Lucretius — Part I — The Fear of Death
Part I – The Fear of Death
On my office bookshelf, I have a 54-volume set of the Great Books of the Western World. Most of these books now are available on the internet. But in the days before the internet this set of books was a valuable resource to have on hand.
It’s easy to see why some of the authors were included. Books by Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Milton certainly belong in the set. But I often wondered about the inclusion of other authors. For example, why have a book by this Lucretius fellow? Who in the world was he? What is the importance of his little book On the Nature of Things?
These questions displayed my ignorance at the time. This obscure, almost forgotten author from the late Roman Republic wrote a book that is transforming our world. His book On the Nature of Things was the inspiration for much of the Renaissance and Enlightenment as well as the liberal establishment today. But first his book was lost for more than a thousand years.
Who was Lucretius? What is the background story behind this book?
I. Background Information
The Lucretii were an old, distinguished Roman clan. Lucretius’ name indicates a relationship with the Lucretii family. However, freed slaves often took the name of the family that formerly owned them. Lucretius could have been a member of the Roman aristocracy or simply the freed slave of a Roman aristocratic family.
A few ancient Roman men of letters mentioned Lucretius when they produced lists of authors. Ovid, for example, mentioned “the verse sublime of Lucretius.”
St. Jerome (c. A.D. 340-420) offers the longest known reference to Lucretius. Jerome noted that in the year 94 B.C. . . .
Titus Lucretius, poet, is born. After a love-philtre [a love potion] had turned him mad, and he had written, in the intervals of his insanity, several books which Cicero revised, he killed himself by his own hand in the forty-fourth year of his age.”
One should take this reference with a grain of salt. Scholars dispute whether Jerome’s statement is reliable. Saint Jerome certainly did not approve of Lucretius’ personal philosophy or his lifestyle. There is no further testimony to corroborate Jerome’s statement. Thus, no undisputed information regarding the life of Lucretius has survived.
Sometime after Jerome’s statement, On the Nature of Things disappeared into the mists of time. How and when was his book rediscovered?
During the Italian Renaissance, the educated elite searched diligently for old manuscripts. They believed these works contained words of wisdom and forgotten knowledge. They lamented the loss of these great works. One of these educated elite persons was Poggio Bracciolini.
Bracciolini was the apostolic secretary for Baldassarre Cossa. In 1409 Cossa was elected by the Council of Pisa and became Pope John XXIII. He served from 1410-1415. However, this was during the papal schism of 1378-1417. Eventually, Cossa became known as an antipope and no longer as pope. He was deposed by the Council of Constance in 1414. His name was stricken from the list of popes. The title Pope John XXIII was not used again until 1958.
So, in 1415, Cossa was deposed and Poggio Bracciolini was out of a job. To make matters worse for him, his prior employment by an antipope rendered him unfit for service in the Roman Catholic Church. He was unemployed and unemployable. He decided to join the search for ancient manuscripts.
Many of these lost manuscripts were discovered in Catholic monasteries. Monasteries were filled with copies of ancient books. Why? Because one of the primary duties of many monks was recopying manuscripts. The monks copied these manuscripts under close supervision. The monasteries took great care to insure the accuracy of the copy.
The completed copies of the manuscripts were added to the library of the monastery. Then the manuscripts were forgotten. Many of these manuscripts, both the old and the new copy, lay for centuries, gathering dust on a bookshelf in a monastery’s library.
By 1417 new discoveries of ancient books were rare. Poggio considered himself very lucky when he stumbled upon the manuscript On the Nature of Things by Lucretius. The manuscript rested in an unnamed monastery in Southern Germany until Poggio found it.
What made this discovery so important? Lucretius’ poem contained ideas that became the blueprint for the Enlightenment, liberalism, and modern atheism. Had Poggio known what he found, he might have returned it to the monastery shelf.
II. Praise Venus but not Religion
Lucretius begins his poem with praise to the Roman goddess Venus. Lucretius probably did not believe in Venus. His reference to Venus may have been a literary device. Whether true belief or literary license, the poem begins:
“Mother of Rome, delight of Gods and men,
Dear Venus that beneath the gliding stars
Makest to teem the many-voyaged main
And fruitful lands–for all of living things
Through thee alone are evermore conceived,”
Lucretius grants Venus the power of a real god. She guides the cosmos and brings forth generation after generation of living things.
“Thou bringest the eternal generations forth,
Kind after kind. And since ’tis thou alone
Guidest the Cosmos, and without thee naught
Is risen to reach the shining shores of light”
After praising Venus, Lucretius starts to sound more like an atheist. He continues with a rant against religion. He does not blame Christianity. Christianity does not yet exist. Jesus did not come to earth for another fifty or so years. He addresses ideas that are pre-Christian.
“Whilst human kind
Throughout the lands lay miserably crushed
Before all eyes beneath Religion–who
Would show her head along the region skies,
Glowering on mortals with her hideous face”
Atheists from all epochs hate religion. Denis Diderot (1713-1784) was one of the first Frenchmen to publicly endorse modern atheism. He wrote, regarding religion, “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”
Bertrand Russell, one of the foremost atheists of the twentieth century, wrote much on the evils of religion. For example, he wrote, “My own view on religion is that of Lucretius. I regard it as a disease born of fear and as a source of untold misery to the human race.”
Russell also wrote, “Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.”
Why do atheists hate religion? It’s hard to say but Lucretius apparently hated religion because it gave men reasons to fear death.
III. The Fear of Death
Author Stephen Greenblatt wrote in his book The Swerve: “The core of Lucretius’ poem is a profound, therapeutic meditation on the fear of death.”
The fear of death is the first issue addressed by Lucretius. Men fear the unknown, he wrote. Whatever happens after death is unknown. Thus, men fall prey to the threats announced by prophets and priests. According to Lucretius:
“I own with reason: for, if men but knew
Some fixed end to ills, they would be strong
By some device unconquered to withstand
Religions and the menacings of seers.
But now nor skill nor instrument is theirs,
Since men must dread eternal pains in death.
For what the soul may be they do not know,
Whether ’tis born, or enter in at birth,
And whether, snatched by death, it die with us,”
Lucretius continues, writing, “These wounds of life in no mean part are kept festering and open by this fright of death.”
But wait! Lucretius found the answer! Man need not fear death. The mind is mortal. After a person dies, it’s as though he was never born. Don’t fear death. Lucretius says it will never bother you. When you die, your mind also dies. You cease to exist. According to Lucretius, “Therefore death to us is nothing, nor concerns us in the least, since nature of mind is mortal evermore.”
What joyous news for atheists down through the ages! Lucretius continues to describe his “wonderful” revelation. For example, when a person dies it’s as though he never was born.
“Nothing for us there is to dread in death,
No wretchedness for him who is no more,
The same estate as if ne’er born before,
When death immortal hath taken the mortal life.”
Death is like sleep except once you die you will slumber for the rest of time. That’s what Lucretius wrote:
“O even as here thou art, aslumber in death,
So shalt thou slumber down the rest of time,
Released from every harrying pang.”
When you die, according to Lucretius, the matter composing you is scattered and you cease to exist.
“Death is, then, to us
Much less–if there can be a less than that
Which is itself a nothing: for there comes
Hard upon death a scattering more great
Of the throng of matter, and no man wakes up
On whom once falls the icy pause of life.”
Atheists have taken comfort in such a belief for centuries. Bertrand Russell relates a modern version of this belief:
I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive. I am not young and I love life. But I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting.
However, before we swallow this bit of esoteric belief, let’s look again at its source. What gave Lucretius (or Russell for that matter) the authority to pronounce such a belief? What does Lucretius know about death and whatever comes after death? Did God pull back the curtain of death for Lucretius? Did the Almighty show Lucretius what happens after a person dies? I think not. If that happened, Lucretius would hold onto quite a different picture of the afterlife.
A comment made by Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard is appropriate here. Kierkegaard said, “There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.”
IV. Is There an Afterlife?
How can we determine whether or not Lucretius’ belief is correct? Of course, we believe what the Bible says about death. But for atheists, biblical evidence means nothing. What evidence can we find to convince an atheist of the error of his belief?
Looking for the Angels
Deathbed behaviors point to an afterlife. For many years, my wife served as a registered nurse. She worked in the intensive care unit. As an ICU nurse, she was present when quite a few people died.
She told me of a strange behavior exhibited by some patients just before death. During the final moments of life, some patients suddenly opened their eyes. Their eyes would dart back and forth as though they were looking at something amazing. They did not seem to be looking at things in the room. Something beyond seemed to hold their attention. The nurses called it “Looking for the angels.”
This behavior certainly is nothing new. In the Bible’s book of Acts, chapter seven, the martyr Stephen exhibits a similar strange behavior seconds before he is put to death.
But being full of the Holy Spirit, he [Stephen] gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 7: 55-56, NAS)
What causes this behavior during those final moments before death? Do the dying see a similar vision of heaven and God? What else could make them act the way they do? If there is no afterlife, why do believers display such joy as they slip away into death?
Famous Last Words
Through the years, the last words of hundreds of famous people have been collected. Their words are available to us today. At times, these last words help us gain insight into the final thoughts of the dying.
For example, the atheist Thomas Hobbs said, “I am about to take my last voyage, a great leap in the dark.” The outlaw Jesse James died saying these words: “It’s awfully hot today.” James died in early April. Was he referring to hot weather or some other kind of heat?
The actor W. C. Fields often portrayed the role of an alcoholic who often participated in activities that were less than legal. What were his last words? “I’m looking for a loophole.”
Socrates believed in a God that he called “the good.” Was Socrates a believer? Only God knows. His final words are rather cryptic.
“All of the wisdom of this world is but a tiny raft upon which we must set sail when we leave this earth. If only there was a firmer foundation upon which to sail, perhaps some divine word.”
Were these words strangely prophetic? Four hundred years after Socrates’ death the firmer foundation came in the form of Jesus, the Rock of Salvation. And, yes, Socrates, Jesus is the divine Word.
Let’s turn to the final words of famous Christians. The great nineteenth century evangelist D. L. Moody died with these words on his lips: “I see earth receding; heaven is opening. God is calling me.” Pastor and theologian Martin Luther said, “Into Thy hands I commend my spirit! Thou hast redeemed me, O God of truth.”
Although these famous last words are intriguing, they really don’t provide scientific evidence about life after death. Famous last words might be only conditioned responses based on the person’s lifestyle. The skeptic would say the words of Moody and Luther were based on their lifelong commitment to Christianity. Their last words reflected their life’s passion, nothing more.
For years nothing more could be said about life after death. However, recent improvements in medical science bring about an entire new category of life and death experiences. This category is called near death experiences.
Records of the earliest near-death experiences date back at least to the Middle Ages. The earliest medical description of a near-death experience (NDE) was written in the eighteenth century by a French military doctor.
Modern interest in NDEs probably began in 1975 with the publishing of Raymond Moody, Jr.’s book Life After Life. The book contained interviews with fifty persons who allegedly experienced an NDE—they died and returned to life.
NDEs imply the existence of some immaterial entity that is independent of the brain. This entity is often named the mind, the soul, the self, or consciousness.
Atheists believe there is no soul. They believe consciousness, self, and the mind are produced as mechanical functions of the brain. When a person dies and his brain activity ceases, atheists believe that consciousness, the self, the mind, the soul—whatever you want to call it—simply disappears.
NDEs demonstrate the possibility that a person’s “entity” survives after death and the cessation of brain function. In some NDEs the person’s “entity” continues after brain activity has ceased. If the atheist belief is true, it is impossible for man’s “entity” to continue after death.
Science, of course, tries to explain NDEs in terms of trauma, stress, and/or physical changes to the brain at the time of death. Explanations include oxygen shortages, imperfect anesthesia, and neurological responses to trauma including hallucinations or a sudden reviving of old memories at the time of death.
However, the growth of medical science make NDEs difficult to dismiss altogether—even for the most hardened skeptics. Most NDEs take place when the subject is connected to all sorts of high-tech medical devices. Because of the data recorded by these devices, NDEs are scientifically recorded. Thousands of NDEs are documented.
One of the best known NDEs is that of Dr. Eben Alexander, a well-respected neurosurgeon for more than twenty years at the time of his NDE.
On November 10, 2008, Eben went to the ER with severe body pains. He was diagnosed with E. Coli meningitis. This infection is very rare in adults—also very deadly. Eben fell into a deep coma. The medical evidence shows his brain so completely shut down that there was no brain activity at all. Eben remained in a deep coma and on life support for seven days.
While in the coma, Eben experienced what could be described as a trip to another world. He called it “the strangest, most beautiful world I’d ever seen.” On the seventh day of the coma, his doctors discussed withholding further treatment and “letting nature take its course.” As they prepared to disconnect life support, Eben suddenly awakened from the coma and, over time, completely recovered.
Experiences such as these are hard to ignore—especially when they are accompanied by medical evidence. Scientific evidence for an afterlife continues to grow. They certainly provide a counterweight to the unsubstantiated opinion of a first century B.C. poet.
Are these experiences proof of life after death? No, they are evidence. Science and personal experience provide evidence. They cannot provide proof.
Lucretius decided there is no afterlife. This was his way of dealing with death. I’m sorry, Lucretius, there is a great deal more evidence to support belief in an afterlife. You cannot just wish it away. Death is the passageway to the afterlife. If you wish, you may live in fear for your entire life but the Bible has a better way.
V. The Bible and Death
Let’s make one thing clear, Christians did not “invent” the doctrine of an afterlife in Hell or in any other very uncomfortable place. The Hebrews believed in Sheol; the Greeks believed in Hades. Neither of these afterlife destinations was a place one chooses to go for a vacation. Lucretius’ fear and the reason for his fear existed long before Jesus was born.
Jesus did not come into the world to condemn the world. Jesus came into the world to rescue us from damnation. This promise is written in John 3: 17. Most people know John 3: 16. This is the follow-on verse. Jesus is speaking and says:
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” John 3: 16-17, NAS
The world knew about Hell long before Jesus Christ was born. Jesus taught the world to believe in heaven. The message of Jesus Christ was one of hope, not condemnation. What was the message of Jesus Christ? Consider the following words said by Jesus:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.” John 5: 24, NAS
Jesus also said to His disciples,
“My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” John 10: 27-29, NAS
“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” Romans 8: 1-2, NAS
Now we are freed from the law of sin and death. There is no condemnation for us because of Christ Jesus. We have victory over sin and death. Why? Note I Corinthians 15: 54-57:
“’Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (NAS)
This fear of death is the fear of Lucretius. It’s the fear that causes many to become atheists. If they can banish belief in an afterlife, they believe they are freed from their fear of death. But there is one big problem: evidence—including scientific evidence—for an afterlife grows from day to day. Mr. Atheist cannot wish it away.
The words of Jesus are not unsubstantiated like those of Lucretius. Three days after He died on the cross, Jesus rose from the dead. This event serves as proof. Jesus’ words are true. They are not wishful thinking.
Jesus cures the fear of death. How? He offers eternal life to all who will accept His offer and believe in Him. This eternal life is spent in heaven with God. Condemnation did not enter the world because of Jesus. Jesus did not bring the curse of sin. We did that to ourselves. Jesus came to bring us eternal life and also, according to Hebrews 2: 15, “[to] free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” (NIV)
Atheism is the land of inescapable condemnation to an unnecessary destination. Condemnation is inescapable because the atheist hides behind his disbelief. He believes his unbelief will save him but it cannot. He refuses to accept the only offer available for salvation—eternal life through Jesus Christ.
The atheist is headed to an unnecessary destination. His destination after death is certain but it is not necessary that he go there. Jesus is ready and willing to forgive the atheist’s sins and to accept the atheist into God’s eternal family.
Bottom line: the fear of death ended at the cross of Jesus Christ.