Since time immemorial, human beings have been preoccupied with life and death. Careers have emerged out of life and death, mostly. Yes, that is why hospital staff, mortuary and undertaker staff are there for. Philosophies of existence, proverbs and wise sayings, professions and religions have emerged out of humanity’s reflection on life and death. Some have found the whole concept of life vain and empty. Such is the powerful message coming out of the Book of Ecclesiastes, which Christianity scholars think was authored by King Solomon, son of King David of Israel, the ancestor of Jesus the Christ.
In the Book of Ecclesiastes, the philosopher king sees life as vanity because nothing really changes. And nothing is new. In his long life he had felt the wind blow like it did billions of years before. He had seen the sunrise from the east as it had done for millennia. For him, everything humans see, feel, touch and experience is a matter of time. He says (Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8):
To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.
In short, everything in the world was preordained and our efforts are tantamount to mere acting. Even climate denialists, most notably S. Fed Singer and Dennis T. Avery have used predetermination arguments to dismiss climate change science as a mere alarmist hoax because the weather changes we experience now are part of the normal cycle of life occurring every 500 years. Stephen Hawkins, the British theoretical physicist who specialised in galaxies and black holes also argued that stars and suns are born and die when they are dragged towards the centre of the galaxy’s gravitational pull, the black hole. New stars and galaxies are born only to die in fulfilment of the galaxial cycle of life.
But where do the dead go? Whether they be stars, suns, moons, humans, trees, insects, or ferocious animals, what happens when they die? Biologists explain earthly life and death in terms food webs and chains. In the web of life, the living subsist on the dead. Thus, without death there cannot be life. The life of a female salmon fish, cousins of Malawi’s sanjika fish, is even more preordained. They die as soon as they lay their eggs. Soldier bees die as soon as they sting an enemy.
Our fate is sealed. However, religion gives humanity hope of a life after death through the resurrection or reincarnation. Middle Eastern monotheist religions, Christianity and Islam, are clear that everybody will resurrect only that the good and innocent people (here on earth) will live in heaven or paradise or far daws, in the city of gold, in the land of milk and honey and they will sit on the right of hand of God the father, the giver and taker of all life. The bad and guilty will go to hell or jannah, the land of incessant hunger, disease, and, worst, fires and embers and other forms of punishment. The good and innocent people will be watching and enjoying the bad and innocent being barbecued.
In most African Asian and Latin American polytheist religions the concept of resurrection or reincarnationis common but rapidly being supplanted by monotheist religions. Among the Tonga people of Malawi, for example, the belief, before Christianity and Islam systematically dethroned local religions, was that a good person would, after death, turn into a beautiful and good living creature, such as a fruit tree, a butterfly but a bad person would turn into an ugly and bad living creature such as a crocodile, or a hyena. But both would resurrect. Similar beliefs also reigned among the Chewa.
Resurrection gives us hope that if we live innocent, good and godly lives, our way to heaven or to becoming a good living creature is guaranteed. Certainly, there is space in paradise for Anaia Tawonga Kaipah who was prematurely extracted from her mother’s womb on 20 December 2019 only to die three days later despite all parental love and medical care.
Why such innocent infants die is a question that we are seriously reflecting on this Christmas season. n