Dealing with the topic of death, Dietrich von Hildebrand’s consoling book “Jaws of Death: Gate of Heaven” shines both in its “dark” and “light” halves, illuminating the eternal duality of human life and helping to reconcile its painful contradictions. Life is not a journey of diminishing returns, ending in darkness and the grave, but a pilgrimage to a glorious destination.

Jaws of Death: Gate of Heaven, by Dietrich von Hildebrand (129 pages, Hildebrand Project, 2020)

The fine scholars at the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project have released another one of Hildebrand’s short books of philosophy for the common man, this one written shortly before his death and indeed dealing with the crucial topics of death and immortality. Hildebrand (1889-1977) was a Catholic philosopher, which is to say that his writings examine philosophical questions with a presupposition of religious belief. In this book he journeys from the purely natural point of view on death, expressed by countless enlightened pagans, to a view enlightened by Christian revelation. Yet always Hildebrand’s approach and subject matter remain philosophical and do not slip into theology as such. Rather, he philosophizes with a Christian conscience.

I have always felt a certain inherent contradiction in our language about death. On the one hand death is spoken of—particularly on the natural, pre-Christian plane of thinking, but also in the Christian liturgy—as “rest” or “sleep,” that is, deliverance from the turmoil of the present life. Yet Christian belief declares death to be the passage to eternal life. “Rest” and “life” are two quite different concepts and images, and I have always perceived the clash; but Hildebrand reconciles them by explaining that they represent negative and positive aspects of death. The negative aspect hearkens to the natural or pagan view which considers death a descent into nothingness, as reflected in the ancient concept of Hades or the underworld.

Christianity unites this aspect with a new, positive one, founded in Christ’s redemption. By suffering the worst possible death on our behalf, Christ allowed us to die in union with him. While the dying person is taken from his loved ones, at the same time he is united with Christ. Thus, “the essence of the Redemption includes both the cessation of what is negative and the attainment of what is purely positive.” Christianity reverses the pagan pattern; no longer is death a sleep from which one never awakens. Instead, this life resembles sleep and death is the Great Awakening into newness of life (Platonic doctrine anticipated this with the idea that earthly life is only a shadow of eternal truth).

Hildebrand espouses this Christian interpretation against a pantheistic view of death as the absorption of the person into the cosmos. Adhering to the spirit of Christian personalism, he safeguards the primacy of the human individual. There is a sense indeed that the person, however he might seem to be crushed by overwhelming forces, is inherently superior to the universe or the natural world; this lies in his capacity to think and feel and be aware of his situation. Man may be tragic, but he is tragic hero with inherent dignity and grandeur.

Seen in a certain light, death has undeniable positive and salutary aspects. It puts things in perspective, rightly orders and sorts out all human affairs. “At death, everything nonessential fades away. Everything else becomes truer, more valid, and conclusive.” Like the Crucifixion itself, death shows us the face of evil and the wages of sin, so as to impel us to better our lives. Death also, crucially, limits the evil that we can experience here on earth, and puts an end to it.

Moreover, that death is a punishment for original sin—a point Hildebrand insists upon—lessens its meaninglessness; shows forth God’s concern for the seriousness of evil (“How dreadful it would be in there were no divine judgment, if God were indifferent to sin!”) Thus, while tragic, death still performs essential purgative functions that we could not do without. Hildebrand even speaks of a certain aesthetic good that death has: a “solitary, authentic grandeur,” a solemnity and nobility that move us. Thus, although dark in itself, death also illuminates many things.

Even so, death remains a great evil, metaphysical as well as a physical, cutting us off from loved ones and from our very body. In Hildebrand’s works, “the darkness of death overshadows life’s bounty”; death works retroactively so that every good thing we enjoy is in a sense spoiled.

Yet at the same time, the goodness and bounty we experience in life bears a certain promise. There is a great duality to our existence: On the one hand life is a vale of tears, marked by transience and impermanence, yet also the beautiful things of creation give us a promise of a better life. These things include “moral values, the beauty of art and nature, and love.” In a Platonic sense, these things shine forth with a promise of permanence and eternity. We long for permanence and immortality and have a foretaste of them in spiritual and aesthetic goods here on earth. On this point Hildebrand echoes the American philosopher William James, who speculated in his Human Immortality that “every memory and affection of the present life is to be preserved” unto eternity and, much like Hildebrand, defended the inviolability of individual, personal consciousness.

The evil of death should never be glossed over, but it should be crossed over. Hildebrand urges that “we must experience, we must pass through, all the fearful elements rooted in the natural view of death.” Thus, in Christianity the tragic character of death remains. There must be a Good Friday before we reach Easter Sunday. One keeps the fearful aspect of death in view in order to transcend it in the love of Christ. Death is an upheaval; but through the love of Christ it is transfigured, its fearful aspect changes, and darkness is changed to light.

Hildebrand addresses another fearsome aspect of death in the Christian consciousness, namely death as the gateway to judgment, a concept also anticipated by Plato. This holy fear, however, is completely different from the pagan fear of a descent into nothingness. It is on the contrary mitigated by hope and confidence in God’s mercy and a desire for union with Christ.

One might argue that only Christian revelation delivers us from the fearsomeness of death and imbues it with hope. The best that other systems of thought are capable of is to urge us to “eat, drink, for tomorrow we die,” inculcate ethical goodness or survival through one’s posterity, or impel us to the mirage of a utopian paradise. No belief system has given humanity a hope beyond the grave that is more than a cosmic collectivism, that honors the integrity of the person. Christianity alone brought the Resurrection and the empty tomb.

I am reminded of a remark of Chesterton’s about the different worldviews of the pagan and Christian: “Giotto lived in a gloomier town that Euripides, but he lived in a gayer universe.” Christianity, or the biblical worldview, appears gloomy about the present world but hopeful and full of joy about what really counts, the next. The pagan’s joy had a frenzied desperation in its realization of the transience of all things; the Christian’s joy is a steady flame, aware that all that we see passing will be succeeded by something infinitely greater.

Thus, as in many other ways, Christian faith builds upon nature, surpassing it and transcending it. Likewise, eternity gives meaning to time and, as Hildebrand says, charges it with dramatic interest. Life is a pilgrimage to a glorious destination, not a journey of diminishing returns, ending in darkness and the grave. The bountiful things of earth are signposts to a better future, not lights that warm us for a time but are destined to be snuffed out forever. Hildebrand’s consoling book shines both in its “dark” and “light” halves, illuminating the eternal duality of human life and helping to reconcile its painful contradictions.

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