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Hegesias of Cyrene was a Greek philosopher who lived in the third century B.C. He will forever be remembered as the “death-persuader” (peisithanatos). He received this nickname because he didn’t think happiness was achievable in this life. Instead, he argued, our primary goal as humans should be to avoid pain and suffering. He wrote a book (that has fortunately not survived) called A Man Who Starves Himself. It’s a story about a man, lying on the ground, starving himself to death. His friends try to encourage him to want to live. But the starving man turns the tables on his friends. He lays out all the miseries of life and convinces them to commit suicide too!
Cicero, the Roman statesman and philosopher, tells us that Hegesias’ lectures were banned at Alexandria because of the many resulting suicides. This is probably why Hegesias’ book didn’t survive! Hegesias may seem extreme or even nihilistic. However, Blaise Pascal as well as other Christians and even atheists have argued similarly. After all, if there is no God; and everything ends in death, life is absurd. Ecclesiastes 1:2 says it well, “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”
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This is why Pascal planned to begin his Apology for the Christian Religion with probably the greatest fear of all mankind: death. Peter Kreeft summarizes his approach this way:
Pascal classified most of his Pensées about death under the heading ‘Beginning’. Death is an excellent beginning for his apologetic, for three reasons: it is a great attention-grabber; it is a solid, sound, secure and indisputable fact; and it slaps us in the face with our own wretchedness, our utter helplessness before the loss of everything. It is our obvious problem, and Christ claims to be the answer.
Pascal wanted to jolt his skeptical, French audience back to reality. He forced them to confront what Sirach said long ago, “The decree from of old is, ‘You must die!’” (Sirach 14:17). This is the first step of Pascal’s negative side of apologetics, “make good men wish Christianity was true.”
The Firm Foundation of Unyielding Despair
Many thoughtful atheists have readily agreed with Pascal and written about the absurdity of life without God. For example, the great atheist philosopher of the 20th century, Bertrand Russell, believes this was the situation for every atheist:
That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his love and beliefs, are but the outcomes of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve individual life beyond the grave; that all our labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.
According to Russell, every atheist must begin his life on “the firm foundation of unyielding despair.” This quote makes me want to write a book entitled Why I Am Not an Atheist!
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And closer to our own day, Richard Dawkins has made a similar case:
In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference…DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.
Russell and Dawkins are right. Without God there is no purpose to our lives, no meaning, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference built on the firm foundation of unyielding despair. We’re not free. We all dance to DNA’s music. Pascal would be simultaneously pleased and horrified to read such things—pleased because they understand well the point Pascal wants to make about the absurdity of life, but horrified that they choose to remain in such despair. GK Chesterton said in two sentences why the atheist worldview contradicts common sense, “Atheism is abnormality. It goes against what every normal person believes, namely, that there is a meaning and direction in the world.”
It is that common sense understanding of the world Pascal is appealing too.
The Last Act Is Tragic
But Pascal was not dealing with unbelievers like Russell and Dawkins. Much like today, he was engaging skeptics who created an illusion of meaning for their lives. They avoided thinking about their imminent appointment with death and instead engaged in all kinds of pursuits in life to distract themselves from these realities.
Therefore, reminding the French skeptics of his day of their looming death was how Pascal would have begun his great apologetic work. Here are just a few golden nuggets from him on death.
“The last act is tragic, however happy all the rest of the play is. They throw earth over your head and it is finished forever.” (Pensées 210)
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“We run carelessly into the abyss after putting something before us to prevent us seeing it.” (Pensées 183)
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“Let us imagine a number of men in chains and all condemned to death, where some are killed each day in the sight of the others, and those who remain see their own fate in that of their fellows and wait their turn, looking at each other sorrowfully and without hope. It is an image of the condition of men.” (Pensées 199)
This last image is especially haunting. This is our daily experience—seeing others, the young and the old, dying all around us and knowing we are next.
I think Leo Tolstoy grasped in his own personal experience well what Pascal wanted his skeptical friends to understand. In A Confession, Tolstoy writes:
My question—that which at the age fifty brought me to the verge of suicide—was the simplest of questions, lying in the soul of every man from the foolish child to the wisest elder. It was a question without an answer to which one cannot live. It was: ‘What will come of what I am doing today or tomorrow? What will come of my whole life? Why should I live, why wish for anything, or do anything?’ It can also be expressed thus: ‘Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?’
Is there any meaning in your life that the inevitable death awaiting you does not destroy? This is an excellent question to put before unbelievers of any age, Pascal’s and ours.
Many unbelievers create the illusion of purpose in their lives by saying something like, ‘This is the only life we have. That makes it even more special and meaningful than those who believe in an afterlife.’ That argument might be attractive to a middle or upper class educated atheist in the West. But what about those who suffer on a daily basis with some kind of disease, paralysis, poverty, or the thousands of other types of gross suffering in the world? Is this one life sweet and special for them? It is important to point out that the atheistic, humanist worldview is utterly bankrupt in what it has to offer those who experience horrific suffering in this life.
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Yet, even if an unbeliever manages to have a successful, almost pain free and pleasure filled life, Pascal would remind them that someone will soon throw earth over their head, and all that meaning in their life will be rendered null and void. The memory of them will be completely wiped off the face of the earth within a few generations. Just curious: can you name your great-great grandfather?
At this point, the unbeliever hopefully will cry out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). And Pascal will eventually respond, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25). But not just yet.
Pascal isn’t done with the negative side of making the skeptic wish Christianity was true. He will next move on to the vanity, distractions, and boredom of this life apart from God and keep pounding the unbeliever until he or she cries “Mercy!”
A Closing Addendum: The Judgment to Come
“Just as man is destined to die once and after that face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27)
Even though Pascal doesn’t seem to have planned to warn his skeptical friends of God’s judgment after death (probably because very few of them believed in a judgment to come), this does seem to be a vital component of the apostles’ apologetic with unbelievers.
In both cases, for example, where Paul is directly addressing unbelievers (pagans), he warns them of the judgment to come.
Felix and Drusilla
While Paul is in prison, Felix and Drusilla invite him to come and speak to them about faith in Christ Jesus:
But some days later Felix arrived with Drusilla, his wife who was a Jewess, and sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus. But as he was discussing righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix became frightened and said, ‘Go away for the present, and when I find time I will summon you.’ (Acts 24:24-25)
Paul seems to have had a three point sermon ready for Felix and Drusilla:
- The Judgment to Come
After Paul spends some time discussing the judgment to come that the text says, “Felix became frightened.” Paul almost literally scared the hell out of him!
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Paul uses this same tactic with the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers of Athens. Interestingly, neither of these philosophical worldviews believed in a judgment to come. Paul contradicts their worldview directly when he teaches them:
Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead. (Acts 17:30-31)
We find a parallel to what Paul said to Felix here with both the words “judgment” and “righteousness.”
Paul never brings up the judgment to come when he preached in the synagogues in Acts. Why? Because the Jews already believed in the judgment to come. It was the pagans who needed to be warned about the coming judgment.
The Apostle Peter seems to follow this tactic as well. We have many sermons in Acts from Peter, but it is only when he is preaching to the Gentile household of Cornelius that he mentions the judgment to come, “And He ordered us to preach to the people, and solemnly to testify that this is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42).
Peter and Paul may be giving us some insight they had into the psychology of the unbeliever. Unbelievers are also made in the image of God, and God may have wired it into their consciousness that they will one day stand before God at the judgment. This is not to say that they walk around thinking about God or the judgment to come. However, when someone like Paul (or you) warns them of the judgment to come, something is awakened within them that, like Felix, convicts them of their guilt before a holy God and brings terror to their soul.
Renowned atheist philosopher, Thomas Nagel, reminds me of Felix in this regard. He is much more honest about his inner thoughts than most. In one place, he admits his deep seated “fear” of God:
I am talking about something much deeper—namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.
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This may reflect the inner thoughts of many unbelievers, whether, like Nagel, they admit it or not.
Death and the Judgment to Come
In sum, apologists, evangelists, and really all followers of Jesus Christ should utilize this powerhouse, double punch from Pascal and the apostles. In every way you can, put before unbelievers their impending death and the judgment to come. This will strike at the very heart and soul of the natural man. Scare the hell out of them! But remember to always do so with “gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).
- Cicero Tusc 1.34.83. ↩
- Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées Edited, Outlined & Explained. Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, 1993, p. 141 ↩
- Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian. Simon & Schuster, Inc. New York, NY, 1957, p. 107. ↩
- Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life. London: Weidenfield & Nicolson, 1995, pp. 132-33. ↩
- Dale Ahlquist, Common Sense 101: Lessons from G.K. Chesterton. Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2006, p. 183. ↩
- Thomas Nagel, The Last Word. Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 130. ↩