Chapter 27 - When you die, you die

Death is a central feature of every human life. As we live, we know that we will die.

For some reason, many people find death terrifying and mystifying. Throughout the ages this terror has been a constant. You can go all the way back to the Neanderthals and find that they buried their dead. They even placed flowers and other artifacts in the grave. This was happening tens of thousands of years ago. Obviously death has been a very big deal for a very long time.

The central feature of the Christian faith, therefore, is "eternal life." In John 3:16 we find the signature verse of Christianity on this topic:

    "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."
By believing in Jesus, you can have life everlasting. This is the promise of Christianity.

If you are terrified by the idea of death, you can imagine that the promise of "eternal life" is quite compelling. This is one of the fundamental reasons why so many people turn to religion.

There is only one problem: "eternal life" is a fabrication. The Bible is a fictional book written by primitive men (see section 2), so its promise of eternal life is make-believe.

The reality of the human condition is quite simple, and it is this: the time that we have on earth is all the time that we have. For many people this idea is terrifying, but it is a fact of life:

  • There is neither heaven nor hell. These two places are fairy tale worlds that spring from the human imagination.

  • You do not have an "everlasting soul." The concept of a soul is completely imaginary.

  • People do not have "eternal life" after their deaths. The whole notion of eternal life is a fantasy.

  • People do not meet back up with dead friends and family members in the afterlife, nor is there any reincarnation.

  • There are not 72 virgins waiting for you in heaven if you martyr yourself in a suicide bombing.

  • And so on...
All of it is imaginary. The truth is this simple: When you die, you die.

Some people have a tremendous amount of trouble getting their arms around this fact of life. Chances are that you have heard about "eternal life" and your "everlasting soul" since you were a toddler. Heaven is as deeply ingrained in you as is your native language. Nonetheless, "everlasting life" is imaginary. Let's look at the evidence so that you can better understand this.

Understanding the chemistry of life

It should be obvious to all of us that "eternal life" is imaginary. Simply by understanding the chemistry of life you can see why life after death is impossible.

To understand how death works, we can start with a bacterium cell. A bacterium is a tiny bag (a cell membrane) filled with a variety of molecules. These molecules react together in different ways to create what we call life. Some of the molecules react to build and repair the cell wall. Some of the molecules react in ways that allow the cell to move. Some of the molecules react to provide energy to the cell. And so on. A bacterium cell is a little chemical machine.

One of the molecules inside a bacterium cell is a long DNA strand. There are molecules floating around the DNA strand that are able to copy parts of the DNA to manufacture new molecules that the cell needs.

Although all of these molecules are reacting in fascinating, interlocking ways, they are still nothing more than chemicals reacting. The "miracle of life" is no miracle -- it is a big chemical reaction.

Let's say that a foreign molecule gets into the bacterium cell and it gums up a part of the DNA chemistry. Or let's say that something damages the DNA strand in the bacterium so the cell can no longer manufacture an important molecule that it needs. Eventually the chemical reactions inside the bacterium will stop. The cell "dies." Its cell wall breaks down and bursts. All of the chemicals inside the cell float away and the bacterium ceases to exist.

A bacterium is nothing but a set of chemical reactions. When those reactions stop, the cell is dead.

Now here is the question: When the bacterium dies, does it go to heaven?

I know what you are thinking: "Does it go to heaven??? Of course not!!!" It does not matter who you are -- religious or not. There are not many people in the United States who believe that bacteria go to heaven. The Bible does not talk about heaven being filled with all the disease, putrefaction and pestilence that bacteria cause. And what, exactly, would go to heaven? Do all of the bacterium's molecules get transported to heaven so that they can keep reacting? If that were happening, there would be thousands of tons of chemicals leaving earth every day. Obviously bacteria do not go to heaven.

Next let's look at a mosquito. A mosquito is much more complex than a bacterium cell. For one thing, a mosquito is a multi-cellular insect with some amazing (though annoying) capabilities. But if you look at each cell in a mosquito, it is very much like a bacterium in its basic functioning. A cell in a mosquito is a fascinating series of DNA-based chemical reactions -- nothing more. When those chemical reactions cease, the mosquito dies.

Mosquitoes obviously do not go to heaven. Think of how many mosquitoes have lived and died over the course of millions of years. No one imagines heaven being full of septillions of everlasting mosquitoes.

What about a mouse? Ditto. Mouse cells are little chemical factories churning away. They are fascinating, but they are soulless and inert. Mice do not go to heaven -- if they did, then heaven would be overrun with quadrillions of mice.

What about dogs? Lots of vets and pet owners would argue with you here, but dogs do not go to heaven either. When they die, they die.

What about chimps -- the closest living relatives to humans? Ditto.

So what about humans?

The human body is nothing but a set of chemical reactions. The chemical reactions powering a human life are no different from the reactions powering the life of a bacterium, a mosquito, a mouse, a dog or a chimp. When a human being dies, the chemical reactions stop. There is no "soul" mixed in with the chemicals, just like there is no soul in a bacterium, a mosquito, a mouse, a dog or a chimp. There is no afterlife, no heaven or hell, for the chemicals that make up a human body.

This concept -- this idea that a human being simply ceases to exist upon death -- drives many people absolutely nuts. They cannot imagine it. "Me? Die? I am going to totally cease to exist? All my thoughts, all my experiences, all my relationships, all of my ideas and memories... It all simply vanishes and I am gone? Impossible!!!"

Nonetheless, that is the reality of the situation.

You are a collection of chemical reactions. When these chemical reactions cease, you die. When you die, "you" cease to exist. Imagining eternal life and creating a fantasy called "heaven" does not change anything. When you die, you are dead.

Talking to Christians

If you talk to a Christian about the reality of death, you can clearly understand that the notion of heaven and everlasting life is imaginary. Each conversation will be different, but a typical conversation might go something like this:

    Christian: What you are saying is completely devoid of hope! Jesus transcends death and promises eternal life to all who believe in him! Lift up your heart to the Lord Jesus Christ and he will give you eternal life!

    Norm: OK, how will he do that?

    Christian: Have you ever read the book called "Left Behind?"

    Norm: No.

    Christian: You should! They have sold over 20 million copies of the book, because it is the truth! It describes exactly what will happen. One day the Lord Jesus calls his children home, and they are carried straight to heaven! Airplanes crash because their pilots have vanished. Cars run into phone poles. This is exactly what is described in the Bible.

    Norm: The people completely vanish?

    Christian: Yes. All that is left behind is their clothes, their jewelry and their hearing aids! The believers are transported directly to heaven!

    Norm: Their naked bodies are transported to heaven?

    Christian: Yes!

    Norm: There are six billion people on the planet. They each weigh about 150 pounds or so. Are you telling me that God lifts a trillion pounds of human flesh off the planet in an instant?

    Christian: Absolutely not! Only the believers are transported!

    Norm: OK, half a trillion pounds?

    Christian: Yes!

    Norm: And where does this half a trillion pounds of flesh go?

    Christian: To heaven!

    Norm: To heaven... where is that?

    Christian: It is in another dimension, of course! God lives in heaven!

    Norm: How do all the bodies get to this "other dimension" called "heaven"? Do they float up into the sky and then travel through the vacuum of space?

    Christian: No, silly! They are dematerialized and then rematerialize in heaven!

    Norm: So you are saying that half a trillion pounds of naked human flesh are somehow "dematerialized" out of our universe, and then they "rematerialize" in "another dimension" called "heaven?" And the "dematerializing" process somehow distinguishes between natural human flesh and unnatural things like clothing and hearing aids?

    Christian: Yes!

    Norm: So... what if the person has artificial heart valves, a couple of stents and two titanium hip joints? Are those ripped out of his body and left behind with his jewelry?

    Christian: Yes!

    Norm: And what happens to that poor person, whose heart collapses and whose legs are now flopping around detached from his pelvis?

    Christian: The book doesn't really talk about that... I imagine God would fix them up!

    Norm: And what about all the people whose bodies are wracked with cancer and AIDS and emphysema?

    Christian: God fixes them all up too!

    Norm: And what about all the decrepit 80-year-old bodies?

    Christian: God gives them new, young, beautiful bodies!

    Norm: And what about all the people whose bodies have died and decomposed?

    Christian: God gives them young, new, beautiful bodies too!

    Norm: So why bother transporting the bodies of the believers to heaven? Why not just give everyone a new, young, beautiful body and leave their old bodies on earth?

    Christian: The Bible says that your body is transported to heaven! It is right there in black and white in the "Left Behind" books! That is God's will!

    Norm: OK, so heaven is full of people whose bodies or corpses or whatever have been "dematerialized" from earth, and then "rematerialized" in "heaven." And then the dematerialized/rematerialized bodies are discarded, and they are replaced with new, young, beautiful bodies?

    Christian: Yes! Now you understand the power of the Lord Jesus Christ!

    Norm: What happens next?

    Christian: The believers all live in heaven in peace, harmony and joy for eternity!

    Norm: What is heaven like?

    Christian: We get to reunite with all of our dead friends and family members! We get to meet our ancestors for the first time!

    Norm: Really?

    Christian: Absolutely!

    Norm: What about people like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin?

    Christian: Everyone is there! You can talk to anyone all through history! Plus you get to meet God and Jesus. I can't wait to meet Jesus!

    Norm: That sounds like fun. What else?

    Christian: Well, the streets are paved in gold! It says so in the Bible! And everyone has a big house! And you can eat whatever you want and not get fat! And really, you just do anything that makes you happy! Everyone is always happy!

And so on.

Simply talk to Christians about heaven. Ask them to describe what heaven is like, and how they will get there. You will be able to feel the absurdity of this notion in two different ways:

  • There is the direct absurdity as in the dialog above, where the creation of entirely new and completely imaginary "dimensions" and "materialization processes" tells you everything you need to know about how delusional things can get.

  • There is also the absurdity that comes when you compare any two people's views of heaven. Everyone's fabrication of heaven is different. For some it involves harps and clouds and halos. For others it involves hot and cold running virgins. For some people, the actual body is transported magically to heaven as described in the "Left Behind" books. For others, your "soul" floats out of the body and makes it way to St. Peter. And so on. People make up anything they like, because heaven is a completely imaginary place.
After listening to three or four explanations of heaven, the message will come through loud and clear. Heaven is a fairy tale invented by human imagination. And each person's fairy tale is different.

We imagine that we have "souls," fabricate the concept of "eternal life" and then fantasize a place called "heaven," complete with streets of gold, calorie-free foods, frolicking virgins and whatever else we can come up with. Christians imagine it so vividly and repeat the fantasy so often that they actually believe it to be reality.

How bizarre can the fantasies get? Fly to Cairo and take a look at the Great Pyramid. There is the pyramid itself -- still one of the largest man-made objects on earth. In addition there is the whole mummification process, the disassembled boats, the sacred artwork and so on. All of this was designed to help the pharaoh reach the afterlife. We look at it now and we all know, with absolute certainty, that it was a complete and total waste of time. The Egyptian notion of the afterlife was a fantasy.

The Christian notion of the afterlife is a fantasy in exactly the same way.

The fact is that, at a biochemical level, we are no different from mosquitoes. The chemical substrate that supports human life is exactly the same as the chemical substrate that supports mosquito life. Neither humans nor mosquitoes go to heaven.

The big difference between a human and a mosquito is the fact that humans have the brainpower to imagine a place called heaven. The fact that we can imagine heaven, however, does not mean that it exists. If you think about whatever your fantasy world of heaven looks like in your brain, you will realize that it is just as strange and ridiculous as the version of heaven outlined in the dialog above. It is also as ridiculous as the Great Pyramid. None of these heavens exist.

The fact that death is an uncomfortable notion does not change its reality. If you don't like the idea of dying, you can create whatever fairy tales that you would like. People have been creating all sorts of fairy tales for thousands of years -- This is where religion comes from. But those fairy tales do not change the central reality that surrounds death.

When you die, you die. You do not live on in the "afterlife." Pouting over this fact, or getting depressed, or imagining places like heaven does not change the basic fact that you are big, walking chemical reaction. When the reaction stops, you are completely dead. There is no everlasting soul mixed in with the chemicals.

The Horror of Death

You can better understand how uncomfortable death is if you look at the reaction of a child. In my household, this discomfort first surfaced with the death of Hamsty. Let me tell you about Hamsty, because his story illustrates a central point about death.

Hamsty, as you might have guessed, was a hamster. I have four children, and at the time of Hamsty's death they were ages 7 (David), 4 (Irena) and 2 (John and Ian). Hamsty was their pet. He lived in a deluxe two-bedroom hamster condominium in the kids' playroom. The kids loved Hamsty -- they would feed him, change his water, watch him, take him out of his cage to play with him and so on.

Hamsty, being a small rodent, had a limited lifespan. One day he got sick. The next day we found him dead. He had died peacefully in his sleep in his upper penthouse sleeping quarters.

The twins were apoplectic once they realized what had happened. This truly surprised me. They ran around the house crying "Hamsty died!" over and over again. Every time they were reminded of it, the chorus would start anew. They fell asleep crying about Hamsty's death, but by the next day they had stabilized.

Far more interesting, however, was Irena's response. Irena loves pets and would have hundreds if we let her. She has a video called "Paws, claws, feathers and fins" that she has watched dozens of times. On this video, kids talk about their pets, show what is necessary to properly care for different kinds of pets, and so on.

PCFF happens to have a segment where a small pet dies. The kids in the video put him in a little box and bury him in the backyard. Irena had seen this segment so many times, and she wanted to bury Hamsty in a similar way.

Irena and I found a small jewelry box. We placed Hamsty gently in the box and put the lid on. She asked if she could pat him, and I took the lid off so she could pat him one last time, which she did very gently. And she seemed fine with it. We found a trowel, and we went out to the backyard and dug a hole. As I was about to put Hamsty in the hole she asked to pat him again. She patted him very gently, and again she seemed fine with it. I put Hamsty in the hole and asked Irena if she wanted to put the dirt back into the hole. She did not, so I did.

Keep in mind that Irena was four years old, and four-year-olds are famous for asking lots of questions. As I was burying Hamsty, she asked me a question: "Can I pat Hamsty tomorrow?"

    Me: Well, no, probably not.

    Irena: Why not?

    Me: Well, usually, once you bury someone you don't dig them back up. We call it respecting the dead.

    Irena: Why?

    Me: Well, for one thing, a dead body turns back to dust, so there really isn't much to dig back up. Hamsty will turn to dust.

    Irena: Why will he turn to dust?

    Me: Everything living turns to dust when it dies. Worms will eat him, bacteria will eat him. He will decompose and turn to dust.

    Irena: Will it hurt? Won't that hurt?

    Me: Well, no, Hamsty is dead, so he won't feel anything.

Irena looked at me for a long time, and you could see the little wheels in her head turning. The next question she asked sort of surprised me though.
    Irena: Is grandpa going to die?

    Me: Yes, he is. Everyone dies eventually.

    Irena: Will worms eat him?

    Me: Yes, Grandpa's body will turn to dust.

She paused as the wheels in her head turned some more.
    Irena: Are you going to die?

    Me: Yes, I will die. But it won't be for a lot of years.

    Irena: Will worms eat you?

    Me: Yes, they will.

Irena paused for a long time and then asked the obvious next question:
    Irena: Will I die?

    Me: Yes. Everyone dies.

    Irena: And worms will eat me? I don't want to be eaten by worms! I don't want to be buried in the ground!

We talked about it for a long time. We eventually ended up getting in the car and driving to a nearby cemetery so that she could see what happens to people when they die. We looked at many grave markers and tombs, and talked about the different stories that lay before us. For example, we found Hilda Sesom's grave marker. Hilda had lived for just a month before she died in 1928. We talked about what might have happened to Hilda, and how sad her parents would have been.

What you can see here is important. The thought of dying is a remarkably troubling concept. How can it be that a person like Grandpa, who has decades of memories, hundreds of close friends, a large, happy family and seven grandkids who love him dearly -- how can it be that in a moment, all of that is gone? One minute Grandpa is alive. The next minute he is gone, and everything stored in his brain is lost. We are never going to see him again.

That is troubling enough, but it is when Irena turned that logic on herself and realized her own mortality that it became truly uncomfortable for her. What went through her little head is simple. How can it be that I will die? How can it be that my body will turn to dust?

Even at age four she was able to put the pieces together, and she found that thought to be uncomfortable. For many people, the thought is so uncomfortable that it is impossible to imagine.

Many adults never outgrow their childhood fear of death. Because the thought of death is so distressing to some people, it is not surprising that they try to invent a way out. The fairy tale that Christians have invented is called heaven, and they have also formulated the concept of eternal life. And of course, if you are going to be transported to an eternal spa/resort in the sky, there needs to be someone to manage the place and keep the peace. That is where God comes in.

Think about it. Who wants to have eternal life if it is just like life here on earth? In no one's conception of heaven is there murder, rape, incest, burglary, muggings, political backstabbing, office politics, gossip, rumor, PMS, arguments, anger, discontent or disease. Heaven is free of bacterium and mosquitoes and rapists. Somehow, in heaven, everyone is beautiful and everyone is always happy. God is there to cast the bad apples into hell (another invention), and he is also there to keep the peace.

Christians fabricate all of this out of thin air. Their heaven and their hell and their God are completely imaginary. The Christian fabrications are, of course, entirely different from the heaven and God of all other religions, because all of them are imaginary. Egyptians believed something silly involving pyramids and sun gods and so on. Greeks believed in the river Styx and Hades and so on. Muslims believe in their 72 virgins and so on [ref]. It is all gibberish, but people believe in their fantasies quite passionately.

Even grown adults who should know better believe in these fantasies, and will go to incredible lengths to rationalize them. In his book "The Case for Faith," Lee Strobel interviews Norman Geisler, Ph.D. During the interview Dr. Geisler states the following:

    "In sum, everything that God created was good. What changed things was the Fall [Adam and Eve eating the apple]. When God was told, in effect, to shove off, he partially did. Romans 8 says all creation was affected -- that includes plant life, human beings, animals, everything. There were fundamental genetic changes; we see, for instance, how life spans rapidly decreased after the Fall. God's plan was not designed to be this way; it's only this way because of sin."
This is the concept of "original sin." The idea is that, by eating the apple, Adam and Eve infuriated God so much that, as punishment, God changed all living things and made them mortal. For some Christians, this is the explanation of why we die rather than living forever.

Why would an adult with a Ph.D. believe such a silly story? Why do Christians and Jews cling to this concept of original sin? Why don't people read the story of Adam and Eve and have a good chuckle, like we do when we read stories about Santa as adults?

It is because original sin tries to explain death, and many adults are incredibly afraid of death. Original sin is one of the Bible's explanations for the fact of life called death. So Christians -- even Christians with Ph.D.s -- cling to it like little children.

We do not die because of Adam and Eve and an apple. We die because we are big, walking chemical reactions. When the chemical reactions cease, we cease. There is no human "soul" mixed in with the chemicals, just like there is no mosquito "soul." When we die, we die.

Understanding death

From the story in the previous section you can see that the idea of death is disturbing to children. Many adults never outgrow it, so death can also be disturbing to adults -- even to adults with Ph.D.s. These adults, of course, are acting like children.

You are not a child. Imagining a place called "heaven" does not change the central fact about the chemical reactions that drive your cells. You simply need to grow up and face death like an adult, in the same way that you face other childhood traumas.

It is quite beneficial to see your mortality for what it is. A week or two from now, when you are thinking like an adult about death, the truth about death will begin to change your self-image and the way that you imagine the future. Religion and its concept of an afterlife skew your thinking by making you believe that you will live forever. You will not. You've got 70 or 80 years if you are lucky, and then you are gone forever.

At the simplest level, an understanding of your permanent mortality should help you to realize more clearly how precious your life is. If you live to be 82 years old, what you have is approximately 30,000 days of existence. You are not going to then commute to "heaven" to live for eternity. 30,000 days is all that you've got.

Here are some of the things in your thinking that will change once you understand and accept this simple fact:

  • Your time on earth becomes much more precious to you.

  • You begin to realize that everyone else's life is just as precious, and you start looking at them differently.

  • You think more about what you are leaving behind when you die.

  • You think more about the human species as a continuum, with yourself as a part of that continuum, and you start thinking about the future of our species and the planet.
Like it or not, your total experience is here on earth. That realization should make you see a day wasted in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles, or a week wasted preparing your taxes for the IRS, a little differently. All that you have is 30,000 days. Everyone who wastes your time -- every bureaucracy, every long line at the store -- should give you pause.

When you die, what is your legacy? What do you leave behind?

  • Whatever material objects you own, to be given to whomever you like in your will.

  • Whatever contributions you have made to society as a whole. If you have done research into the cure for cancer, you leave that. If you have written books or made movies, you leave them. If you funded a building at your university, you leave that.

  • Images of you in photographs and video, as well as any letters, writings or recordings.

  • Your children and their memories of you.

  • The memories you leave with your friends and family.
That's it. Now that you understand that your death is final, you may look at those things in a different light.

<<< Go to Chapter 26     |     TOC     |     Go to Chapter 28 >>>

by Marshall Brain

New York Times Coverage
discussed in a
New York Times piece
by N. D. Kristof.
For a counter-point to Mr. Kristof, please see
Chapter 26.

Recommendation by Sam Harris
Sam Harris recommends WWGHA in his book Letter to a Christian Nation.

Endorsement by Richard Dawkins
In a New York Times Letter, Richard Dawkins calls WWGHA a "splendid Web site."

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