I thought this article, “Ted Turner Wants to Go to Heaven,” was interesting. I’ll summarize it here: It gives an overview of Turner’s childhood and his life’s achievements, but the focus of the article begins and ends with his beliefs about heaven. And as his life’s hourglass is running out, he’s attached himself to the possibility of an afterlife.
Or so the interviewer says. You wonder how much of these types of articles are shaped by what the writer believes. Between the actual lines of dialogue, between the leading questions, we can never really know what the subject of the interview believes for certain. Perhaps Turner was just playing along. Perhaps not. (It’s too bad they turned the focus from his good deeds to his good deeds is the ticket to heaven.)
Regardless, you can understand that, as one’s life is winding down, as the eyes and the hearing goes, as the brain loses its grip on things it once knew, one might revert once again to the stories and tales learned earlier in life, to the things that brought comfort in childhood.
In “The God Argument,” AC Grayling writes that “dying is a living act.” We experience the grief of death in losing others we care about, but we experience dying only for ourselves. Dying is part of living. It’s something we alone have to deal with, and it’s a possibility that is present from the moment we are born and grows with great urgency the longer we live.
The belief in heaven seems to help many people in their time of transition. The body seems to know when it’s in its winter, and perhaps, at some point, there is an awareness that the end is very near. You can certainly smell death on some people. Or maybe you’ve seen family or friends with terminal illness in their last days. They see shapes and shadows; they believe that people are coming for them; they hear conversations and see relatives who died years—even decades–earlier.
Some chalk these experiences up to angels and spirits and preparation for the trip to an after-world. Others—like me—see this as part of the brain’s breakdown as it moves from life back into nothingness, into its previous unborn state. Maybe these experiences are a reflex, an anesthetic nature provides to the dying to help them cope.
I don’t consider the soul a separate entity. Our essence is merely the result of the chemical workings in our individual, self-contained units. But the idea of another part of ourselves living on after death has helped people for thousands of years in many different ways. As Grayling noted, “Plato took the view that citizens should be encouraged to believe in a blissful afterlife for heroes so that they would make good soldiers.” These superstitions have not only been useful to leaders and to religions for reasons of manipulation but also to individuals who can see their deaths clearly ahead.
How do we avoid the fear of dying? One way is to concentrate on living. This works for some of us. But for those left with time to ponder death, for those who can no longer concentrate on living, I certainly would not begrudge them their hope for eternal life–to make their last living act easier.