreover, essential to the well-being of the human race, so long as men and women are insufficiently enlightened in regard to the conditions of their future life. It serves as a counterpoise to the discouragement which, if not for this fear, would too often lead them to make a voluntary renunciation of their terrestrial existence, and to shirk the labors of this lower sphere, which are necessary to their advancement.
We accordingly see that, among primitive peoples the intuition of a future life is extremely vague, and that it is only in proportion as people advance that this intuition gradually becomes, at first, a mere hope and later, in the fullness of time, a certainty, but still counter balanced by an instinctive attachment to corporeal life.
3. As human beings arrive at a true understanding of a future state, their fear of death diminishes; but at the same time, they also comprehend more clearly the purposes for an earthly life, and they await its ending calmly, without impatience or regret. The certainty of a future life gives another direction to their thoughts, another aim to their activities. Before acquiring this certainty they labored only for the things of the present life; having acquired this certainty they labor for the life to come, yet without neglecting the duties and interests of their present life, because they know that the character of their future lives will be decided by the use they will have made of their present existence. The certainty of again meeting the friends whom they have lost by death, of preserving the relationships they have formed upon the Earth, of not losing the fruit of any effort, of continuing, forever, to grow in intelligence and in goodness, gives them patience to await the appointed term of their earthly sojourn and courage to bear, without complaint, the momentary fatigues and disappointments of terrestrial life. The solidarity which they perceive to exist among spirits and humankind show them the union which ought to exist among all people of the Earth. Thus, they perceive the true basis of human fraternity and the true objective of charity in the present and in the future.
4. In order to free ourselves from the fear of death, we must be able to look at it from the right point of view; that is to say, we must have penetrated the spirit world in thought. We must have formed to ourselves an idea of that world, as exact as can be obtained at the present time: a power of discernment denoting, on the part of our incarnate spirits, a certain amount of intellectual and moral development, and a certain aptitude for freeing ourselves from materiality. Among those who are not sufficiently advanced for the acquisition of this knowledge, the physical life takes precedence over the spiritual life.
The real life of humankind is in the soul; but while humans remain attached to external values, they see life only in the body; and therefore, when the body is deprived of life, they fancy that all is over and abandon themselves to despair. If, instead of concentrating their thoughts on the outer garment of life, they directed their thoughts to the source of life, to the soul which is the real being, and which survives the change of its outer clothing, they would feel less regret at the idea of losing their bodies, the instruments of so much trouble and suffering; but for this, humanity needs a moral strength which is only acquired gradually, and in proportion to its advancement towards maturity.
The fear of death, therefore, results from an insufficient knowledge of the future life. It also denotes aspirations for the continuance of existence, and anxiety lest the destruction of the body should be the end. It is, therefore, evident that it is due to a secret desire for survival which really exists in the soul, although partially hidden under the veil of uncertainty.
The fear of death diminishes in proportion as we obtain a clearer anticipation of the future life; it disappears entirely when that anticipation has become a certainty.
The wisdom of Providence is seen in the progressive march of human convictions with regard to the continuation of life beyond the grave. If the certainty of a future life had been permitted to men and women before their mental vision was prepared for such a prospect, they would have been dazzled thereby. And the seductions of such a certainty, too clearly seen, would lead them to neglect the present life, their diligent use of which is the condition for physical and moral advancement.
5. The fear of death has also been maintained for merely human reasons which will disappear with the progress of the race. The first of these is the aspect under which the idea of the future life has hitherto been presented. This viewpoint sufficed for minds of slight advancement, but could not satisfy the mental requirements of intellects that have learned to reason on the subject. The presentation, as absolute truth, of statements that are both irrational in themselves and opposed to the data of physical science, has necessarily led reasoning minds to the conclusion that such a presentation must be unfounded and erroneous. Hence, there has resulted, in the minds of many, utter skepticism in relation to the reality of a future existence that has been presented under an unacceptable aspect, and in the minds of a yet greater number, a half-belief, so strongly plagued by doubts, that it differs only slightly from utter disbelief. For the latter the idea of a future life is, at best, a vague hypothesis, a probability rather than a certainty. They wish that it may be so and yet notwithstanding that desire, they say to themselves, “But what if, after all, there should be nothing beyond the grave! We are sure of the present, so let us busy ourselves with that. There will be time enough to think of a future life when we have found out whether that future life really exists!”
“And besides,” say the doubters, “what in fact, is the soul? Is it a mathematical point, an atom, a spark, a flame? How does the ‘soul’ feel? How does it see? How and what does it perceive?” The soul, for most people, is not a positive and active reality but a mere abstraction. Those whom they have loved, but from whom they have been separated by death, being reduced, in their thought to the state of atoms, of a spark, or of gas, seem to be separated from them forever and to have lost all the qualities for which they formerly loved them. Most people find it difficult to consider “an atom,” “a spark,” or “a gas” as an object of affection. They fail to derive satisfaction from the prospect of being, themselves, converted into “monads,” and they try to avoid contemplations that are so vague and cheerless, by restricting their thoughts to the interests, pursuits, and enjoyments of terrestrial life, which offers them, at least, the appearance of something real and substantial. The number of those who are swayed by considerations of this kind is very great.
6. Attachment to the things of the earthly life is also kept up, even in the minds of many of those who believe most firmly in the reality of a future life, by the impressions they have retained of the teachings to which they were subjected in their childhood.
The pictures of the future life presented by the Church are not, it must be confessed, either attractive or consoling. On the one hand, we are shown the contortions of the damned, who expiate, in endless tortures and unquenchable flames their momentary errors; ages after ages passing over them without hope of deliverance or pity, and (what is even more incredible,) repentance itself being of no avail in their case. On the other hand, we see the sufferings of the souls who are languishing in purgatory, and who are awaiting their deliverance, not from their own efforts for improvement, but from the compassionate efforts of the living who pray for them or have them prayed for by others.
These two classes are represented as constituting the immense majority of the population of the other world; and above them hovers the very small minority of the elect, absorbed, throughout eternity, in contemplative beatitude. It is an eternal uselessness which—though undoubtedly preferable to annihilation—is nevertheless, only wearisome monotony and, accordingly, in the paintings which represent the blessedness of the elect, the faces of the latter usually wear an expression much more suggestive of dullness than of happiness.
Such a view of the future life corresponds neither to our aspirations, nor to the idea of progressiveness that we instinctively regard as a necessary element of happiness. It is difficult to imagine that ignorant savages, whose moral sense is as yet undeveloped, should find themselves, simply because they have received baptism, on a level with those who, through long years of effort have raised themselves to a high degree of knowledge and of practical morality. Still less conceivable is it that the child who has died in infancy, before acquiring the consciousness of itself and of its actions, should enjoy the same privileges simply as the result of its having undergone a ceremony in which its will took no part. Considerations of this nature cause uneasiness in the minds even of fervent believers, whenever they reflect seriously on the doctrines which, as children, they were drilled into accepting.
7. If the progress which human beings so laboriously accomplish in the earthly life has nothing to do with their future happiness, then the belief that they can easily secure that happiness by means of ceremonies and outward observances—and that they can even purchase their future happiness with money, without any thorough transformation of their character and habits—tends to attach them still more strongly to worldly pleasures. Many who believe in a future life under the guise we are now considering, say to themselves in their secret hearts that, because their future welfare can be secured by observing certain forms or by making bequests that entail no privation during their life time, it would be unnecessary to impose upon themselves any sacrifice for the sake of others, and that the true plan is for the individual, thus they should ensure their own salvation and secure for themselves at the same time, the largest possible share of the good things of the present life.
Assuredly such is not the thought of all people, for there are many grand and noble exceptions to the common rule. However it cannot be denied that such is the thought of the majority of humankind, especially among the unenlightened masses, and that the idea commonly entertained in regard to the conditions of happiness in the other world, tends to keep up the attachment to the things of the present one, and consequently acts as a powerful stimulus to selfishness.
8. It is to be remarked yet further, that all our social usages concur to make people cling to the earthly life, and to cower before the path that leads from this world to the next. Death is surrounded by somber ceremonies, which are far more suggestive of sorrow than of hope. It is always portrayed in a negative light, never as a state of transition. All the symbolism employed to describe it makes reference to the destruction of the body, and portrays it as a hideous fleshless specter; none of the symbols employed for this purpose represent death as the deliverance of the soul, joyous and radiant, from terrestrial bondage. The departure for a happier state of existence is accompanied only by the lamentations of the survivors, as though the greatest possible misfortune had befallen those who are gone before us. Their weeping friends bid them an eternal farewell, as though they would never again be able to behold them, and are filled with grief at the thought that they are deprived of the joys of this lower sphere, as though the other life did not offer enjoyments far greater than those of Earth. “What a misfortune,” it is often said, “to have died when those who were taken were young, rich, happy, and with a brilliant future before them!” The idea that the departed can gain more by the change scarcely crosses the mind of any of those whom they have left, so vague, misty, gloomy, and void of hopefulness is the idea generally entertained in regard to the world of souls. Humanity will doubtless be slow in getting rid of their prejudices concerning death; but they will succeed in doing so as their knowledge of the spirit-life becomes clearer, firmer, and more enlightened.
9. The common belief, moreover, places souls in imaginary regions, scarcely accessible to human thought, where they become strangers to those they have left behind on Earth; the Church itself places an impassable barrier between them and the latter, for it declares that all connections between them have ended, and that all communication between them is impossible. If they are in Hell, all hope of seeing them again is lost forever, unless indeed, for those among the latter who incur the same doom. If they are among the elect, they are entirely absorbed in their own contemplative beatitude. All these suppositions make so wide a separation between the dead and the living that the severance between them seems to be complete and forever; and people would therefore prefer to keep those whom they love beside them on Earth, even though in a state of suffering, rather than see them go away, even though to “Heaven!” Besides, is it conceivable that the “elect” can be truly happy even in “Heaven,” if they have to see their own child, father, mother, or friend, burning forever in unquenchable fire?