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.



  1. Wow, I thought Jesus had said something about judging others, seems like those two Christians didn’t read that part of the bible. I think that is the biggest thing that pisses me off about some Christians, that holier-than-thou, fake morality they spew that is just a cover for their narrow-minded and evil views. That man who died left two children behind who are mourning their father, and his partner who loved him enough to stay with him and have children. Instead of smugly condemning his life (which doesn’t sound bad to me, its not like he left his kids and beat his wife)they should be wondering if there is anything they can do for his family. Christian morals indeed!

    Plus, if Christians are so certain that death is god’s way of being with them, because why wouldn’t an omnipotent creator want to be surrounded by smug, self-righteous hypocrites, why are they always trying to circumvent death? If you believe so much, stop going to the doctor, fill out an advance directive with a Do Not Resuscitate order, and stop crying and thanking god when he spares your life from a natural disaster. If you don’t die during a hurricane, I guess that means God doesn’t like you.

  2. Some people just have some need to find a meaning in everything, and for those who view the world through a Biblical prism, that is how they frame events, as a manifestation of god’s will.

  3. I must say that both of those people who said death is reward and death is punishment are both wrong. The saying that there are two definites in life are taxes and death. Well, that is right. Whether we like it or not, we all will die. Unless we decide to take our life, we have no idea when we will die. My grandfather died at age 62 of a massive heart attack, a college professor died at age 57 of a blood clot to the heart, a friends baby died during labor. People can rationalize why did they die, or how could this have happened, but there are no answers. All we can do is know where we are going once we die. I know you don’t believe in God, but if you don’t like those “holier than thous” look in the mirror, because you think the same way. You are better than “we” are and truthfully, everyone thinks that. No one wants to think they are stupid or bad or dumb. But when we set it all aside and open our hearts, what do we feel?

  4. Well, jessicadowns is sort of right… Death is neither reward or punishment, just the natural and inevitable conclusion of life. What’s always puzzled me is the degree to which the human ego has stigmatised death. There has never, not once, been a human being who didn’t die (Christians are welcome to wave Jesus around at this point, to which I respond with a resounding, “Oh, do fuck off”), yet we worry about it, fantasise about what might happen afterwards, spend hours in contemplation of it, try to stave it off and generally enter the embrace of the Grim Reaper kicking and screaming. People don’t like to think that the cluster of ideas and opinions that is “them” will at some point cease to be, so they invent afterlives in which they can carry on their petty consciousness for all eternity.

    Christians. People die. You will too. Get over it.

  5. I like the question I read in a Buddhist book. “If you knew when you were going to die, how would you live your life?” Nothing muddy about that. You’re gonna die, fool, so decide how you want to live.

    I think that if you look at the thought processes of the average Christian regarding death, you’d have to conclude that they are at the very least confused, and most probably should be institutionalized.

    There’s a story in the Globe today about a rock discovered somewhere around the area where the Dead Sea scrolls were found. It has Hebrew text inked on it – not carved, inked – and talks about a messiah who rises from the dead after three days, apparently written several decades before the J man came around.

    Ink on a stone is rare, according to the people being called experts in the story. And one paragraph states that such-and-such a professor of antiquities tested the stone and pronounced it authentic. The story doesn’t say anyone tested the ink, which is more likely to be definitive, and which to me makes the whole story suspect. But we’ll soon see loud buzzing coming from the Christian community about proof of this or that, just as with the phony ossuary of a couple of years ago.

    We’ll see claims being made all over the map, none of them likely to make any more sense than all the contradictions about death that get mouthed every day. Christians (and others) are so invested in religious ideology that they can’t allow themselves to think critically and rationally about any of it. It really comes down to a question of how many people they will kill for ideology, how many they will make suffer for it, how miserable they want to make the world.

    Me, I think it’s a public service to piss on their graves.

    Tomorrow I may face having to decide to put my cat Mookie to sleep. He has no ideology and he doesn’t want to hear any from me. He lives in reality. He doesn’t know death, doesn’t fuss about it, and won’t even know it’s happening. He’s a hell of a lot more sensible in his ignorance than humans in all their chittering-monkey intellect.

    My message to Christians and the rest, please just shut the fuck up and die, would you?

  6. It sucks when people you like die, and it’s great when people you don’t like die. Christians just cooked up some religious way to express that sentiment and cope with it. The heaven bit allows them to not face the reality of a loss, and the hell and sin bit allows them to not face the reality that they may be bitter, hateful people who take delight in seeing people they don’t like die.

    For the record, I was quite happy when I saw Jesse Helms just died, and I’m quite comfortable acknowledging the reality of my glee. 🙂

  7. “The wages of sin is death” I.e. exactly the same as the wages of virtue. 😀

    If the Abrahamic god could just tell us how to avoid our own death and the deaths of other people, I for one would happily start down the god-sycophancy route.

  8. Great post. I’m quite content being neither good enough to have earned an early trip to Heaven, nor bad enough to have earned an early trip to Hell. If it’s all the same to you, I’d like to hang out on Earth for a few more decades.

  9. This is a really thought-provoking post and controversial nonetheless. It seems that sometimes people view the world as so horrible and wretched that death might very well be our salvation.

  10. I don’t at all believe in terrible things happening being “smote by an angry and vengeful God.” I hate it when people say that someone died because “it was their time” or “God wanted them for an angel.” That’s no only stupid of people to say, but wrong.

    I am not a debating kind of person. I will be the first to say I don’t know enough on either side of this subject. Frankly, I don’t think I will ever know enough, but that won’t stop me from trying to learn. And I don’t think I can ever stop shaking my head at the stupid sayings of so-called Christians.

    I am sorry for the loss of your sister.

  11. Sabrina: Among some Christians, the ‘don’t judge’ conflicts seriously with forcing morality down other’s throats.

    Tommy: I like the phrase ‘Biblical Prism’ and plan to steal it.

    Jessicadowns: Welcome to my blog. I appreciate your answer and it heartens me (I assume you are a theist (and if I am wrong, just goes to show what assumptions can do)). We share a similar viewpoint of death: neither punishment nor reward, just a fact. I don’t see myself as ‘holier than thou’ — I don’t see myself as holy at all: just a ‘normal’ rationalist trying to figure out why people do odd things.

    Yunshui: Always the minimalist.

    Ric: My sympathy. Putting a cat down is hard. As you said, the cat lives for the moment, the living must deal with the emotions. I think it’s much more honest to admit the existence of the emotions rather than (as Tommy put it) force it through a Biblical prism to hide one’s emotions.

    Philly: I always feel weird being happy when someone dies. Doesn’t stop me from doing it, but I feel weird. So was Jesse Helms in that (as Chappie so eloquently put it) neither good enough to have earned an early trip to Heaven, nor bad enough to have earned an early trip to Hell cagtegory? And thank you for writing what would have been a much more forceful and effective last paragraph.

    Heather: Almost as if there was no God and it really was chance modified by decisions, eh?

    Chappie: Good to have you here in the reality. Of course (having driven through Northern Virginia twice in the last three weeks), much of your time will be spent in traffic jams.

    Prometheustherebel: Welcome to my blog. I have known people for whom death really was a blessing. Life is the preferred state, but a release from unbearable pain is a physical salvation.

    Jayleigh: Welcome to my blog. Thank you for your sympathy.

  12. Well, Billy sorry to burst your bubble, but I am not an athiest. I am far from it actually. But what I said I believe without a shadow of a doubt. I do believe in God, but understand why you might not. That is your decision and I can’t cast judgment on it.

  13. Jessica: Based on your comment, I did not assume you were an atheist, quite the opposite. It is always refreshing, though, to converse with a theist possessed of a rational viewpoint of death — neither punishment nor reward.

  14. ((( ))) –

    The cat lives! For now anyway. He’s considerably improved, but not out of the woods. I told him he could thank me by buying me a nice bottle of single-malt scotch, or a nice vermouth, but he just walked over and nibbled his kibble.

    Regarding the public service I mentioned above, in these days and times, it really would be a public service to piss on graves. Saves on fertilizer, which normally would come from oil; and saves on water, which needs conserving. Therefore, I’m calling a mass meeting at the Gifford Street graveyard, out past the cement plant, for this weekend. Drink plenty of beer or water. For modesty’s sake there will be separate sections for men and women. A team of scientists will follow up, testing to determine whether men’s or women’s pee is more efficacious for improving the quality of grave grass. The session begins, as fitting for a graveyard, at midnight Saturday. Prizes will be awarded, but what they will be awarded for will remain a secret for all time.

  15. Ric: Good news on the cat. When you asked him to buy you a drink, did he give you the finger? (I’ve always been amazed that an animal with an even number of toes facing forward on each paw can flip me off).

    I think that human urine may have too much amonia to be an effective direct fertilizer. Though pregnant women’s urine can be boiled in order to obtain crystalized saltpetre (or so I’ve heard). Have fun getting pissed off.

  16. I know that ten years from this date I will have been dead for some time. One of three things will kill me (unless the demented bitch that ran me down with her vehicle two years ago takes another crack at me and is successful) and that will be the end. I won’t “pass away”, I will die. Cease to be.

    I, too, have often wondered about this tricky bit of illogic about death.

    I was once stationed with a man who was a survivor of a big fire that took place in a Catholic school in Chicago. I’ve since read about it, and it was quite a horrendous event. This man was the only survivor in his family, he actually watched his twin brother and two cousins die by burning. He was sitting by the windows and a fireman reached in, grabbed him and threw him out the window. If he stayed, he’d have died for sure, he fell two stories and lived with some broken bones.

    He told me that when the questions from the kids started about why their deity would allow such a thing to happen in its own place to its special people, the kids were told that the ones who died were too good to live in this sinful world and that this deity had taken them to be with him, he loved them so much.

    He told me that this information did some amazing things to a child’s psyche. He became a non-believer shortly thereafter.

  17. (((Billy))) there is a poem from the civil war about collecting the contents of chamberpots for boiling down to the nitrates. If I can find it I’ll send you a copy.

  18. Wow. So your friend was basically told, “You weren’t good enough so you were left behind?” Yeah, that would rack up the old therapy bills.

    A thought came to me when I read your comment about boiling down urine for nitrates — my friend’s mom used to make old-fashioned country ham by coating it with nitre, salt and sugar and then leaving it in the basement until fuzzy. I used to be disturbed by the fuzzy part. Now I’m wondering where she got the nitre.

  19. Oui oui seems to be a most useful commodity. It has been used to clean clothes, as a bleach base, and during the civil war it was boiled down to get nitrates for explosives.

    Nitre is also naturally occuring, so I don’t think you need to worry about your freind’s mom’s hams. Then again…

  20. I have no religion, I must state that upfront. I’m not “spiritual” either. Yet I’m not an atheist. I am also not an agnostic. It is confusing. But I take what I can find about life here and now, birth, and death.

    I have almost always though that death is a reward. I’m not suicidal, yet I am have a disease that causes me tremendous physical pain all the time. I have to give up my intellect to medication and relief, for now. In my case if I never find a cure or a magic bullet death would be then end of this life, the end of suffering more than just pain but the human condition in general. I was beside my grandmother whom I had lived with the majority of my life when she died over ninety years old. She was a strong but accepting theist. My “feeling” was that she died after a long and rich life, and death was her final reward of rest eternal.

    Death is not a punishment, it is part of life. If humanity in it’s huge accumulation of irrational and conceited triumph wants to hold death on high as a weapon to punish anyone, they are gravely mistaken, for death is part of life. Whether someone commits you to death by law or by violence they can’t escape their reward either.

    And then there is nothing…..

    They say those who believe in a greater being or force are “binary”, that there is the self and the other, the one and the zero. Just something to consider, you can escape binary belief if you are God, and there is nothing else. Just something I’ve been philosophically been pondering recently.

    Being in so much pain opened up my mind, that though we are trained to prefer certain aspects of absolute reality, it is the whole of absolute reality that is beautiful in every way, even what many of us consider horrific. Call me a heretic and crucify me, it does not change anything.

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