Horror, Life and Death

PJ Media blogger Spengler recently posted a piece on horror and its role in war and politics. The Nazis, he relates, tried to horrify us but did not succeed. We were defeated by the Communists in part by the horror we caused. The Moslems have horrified us, and thus seriously weakened us. He recounts how horror as a cultural theme has been revived over the years.

My take on this is that while the Germans and Japanese used horror as a weapon against us, we used horror against them right back, paying them back several times over. The American people and their leaders regarded the Nazis and Imperial Japanese as horrifying and thus deserving of being horrified. The leaders of America and many of the American people did not regard communism as horrifying, something obviously not true but that seriously constricted the fight against it.

Horror is indeed disabling. We see pain, death, the destruction of the body by violence and the process of decay- all things depicted in horror movies or Halloween art to induce horror- and we realize they will inevitably happen to us. In horror movies, the monster is defeated, if only temporarily. Halloween is just a few days out of the year, quickly forgotten for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Islamic terrorism aside, horror is a basic and inescapable fact of life, although we avoid thinking about it as much as possible. Modern society keeps death, illness, violence and old age mostly out of sight. I once was required to deal with a dead body, in the process of moving it from a Central American country to the US. I was pretty freaked out by the whole thing, as were the other Americans involved, but the locals were pretty much like, “Yeah, a dead guy.” In poor countries people see others killed more often, and old people age and die at home, so death is more a normal aspect of life. I think this hardens people; they are less vulnerable to horror, but less empathetic for it.

But I’m trying to understand this from a religious stand point, not a political, cultural, or social one. The destruction of life- pain, injury, illness, social rejection and isolation, the loss of the functions of the body and the pleasure they provide, in the end the loss of consciousness itself- is inevitable. There are degrees of this, but even the richest, most powerful, most famous and acclaimed must experience it.

A doctor, Sherwin Nuland, wrote a book called “How We Die”. The upshot is dying peacefully in your sleep is pretty much a myth. You die, fundamentally, because you can’t breathe any more, and people struggle to breathe as long as they can. The exception to this would be instantaneous and unanticipated death by a massive heart attack or stroke or accident or homicide.

So the best way to live and die would be to be rich and beautiful, not get too old and die instantly and without foreknowledge of the event. Assuming, of course, there is no punishment in an afterlife. In any case though death and the loss of everything is unavoidable, and the human mind has difficulty with that.

If you are an atheist, you might think that ideas of heaven and hell originated because people thought death as like sleep. When you are asleep you aren’t completely unaware, but can either have a happy and pleasant awareness, if you have good dreams, or a frightening awareness, if you have bad dreams. People might then perceive of an afterlife which might be happy and peaceful or might be tormented.

Epicurus said we should not fear death because rather than having any kind of consciousness, we would simply not exist any more. “While we exist, death is not. While death exists, we are not.” But even the possibility of nullity is fearful to most.

Life comes, but then comes death. Death apparently is the victor. How do we defeat death? People try in different ways. Mostly by pleasure, many by their accomplishments, some by their good works, many by having children who will live after them. None of these things are a guarantee. They may last a while, some time after your death, but probably not for long.

For the Hebrews, maintenance of the community and having children was the most important part of maintaining some kind of immortality. To be ejected from the camp or the city, to be childless, to die a condemned criminal were the worst possible fates.

Destruction and regeneration are recurring themes in the Old Testament, although since my knowledge of it is pretty limited I can’t give a complete account. But God repeatedly promises that the people will be renewed after some loss. The most graphic example I know of is the field of dry bones in Ezekiel. Dry bones are the most advanced stage of death and decomposition; God’s willingness to resurrect even these show his power, love, and committment.

Jesus suffered all three of these worst fates- to be rejected by his people, to die childless, and to be executed as a criminal. Yet he accepted this fate, and this death, and for this God resurrected him from death, gave him a new body, eternal life, and the highest glory.

Horror is an inevitable part of life and existence. It isn’t something we experience transitorily, but a basic existential fact. Only Jesus and the resurrection and eternal life promised by him offer any hope of overcoming it.

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