Is Death a Reward or a Punishment?5 July, 2008
A few weeks ago (back before I went to the fire), a tornado slammed through a Boy Scout camp in Iowa, killing four. The next day, one of the news networks (CNN, I think) carried an interview with a surviving scout in which he said that God must have wanted to call home these four because they were such good people.
While down in Virginia, I overheard a conversation at the next table (I was not eavesdropping, I was reading All My Sins Remembered by Joe Haldeman and they were talking LOUD!). They were discussing a mutual acquaintance who had apparently died only a few days before. They were discussing his ‘sinful’ life: co-habitating and having two children with his mate, not attending church, and voting for Democrats. One of the women said, “Yes, he’s dead. God punished him for his sins.”
I remember when AIDS first reached the public consciousness (and the press) many conservative pastors insisted that this was God’s punishment of homosexuals. I have heard soldier’s families state that God has brought their son/daughter home. Christian groups have been urged by their leaders to pray for the death of ‘enemies’ – imprecatory prayers. A high school graduate dies while swimming during a thunderstorm and the parents and friends console each other by suggesting that God loved him so much He couldn’t wait any longer before taking the boy to heaven.
Sheesh! Make up your minds, Christians! Does God reward good people by killing them and taking them to heaven while at the same time punishing sinners by smiting them? So what does that mean for the rest of us? Are we neither evil enough to be smote nor good enough to be brought to heaven early? Sound hinky to me.
Human beings tend to seek patterns and meanings. We look at random landforms on Mars and see ‘Jesus’ face’ in the shadows. We play our birthday in the daily numbers. We see faces in tree stumps, toast, oil stains and spackle. We try to find something that makes our life and death meaningful. I’m guilty of it myself.
In 1988, my sister Amy was killed while visiting friends in Arizona. She, along with everyone else in the Jeep, was drunk. The driver was drunk. No one was wearing a seat belt. When the Jeep rolled, she landed on a rock, smashing the back of her head. She was dead instantly, but her body took a long time to realize it. Her corneas, tendons, lungs, heart, liver, kidney, blood vessels, damn near every salvageable organ or tissue found its way into the transplant flow.
I know that she died due to her bad decisions. But I can console myself that parts of her live on in others. Some good came from her death. How’s that for a major rationalization? I can’t picture her living forever in heaven, but I know bits and pieces of her live on in strangers. God didn’t call her home; stupidity contributed heavily to a fatal accident. It took me around ten years to fully recover from her death. Prozac helped, as did counseling, as did my wife. A theist friend suggested that acceptance of God’s plan would heal me faster.
So if I accept that either Amy was a sinner who was smote by an angry and vengeful God or that she was so good an pure that God couldn’t wait another fifty or seventy years to have her by His side, I will feel better. Bull Shit! This incredibly divisive coping mechanism allows believers to ignore needless suffering and death — suffering is either deserved punishment or a test, and death is either a reward or a punishment.
So why, theists, why does God (the Abrahamic God of the Old and New Testaments, the Q’uran, and the Book of Mormon) use the exact same method to reward and to punish? Too good? Kill ’em. Too evil? Kill ’em. Or maybe, just maybe, there is no God and death is a matter of chance, modified by personal decisions. Maybe it really is random. If God is removed from the equation, the result remains the same — chance. There is no overarching plan, no pattern (except that bad decisions increase the chances of death), and no supernatural meaning to our lives. Good or bad, our lives are governed by chance.