Why do we die? A materialist might answer that we die because our body stops working—our breathing, our heartbeat, our brain activity, everything, stops. We saw in the previous episode that this materialist is wrong—we are not our bodies, but our souls, and although our death is accompanied by bodily changes, it is not those bodily changes themselves, but something else related to the soul. Death is the separation of our soul from our body. We die because our soul is separated from our body.
But that is not, in fact, what I am asking. When I ask, “Why do we die?” I am not inquiring about the cause of our death; I am inquiring about the purpose of our death.
Everything in the universe appears to have some purpose. Another way of saying this is that everything in the universe appears to happen so that something else that comes afterwards can also happen. Allah Most High sends winds to move rain clouds over dry land (Qur’an, 25:48), He sends rain to make plants grow (Qur’an, 25:49-50), and He makes the earth orbit around its axis, the moon around the earth, and the earth around the sun to enable us to tell time by counting days and months (Qur’an, 10:5 and 17:12). He made hemoglobin in our blood cells to carry oxygen from our lungs to the rest of our body. He made chlorophyll in plant cells to absorb light energy from the sun. And so on.
When I ask, “Why do we die?” I am asking, “What is the purpose of our death?” Everything in the universe has a purpose. Everything in our bodies has a purpose. It would make sense for our death, too, to have a purpose. What is that purpose? Why do we die?
We have all heard someone remark, “You only live once.” The one who makes this remark has to make a choice between being responsible—doing a chore, studying for an exam, putting in extra hours at work, taking care of a father, a mother, or a child—and between doing something he enjoys—playing a game, watching a movie, going on a vacation, any kind of entertainment. What he means by his remark, “You only live once,” is that after he dies, he will stop existing. This life, he is saying, is all that there is. What this entails, he is saying, is that the purpose of his life before death is to maximize his pleasures, that every moment of his life that is spent in something other than the pursuit of pleasure is a wasted opportunity, a foolish choice, and that he should therefore only be “responsible” when that leads to some immediate pleasure, some selfish gain.
He might strengthen his conclusion with a second remark, saying, “Life is short.” He is now saying that not only only do you only live once, you only live once for a short time, and the urgency to experience immediate pleasures, to acquire a selfish gain, is even greater. That, according to his point of view, is the purpose of death. We die in order for us to be motivated to experience immediate pleasures, to acquire selfish gains, and to do so with great urgency. That is why we die.
He is wrong. But before I explain why, I want you to see that if, as he says, “You only live once,” then the pursuit of pleasure is not, in fact, the purpose of death. The purpose of death, if you only live once, is not make you happy, but make you miserable.
Leo Tolstoy captured this well. He wrote in the late nineteenth century that, “If not today, then tomorrow sickness and death will come to everyone, to me, and nothing will remain except the stench and the worms. My deeds, whatever they may be, will be forgotten sooner or later, and I myself will be no more. Why, then, do anything? How can anyone fail to see this and live? That’s what is amazing! It is possible to live only as long as life intoxicates us; once we are sober we cannot help seeing that it is all a delusion, a stupid delusion! Nor is there anything funny or witty about it; it is only cruel and stupid.” — Leo Tolstoy, “A Confession”
The urgent pursuit of pleasure and selfish gain is not the purpose of death, but a distraction from death’s depressing reality—that everything we do will be wiped out forever, that all of our dreams will be ruined, that every pleasure, every achievement, every aspiration is a mirage that disappears to reveal the terrifying face of our mortality. And that is the bright side of things. That is how life appears when things go well. When things go wrong, when we fail at work, when our loved ones let us down, when we are assailed by difficulties, we are unable even to distract ourselves with a mirage, we ask, “Why does it always happen to me?” We feel the pain of failure, we feel trapped, we fall into depression, we despair.
Now that you see why the one who remarks, “You only live once,” is heading down a path to depression and despair, I will explain why, in addition to being miserable, he is also wrong.
He is wrong because his death is not the end of his existence, but the separation of his soul from his body and the continued existence of his soul into another, everlasting abode. This means that his remark—“You only live once.”—is false. You live, you die, and then you live again. You don’t live once; you live twice, and your second life lasts forever.
What, then, is the real purpose of death? Remember that what it means for something to have a purpose is that it happens so that something else might happen after it. We can discern the purposes of wind, rain, celestial orbits, hemoglobin, and chlorophyll by observing what they lead to. But we cannot discern the purpose of death by observing what it leads to because we cannot observe—before we die ourselves—what death leads to. For that, we need to turn to the one who made death. We need to turn to Allah Most High.
I began the last episode with the words of Allah Most High, “Every soul will, without doubt, fully experience death.” (21:35) Immediately afterwards, Allah Most High explains why He made death. He says, “We are surely testing you with unpleasant and pleasant things and it is to us alone that you will all be returned.” (21:35) Allah Most High makes us die so that the unpleasant and pleasant things in our life before death might test our slavehood to Him. After death, He will make us live a second time, forever, and reward those who showed Him slavehood with everlasting bliss. That is the purpose of death. That is why we die.
Let me explain further.
When we experience difficulties, those difficulties have a meaning and purpose beyond our death into our everlasting life after death. Allah Most High sends us difficulties to test our slavehood to Him, to see whether or not we live through them as needy and faithful slaves who turn to Him in prayer and repentance, begging Him for help, confessing to Him their weakness and sin, praising His mercy and grace, transforming the pain of their difficulties into the joys of humbling themselves before their generous Maker, and having complete conviction that their patience for the sake of their Maker will lead them to an infinite and everlasting reward in their life after death.
When we experience pleasures, those pleasures, too, have a meaning and purpose beyond our deaths into our everlasting life after death. Allah Most High sends us pleasures for the same reason that He sends us difficulties: to test our slavehood to Him, to see whether or not we live through them as needy and faithful slaves who turn to Him in prayer and repentance, confessing their sin, acknowledging that they are undeserving of being given those pleasures, seeing them as sheer favors from Allah Most High, praising him for them, thanking Him for them, savoring the gratitude of receiving the blessing even more than the blessing itself, and having complete conviction that their gratitude will lead them to an increase of that blessing in this life (Allah Most High swears in the Qur’an that he will increase every blessing that we give Him gratitude for (Qur’an, 14:7)) and an infinite and everlasting reward in their life after death.
Allah Most High says, “Tremendously exalted and and full of good is the one who has complete and undisputed control over everything—the one who directly runs and governs everything in the universe—and who has complete power to do all things, the one who created death and life in order to test which of you is best in works.”
Death is a divine blessing. It makes our lives meaning. It gives us purpose. It helps us do good deeds. It helps us be moral. It gives us joy and hope in Allah Most High through our difficulties. It gives us even greater joy and hope in Him through our pleasures. It helps us be happy. And, if we believe in Him and worship Him, clinging to joy and hope in Allah Most High in our life before death, it gives us His infinite and everlasting reward in our life after death. That is the purpose of death. That is why we die.
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