For those of you who are not a big geek like me, the phrase valar morghulis comes from Game of Thrones (or the Song of Ice and Fire book series for the purists) and means “all men must die”. Death is an unfortunate part of life. Plants, animals, cells, stars, perhaps even the universe itself at some point – everything decays, deteriorates and dies. Expected lifespans vary greatly, but death is inescapable.
Yesterday morning’s sermon was on the subject of death. A man at the church, a close friend of my dad’s, is dying of cancer. He’s relatively young, the sickness was unexpected, and it’s progressing rapidly. His doctor estimates that he may have ten months left with treatment. It is a terrible situation. My dad’s church is small. Everyone knows this man and are incredibly shaken and sad, myself included. There’s nothing you can say to a dying man or his family that will make them feel the slightest bit better.
When tragedy strikes, it’s natural to look for someone or something to blame. Prayer has failed. God refuses to answer. That can have adverse effects on the faith of the devoutly religious. However, there is something else you can blame: death. And according to Christians, where did death originate? All the way back in the Garden of Eden.
The Garden of Eden Fable
The Genesis fable tells us that God placed Adam and Eve in a perfect garden and gave them free reign to eat of any tree they desired. Except for one very special tree, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. God forbade them from eating the fruit from this special tree, for if they did they would surely die. It was his only rule. But, like human beings tend to do, we screwed it up. Eve had a conversation with a snake that prompted her to taste the forbidden fruit. She shared it with Adam and soon they realized they’d made a big mistake.
God was pissed. His perfect, undying, creation was ruined by these two people forever. From this point forward the entire fucking universe, and everything contained within, would suffer and die.
For those who believe this fable to be literally true, this is the point at which death infected us. If Adam and Eve hadn’t met that sneaky snake, if they resisted temptation, if only they never took a bite of that forbidden fruit, then death would not exist. Every human ever born would still be alive today. Every animal ever born would be alive today. Every plant that ever grew would still be alive today. My dad firmly believes that death was never a part of God’s holy plan. It was all our fault. We broke the goddamn universe.
But is this worldview really plausible? Of course not. We’re atheists. We can identify fairy tales when we see them. Let’s look at a few obvious problems with this story.
God Created Adam from Dirt
In the beginning, God had enough dirt to make a man. Where does dirt come from? Eroded rock mixed with decaying plant matter and dead bugs. Keywords being eroded, decaying, and dead. How did things decay and die before Adam was around to cause death in the universe? I don’t know. The Bible’s a little fuzzy on scientific details.
Stars! You Can’t Explain ‘Em
If, as proponents for a literal Adam and Eve contend, the earth is between 6,000 and 10,000 years old – why can we see stars that are more than 10,000 light years away? A light year is the distance that light can travel in one year. The Bible says the stars were created on the fourth day and we can assume they were immediately visible. Yet the closest star to earth, excluding the sun, is 4.24 light years away. That means it would be at least 4.24 years before Adam and Eve would see a single star in the sky.
It gets worse for biblical literalists! A supernova is a star that has catastrophically exploded – in other words, the spectacular fiery death of a star. In 2012, scientists discovered a supernova that exploded 12 billion years ago. That means at least one star died approximately 11,999,990,000 years before human beings caused death to exist, according to creationists.
Plants Die When You Eat Them
Genesis 2:16 says, “And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden.” This was before humans screwed the universe and at the forbidden fruit. They were allowed to eat of any other tree in the garden. But here’s the problem – when you eat fruit, the fruit dies. It travels through your digestive system where its cells are broken down and absorbed into the body. Any waste left over is expelled from the body in the form of poop. The fruit is dead, yet death is not supposed to exist yet. It wasn’t part of God’s holy plan. Right?
Snakes Can’t Talk
So, Why Do We Die?
I know I don’t need to spend a lot of time explaining why the Genesis story is ridiculous. I’m preaching to the choir here. I find it cathartic to apply logic to the bullshit I used to believe. Let’s get back to my original point. If death isn’t the result of human sin, then what is its purpose?
Natural selection works in favor of the survival of a species. In terms of biology, organisms exist to reproduce, thus continuing the species. Fruit flies are born, develop, mate, lay eggs, and die in just over a month. They fulfilled their evolutionary ‘purpose’ and ensured their genetic line would continue. More complex species like dolphins, tiger, and humans need more time. Human babies can’t take care of themselves. They start out completely helpless and slowly become more self-sufficient as they age. I’m 33 and have almost grown up. It’s evolutionarily advantageous for humans to live long enough to become self-sufficient, find a mate, reproduce, raise the offspring, and (ideally) stay around to help your children learn to raise their children.
Once you’ve done your job, you’re no longer needed. That’s a cold view of human life, but I’m just looking at biology and setting emotion aside for the moment. At a certain point your cells stop replicating themselves with the same efficiency as they did when you were younger. Cells break down, we become more susceptible to disease and illness. Then we die.
Imagine a world of immortals. If no one could die, the planet would be massively overpopulated. We’d all be competing for food and resources with every person ever born. It would be terrible. Death makes way for new generations. When our time on earth is over, our children live on.
Death is very difficult to handle. Losing people I love breaks my heart. I miss the people I’ve lost – the pain of their passing is always present. As atheists, dealing with loss can be even more difficult because we don’t expect to see our loved ones in an afterlife. I understand the impulse to blame God or sin or talking snakes, but that doesn’t change the reality of our existence. We must strive to make the most of our time in the sun.