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My favorite author is Mary Renault. She was a lesbian who wrote luminously beautiful love stories, mostly about gay men, but also about other kinds of people. Her work is characterized by a clear-eyed view of humanity, coupled with great compassion. She begins one book, The Charioteer, with the exact moment at which the five-year-old protagonist realizes that he is mortal—that he will someday die, perhaps soon, perhaps in the distant future, but inevitably. It’s a terrific place to begin a story—a compact moment of crisis that tells us so much about this human being, whose journey we will share.
I remembered, as I read that scene, how my friends’ daughter experienced the same event at about the same age. The little girl hardly slept for a week. She finally admitted to her mother that she was afraid that she would die. She had just realized that she could die.
I thought to myself, “That never happened to me.” I could not remember the moment at which I became aware of my own mortality. This bothered me for months, until I finally realized that I was looking at the wrong timescale, reaching for something in early childhood. In fact, I was 30 years old when I realized that I would die.
But let’s back up. Let’s talk about Seventh-Day Adventists. Adventism is an odd little cult, founded by people who were obsessed with dietary restrictions, masturbation, and the end of the world. I was a fourth generation Seventh-Day Adventist, so my family got in on the ground floor.
What do Adventists believe about mortality? Well, it goes something like this: When you die, you go to sleep, and you sleep until the second coming of Jesus. At the Second Coming, Jesus will wake up all the dead people who are saved and take them to heaven. There they will live for a thousand years, getting a feel for the place.
At the end of the Millennium, the saints will return to earth with Jesus and God the Father and the angels in the Holy City. They’ll touch down, and Jesus will raise all the wicked from the dead. The Devil and his angels, who’ve been terribly bored alone on earth, will whip the wicked into a frenzy, and they’ll attack the Holy City. Then God will rain fire from heaven, and they’ll all be burned up. No eternal torture, just annihilation.
When the wicked die in the lake of fire, it’s called the Second Death. It is literally their second death, but the phrase means something more to Adventists. The Second Death is final, irretrievable annihilation. It is hell. It is the worst thing that can happen to you.
The righteous, meanwhile, go on to live forever in the Earth Made New. They get to learn everything about science, and they get to see the whole history of planet Earth, including all the stuff that happened after they died. They get to travel to unfallen worlds and meet other intelligent beings. They get to live in Star Trek, but with no fear of death. That is SDA paradise.
Because of my Adventist upbringing, I never believed in or feared eternal hell. I was a little afraid of dying, but only a little. I knew that dying didn’t necessarily hurt and I believed that it wasn’t forever. When I lost my faith at 30 years of age, what I realized was this: everyone is going to hell. The worst thing that can happen to you as an Adventist is the Second Death, which is ceasing to exist forever. And that’s going to happen to everyone.
I can remember wondering, when I was perhaps ten or eleven, what book I would be reading when I expired. This worried me. It worried me more than expiring. What book would I not get to finish? Would I be allowed to finish it in heaven? I wasn’t sure. Books might be considered too tainted with the sinful world for heavenly reading. I remember arguing with myself about whether one should start a new book if one knew that one was dying. Should you try for just one more story? Or should you read a book you’ve already read so that you don’t end up not knowing the ending?
Of course, I always knew that I would learn the ending of human history. In heaven, I would get to see how everything turned out—technology, wars, politics, endangered species, everything! I would get to interview people from the past if they were saved. Surely one of them knew who shot JFK, or, if not, an angel would know. I firmly believed that I would learn the end of that ultimate story.
But, as it turns out, Human History is the book I won’t get to finish. I was devastated. I tried desperately to put the genie back in the bottle. Alas, it was like trying to summon a belief in unicorns.
It is not easy to stare into the abyss. It is even harder to do it for the first time as an adult. For myself, though, I can say that the payoff was worth the pain, because it gave me greater connection to my own story. In the end, brutal honesty made me a happier, better-balanced person with a better appreciation for the time that I have and the people I get to share it with. I am reconciled to my mortality in a way that I never could have been reconciled as a believer. I went through the illness, and I have the antibodies. Glimpses of the abyss don’t scare me like they used to. And I know that the only story I can be certain of finishing is my own.