Laughing in the Face of Death

Pagliacci's Legacy

The passing of Robin Williams felt as particularly tragic as any celebrity death can. Following the massive outpouring of grief online, many blogs and media outlets began to interpret our collective experience: from absurd sensationalist headlines to divisive evangelical conclusions. And of course, many people avoided the interpretation altogether and decided to be sweet and simple in expressing their grief instead.

I don't feel I could sum up Robin Williams' life or passing well. I can only summarize what kind of influence he had over me, and the kind of questions his passing raises. Grief, on any level, can be a disorienting emotional fog– but it can also be a powerful clarifier. In our modern western context, death is a scary thing we'd rather not think too much about. Of course, when life forces us to confront death, we come face-to-face with our real values. We can examine the things we care about the most. We also have to confront eternity.

The Funny Was Always On

Robin Williams had a distinct impression on my childhood perspectives on comedy. The main film we returned to again and again was "Hook", which still is such an important movie to me. When I was growing up, my parents were careful about what I watched.  As such, there were a few Robin Williams films that stood out as the glaring omissions I wasn't allowed to see. I assumed they were all as funny as the ones I treasured. "Aladdin" was too much for us to see because of the evil Jafar, and it was particularly hard for us to miss: I just wanted the Genie to make me laugh. Fortunately, the second sequel was less scary, and it had Robin Williams return to voice the character, and I watched his scenes until I had them memorized. My sister and I would treasure "Mrs. Doubtfire" too, once the movie was out on video and my parents knew we were old enough for it. 

When I became old enough to make my own decisions about what I watched, I began to consider the rest of Robin William's filmography. "Good Will Hunting" proved he could channel his manic energy into something subtle. I fell in love with "Patch Adams" before anybody had the chance to tell me it wasn't a good movie. I even gave oddities like "Bicentennial Man" and "Insomnia" a try. I found him impossible to dislike, even after my tastes in comedy changed. Before I even knew what acting was, my Dad would make us laugh with his own wild impressions– I guess he made it inevitable to love a star like Robin Williams.

Hindsight through a telephoto lens

It shocked me to hear he took his own life. Upon reflection, I found myself re-examining his roles, his jokes, and even his public appearances– and I began stitching a narrative together. "Celebrity" is an interesting kind of emotional leverage. We feel attached to these people but, in reality, we have no connection to their personal lives. Gossip magazines and entertainment news shows devote themselves to tearing down the healthy divide between a star's public persona and their private world because we feel that knowing more about them will fill our craving to understand how significant we felt they were.

Of course, when a celebrity dies, their private world becomes commodified history. And we begin explaining... everything... away

I have no interest in commenting on his motivations and struggles on his suicide. I do know, from the roles he took in his life, that he understood the inherent connection between death and comedy– and he was unafraid of exploring it. His breakthrough success came as a controversial radio DJ mocking on the wrong side of the deadly Vietnam War. On the show "Louis", CK and Williams attended another comedian's funeral and reflected on their own mortality afterwards.  Robin was always willing to joke about death, but he was never ignorant or irreverent about it.


Afterlife (what an awful word?)

This fear and discomfort we feel towards death is nothing new– it's profoundly human. Science and religion have different measurements for this mysterious thing we call "life". We all draw different conclusions about what happens after we die. The conclusions we draw up about the afterlife are some of the strongest elements of all the major religions on earth. We magnify this reverential fear of death in our religious services. Then, those same grand traditions eventually numb us to our fears.

As a Christian, I believe in the afterlife. I believe heaven and hell are real places, and that real people will go to both. You may consider such beliefs to be an archaic crutch, and I respect that– but I wouldn't agree. I have my own doubts and uncertainties about death too, and I'm taking the afterlife by faith. If these conclusions were only a crutch for my weak mind, I'd have thrown them away for wobbling too much by now.

Some Christians, based on their theology, have an amplified fear of death because of the implications of heaven and hell. The idea that there is an eternity yet ahead of us makes many people somber and scared about passing through that doorway. I believe the way we live, the things we believe about God, and the way we love others have eternal consequences, of course. But I will not allow those eternal consequences to make me afraid of my own death– or the death of anyone else, for that matter.

I can't give commentary on the certainty of anyone's eternal fate. As I am not inside another's skin, I don't know what their relationship with God really is. Warlords, kings, and ravenous dictators throughout history have professed Christ, and virtuous people have denounced Him; the more I learn and the older I get, the less confident I am in my own judgements of others.

I can't make conclusions about Robin Williams's eternity, either. For those Christians who start and end this complicated matter with a simple Sinner's Prayer, I can assure you that Robin Williams is reported to have prayed one. Some people continue to hold to the old catholic notion that suicide is a one-way ticket to hell, which is a view that doesn't hold up to scriptural scrutiny.  Authentic, historical Christianity is not built upon our totals of good and bad deeds– salvation is a gift. Only the giver and the recipient know whether the gift exchanged hands.

you should not live under the oppressive fear of death. you should live inspired to give your life as a gift to others.

Hell and death should be sobering, but for the right reasons. Eternity gives our life meaning and perspective. Knowing we are eternal beings– knowing we will never not exist– makes our choices here and now matter. If you're living just trying to "not die", you aren't living at all– but if your life is one long self-destruct sequence, then you're just the living dead. We call this kind of living death "hell", and for most people, it doesn't just begin when the heart monitor flatlines.

Jesus doesn't just rescue us from our obscure, faraway hells. He rescues us from our present torture by redefining the very thing we call life itself.

To be a Christian, you must believe that Jesus Christ is the one and only way of salvation. This I profess. However, saying that is not equal to saying, "You must have rightly understood, and verbally repeat, the same theology about Jesus that I have." Does Jesus save? Yes! But not in the dry, clinical way our manmade philosophies may suggest.

Heaven and hell are not the ultimate reward and punishment– they are the inevitable consequence of being eternal beings with the gift of a free will. 

Divine Comedy

I've met Christians who stop just short of serving two different gods. They think the Jesus way– the way of grace and unconditional forgiveness– is only temporary until you die. Then you are subject to another, different kind of God, who is the complete opposite of Jesus. This other god is an inflexible, unapproachable, oppressive persecutor. Of course, they wouldn't consciously divide their god in two like that. Instead, they redefine Jesus to be the same vengeful killer in secret–He's only pretending to be gracious, for now.

And when a celebrity dies, I've heard those same Christians say things like: "Boy, I'd bet he's sure sweating now!" or, "I hope he likes how the fire feels!"

And these sort of statements are supposed to be both loving and just. 

I don't believe in this kind of God– and I don't believe this is who God reveals Himself to be. (For those of you struggling with the theological concepts of wrath and judgement, here is a good place to start. And here is a video if you finish with all the reading.)

What kind of hell does Jesus save us from?

The kind of hell that so oppresses people they try to escape by taking their own lives.

The kind of hell that inspires humanity to subjugate and torture one another.

The kind of hell that makes those made in the image of God into selfish, independent, and destructive people.

He saves us not just by handing us a parachute. He goes down into flames for us– entering our own hell with us. He demonstrates His love by refusing to be separate from us, even if we've rejected Him.  

And what of this kind of intimacy, with a God of perfect love, who is always pointed towards you? Well, it will be eternally tortuous if you hate Him. In fact, if you've rejected love and embraced the ugly lies of hatred and division, even the gift of heaven would feel like hell to you.

Through the fire, through the flames (only i am who i am)

God's unstoppable love is a consuming fire that is going to keep choosing you forever. You can fight and resist, and you can distance yourself from Him for eternity, but His nature is unchanging. And I've discovered how this kind of love is good news. 

It's good news for Robin Williams, who was clearly in a moment of overwhelming desperation and despair. I hope and pray we have a newfound sympathy for those who struggle with all kinds of mental illness. The man lived to give other people joy, yet he had his own struggles– some publicly, some privately. Maybe we can stop calling bipolar people "selfish" when we think about Robin, who kept making us laugh in the midst of his own pain. 

The eternal love of God is also good news for you and me, because it means that if we want to enjoy this love and belonging forever, we can and we will! Death is not God's associate. Death is not an angel who looks like Brad Pitt. Death was the enemy, and death was defeated by Jesus. In a beautiful move nobody could've anticipated, Jesus defeated death by dying– and when evil had exhausted itself upon Him, God raised Him up to prove His love was inexhaustible! (This scene is how I visualize Jesus defeating death, just FYI.)

Of course, there will still be a transition for us all–as mortality wraps itself in the blanket of immortality. But this isn't final–it's as temporary as falling asleep. James Lipton, who hosts the program "Inside the Actor's Studio", interviewed Robin Williams and asked him about eternity. "If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?" He asked.

"There's seating at the front." Robin replied, always getting the laugh– and then continued:

"If Heaven exists– to know that there's laughter. That'd be a great thing."

Jesus laughed in the face of death. And it's my hope is that Robin is still laughing, too.