The Mystery of Death

In a British cemetery there was the following inscription on a gravestone:

Pause, my friend, as you walk by;
As you are now, so once was I.
As I am now, so you will be.
Prepare, my friend, to follow me.

Late, someone added the following lines:

To follow you is not my intent
Until I know which way you went.

Robert Ingersoll once wrote: “we, in the mystery of life are brought face-to-face with the mystery of death.” Ingersoll was a dynamic speaker who spoke against Christianity, against the Bible, and expressed doubt about the afterlife.

Robert Ingersoll died in 1899. In his days, Ingersoll was called “The Great Agnostic,” and “The Great Atheist.” Ingersoll was a great orator and his speeches mesmerized many people. He was a prolific writer who specialized in proving that the Bible was wrong and that the church and religion were evil.

Ingersoll ridiculed the notion that there was a God or that there was life after death. He rejected the supernatural, the reality of faith, the possibility of prayer, and denied that the Bible was a record of God’s revelation to human beings.

One of his memorable speeches was the eulogy spoken at the time of the death of his brother, E. C. Ingersoll. It is here that we can see Robert Ingersoll’s wish for the existence of a God. His words are a request for someone who could answer prayer and provide hope after death. Speaking about the death of his brother, Ingersoll wrote:

Life is a narrow vale between the cold and barren peaks of two eternities. We strive in vain to look beyond the heights. We cry aloud, and the only answer is the echo of a wailing cry. From the voiceless lips of the unreplying dead there comes no word; but in the night of death hope sees a star and listening love can hear the rustle of a wing. He who sleeps here, when dying, mistaking the approach of death for the return of health, whispered with his latest breath, “I am better now.” Let us believe, in spite of doubts and dogmas and tears and fears, that these dear words are true of all the countless dead.

It is in those words, “in the night of death hope sees a star” that we see a crack in the wall of atheism, the faint light that begins to shine in the dark heart of an atheist, the evidence that an unspoken hope is present. The expression, “the peaks of two eternities” may reflect the awareness that there is life here and life beyond. The expression “We cry aloud, and the only answer is the echo of a wailing cry” may reflect the struggle atheists encounter when confronted with the reality of death and the end of existence. But Ingersoll’s words, “Let us believe, in spite of doubts and dogmas” may be the loophole he was looking for to give him a ray of hope that his brother would rise again.

The contrast between the fear and despair that grips an individual in the presence of death and the vibrancy of faith that comes out of the resurrection of Christ, is vividly portrayed in the brief poem quoted above.

When Ingersoll died in 1899, one newspaper wrote in his obituary: “Perhaps he knows better now.”

Claude F. Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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