Leaving Flatland - The Life Lived Before

2018, Sep 15    

In this first portion of the essay, I’d like to put forward a thorough explanation of the commonalities Christians and Secularists share in the here and now. This part of the essay corresponds to the “life lived before” section of the thesis. The similarities between the two parties can be generally gathered under four headings which this piece is broken up into. First, I’ll explain what it means to say that we all have a common birth and I’ll explain what that has to do with our current situation in terms of our obligations to God and each other. Second, I’ll explain what it means to say that we all have a common death. These two headings will usher us naturally into the third heading which explains a common need given our current obligations and the reality of our eventual departure from this life. Lastly, I’ll provide a glimpse of the common hope both the Christian and Secularist share when it comes to a relief from our present predicament into a future age of rest and flourishing.

A life lived in submission to the teaching of the risen Christ is a life of unmatched freedom which leads to an eternal existence greater in every measure to the life lived before.

A Common Birth

Two parents, a male and a female came together and conceived us. The secularist and the Christian both believe this. Biologically, we are the same. There are those within our faith that believe that we, as Christians, have a certain power over physical affliction or sickness which enables us to avoid those things or to cure ourselves of them. With all due respect to my brothers in the faith who believe those things, I strongly warn against believing that idea because we have a very rich Christian heritage which happens to be filled with suffering, sickness, disadvantage, and death. We Christians believe that we not only should live well, but also that we should suffer well, and also that we should die well. Some secularists make a similar error when it comes to the biological efficiency or deficiency among humans of different groups, citing measurements like IQ as a means to measure group against group and account for differences in circumstance. Both errors regarding the superiority or immunity against harm of some groups over another should be avoided.

With respect to our spiritual state, Christians and secularist are at our core spiritual beings with a special bond to the physical body we’ve been given. The fact that we have consciousness perplexes many secularists. But for the Christian who maintains a Person-centered view of origins - a view centered around God who is the only self-sufficient Person and who created humans like Himself - it is not as perplexing. It’ll be explained in more detail later in this essay, but Christians have the solid footing of Genesis as well as other portions of scripture which explain how God created all that there is, including man. When God created man, He first made him out of material here on earth, then He gave man what is called the “breath of life” and it was then that man became a living soul. The secularist, when it comes to the beginnings of life here on the planet have only one option in terms of the progression of consciousness - and that is that consciousness came from unconsciousness. Making that mental leap is really an exercise in nonsense. That leap requires faith in the ability of the physical world multiplied against billions of years plus chance - or “Naturalism”. The object of this secular faith is matter mixed with energy, which is exactly what Paul tells us those who reject God are tempted to trust in. Our faith should be placed in the God of all things physical, not just placed in all things physical.

Secularists and Christians rest their faith on completely separate things, but we both still have faith. All of us know that God is and that He is unlike us. All of us know that there is something wrong with the world we’ve been born into 1. We know what pain feels like and not only do we not like it, we also look for ways to remedy it - to stop it from happening to us and, to a lesser extent, others. This comes naturally to us. In the book of Romans, Paul writes that we all know who God is but we’ve suppressed that knowledge with our evil actions. We pile more and more on top of our basic knowledge of Him (which is evidenced by how we live our lives daily) in order to dull out the guilt or the naked fear that comes with knowing that we’re accountable to the maker of the stars. We don’t like His command to be Holy. We want to enjoy His creation, all the while being His handiwork ourselves, running from one passion to the next, holding on tight to whatever makes us feel like we’re more important than we ought to feel.

A Common Death

Not only do both Christians and secularist experience a common birth but we also experience a common death. Reasonable Christians line up on both sides of the argument over whether death was possible before Adam sinned for the first time. Most of the time, this argument comes to the surface when creation and the issue of the origins of man are discussed 2. It is unclear just when it was that humans started to die in relation to the events in the bible. We have fossil records, and we have the account in the bible, and we’ll have to make due until our understanding of the scientific evidence advances enough to reveal more about the truth of the scripture - if we’ll ever truly know.

The bible is very explicit when it comes to the fact that each of us are finite creatures and, as such, will die. After Adam sinned for the first time, it was declared over him by God that the earth had been cursed because of him and as such would become more difficult for him to deal with. It was also declared by God that Adam was of the dust and would return to it - establishing the notion that there would be a conclusion to his life. To the reader, thousands of years after the fact, this should come as no surprise because we see what happens to us after we die. Thousands of years of humans are nowhere to be found because they have died and have dissolved, as it were, into the ground - there’s nothing there anymore. God spoke on this and it has come to be. Adam ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which he was told not to do, and he surely died. Throughout time, death has been a sort of bondage, an upper limit, a constraint on us which deprives us of a life of fearlessness, endless societal or technological advancement - endless growth. One can only wonder what life would be like if everyone who had ever lived were still alive today. What kinds of civilizations would we have built? Where would we be? Would we have built a utopia or dystopia?3

It’s clear to both Christians and secularists that we all die. One group looks for eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ, and the other either abandons the pursuit or looks for it in advances in technology and medicine. Christians and secularists also find ourselves on opposing sides when it comes to why we die. For the secularist, we live on a planet of death, as it were, where everything dies 4. For the secularist, death is a large question mark - albeit a painful and fearful one which they feel they’d better find a solution to for some vague reason which can loosely be boiled down to a preference for life over death (or good over evil). For the Christian, death is just as real but it has already been solved. The bible uses the language of death being an enemy which has already been defeated. Most familiar with Christianity will already know that the solution to death, or the One who has defeated death is Jesus Christ. What many may not know is why death is a problem for us in the first place, according to the Christian worldview.

A Common Need

Although it is natural to question the reason behind the long chain of life, death, and suffering we see all through human history, it is important to approach the question with a sense of humility. I understand that the secularist or skeptic reading this will not necessarily agree that a posture of respect should be taken when approaching this issue because, to them, there is no one to respect. All things that happen after death, that is, past the purview of the human eye and beyond any processing the mind can muster, for the secularist, don’t seem to matter 5. There is intense questioning of and a feverish striving to avoid this thing called death but ultimately it is only a problem to be solved in a cold meaningless universe. The striving and questioning the secularist might take part in to try to solve death undermines their unwillingness to ascribe meaning or purpose to life.

Christians, however can address this subject with humility because we know that it is not a purely physical action performed upon us by unguided natural processes, but that it is a process authored by our Maker which involves both physical and spiritual change. The respect we have for the process of death derives from our respect for the One who gave us life. It’s a careful understanding of authority and justice which moves us from reactionary anger, fear, or despair, into acceptance bolstered by confidence and hope in our Maker and His intentions.

Reasonable Christians can disagree when it comes to the point death came into existence. Some form of it, however, pretty much all Christians believe had to have existed before Adam sinned. Whether plant life, plant life along with animal life, or plant life along with animal and human life, there was some form of death inside and outside Eden before Adam was created and while He lived in the garden. Either way, there is a form of death spoken of in the Bible, and most if not at all times it’s in the context of a warning. Since that is the case, there is reason to believe two things: this particular transition is an undesirable one, and this transition is or can be permanent.

When Christians talk about death, the word seems to take on two meanings, and to some it seems to not have any meaning at all.

The two meanings are:

  1. The death of the body. This kind of death is shared between all living things. This kind of death is also usually what secularists mean when using the word. This can be seen as the final or ultimate breakdown of the physical aspect of a living thing.
  2. The death of the spirit. At the end of time as we know it, Christians believe that our spirits, the most essential part of ourselves, will exist in a conscious state. What this state is like, us being absent from all our known senses, I do not know. However, it is clear that there will be a conscious judgement after our bodies die (the death described in the first point). Some, after they die and undergo judgement, will be ushered into a paradise state because of Jesus’ sacrifice covering their sins - and some after they die will be sentenced to some kind of state of conscious torment at the end of which there will be a “second death” which is of a spiritual nature.

The reason I say the word ‘death’, when Christians use it, seems not to have a meaning at all is because of the breakdown in the the understanding of personhood and consciousness between Christians and Secularists. Secularists, believing in a one-time permanent bodily death which marks the conclusion of consciousness, might see the Christian notion of death as nonsensical because it doesn’t involve a loss in consciousness at all 6. Rather, the Christian notion of death is more like a transition from one state of being to another; an ending of the physical existence and the persisting of the non-physical existence - or spirit.

This is a point where Christians and Secularists differ widely, but even here in ideas surrounding death, there is commonality. Both Christians and Secularists naturally seek to escape death. Both parties have a natural, visceral, extremely negative reaction when it comes to exploring death or possibly experiencing it. As mentioned before, both parties seek to remedy this problem that is death.

Years ago, Secularists began looking into cryonics to try and somehow escape their fear of not existing anymore. It seems like that pursuit has mostly been abandoned, but new ones have sprouted up in it’s place. Consider trans-humanism - the belief that we humans can indefinitely extend our lives by integrating more and more mechanics into our bodies. This is more than merely positing that we humans can benefit from things like prosthetics or metal rods being applied to our bodies. Instead, this is the belief that, for the betterment and survival of humanity, we humans must try and transform our very selves, making us less human in the process - effectively creating something totally different. Some secularists have placed their hope in this.

Other Secularists have begun exploring the possibility of mapping the human brain in such a complete way that we’d be able to duplicate or “download” it. Since, according to the naturalistic worldview, the mind is the essence of the person, copying someone’s mind should be synonymous with effectively cloning that individual. According to this belief, one would at various points in their life be able to back up their brain like we might now do their phone or laptop. At the point of death, a final brain dump could be performed, consciousness could be transferred, and the once-dead person would then be preserved in a self-aware state. This is a far off and false hope, but it is still a hope many have when it comes to extending their existence from here into eternity.

Since we humans are not only physical, these attempts at preservation will fail. There is a spirit to account for, not just our DNA or our mind and memories. We did not spawn randomly, that is impossible - we were created. The One who created us also sustains our being second by second. He also is able and willing to provide for us a way to escape death. We have no choice; we are conscious now and we will remain conscious when our eyes close for the final time - and some of us are dangling in the balance between eternal life and eternal agony. We all know death is an enemy, and fortunately, God has provided a way to defeat that enemy.

A Common Hope

How would you feel if every single thing you can recollect you’d ever done but know that you should not have done had been completely paid for? Imagine being liberated from the space/time limitations you and every single person who’s ever lived have known in order to live out a full life without decay or time limits. Imagine, if it is even possible, not ever having to deal with an agonizing thought ever again. Imagine the freedom from having to constrain your thoughts and actions from the horrible things they tend to gravitate to. Imagine living in a community of people who have undergone this same transformation.

Imagine meeting, living with, and learning from the maker of the universe and the one who made your eternal rest possible.

The hope waiting for those who trust in Jesus Christ includes is a complete unity and harmony with all of existence. God is capable and willing to pull you up out of this present life where man constantly has to fight against himself and the elements. Whatever it is we, both the Christian and the Secularist, have to struggle with down here, even the cynicism which makes it difficult to appreciate these promises and future glimpses, it will all be conquered.

Notice the distinction in verbiage: our struggles and problems will be conquered, not eliminated. In the new creation, we won’t be engaged in a collective exercise in forgetfulness and blissful ignorance. After all, we will know full well the things we’d done which we were forgiven of, our past misbehavior, our past wounds and misfortunes, and even the ones we once knew but are not where we are in eternity. The full view of all of history will be available to our eyes - we will see, never completely, but ever increasingly God’s purpose and intentions for all that happened. We will not forget, we will know more. In this new state, we will know clearer and better - and we’ll love God all the more for it.

We are often tossed and driven on the restless sea of time. Somber skies and howling tempests oft succeed the bright sunshine. In that land of perfect day, where the mist has rolled away, we will understand it better by and by. By and by, when the morning comes, all the saints of God will gather at home. We will tell the story of how we’ve overcome, and we’ll understand it better by and by.7

This is the common experience of the secularist and Christian as it relates to our being born into sin and our being ushered gradually through our physical deaths into a future state. We begin here, all of us, but we will not stay in this life forever. Our circumstances vary but our responsibility is the same. There are only two ways to spend eternity and both of them are in light of the things which take place in the here and now - this small fragile window of time we’re living in. Yes, our ends were sealed since God created the world but we live here in this pocket of space and time, full of the “not yet”, with a limited knowledge of what the future will be like, and therein lies opportunity for us beings confined to these four dimensions. The gospel has moved its way up and through the last two millennia to land right here under your eyes. There are no excuses here in this life where we have self-agency and culpability. Hear the good news, believe it, and turn to the things God prescribes and away from the things He hates. Not all will hear the gospel and be freed from the chains, as it were, of sin but you are at this moment hearing that gospel - what will you do now?

Donald John

  1. I make this general statement with confidence because it is evidenced by the content of every religion in the world. The very basis of any religion (or system of thought - which should include the likes of Atheism, Agnosticism, etc.) should contain within it the reason for it’s existence. That reason logically needs to make the case that it is better that the religion itself exist than it not exist. This involves making the claim that there is a problem somewhere (inside the human, outside, or both) which needs to be worked through given the laws or guidelines of the religion. 

  2. The debate among Christians about death is usually a part of a larger debate called Old Earth Creationism vs Young Earth Creationism. According to the Old Earth view, the earth is billions of years old, and humans have been around for millions of years. According to the Young Earth view, the earth is thousands of years old, and humans have been around for a subset of those thousand years. For information on the Old Earth view, I would direct your attention to the works of Dr. Hugh Ross and other scholars at www.Reasons.org as well as resources from the group Biologos. For information on the Young Earth view, I would direct your attention to the works of Dr. Jason Lyle and Ken Ham. I ascribe to the Old Earth view. 

  3. Given the track record of human history, it is very reasonable to make the case that, given unlimited time and less physical restraint, humanity would turn the world into a dystopia in only a matter of time. I imagine even Secularists will believe this, but within the Christian worldview, there is the understanding that humans are basically unjust, not just. Humans, according to the Bible, tend toward evil rather than good. It stands to reason, then, to believe that perhaps the physical restraints we have here in this universe - the problems we try to overcome with technology and mechanics - were put in place as a certain measure of grace to us humans. With more opportunity and freedom would come more harm. For example, imagine if the jihadists of 9/11 were able to get their hands on machines that could alter time instead of only a few commercial airplanes. The damage they were able to do was catastrophic, but with less constraint put on them by God via nature, the damage would have been immeasurably worse. 

  4. I should add here as an interesting point that some early Jews called Sadducees also didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead. They believed that only the first five books of the Bible that we now know should be considered the word of God and this greatly affected their way of living and thinking. Today, many Secularists are coming oddly close to the Sadducees of Jesus’ time because they also do not believe in the resurrection of the dead, and they have made for themselves impossible guidelines to keep without any real and lasting justice or cleansing of ones self after a guideline has been broken. 

  5. Some Secularists might object to this, saying that it is worth working toward a (yet to be defined) good cause for the sake of legacy or future flourishing. They might make the claim that it is worth living a certain way, producing certain works so that the next generation can build upon that layer of life, so to speak, and propel themselves into a better place. This belief, however, borrows from the Theistic worldview because it starts with the reality of an objective, unchanging, good. Without that, the Secularist vision has no direction in which to build. Moreover, a case for legacy or future advancement has absolutely no response to the selfish man. Since the Secularist’s idea of “good” is defined by preference, the preference of the selfish life over the giving life should be equally respected - unless a case it so be made for individuals being unequal in terms of their ability to make worthwhile life choices (this error was addressed in the first paragraph of the “A Common Birth” section, and I believe most Secularists aren’t willing to dive into that way of thinking, or at least admit it). 

  6. Some Secularists might reject this on account of recent research into human consciousness. Such research does exist and, I believe, should continue to exists much like most other study and research into nature. For the Secularist, however, even the consciousness of man is (even without evidence) assumed to come from naturalistic means, which is self refuting. Also, it is worth noting that the average Secularist or Skeptic will argue for a ceasing in consciousness at the point of death if asked. 

  7. These are lyrics to an old gospel song I grew up on titled “We’ll Understand it Better By and By”. As I’ve gotten older and as things have changed in life, the words have become increasing relevant and sweet to me. Lyrics to the full song can be found here