Jaws of Death: Gate of Heaven

Author: Dietrich von Hildebrand


Dietrich von Hildebrand

Natural evidence for immortality

SOCRATES met his death with peace and cheerfulness of soul. How was this possible? Did the dreadful aspect of death totally retreat before his great confidence in the immortality of his soul? We know that for him death represented the beginning of a higher, happier life because death frees the soul from the prison of the body. Was Socrates right thus to put away all fear of death? Some men think that death means descent into absolute nothingness. Therefore, they argue, death need not be feared because it will bring about the end of all suffering. This is a deceptive and false argument that gains plausibility from the tacitly-held concept that only a consciously-felt suffering is an evil.

Death as nonexistence is an evil

In truth, however, existence as a personal being is a great good, the basis for all other things: our happiness and bliss, our loves and yearnings. But this personal existence is so basic, so taken for granted, that we are usually not completely aware of its remarkable value.17 If, then, we were to lose this fundamental good and descend into nothingness, this would constitute a terrible loss, a dreadful misfortune. Our no longer being able to suffer when we cease to exist would in no way mitigate the dreadful loss of personal existence.

The view that death means the fading away of our personal being is closely connected with the modem sense of the meaninglessness of life on earth. If our personal existence, so unmistakably linked to a higher fulfillment in the world beyond, were destined to be dissolved into nothingness, then our life would be a complete illusion. If the hints and promises of all great blessings were cruelly deceptive, the world would be a stage Of absurdity. Only mockery and cynicism would be an appropriate response.

Now the existence of an infinitely loving, personal God excludes the possibility of such deception and consequent absurdity. The assumption, therefore, that a person's death is the total end of his unique existence is in total contradiction to our certainty that God exists. If we accept this assumption, we become, simply, atheists. The view of life which stamps it as meaningless and deceptive will have won. What further need then to speak about hopes or fears? All is absurdity.

Given the great, basic value of personal existence, it should be clear how erroneous is the argument that "death cannot be an evil if I cease to exist through it, so I need not fear it." This argument, which seems deeply enlightened, is false and misleading, based as it is on a fundamental blindness to the great value of personal existence.

Death as non-personal existence is an evil

A similar argument, more and more frequently encountered today, holds that death means the end of our individual existence, but that we do continue as part of a universal consciousness. However, being a person and being an individual are so inseparable that the concept of a universal consciousness is nonsensical: it is a contradiction in terms to hold that individual persons dissolve into one grand universal consciousness that somehow continues them in being. Drops of water may indeed join together to form a take. But persons either exist as unique individuals or they disappear. They cannot be "merged" into a "higher whole."

Every form of pantheism shares this error of interpreting death as a radical fading away of the individual person. When the conscious existence of a person as a particular individual ceases, this necessarily means the fading away of that person into nothingness.18

Personal existence is a prerequisite for happiness

Our existence as a person is a unique blessing and an essential precondition for all happiness. To lose our personal existence would be a loss of the greatest magnitude even if it did prevent us from suffering. Suffering is a misfortune, but the objective loss of our personal being is a dreadful evil. If, in fact, death actually meant the termination of our personal existence, then death itself would be most fearful. We should then dread the ultimate annihilation Of ourselves, our person, the very "I" behind every drama of our earthly life.

Socrates argues that death cannot be a misfortune if it means the fading away of personal existence into nothingness, since we would then no longer be subject to suffering. His argument is really more or less a rhetorical one, a premise assumed for the sake of argument but not really believed. For Socrates is firmly convinced of the continued existence of the individual soul, as the entire tenor of his splendid discourse on death clearly shows.

Socrates' attitude on death, which views it as a liberation, is all the more surprising when we consider how vividly strong for the Greeks was the fear of death. Their proverb claims that "it is better to be a beggar on earth than a king in the underworld." Chesterton notes that the cheerfulness and merriment of Hellas is centered on our earthly life, and that it gives way to an increasingly frightened anxiety when the question of man's fate after death is raised. In this respect it contrasts greatly with the Christian view of both earthly life and temporal death.19

Socrates saw in death a great positive value - of liberation. In stark contrast is Dostoyevsky's description of his own state of mind when he, along with many others, was condemned to death by the Czarist government.20 He details the frightful hours he endured as seemingly-imminent death approached right up until the sudden and unexpected commutation of his death sentence to banishment in Siberia. Death had confronted him in all its horror. He somehow was able to find words to depict the dreadful and mysterious force that had threatened to destroy his young life at a single blow.

Certainty of immortality may not diminish fear of death

Given that we can grasp with absolute certainty that a personal, infinitely kind God exists, is not the dread of death removed? Our conviction about the infinitely good God must also prove that we are deceived by no lying "promises" about a happy life in some future existence. Is not God's existence sufficient to dispel any dread of death as being the end of our personal being?

We are faced with two views. On the one hand, death is seen as the end of everything. On the other, we are certain of our soul's immortality, for we know that God exists and we have gathered into our mind the many hints and promises - the intimations - of our continued existence. How shall we relate the one view with the other?

If we stick to rational evidence alone, then the fearful aspect of death as the slayer of all things (including, above all, our personal consciousness) ought to modify considerably our certainty about the intimations of immortality. For these might just be mere impressions, whereas death is absolutely certain.

If a mere impression conflicts with a conviction rooted in absolutely certain knowledge, the latter must be decisive. Will not the scales then tip in favor of the gloom threatened by certain death? But something more than abstract insight is at stake here: our "existential" experience of all the hints about life beyond death, hints which pervade all the great and deep moments of our earthly existence.

Our mode of existence after death is largely unknown

Can these hints deprive death of its dreadful character? Not really. Death as the end of life is something very definite and vivid, whereas the hints of immortality point toward things to tally unknown and totally unimaginable. We experience in a sharp and unmistakable way the sudden absence of the beloved person through death, the incomprehensible separation, the dreadful emptiness. A lifeless body that will quickly decay lies before us.

The soul (even though we know that it continues to exist) has been carried off into an impenetrable darkness. We cannot reach it; it cannot reach us. We know nothing of the how and why of its continued existence. Everything is puzzling, impenetrable, unimaginable.

In life our body and our soul, although each differs greatly from the other, partake of a unique marriage. It is precisely this intimate union which is ruptured in death as in no other way, not even in the prolonged loss of our consciousness.

So long as we go on living, our loss of consciousness in no way signifies the extinction of our soul. We might be in a state of shock caused by damage to our circulatory system; we might be under the influence of a powerful narcotic during surgery; we might even be in a month-long coma. But in all these cases, our soul still remains bound to our body. As soon as we regain consciousness, we are once again conscious human beings. Even if the return to normalcy is slow, as in the case of certain comas, we yet are headed toward the full consciousness of our identity, a matter of basic significance to us as persons.

The great riddle of death becomes grimly apparent when we compare the absence of the soul after death with the loss of consciousness of one still alive but barred from any conscious interaction with us, The unconscious soul may indeed be there but it is unreachable. Given that we ourselves have experienced such a loss of consciousness - a complete stilling of our consciousness, of that specific form of existence which constitutes us as a person -how shall we imagine the soul's continued existence? just how does our soul exist when we undergo the complete loss of consciousness?

However this may be, as long as we continue to live in our body (which has this intimate link with our soul), our personal identity is continued. Our body is the bridge to our soul and, thus, to our personal identity. When we regain consciousness, we are able to take up again the inner awareness of our purely personal being. We are the same person as before, and we know it.

When at death the soul separates from the body, what happens to personal consciousness? Even on the natural plane, as I have argued, we can know that the soul continues to exist. This must mean, therefore, that when the soul definitively separates from the body, it does not descend into a night of unconsciousness. What a mystery is here! In life it is the body which plays a positive role in the continuity of our life as a person; it is this same body which at times can be the cause of our unconsciousness. And now, in death, when the body falls away from the soul, what becomes of the soul's consciousness?


17. St. Augustine expresses this truth in a special way: "But as the sentient nature, even when it feels pain, is superior to the stony, which can feel none, so the rational nature, even when wretched, is more excellent than that which lacks reason or feeling, and can therefore experience no misery." The City of God, 12. 1, trans. Marcus Dods, in vol. 18 of The Great Books of the Western World (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952).

18. As Kierkegaard correctly understood, every form of pantheism within the various religions is in direct contradiction to Christian Revelation. Consider, for example, his journal entry for August 20, 1838: "The 'lonely man': in this category stands and falls the cause of Christendom, after the development of the world has gone so far in reflection as it has today. Without this category, pantheism has had an absolute victory ... but the category of the 'lonely man' is and remains the solid point which has been able to offer resistance to pantheistic confusion." The Journals of Soren Kierkegaard: A Selection, ed. and trans. Alexander Dru (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1938; reprint 1959), 63.

19. "The pagan was (in the main) happier and happier as he approached the earth, but sadder and sadder as he approached the heavens." G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Doubleday Image, 1959), 158.

20. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Gesammelte Briefe, 1833-1881, tr. Friedrich Hitzer (Munich: Piper, 1966): unabbreviated letter to Michael Michaelovitch Dostoyevskyof Dec. 22,1849,76-81; Karl Notzel, Das Leben Dostojewskis (Leipzig: Haessel-Verlag, 1925), pt. 1, II, d and e, 253-62.

The above excerpt of Chapter 3, pages 19-26 is taken with permission from:

Dietrich von Hildebrand. Jaws of Death:  Gate of Heaven.
With a forward by Alice von Hildebrand, Ph.D.
(Sophia Institute Press, 1991, hardcover, 133 pgs)

This book is available from:

Sophia Institute Press
Box 5284
Manchester, NH 03108