PSALMS: Death In The Psalms (Part 2) by C. S. Lewis

Death In The Psalms (Part 2) by C. S. Lewis

From Reflections on the Psalms

In many passages this is quite clear, even in our translation, to every attentive reader.  The clearest of all is the cry in Psalm 89:46: “O remember how short my time is: why hast thou made all men for nought?”  We all come to nothing in the end.  Therefore “every man living is altogether vanity,” (Psalm 39:6).  Wise and foolish have the same fate, (Psalm 49:10).  Once dead, a man worships God no more; “Shall the dust give thanks unto thee?” (Psalm 30:10); “for in death no man remembereth thee,” (Psalm 6:5).  Death is “the land” where, not only worldly things, but all things, “are forgotten, (Psalm 88:12).  When a man dies “all his thoughts perish,” (Psalm 146:3).  Every man will “follow the generation of his fathers, and shall never see light,” (Psalm 49:19): he goes into a darkness which will never end.

Elsewhere, of course, it sounds as if the poet were praying for the “salvation of his soul” in the Christian sense.  Almost certainly he is not.  In Psalm 30:3, “Thou hast brought my soul out of hell” means, “You have saved me from death.”  “The snares of death compassed me round about, and the pains of hell gat hold upon me,” (Psalm 116:3), means, “Death was setting snares for me, I felt the anguish of a dying man” – as we should say, “I was at death’s door.”

As we all know from our New Testaments Judaism had greatly changed in this respect by our Lord’s time.  The Sadducees held to the old view.  The Pharisees, and apparently many more, believed in the life of the world to come.  When, and by what stages, and (under God) from what sources, this new belief crept in, is not part of our present subject.  I am more concerned to try to understand the absence of such a belief, in the midst of intense religious feeling, over the earlier period.  To some it may seem astonishing that God, having revealed so much of himself to that people, should not have taught them this.

It does not now astonish me.  For one thing there were nations close to the Jews whose religion was overwhelmingly concerned with the afterlife.  In reading about ancient Egypt one gets the impression of a culture in which the main business of life was the attempt to secure the well-being of the dead.  It looks as if God did not want the chosen people to follow that example.  We may ask why.  Is it possible for men to be too much concerned with their eternal destiny?  In one sense, paradoxical though it sounds, I should reply, Yes.

For the truth seems to me to be that happiness or misery beyond death, simply in themselves, are not even religious subjects at all.  A man who believes in them will, of course, be prudent to seek the one and avoid the other.  But that seems to have no more to do with religion than looking after one’s health or saving money for one’s old age.  The only difference here is that the stakes are so very much higher.  And this means that, granted a real and steady conviction, the hopes and anxieties aroused are overwhelming.  But they are not on that account the more religious.  They are hopes for oneself, anxieties for oneself.  God is not in the center.  He is still important only for the sake of something else.  Indeed such a belief can exist without a belief in God at all.  Buddhists are much concerned with what will happen to them after death, but are not, in any true sense, theists.

It is surely, therefore, very possible that when God began to reveal himself to men, to show them that he and nothing else is their true goal and the satisfaction of their needs, and that he has a claim upon them simply by being what he is, quite apart from anything he can bestow or deny, it may have been absolutely necessary that this revelation should not begin with any hint of future beatitude or perdition.  These are not the right point to begin at.  An effective belief in them, coming too soon, may even render almost impossible the development of (so to call it) the appetite for God; personal hopes and fears, too obviously exciting, have got in first.  Later, when, after centuries of spiritual training, men have learned to desire and adore God, to pant after him “as pants the hart,” it is another matter.  For then those who love God will desire not only to enjoy him but “to enjoy him forever,” and will fear to lose him.  And it is by that door that a truly religious hope of Heaven and fear of hell can enter; as corollaries to a faith already centered upon God, not as things of any independent or intrinsic weight.  It is even arguable that the moment “Heaven” ceases to mean union with God and “hell” to mean separation from him, the belief in either is a mischievous superstition; for then we have, on the one hand, a merely “compensatory” belief (a “sequel” to life’s sad story, in which everything will “come all right”) and, on the other, a nightmare which drives men into asylums or makes them persecutors.

Fortunately, by God’s good providence, a strong and steady belief of that self-seeking and sub-religious kind is extremely difficult to maintain, and is perhaps possible only to those who are slightly neurotic.  Most of us find that our belief in the future life is strong only when God is in the center of our thoughts; that if we try to use the hope of “Heaven” as a compensation (even for the most innocent and natural misery, that of bereavement) it crumbles away.  It can, on those terms, be maintained only by arduous efforts of controlled imagination; and we know in our hearts that the imagination is our own.  As for hell, I have often been struck, in reading the “hell-fire sermons” of our older divines, at the desperate efforts they make to render these horrors vivid to their hearers, at their astonishment that men, with such horrors hanging over them, can live as carelessly as they do.  But perhaps it is not really astonishing.  Perhaps the divines are appealing, on the level of self-centered prudence and self-centered terror, to a belief which, on that level, cannot really exist as a permanent influence on conduct – though, of course, it may be worked up for a few excited minutes or even hours.

All this is only one man’s opinion.  And it may be unduly influenced by my own experience.  For I (I have said it in another book, but the repetition is unavoidable) was allowed for a whole year to believe in God and try – in some stumbling fashion – to obey him before any belief in the future life was given me.  And that year always seems to me to have been of very great value.  It is therefore perhaps natural that I should suspect a similar value in the centuries during which the Jews were in the same position.  Other views no doubt can be taken.

Of course among ancient Jews, as among us, there were many levels.  They were not all of them, not perhaps any of them at all times, disinterested, any more than we.  What then filled the place which was later taken by the hope of Heaven (too often, I am afraid, desired chiefly as an escape from hell) was of course the hope of peace and plenty on Earth.  This was in itself no less (but really no more) sub-religious than prudential cares about the next world.  It was not quite so personal and self-centered as our own wishes for Earthly prosperity.  The individual, as such, seems to have been less aware of himself, much less separated from others, in those ancient times.  He did not so sharply distinguish his own prosperity from that of the nation and especially of his own descendants.  Blessings on one’s remote posterity were blessing on oneself.  Indeed it is not always easy to know whether the speaker in the psalm is the individual poet or Israel itself.  I suspect that sometimes the poet had never raised the question.

But we should be quite mistaken if we supposed that these worldly hopes were the only thing in Judaism.  They are not the characteristic thing about it, the thing that sets it apart from ancient religion in general.  And notice here the strange roads by which God leads his people.  Century after century, by blows which seem to us merciless, by defeat, deportation, and massacre, it was hammered into the Jews that Earthly prosperity is not in fact the certain, or even the probable, reward of seeing God.  Every hope was disappointed.  The lesson taught in the Book of Job was grimly illustrated in practice.  Such experience would surely have destroyed a religion which had no other center than the hope of peace and plenty with “every man under his own vine and his own fig tree.”  And, of course, many did “fall off.”  But the astonishing thing is that the religion is not destroyed.  In its best representatives it grows purer, stronger, and more profound.  It is being, by this terrible discipline, directed more and more to its real center.  That will be the subject of the next chapter.

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