One of the interesting questions about the plan of salvation is why we need to think we’re going to die. Clearly death has an important role in our development, but why? I came upon a great interview with Todd May, the philosopher behind the popular TV show The Good Place, on what it means to be a good person. Allow me to quote the segment on death and immortality.
I was trying to press this idea: death is bad, because we live forward in our lives. We project ourselves into the future. Death is an evil for us. But immortality would also be bad.
Because if we were immortal, our lives would lose their shape. We wouldn’t have the same urgency and commitment to life that we do since we’re mortal creatures. Our mortality doesn’t give us a theory of how we should live. It gives us an urgency to think about what we want the shape of our lives to be. That urgency may lead different people in different directions, but it will give them a sense of commitment to lives that, after all, are temporary. A commitment they wouldn’t have if they had, literally, all the time in the world.
When I started working with Mike Schur, one of the phrases of the book that he found striking was that, “Our mortality gives us a sort of urgency in our living. Our morality helps us navigate all that.”
So death isn’t a bad thing to you?
It doesn’t simply serve in a negative role. It can also serve in a positive role.
Notice how this explains the limit in what we could learn morally in immortality and why in mortality we’d need to forget our knowledge of immortality. That is if we were immortal “our lives would lose their shape.” We simply couldn’t understand the urgency and commitment to life that we experience here. Not only does it give us that urgency but it forces us to think about what we want our life to be – to choose our life.
May is getting a lot of this from Heidegger’s thinking through the problem of death and finitude. There’s actually a lot there in that analysis for thinking through the plan of salvation and its necessity. An other things I’d add to May’s great explanation is the idea of risk. When you are living a short finite life you have to take risks. Urgency is tied up with that idea of risks. It’s hard to recover from a mistake. Effectively life’s shortness forces us to confront the risks of choice. The make a choice and not know the outcome, not know how to repair an outcome. Finitude makes us vulnerable in a fashion we simply couldn’t be as immortal beings. Risk, vulnerability and urgency that arise from the finitude of death. In this being towards death we see possibilities as what they really are – possibilities that forces us to risk and choose one above an other.
Even if we don’t fully understand conceptually what it is to choose, at a gut level we know that every choice collapses opportunities. What was once open with a myriad of choices is collapsed as we follow the path the choice we actually make opens us. That ability simply wasn’t a living option for us as immortal beings aware of our immortality but unable to experience finitude.
1. A great analysis of all this is Hurbert Dreyfus’ explanation of Heidgger. I’d suggest his online forward to the book “Time and Death: Heidegger’s Analysis of Finitude.” It’s a bit more technical but still extremely approachable.