The Fear of Death Drives You More Than You Think (Q+A With Dr. Clay Jones)

My favorite book on the problem of evil is Clay Jones’ Why Does God Allow Evil?: Compelling Answers for Life’s Toughest Questions. Jones flips the problem of evil on its head by suggesting that the real question isn’t so much why God allows evil, but why God allows human beings. After all, we’re the ones carrying out so much evil. (And if you take a rosy view of humanity, Jones’ chapter on genocide over the past 100 years will shake that out of you!)

Jones says that the problem of evil ceased to be a problem for him after getting a deeper understanding of the life that is to come for the believer. He writes, “The evil we now experience can only be understood from the perspective of where we, as Christians, have come from and where we are going for all eternity.” That seems right. All of our sufferings millennia from now will look like they lasted for just a short minute. And the lesson we are learning now is that sin’s wages are costly!

When I found out that Jones’ was publishing a new book that went more into the topic of death and eternal life, I had to reach out to him. His new book is titled, Immortal: How the Fear of Death Drives Us and What We Can Do About It. You can order it here. (You can also get a free excerpt here.)

For those of you unfamiliar with Dr. Jones, he holds a doctor of ministry from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and is an associate professor in the Master of Arts in Christian Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology. Formerly, Clay hosted Contend for Truth, a nationally syndicated call-in, talk-radio program where he debated professors, radio talk show hosts, cultists, religious leaders, and representatives from animal rights, abortion rights, gay rights, and atheist organizations. Clay was the CEO of Simon Greenleaf University (now Trinity Law School) and was on the pastoral staff of two large churches. Clay is the Chairman of the Board of the university apologetics ministry Ratio Christi, is a contributing writer for the Christian Research Journal and specializes in issues related to why God allows evil.

I’m extremely honored for him taking the time to do this Q+A.

So what led you to write about this book?

I was reading Paris philosopher Luc Ferry’s book A Brief History of Thought and he wrote that “The quest for a salvation without God is at the heart of every great philosophical system, and that is its essential and ultimate objective.” I was surprised! I’d never heard that! So I started reading what philosophers thought about death and found that Ferry was right. Many philosophers say that philosophy is about learning how to die without belief in a God. I quote a lot of philosophers on this in my book but here I’ll just quote one: Socrates said, “Practicing philosophy in the right way” is “in fact, training to die easily.”

I know you obviously didn’t at all intend this, but the release of this book comes at an interesting time with everyone thinking about COVID-19. There’s a lot of fear out there right now. Just how much do people fear their deaths?

People are horrified by the prospect of their deaths but most of the time they won’t admit it to themselves! But when a woman finds a lump in her breast, or a man has a chest pain, or a person gets a positive back on a blood test, then the fear of death stands in front of them and won’t leave the room. What’s scaring people with COVID-19 is that suddenly the possibility of their death becomes very real and it reveals how much they really do fear death. Christians shouldn’t be surprised that non-Christians fear death because Hebrews 2:14-15 tells us Jesus died for us so “that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” Let me emphasize this: the Bible tells us that “all their lives,” people are “held in slavery by their fear of death.”

You write in the book that the fear of death drives people. I know my mind flashes to people emptying the Walmart shelves when this recent crisis started. Can you unpack what mean by how people are driven by the fear of death?

Because people are terrified by the fact of their deaths (even though for the most part they try to deny it and distract themselves from it), down deep they know they will die and they find ways to transcend the fact that they know they are going to die. Much of human behavior is driven by an attempt to evade death. This has been seen during the COVID-19 crisis by the fact that you mentioned that all the stores immediately ran out of toilet paper, face masks, plastic gloves, disinfectant. The funny thing about toilet paper is that there was never going to be a shortage because people aren’t using more toilet paper than they used before the COVID-19 crises. After the shelter in place order, I went to Costco in the afternoon and there was literally no raw chicken at all—no whole chickens, no wings, no thighs, no breasts, etc., none at all. I went to Ralph’s supermarket and the meat sections were empty. 

Some people are striving to live forever or at least for a long time. In your book, you call that literal immortality projects. Exactly how well is that going to work out for them?

Almost everyone is, of course, trying to live as long as they possibly can and that’s why gym memberships are up, non-GMO foods are the rage, health costs skyrocket, people are consumed with talking about whether this diet or that will prolong their lives. But it’s not going to make a difference. For example, people think that if we could cure every type of cancer, most of us would live many more years. Not true. Harvard demographer Nathan Keyfitz calculated that if researchers cured all forms of cancer, people would live only a measly 2.265 years longer before they died of something else.  

In your book, you talk about sci-fi literal immortality projects like the idea of uploading our consciousnesses into a computer. I know that Ray Kurzweil has popularized this idea and he works for Google, so people assume he knows what he is talking about. And other futurists like him have endorsed these ideas and believe that they will be possible within decades. I know that this is loaded with naturalistic assumptions but just how realistic is this?

You mentioned Ray Kurzweil and he’s rooting for brain uploading because he fears death. As I put it in my book, “Kurzweil says death is ‘such a profoundly sad, lonely feeling that I really can’t bear it.’ Then Kurzweil adds cheerfully, ‘So I go back to thinking about how I’m not going to die.’” Kurzweil is a naturalist and you’re right to bring up the naturalistic assumptions. We Christians believe that humans have souls and those are not made out of material stuff. We say that it’s the soul that’s conscious and you’re never going to make a machine that actually has a soul. Of course, the overwhelming majority of naturalists believe that humans are no more than material stuff.

But even if that were true, which it is not, the naturalist is not close to making a conscious machine. As neuroscientist David Chalmers admits, “It is true that we have no idea how a nonbiological system, such as a silicon computational system, could be conscious. But the fact is that we also have no idea how a biological system, such as a neural system, could be conscious. The gap is just as wide in both cases.” So Chalmers, who does think that brain uploading is possible, says “we have no idea” what consciousness even is. But, their belief that everything is material stuff makes them think they can make a conscious machine. In my book, I go through a lot of other reasons why humans will never make a conscious machine.

You also talk about symbolic immortality projects. What are some common symbolic immortality projects, and why do they fail?

Almost everyone on earth has a symbolic immortality project and by symbolic immortality project I mean they are attempting to symbolically transcend their deaths through accomplishing something of lasting worth. For example, people are trying to symbolically transcend their deaths through having children, or writing a book, or saving the planet, or becoming a celebrity. There’s a thing called “dying for the Gram” and by that, they mean taking a photo of themselves doing something dangerous like leaning over a cliff, or standing on the tracks in front of an oncoming train, and so on, and then posting it to Instagram. Over 200 people have died doing that! But they think it’s worth the risk if they can make a name for themselves. 

But all symbolic immortality projects are futile. After all, when you die, even if you’re famous, you’re still dead. In a generation, or two at the most, no one is going to know who Kim Kardashian was any more than this generation knows who Hedy Lamarr was (she was a famous actress and some considered her most beautiful woman in the world). And nobody cares!

I’ve heard many atheists say that they don’t fear death. As a former atheist, this certainly wasn’t my experience. In fact, it was the death of a few classmates of mine in high school that led me to start thinking about theism and Christianity. So I’m skeptical when they claim to be so fearless. How do most atheists handle the fear of death?

In the book I go through the atheist attempts to feel good, or at least okay about death: “immortality would be boring” (that’s a big one), “live in the moment,” your individual existence is unreal (hard to believe but this was Einstein’s answer), and so on and on. They all fail and that’s why atheists have a higher suicide rate than those who believe there is a God. Here’s the last sentence of the last page of Duke University philosopher Alex Rosenberg’s book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions: “Take a Prozac or your favorite serotonin reuptake inhibitor, and keep taking them till they kick in.” So atheist Rosenberg’s presumably sober advice for dealing with death fears is “Get high!” 

A lot of people in our society have rejected belief in the afterlife. How is that hurting them?

People are living in denial and distraction (you can’t just deny something, you have to distract yourself from it) and that’s why we pay movie, singing, and sports stars more than we pay almost anyone in society—they do what we need most—they keep our minds occupied so we don’t have to think about our deaths. No one should be surprised that people are depressed, neurotic, and even psychotic because of the fear of death scares them. Of course, people are hooked on drugs, as I just said, Rosenberg’s advice to deal with death is to take drugs. Suicide is a symptom of the fear of death because it allows you to control that which controls you. 

You mention in the book that a lot of Christians fear death. I can relate to this because after my mother died when she was only in her fifties, shortly afterward I began to experience occasional anxiety attacks and increased paranoia over every weird symptom I might have experienced. (Thankfully the Lord has helped me overcome many of these fears.) So why do Christians, who have the promise of heaven and resurrection, continue to fear death?

The biggest reason that Christian fear death is that they have a paltry, usually false view of heaven. Some years ago an undergrad came to me and fought back tears as she confessed she was afraid she didn’t want to go to heaven. I’ve learned she is not alone. If heaven really is no more than sitting on clouds, sporting flightless wings, strumming harps, singing non-stop hymns, then heaven doesn’t sound very good to me either. But this is all Satan’s work. I call what Satan has done “Extreme Makeover: Metaphysical Edition.”

We won’t be doing any of those things. Our occupation is reigning with Christ and the Bible’s most common metaphor for heaven is a banquet. Our occupation, by the way, is reigning with Christ (Revelation 22:5). The second biggest reason and this is huge is that it is so easy for Christian to be in love for this present world but John warns us in 1st John 2:15, “Do not love the world or the things of the world or love of the Father will not be in you.” That by the way, is one of the good things that can come out of something like COVID-19—it unsettles our worldliness. It reminds us that this world is not a place to be in love with. 

What is the Christian’s answer to the fear of death?

We need to focus on eternal life. As it says in 1 Peter 1:13: “Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” That’s not three commands, it’s one. We are to prepare our minds for action and be sober-minded so that we can focus on the grace that will be coming to us in Jesus. I spend the last three chapters talking about eternal life in my book Why Does God Allow Evil?, and I spend the last two chapters of Immortal: How the Fear of Death Drives Us and What We Can Do About It talking about how to focus on eternal life and what it will be like for us to be glorified in eternity.

We Christian are never going to experience death. As Jesus said in John 8:51: “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” When Jesus said that He wasn’t living in denial. Jesus knows all our bodies will die. But our consciousness will never cease. We will be transferred into the next life seamlessly. It may even take us a few minutes to realize that our body has died. We may not know we’ve died unless we look back and see ourselves in a mangled car or on an operating table. In Jesus, we will live forever! That’s the Christian’s hope and the evidence for that is that Jesus was raised from the dead. So be encouraged, Christian, you are going to live forever! 

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