“Death will always arrive too soon.”
Text: Cornelia Niggli
Many people have experienced the fear of death, but what if it is suddenly eclipsed by a fear of life? An interview with ethicist and theologian Georg Pfleiderer on death in the modern world, shame and what all that has to do with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
Why are people scared of death?
“Anticipating death is part of what makes us human,” says Professor Georg Pfleiderer. Unlike other organisms, humans are conscious of the fact that life is finite. The fears associated with this knowledge are complex. On the one hand, we fear a painful death, and on the other, we are afraid of the absolute finality, the end of life and the nothingness that awaits us. “This fear is tightly bound up with the significance we attach to our possessions in life. By that I mean both material and immaterial possessions, such as the ideals by which we live and social resources such as interpersonal relationships or access to education. The loss of these types of possessions generally arouses fear,” adds the ethicist.
According to Pfleiderer, fear of death is a phenomenon all humans share, but one which has become particularly acute in the modern era. He supports this assertion by quoting German sociologist Max Weber (1864 –1920), who reflected: “The way we live today, there is scarcely a single commodity in our Western world so dear to us as our own life and experience. The world is constantly changing. With those changes come endless possibilities for novel experiences. Seen in that light, death will always arrive too soon.”
For modern humans – and even more for their postmodern counterparts – fear of missing out, or FOMO, is the source of both aspiration and anxiety. Weber believed that modern people no longer achieve a sense of full and final satisfaction in life as once described in ancient texts and biblical stories.
Has death become a taboo subject in the modern world?
“We don’t keep death under wraps,” says Pfleiderer in response. “We probably talk more about death and dying today than at any other point in history, at least in the media.” There used to be a common understanding that certain topics were not fit for discussion. We don’t seem to have any taboos anymore.”
Death is omnipresent in news and entertainment. The idea of regulated assisted dying enjoys wide acceptance throughout Switzerland. On 15 May 2022, the Swiss public will vote on a petition to change organ donation from an opt-in to an opt-out process. “Of course, the level of personal involvement differs depending on whether we are talking about public discourse or individual experience,” Pfleiderer adds. “For most people living in Western society today, death and dying have become far less common everyday experiences than they were for previous generations.”
People living with this reality often value their own lives above all else. In spite of this, Switzerland’s suicide rate is comparatively high. Does this present a contradiction? “When someone commits suicide, they enter a kind of unknown state characterized by nothing but an end of being. It is paradoxical, in a sense,” agrees Pfleiderer.
Why does our fear of life sometimes grow to exceed our fear of death? “One reason is certainly the immense value we place on leading an active, autonomous life. That desire can manifest as an intense need for control,” he replies.
“We have an enormous fear of losing control, of becoming dependent, of being ‘useless’ to society. Another reason is shame. We are incredibly afraid of losing face. That fear has likely never been so extreme as it is now in the Internet age.” Information disseminates rapidly and it is a well-known fact that the Internet never forgets. This may well be implicated in the rising suicide rates among adolescents in the wake of nude photos spreading like wildfire online or as a result of cyberbullying.
Can personal faith help in situations when we feel afraid?
“According to our modern theological understanding, faith, at its core, refers to a trust and belief in God. Faith means that we are able to perceive our lives as meaningful, regardless of how they end; so, in a certain sense, our belief, our trust, is not contingent upon what comes after death, if there is indeed some kind of experiential afterlife waiting for us,” clarifies Pfleiderer.
To this end, faith means knowing that one’s life is guided by God’s hand and that God will lift us up in death. “Faith as trust in God does not conflict with our own sense of autonomy,” he adds. “On the contrary: Faith can be particularly helpful when we are faced with situations in which we experience shame or a loss of control or when we feel useless – and it can strengthen our self-confidence, too. It can be a source of immense power. We can see that in the work of many prominent believers – in the context of Christianity, we might consider St Paul, John Calvin, Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Florence Nightingale and Mother Teresa.”
Was Jesus afraid of death?
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” According to the apostles Matthew (27:46) and Mark (15:34), those were Jesus’s last words before he died on the cross. That certainly sounds like crippling doubt. “He was undoubtedly scared of dying. The question is whether that fear was so powerful as to shake his faith in God,” says Pfleiderer. His cry is a quote from Psalm 22 of the Old Testament. That is a matter of consensus in current research. But the psalm ends by praising God. For Jesus, faith seems to have conquered doubt in the end.
“On top of that, from a Christian theological perspective it is important for Jesus to have experienced that fear,” he emphasizes. “If we imagine him as someone who never knew fear, he would not possess the power to redeem us, either.” A biblical Jesus with no experience of the abject depths of human emotion loses his appeal, both as a figure with whom we can identify and as our savior.
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