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End of days

Agnostics Anonymous

At least a fifth of the NHS budget is spent on the last year of life. As people enter the final 'sickness unto death', an ever-greater concentration of medical technology and expertise is brought to bear on their ailing frames. But we're getting older and iller and drug prices keep rising. We can't go on like this. Why, indeed, do we even want to? It can't be just for the sake of the sick: data suggests that quality of life even decreases the more money is thrown at patients in the last weeks and days.

A Christian might blame secular society, fixated on worldly vanities and lacking the consolation of eternal life beyond. But the problem might rather be that we're all still too Christian; too inclined to focus on and fetishise the end of life.

It's striking, when you look at the ancient world environment in which Christianity arose, that death and the afterlife weren't a universal concern. The dim, grim semi-existence of the shades glimpsed in Homer's Hades or the Old Testament's Sheol doesn't seem much to look forward to. But nobody in the ancient world seems to waste much mental effort on it either way.

Christianity arose under the violence and mayhem of the Roman empire, when people seem to have become hungrier for hopeful news about the hereafter. Like its close relatives, the mystery cults of gods like Orpheus and Mithras, the bull god whose initiates drank the blood of the sacrificial animal, Christianity seems to have arisen primarily as a ritual practice for escaping death. But cults were always by definition the preserve of the few. Escaping death may sound like a good selling-point, but it's not at all obvious that this was enough to appeal in the ancient marketplace of gods and their cults. Epicureans famously took solace from the fact there wasn't going to be a hereafter, or any gods to bother you. Eternal life's not everyone's cup of bull's blood.

In order to become a mass movement, Christianity had to make death a more worrying prospect. More specifically, with where you'll be spending it. The emphasis has usually been negative, as in mediaeval paintings where the white-light glimpse of heaven has in the foreground a much more fully realised hell. Christianity teaches how to face death and smile at suffering, but only by giving the assurance of renewed life to come: beyond the hospice, heaven beckons, with an eternity of infinite quality-of-life years prescribed for free. Not many of us can buy that one anymore; but the fear of the other afterlife still clings to death and renders it unbearable. So it has to be life at any cost, even though we already know we can't afford it and it wouldn't be worth it if we could. If death is, as Job says, the King of Terrors, it's Christianity that has insisted on crowning him so.