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Walt Whitman, Death, and the Difference of Christianity


Walt Whitman  (c. 1887), photographed by George Cox — Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

Walt Whitman (c. 1887), photographed by George Cox — Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

I had an interesting dialogue with my philosophy students the other day. We were examining the ontology behind various forms of pantheism (e.g. transcendentalism, Hinduism, Buddhism, New Age, etc). As we discussed the assigned reading, one young lady spoke up and said, "I love [pantheism]! Its view of life and death is so beautiful and poetic. I find it very appealing." To the surprise of other students, I agreed with her, and then suggested we read a passage from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. As we read it and discussed the ideas being proposed, however, the pantheistic worldview began to lose some of its luster for the starry-eyed student.

In college, many of my professors seemed to worship Walt Whitman; and not without some good reason. He was a profoundly gifted poet, and an intriguing individual, to say the least. One day, during one of my undergraduate classes, my professor read a passage from Whitman's poem "Song of Myself" — the most well known poem in Leaves of Grass.

In section 6 of "Song of Myself," Whitman poses the question "What is the grass?" After offering several guesses, he suggests that grass is "the beautiful uncut hair of graves." He goes on to imagine all the people who have died and been buried in the ground, under the grass — young men, old men, women and children. Where are these people now? he asks. What has become of them?

They are alive and well somewhere;

The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,

And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,

And ceased the moment life appeared.

All goes onward and outward....and nothing collapses,

And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

Here my professor explained Whitman's meaning: no one really dies, because the atoms that made up the bodies of the deceased now make up the grass and trees. Our loved ones are not really gone, they are only transformed — absorbed back into the universe. Like drops of water drawn from the sea, we are only temporary individuals. When we die, we are reunited with the ocean of the cosmos, and our "self" — that is, our individual identity — ceases to be. This, for my professor, was a beautiful and inspiring outlook on life and death. And this outlook — which is common among varieties of pantheism — is what enchanted my young student.[1]

On the heels of her comments that pantheism is a beautiful view on life, I thought it fitting to read the same Whitman passage above with my philosophy students. After we read it and discussed its supposed meaning, I responded with some challenging yet honest questions: Those of you who have felt the deep pain and sorrow of losing a loved one, are you consoled by the pantheistic worldview? Does it give you peace to believe that your loved ones are not really gone, because atoms that used to make up their body may now be part of the grass or trees? Is your heart comforted by the notion that the unique identity of your loved one — their "self" — is gone forever, and all you are left with are material fragments that are being eternally recycled? Does this view on life give you hope for the future?

When I ask myself these questions, and I'm completely honest, the answers are sobering. As romantic, poetic, and beautiful as the pantheistic worldview appears on the surface, the actual ontology behind it does not offer one bit of peace or comfort to me. It in no way heals the wounds of my deceased loved ones' absence. Nor does it give me any hope for the future. In fact, when I really think about it, pantheism (in all its forms) seems like a bleak and pessimistic view of reality. The thought that my loved ones' unique identities are lost forever — annihilated, as apparently mine soon will be — fills me with despair, not hope. And all the poetic language used to describe it has that lingering taste of self-deception — like a romanticized denial of the bitter evil that death is.

My students' responses to the above questions were not much better than my own. But the young woman so enamored with pantheism had an excellent thought. She said, "Perhaps for some people, pantheism helps them feel connected with their deceased loved ones in a more concrete and tangible way than Christianity does. If someone's spouse is buried under a tree, for example, they have a material thing they can touch and know their loved one is still a part of. Believing that helps their loved one feel closer and still present, rather than believing their spouse is an eternal spirit floating in heaven somewhere, like the Bible teaches."

My heart sank a little when she said this. Sadly, my student, the bright young mind that she is, had a mistaken view of what the Bible actually teaches about life after death. Like so many evangelicals today, she was under the impression that the future Christians look forward to is simply "going to heaven when you die." And for her, "heaven" meant a realm void of all physical substance, including our bodies, and in which only immaterial souls and spirits dwell. She was wrong.

As I've written in a previous article, the Bible teaches several things that may surprise you. The first is that human death is an unnatural and tragic evil; it is the result of sin. The Bible does not treat death as something romantic. Rather, it treats death as an enemy and a curse. Second, the Bible emphasizes the redemption of the physical world, not its destruction. Thus, "heaven," as it is popularly conceived, is not the eternal destination that Christians look forward to. It is only a temporary waiting place. What Christians look forward to is the resurrection, the day when death is fully conquered; when God gives us renewed physical bodies (bodies that can't die), to live and flourish in a renewed physical cosmos (a "new heavens and new earth"), in which he dwells with us. The popular concept of God destroying the material universe as the souls of Christians abscond to an immaterial heaven to live for eternity is not biblical, it's Gnosticism. Lastly, the Bible teaches that our "self" is not something to be annihilated, but preserved and perfected. In the new redeemed universe, we will recognize our resurrected loved ones from this life and embrace them, solid and real.

It seems there is an irreconcilable difference between the pantheistic view of death attributed to Whitman, and the view of biblical Christianity.[2] Pantheism says there is no death. Christianity says there is. Pantheism says to die is "luckier" than anyone supposed. Christianity says death is a curse, but that Christ has overcome it. Pantheism celebrates the annihilation of our "self" as a romantic reuniting with universe. Christianity celebrates the preservation and perfection of our "self" in the resurrection. Pantheism offers comfort in the thought that our deceased loved ones are now part of the grass or trees. Christianity offers comfort in the belief that our deceased loved ones (who are in Christ) are temporarily in heaven, peaceably awaiting the resurrection, when we will be reunited with them in renewed physical bodies, and celebrate together in a renewed physical cosmos. 

In other words, pantheists look forward to the end of life. Christians look forward to the end of death. That is the difference of Christianity. And that is something that gives me hope and peace.

Further Reading:


1. For the record, I am not a literary critic. As to Whitman's true intent with this passage, I cannot know with certainty. But many people besides my professor have proposed the above interpretation. Moreover, scholars often categorize Whitman along with well known transcendentalists, such as Emerson and Thoreau. All that to say, the pantheistic interpretation of Whitman I am assuming in this article is not (to my knowledge) controversial.

2. I recognize that Whitman does not represent all pantheists. He was likely not even a pantheist himself. Some believe he was more of a deist. However, what I've read from various pantheists and New Age authors is practically paraphrased in my description above. Thus, I am making a generalization based on my experience with pop-pantheism.