Rereading the Screwtape Letters as an Atheist; Part Twenty

Bombs are expected in the Patient’s neighborhood. At the beginning of Chapter Twenty-Eight, Wormwood is delighted at the imminent destruction he will be able to witness, but Screwtape is not so thrilled. He is even a bit anxious. The Patient, he says, if he were to die now, would be dying at the worst time possible.
“He has escaped the worldly friends with whom you tried to entangle him; he has “fallen in love” with a very Christian woman and is temporarily immune from your attacks on his chastity; and the various methods of corrupting his spiritual life which we are trying are so far unsuccessful.”

In short, if the Patient dies right now, he will almost certainly go to Heaven. Screwtape goes on to speculate that Wormwood is excessively absorbing the human point of view. He says that God only allows a few humans, relative to the masses who die young, to live until old age, because he knows that time is on the side of tempters.

“But, if only he can be kept alive, you have time itself for your ally. The long, dull, monotonous years of middle-aged prosperity or middle-aged adversity are excellent campaigning weather. You see, it is so hard for these creatures to persevere. The routine of adversity, the gradual decay of youthful loves and youthful hopes, the quiet despair (hardly felt as pain) of ever overcoming the chronic temptations with which we have again and again defeated them, the drabness which we create in their lives and the inarticulate resentment with which we teach them to respond to it – all this provides admirable opportunities of wearing out a soul by attrition.”

Perhaps, Screwtape thinks, God wants a few people in heaven who have certain spiritual qualities that can only come from a lifetime of resisting temptations, for he can’t think of another reason for this to happen. Death is entirely an advantage of God’s and it is the demons who hope for long life for their “patients.”

“How valuable time is to us may be gauged by the fact that the Enemy allows us so little of it. The majority of the human race dies in infancy; of the survivors, a good many die in youth. It is obvious to him that human birth is important chiefly as the qualification for human death, and death solely as the gate to that other kind of life.”

This is an inversion of how we normally think, but not one that was entirely unfamiliar to me when I first read this book. I’ve heard versions of it in sermons and other religious writings. At my Grandfather’s funeral, I was told that he was dancing with the angels in heaven, and that he would laugh to see us all so sad for him. To a Christian, life is just a brief time when humans are forced to be a little further from God, and, provided they live a good life (and, according to most but not all Christians, attend the right church), death is the time that they get to return to God. Death is not sad for the dying, but only for those who are left behind.

Whether this idea is optimistic or pessimistic, and whether it’s healthy or toxic, really depends on the person holding the belief. For some, it leads to a Puritanical dismissal of earthly pleasure, or worse, an excuse for rejecting human beings. There might be plenty of nice atheists and homosexuals and godless liberals out there, but hanging out with that sort of people might lead you down the wrong path, and isn’t eternal life in heaven worth missing out on being with some nice people who are just going to end up in hell? This is the reason I wasn’t allowed to go over to the house of my next door Chinese neighbors. I might come out Buddhist or something. But for others, the view of death as the part where life really begins doesn’t diminish the importance of the life we have here. This part is important too, even if it’s finite, and the idea that death just brings people back to God is comforting, particularly to those who have lost someone.

Some atheists, I’ve found, are as offended by the idea of death as a good thing as Christians are offended by the atheist belief that death is the tragic, inescapable and irreversible end of consciousness. Atheists find the idea of death as good as unempathetic towards those who have died. Christians think that the atheistic perspective on death is unbearably depressing.

For the Christians out there, I think I’ll take a moment to express my own beliefs about death. Honestly, I hate the idea that death is simply the end, and that nothing happens afterwards. However, I think it is foolish and cowardly to convince myself to not believe something simply because I do not like the implications. I don’t see any good reason to believe in an afterlife. I can do one of two things with that. I can exhaust myself trying to change my beliefs, through some sort of intellectual dishonesty or self-delusion, or I can be honest about what makes sense to me, and find a way to be hopeful anyway.

I find hope in this; I am alive now. I am one of the few privileged people who gets to be alive now, as opposed to all the people who are no longer alive, and all the people who have not yet come to life. As a living person, I have not only the ability, but the responsibility, to live. Life is full of opportunity. There are people to love, books to read, beautiful autumn trees to see, foods to eat, dreams to dreams. I get to philosophize, to write, to find ways to make my mark on the world while I’m here. When I die, the world will, in some small way, not be the same world I was born into, because of my actions, and I get to choose what those actions are. I have very little control over whether the life I live is long or short, but I do get to choose whether, for the time I lived it, it was worth living.

In a strange way, that leads me to a conclusion that is not dissimilar from Lewis’s. We both agree that the ultimate good is not a long life, but a worthwhile life. The short life of someone who helped others and enjoyed their time is better than the long life of someone who hurt others and lived in bitterness. The difference is that Lewis thinks that the short life was more worthwhile because it might lead to an infinite amount of time with God in Heaven, and I think the short life was more worthwhile because, to borrow from The Fault in Our Stars, it was the short infinity that person had, and they used it well.

All of which has little to do with the Screwtape Letters itself. I have mixed feelings about this chapter. Some of the thoughts it raised in my mind were interesting, but once again, I am bothered by the cosmology. We have been told that God and the Devil are in combat for this man’s soul, as they are for every soul. This chapter made me think about an aspect of that battle that I had not considered before; God, if we believe he has control over when people die, which the chapter implies he does with the talk of him allowing people to live long or short lives, can pick whether he wins any given soul. We are lead to believe that there are a number of people who went to hell, not because they never believed, but because they believed, and then lived long enough to fall away or reconsider, and happened to die while they were backsliding. In other words, God could have chosen to kill them ten or fifteen years earlier, and guaranteed that they were allowed to go to Heaven. Instead, they were condemned to Hell.

In fact, I myself am an example of this principle, assuming that Lewis’s perspective is right and that I never reconvert. If Lewis is right, I am going to Hell, but God could have guaranteed that I avoid that fate, simply by killing me off as a teenager. It wouldn’t have been bad for me at all. It might have been terrible for some of my friends and family members, but all of them were Christians so they would have all met me again anyway. Instead, he let me live, and I grew apart from him, and so I’m going to live for an eternity apart from him. You know, because of love.

The more I read this book, the less I miss this particular brand of Christianity.

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