Albert Camus, a French writer, was among those who recognized that death shatters older notions of human significance. The “everyday man,” Camus wrote in “The Myth of Sisyphus,” lives his life “with aims, a concern for the future or for justification.” This man “still thinks that something in his life can be directed. In truth, he acts as if he were free.” But in light of death this freedom is no more than an illusion. The “freedom to be . . . ,” Camus argued, “. . . does not exist. Death is there as the only reality.”
Camus is suggesting that death’s effect on how we see ourselves in the world is far more than humbling. It should also be profoundly disorienting. Awareness of death forces a tension Camus called “the Absurd”—a clash between two realities that seem undeniable. On one hand, we can’t help living as if our lives matter. We feel as if we as humans have a privileged place in the world compared with other lives. We feel joined to the world, as if its beautiful places and delicious foods and range of experiences are meant for us to use and to enjoy. Dogs don’t sit and gaze at the colors of a sunset. Cats don’t build high-rise condos with a view of the coast and walkable beach access. Gerbils don’t study physical laws, master basic elements, and work with them to create technology, plan buildings, compose paintings. We live as if our relationship with the world as humans is special. The world feels like a place where we are known, where our actions make a difference, and where we are, if not indispensable, at least irreplaceable. It may be nostalgia—that’s how Camus refers to this orientation in the world—but it’s a strong and unshakeable nostalgia.
Then, in some moments, the consciousness of death breaks in and disrupts this sense of order and familiarity. It forces what Camus called “a confrontation between man and his own obscurity.” When you recognize that you aren’t central to the world, that it will go on without you, that there’s nothing unique about where you end up, the world that had been small and hospitable, built around you and your expectations and desires, now seems independent from you, inattentive and indifferent. You may come to see yourself as a small speck in a vastness that doesn’t notice you. And with this consciousness comes, as Freud put it, a feeling of estrangement from a world which once seemed so beautiful and familiar.
In other words, death-awareness can bring on a sense of alienation from the world. You see yourself detached from where you were once intimately united. This feeling of strangeness is highly subjective, of course. It varies from person to person, and it’s difficult to put into words. Julian Barnes describes the startling effect of this awareness as similar to waking up to an alarm clock set by someone else: “At some ungodly hour you are suddenly pitched from sleep into darkness, panic, and a vicious awareness that this is a rented world.”
Recognizing what death means for your identity can have this effect. It can make you feel unmoored, detached—as if you may as well be floating away, irrelevant and unnoticed. So far from being the world’s center, you’re not even at home there.
How the Gospel Resolves the Absurd
The Bible explains what Camus found to be absurd—the contradiction between the dignity we feel and the obscurity we face in death. Thanks be to God, the Bible also offers a better way forward.
How do you face up to a life that’s defined by death? Camus suggested two main options. One was suicide. He suggested that the fundamental question of all philosophy is whether or not suicide is necessary. Should I go on toward death, drawing out the inevitable, or put an end to my life now? I can’t choose whether my life will have any meaning. It won’t. But at least I’m free to choose when my life ends. That’s one option.
Camus preferred a second option, though. Something he called revolt. Live as if you matter. Live in denial of death. Pretend that your life and the lives of those you love have value that death won’t erase. As an act of protest against death, live your life with dignity and purpose.
This sort of denial is probably the most common way to cope with death’s implications. But it’s dishonest. It means living a lie. And even worse than the dishonesty, this denial leaves our self-centeredness unchecked. It carves out space for me to keep on living as if I’m the center of the universe and everyone else is merely plugging into my story.
The gospel offers a liberating, life-giving alternative to denial and despair. There is no need for denial: death’s implications for who we are provide the crucial backdrop for the work of Christ. And there is no need for despair: union with Christ radically transforms who we are.
We must hear and accept the statement death makes about who we are before we can fully rejoice in the message of the gospel. Death says you are less important than you’ve ever allowed yourself to believe. The gospel says you are far more loved than you’ve ever imagined. You are not too important to die. But you are important enough that God gave his only begotten Son, so that if you believe in him you will not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). You will not be defined by death.
We must tread carefully if we are to see the gospel in all its beauty. An awareness of death that won’t shrink back from the truth can help us to check our inner narcissism and rest in the promises of God. The gospel, seen in the light of what death means for us, tells us we are important because we are loved, not loved because we’re important. God’s love initiates, marks us off, redefines who we are.
So long as we see ourselves as the central character in the story of the world, the core concepts of the gospel will seem abstract, unnecessary, maybe even off-putting. Before I face up to the truth about death and the truth about myself, my inner narcissism goes unchecked. I continue to see myself as the center of the universe. I identify everyone else, including God, in light of how they fit with my story. God is not the center of all things, the one from whom and through whom and to whom all things exist. God is a secondary character defined by how he comes into my story. So, if I need saving, of course God will save me. Who is God? God is the one who loves and protects me. That’s his role to play. That’s how he fits into this story that centers on me.
When we make God into a bit character who props up our lead—when we flatten out his character to fit the constraints of our story—much of the gospel’s message will remain difficult to understand, much less love. The fact that God would love us makes sense. But why does the Bible speak so often of sacrifice and sin and grace and mercy? Why is there so much blood involved? What makes atonement necessary? Those concepts can devolve to mere words we recite without understanding, much less affection. They make God seem distant, foreign even—certainly not approachable, not immanent, not loving.
But when I hear what death says about me, I begin to see that I’m not the center of the universe after all. I’m a usurper who deserves to be put in his place. I begin to see that God is the only lead in this story, that I’m a character in a story that’s about him. Only when I see his glory, and recognize that I am utterly dispensable, am I prepared to be amazed by the message of the gospel. Only then can I see and taste why it’s wonderfully goodnews.
Content taken from Remember Death: The Surprising Path to Living Hope by Matthew McCullough, ©2018. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.