Is Death Good or Bad? Plato vs. the Bible

Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates (1787)

In Plato's Phaedo we are exposed to Socrates' thought prior to his execution by judicially ordered suicide.

Socrates asks one of his visitors, Cebes, to give the philosopher Evenus a message: “Say good-bye to him, and tell him, if he’s sensible, to come after me as quickly as he can. I’m off today, it seems – by Athenian orders." This startles Simmias who can’t imagine Evenus ever being willing to commit suicide, given Socrates was clearly encouraging him to seek death. Socrates rejoins that all philosophers worthy of the name should be willing to follow his own example, even if they don’t actually kill themselves, given that it is said to be forbidden to do so. Cebes doesn’t understand why, given that it’s forbidden to violently do away with oneself, any philosopher should be willing to die.

At this point, Socrates finds it is “specially fitting that someone about to make the journey to the next world should inquire and speculate as to what we imagine that journey to be like." It is crucial to recognise here that not only does Socrates firmly believe in the afterlife, “the next world”, but he also clearly does not fear where this journey will take him. He has assured himself that he has nothing to fear and, indeed, that all worthy philosophers, like himself, also have no reason to fear death but rather should welcome it.

Socrates’ impending suicide was in reality an execution ordered by an Athenian jury. The apostle Paul was eventually executed by the emperor Nero. While imprisoned on an earlier occasion he wrote a letter to the church in Philippi. Though he ended up being released, at the time execution was a serious possibility. His attitude was rather like that of Socrates in one respect. Paul states that he would actually prefer “to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far” (Philippians 1:23).

The attitudes of both Socrates and Paul are unusual, for it is very natural for people to fear death. Indeed, the Bible describes the whole of humanity being “held in slavery by their fear of death” (Hebrews 2:15). This does not necessitate the conclusion that everyone will be overwhelmed by this fear at the point of death. While it is the default condition for people to fear death, there are those who, like Socrates and Paul, are able to even welcome death because of the particular beliefs they hold. Paul makes it clear what belief he held that enable him to face death in such a positive manner, namely the prospect of ‘being with Christ.’ That was certainly not Socrates’ expectation. As we read on it will become apparent what it was that Socrates believed about the afterlife that so greatly reassured him.

Socrates had indicated that while worthy philosophers should prefer death it is not right for them to commit suicide because it is forbidden. Cebes wants to know what Socrates means by saying that suicide is forbidden. Socrates jokes that “for those for whom it is better to be dead… it is not holy to do good to themselves”, that is, commit suicide, “but they must await another benefactor.” Socrates notes the view of some that to be human is to be “in some sort of prison” and that it is noble for one not to seek to escape. However, Socrates himself prefers to view human beings as cared for by the gods to whom they belong. So, if a person committed suicide without the gods having made it clear that this is what they wanted, then the gods would understandably be angered and would punish that person in the afterlife. Therefore, unless ‘God’ makes it necessary for one to commit suicide, as in Socrates’ case, it is unreasonable to commit suicide.

Cebes reasons that Socrates’ acknowledgment that the gods care for humans should logically make the wise all the more desirous to keep on living. For their lives are lives of serving the gods, “the best directors.” Consequently, it’s nonsense to think that by escaping from servitude to the gods one could then care for oneself better than the gods can and do. Logically, then, so Cebes thinks, it is only fools who would welcome death. Simmias is impressed by Cebes’ argument and concludes that Socrates’ own welcoming of death is not merely a case of taking leave of his friends but also of the gods whom Socrates himself has admitted to be “good rulers.”

Socrates now makes it clear that he fully expects to “enter the presence, first, of other gods both wise and good, and next of dead men better than those in this world.” He also expects “to join the company of good men”, though he wouldn’t affirm this with absolute conviction. However, he states: “but that I shall enter the presence of gods who are very good masters, be assured that if there’s anything I should affirm on such matters, it is that.” Socrates is “hopeful that there is something in store for those who’ve died… something far better for the good than for the wicked.” Clearly, then, Socrates regards himself as one of ‘the good’ who will be highly esteemed by the gods, who will bless him in the afterlife and allow him to enter their presence.

Already, we can readily recognise that Socrates’ view of the afterlife radically diverges from that presented in Scripture. From a biblical standpoint, Socrates is failing to recognise the profound nature of his own moral corruption which he shares with all other humans, without exception: “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin” (Romans 3:9); “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22-23). Socrates implicit claim to be good enough will not wash in biblical thought.

Anyway, to continue, having expressed his confidence that he will experience a wonderful afterlife, Socrates tells Simmias and Cebes,

Now then, with you for my jury I want to give my defence, and show with what good reason, as it seems to me, a man who has truly spent his life in philosophy feels confident when about to die, and is hopeful that, when he has died, he will win very great benefits in the other world.

Again, it is to be noted that it is worthy philosophers, like himself, who are able to welcome death in the knowledge that a wonderful afterlife will follow. Indeed, Socrates adds, true philosophers, that is, those “who actually engage in philosophy aright are practising nothing other than dying and being dead.” Consequently, since the whole life of the true philosopher presupposes that death is a good thing, it is very strange for a worthy philosopher to resent the prospect of death when at last it arrives.

From a biblical perspective, Socrates is correct in thinking that all who are truly wise will take death seriously. In the famous prayer of Moses, Psalm 90, after emphasising the transience of life and the death that faces all humans, Moses prays, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (v12). Since “death is the destiny of everyone…The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure” (Ecclesiastes 7:2, 4). However, in contrast to Socrates, the Bible does not consider death to be a good thing, but a very tragic reality. For humans created in God’s image death, both physical and spiritual, only became a reality after Adam and Eve decided to appropriate for themselves that which was the sole prerogative of God, the absolute determination of what is good and what is evil, as symbolised by eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3). Consequently, death is the wages of sin (Romans 6:23). We read that Jesus experienced outrage when he stood before Lazarus’ tomb (John 11:33)[1], evidently at the horror of what death is and the misery it brings. Death is not a good thing, but the death of Christ has taken away the sting of death for those who believe in him (1 Corinthians 15:55-56), for, Jesus promises, that, ultimately, physical death notwithstanding, they will never die (John 11:25-26). It is true that those who believe in Christ do take death seriously, as it is wise to do, and, indeed, in following Christ, take up their cross daily (Luke 9:23), dying to themselves in order to live for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:15). However, following Christ is not a morbid affair, for it is the mind of those outside of Christ that operates in the realm of death, whereas the minds of those governed by the Spirit of God, live in the realm of the Spirit, the realm of life and peace (Romans 8:6).

[1] The verb often translated as “deeply moved in spirit” (e.g. NIV) actually connotes profound anger.

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