Shakespeare, David Foster Wallace, and Jesus: Intimations on Death and the Afterlife (Part 2 of 2)

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  1. Lasting meaning only possible with eternal reference point
  2. Jesus’ claims to be the eternal reference point
  3. Yorick’s life matters because of the imago Dei; denial of Jesus ends in denial of dignity

Why would an atheist weep at a funeral? His weeping could be over missing his loved one. He might weep over his own loneliness now that his loved one has departed. But if he is a consistent atheist, he cannot explain why the life of the deceased mattered in any objective sense. All he can say is that the life mattered to him. It’s a purely subjective ascribing of value to another. But I do not see how the atheist can claim justifiably that a life matters–any life—objectively.

When Hamlet and Horatio interact with the Gravedigger in Act V of Hamlet, Shakespeare dramatizes the conflict between a theistic worldview vs. an atheistic worldview. Hamlet obviously loved Yorick. Yorick had played with Hamlet, had fostered his growth, and had perhaps mentored young Prince Hamlet. But now, having died, how should Hamlet view the meaning of Yorick’s life and death?

If Hamlet were an atheist, he’d have no objective reason why he should mourn. Who mourns over material? Sure, we mourn when we lose our property, or wreck an automobile, etc. But Hamlet is mourning the loss of a relationship, another person that had loved him, and that Hamlet had loved in return. But if Hamlet were a theist, and he had an eternal reference point for meaning, then it would make perfect sense to mourn for the loss of his friend, and to also have hope that Yorick’s life was not just dust to dust, but that his soul lives, and would even be reunited with his glorified body. But that would be the case only if Jesus Christ conquered the grave.

Here is Paul’s account in 1 Cor 15:

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brother at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. The he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” (1 Cor 15:3-8 ESV)

Paul says Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead is the matter of “first importance.” That means we must deal with it if we’re to come to terms with the meaning of life and death. If Christ was resurrected, then we will be—either to hell or heaven. The “Yoricks” that we know will likewise be resurrected.

But do we have evidence to substantiate Paul’s claims? Yes; there is so much evidence that tomes are written about it. However, below are five reasons that, as a minimum, deserve our thoughtfulness.

First, there are precise predictions in the Old Testament, prior to Jesus’ incarnation as the suffering servant who would bear the sins of many, being crushed as as a substitute for sinners. Isaiah 53:3-12 is probably the most overt reference to Jesus’ role in this regard.

Second, in the NT we have Jesus’ post-resurrection discussion with Cleopas and another early Christ-follower on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24. “And he [Jesus] said to them, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scripture the things concerning himself” (Lk 24:25-27).

Third, consider Jesus’ own words: “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Mt 12:40). That claim is either true or false. If Jesus was not resurrected, as he clearly said he would be, why has no one produced his body?

Fourth, how do we explain the utterly transformed lives of the disciples? Other than Judas Iscariot, whom Jesus knew would betray him (see Jn 6:64; 13:11), the lives of the disciples were revolutionized by Jesus. They were martyred for their exclusive allegiance to Christ as Lord. Some were beheaded; others were crucified; others were exiled (John off the coast of Turkey, for example).

Fifth, why did the Romans place extra guards by the tomb of Jesus? Why could they not account for Jesus’ disappearance? This was the strongest army in the ancient Near East. They were experts in crucifixion, yet they could not guard a corpse or possible thieves? And how could a flayed and bloodied Jew, claiming to be God in the flesh, exit a tomb, and no one restrain him?

Because Jesus was and is the eternal reference point, dignity is real. “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (Jn 8:58).

In sum, unless Jesus exited that tomb, there is no qualitative difference between us and the dirt. Yorick’s life didn’t matter, if Jesus is not God, and if Jesus did not conquer the grave.

As David Foster Wallace commented in his interviews about Infinite Jest, he (DFW) set out to write a sad book. In a world without Jesus’ unrepeatable work of conquering the curse of the grave, we’re all characters in a sad book. However, because Jesus did do what was prophesied, and because we have millennia of evidence to substantiate it, there is dignity to this life, and there is hope beyond the grave. Yorick mattered–not just to Hamlet but to God, because Yorick, too, bore the imago Dei. Yorick will live again.

Shakespeare, David Foster Wallace, and Jesus: Intimations on Death and the Afterlife (Part 1 of 2)








  1. Lasting meaning
  2. Lasting meaning only makes sense if God exists.
  3. Jesus’ historicity and the historical record

No, this is not an article answering the question about whom I’d like to have as dinner guests. Rather, I want to examine a famous literary scene and ask the question, what worldview of these presented here most accurately corresponds to our intimations of death and the afterlife (if there is one)? That is, whose portrayal of the questions about death, and what comes after (if anything), seems most credible?

First, in full disclosure of some of my literary biases, I’m more than fond of each of these people’s works. I earned a B.A. and M.A. in English years ago. I’m a literary geek by, surely, anyone’s standard. Other literary bibliophiles out there understand. Imagine walking down an unfamiliar street and glimpsing a bookstore new to you. From the street, you can see quotes from Bunyan, Dickens, or Hemingway on placards through the store’s windows. Before you’ve blinked again, you’re inside for a cup of coffee and scouring the store’s shelves for your favorite reads.

I read Shakespeare out of sheer marvel at his linguistic genius and his accurate portrayals of human experience. As to Wallace, I’m a newcomer to his writings. I eschewed postmodern literature for many years because I thought it was self-defeating (more on this theme in subsequent articles), but I’ve come to respect what Wallace was grappling with, even though I may disagree with his intimations regarding God.

When it comes to Jesus, though he is not recorded in history as having written anything other than what he drew/wrote on the ground (as recorded in John 8:6b-8), few intelligent people would argue that anyone else’s life has engendered more change, been investigated more, or is more crucial to deal with than his. Jesus was not a writer, per se. He either was/is God in the flesh or he wasn’t/isn’t. He either was/is the savior of sinners or he isn’t. Say what you will, he never came to write a great novel (like Wallace’s Infinite Jest) or to pen some of the world’s noblest tragedies (King Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth, etc.). No, Jesus addressed death and the afterlife in distinctive ways.

Second, I concede that volumes could be written about the question being asked. I take that to mean this question is thereby a question worthy of thoughtful discussion. I am simply interested in gauging each man’s worldview concerning this question, as evidenced by one famous scene in literature.

For the sake of briefly addressing the question of which person most accurately portrays our intimations of death and the afterlife, consider the scene in Hamlet where Hamlet is walking with Horatio, and they come across the Gravedigger and his burial of Hamlet’s former friend, Yorick:

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath

borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how
abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rises at
it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know
not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your
gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment,
that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one
now, to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen? (5.1.181-89)

Admittedly, it is dangerous and premature to judge a writer’s/thinker’s oeuvre by cherry picking one scene from an entire life’s work. For the sake of the question I’m addressing here, will we at least consider the question in light of this scene from Hamlet since it (the scene) contains both the phrase for which Wallace entitled his masterpiece and, second, the scene illustrates the issue of mortality and the question of the afterlife?

Since this is to be (at least) a two-part article, may I suggest that Shakespeare is putting before us the question of lasting meaning? Did Yorick’s life matter? Sure, to Yorick, right? And obviously to Hamlet. After all, Hamlet is lamenting the loss of Yorick to the grave. Yet, Shakespeare is illustrating more. He’s asking, what is anyone’s life worth if the grave is all there is? If Yorick was just material, then he’s reduced to material again via death. This would be the consistent position of a naturalistic worldview. In a naturalistic worldview, Hamlet’s lamentations would be folly. Why lament death of material when you, too, are just material? But was Yorick just material? Is Hamlet just material? Are you and I just material? It does make sense to even speak of material that laments. Shakespeare illustrates the question, but is not overt in answering it.

For Wallace, I think, he sees death as the final scene, but only if there’s no transcendent Creator (God). Death is the end if we jest or if are in earnest. If there’s no God, then all we have is distraction, entertainment, and isolation. We’re exiled east of Eden, like Cain, but there’s no God to give us a mark to keep us from being avenged by other lost souls. We can jest, but not infinitely. In the end, we end like (perhaps) Yorick did, only dust to dust. Our jesting would be more rightly turned to lamentation, if God is absent and there’s no triumphing over the curse of death.

With Jesus, however, he promised that if we’re united to him via genuine faith, we’d conquer the grave. He said he’d prepare a place for us (Jn 14:3a), that he’d come again and take believers to himself (Jn 14:3b). Was he lying? If so, then he wasn’t trustworthy, and we are cast back upon the inevitability of death and how to address the afterlife (if there is one). In sum, if Jesus did rise from the dead, that would change the playing field. Several thousand years of church history have attested to Jesus’ resurrection. Pharisees who originally persecuted Christians became evangelists and apologists for Jesus and the Christian worldview. The true disciples were martyred or exiled for their convictions that Jesus was the resurrected Lord. No one has produced the body of Jesus. Surely, these claims are worthy of thoughtful investigation. If Jesus conquered death, that changes everything in the cosmos.

If you’ve not done so, I suggest reading through Hamlet again, and reading Wallace’s fiction, too. If you’re willing, read the gospel of John. Ask honestly if Jesus is trustworthy and see if he’ll reward your earnest search. Thomas, too, was a skeptic, so you’re neither the first nor the last. Genuine inquiry after the truth is worth our energies.

Who best addressed this issue? Shakespeare, it seems to me, merely highlighted the question for dramatic effect. How we answer the dilemma posed reveals our worldview. Based upon DFW’s writing that I’ve read (I’ve not read all of his material, yet) man lives in a closed universe (where God’s non-existence is presupposed). This seems a much more difficult world in which to make the case for moral law. In the absence of the eternal reference point (God) who conquered death, relativism seems the inevitable deduction.

However, if Christ conquered the grave, then the way we view the “Yoricks” in our lives is revolutionized. No small amount depends on whether Jesus was trustworthy and if there’s historical evidence to substantiate his claims. More to follow on that question in part two.