For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.
Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun.
—Ecclesiastes 9:5,6 (KJV)
About C.P. Snow and His Saga
Every once in a while, rather than retreating to Twilight Zone or Star Trek Marathons, I escape to other worlds, multi-volume chronicles of heroes, villains and families: Heinlein’s “Future History Series,” Galsworthy’s “The Forsythe Saga,” Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” Trollope’s “Barchestershire Chronicles,” and most recently C.P. Snow’s “Strangers and Brothers.” I want to focus on the last novel in the “Strangers and Brothers” series, “Last Things.” The story resonates with me: the protagonist, Lewis Eliot, after a near-death experience at the age of 60, is looking back in time and forward, to what has been and what may be—but more of that below.
Here’s some background for those of you unfamiliar with C.P. Snow and his works. He was a British author and political figure, converted from science, who gave us these two phrases headlining our times: “Corridors of Power,” the title of a novel that told of the intermingled worlds of politics and science; and “The Two Cultures,” a phrase describing the gulf between the humanistic and technological cultures. Here’s a relevant quote:
A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?
—C.P. Snow, “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution”
The series recounts the journey of a talented English lad, Lewis Eliot, from his lower-middle-class origins to a position of power and influence in British politics and academic affairs. The story parallels Snow’s own career, from science into government and thence writing. In his journey Eliot encounters a full spectrum of British society, from the snobbish Lord Boscastle—he dismisses the newly entitled (those with titles less than 400 years old) with “I don’t really know that fellow—” to an unbelieving Anglo-Catholic priest—he ministers to the poor and fallen from grace while trying to find evidence for the existence of God.
How do atheists face death?
The characters in Snow’s chronicle have political beliefs spanning the full range from left to right. Their religious beliefs also run the gamut from evangelical atheism through polite non-belief to devout faith. What is interesting is the correlation of political and religious beliefs. I don’t remember any character whose politics were of the Left—anarchist, Communist, Labour/Socialist—who believed in God. On the other hand, there were many whom we would call “Conservative” (or on the Right) for whom faith was a support in trials, including impending death.
This is the issue I want to examine. If you don’t believe in an afterlife, how do you face death? Atheists claim: if you believe in God, you do so because you are afraid of death. The comments in the linked article suggest that atheists want to make the world better and they will be content with being remembered as having done so. I’m not sure that these altruistic sentiments prevail amongst all unbelievers; just as I am quite sure that fear of being nothing after death is not why I believe in the Triune God.
C.P. Snow’s model for dying in unbelief is that of the classic Roman “good” man. Here is part of the eulogy given by a Cambridge College Fellow for a famous physicist, Francis Getliffe:
Now I have to speak in a way which may be painful for some present. But if I did not, it would be hypocrisy on my part, and hypocrisy of a kind which our colleague would have been one of the first to resent. I have to tell you that he was not a Christian. He did not believe in the religion to which this chapel is dedicated…And I cannot and will not talk of him terms of the Christian virtues. It is more appropriate to talk and think of him in terms of a world before Christianity existed. He was the absolutely upright man, such as the classical world admired…He lived a life better than most men can aspire to, but he did it without the support of any faith.
—C.P. Snow, “Last Things”
Getliffe’s family were also unbelievers, but they were persuaded to have a memorial service to keep him in memory a little longer:
They [Getliffe’s family] were holding on to anything that kept Francis in others minds: or perhaps, more primitive than that, they had the feeling that while his name was being mentioned he was not quite obliterated, his shadow (they would have liked to say his spirit or his ghost) was still there.
The forms are observed, not to satisfy believers, but because of a vague feeling that there is something left after the body dies.
Catholic “Last Things”
So, how do we compare the “Last Things” of the unbeliever, as C.P. Snow would have it, with the Four Last Things of our Catholic teaching? These are Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. We seldom hear about Hell in homilies nowadays, and there is some controversy whether our Holy Father did indeed say in a private communication that there is no Hell. Nevertheless, we as Catholics do believe in the Four Last Things: that we shall die, at the Last Judgment be separated into those at our Lord’s right hand and His left, and thence for eternity to be with Him in heaven or to be lost to God in Hell.
For the atheist, there is only one of those Last Things, death. And whatever brave front the atheist might present, what a forbidding, desolate, unhopeful outcome that is, not only for those who are about to die but for family and friends. The featured image—”one picture is worth a 1000 words”—says this more eloquently than I can.