A recent brush with cancer, that may not yet be over, together with the deaths of family members, and my own advancing years, have led me to consider my own mortality and to think again about what I believe lies beyond death, if indeed anything does. I take this to be a healthy exercise and am grateful that life has encouraged me to mull on it. The more so, as it’s the big taboo subject in our materialistic society: it’s the conversation nobody wants to have and all seem keen to avoid. So far, my mullings have been encouraging, my trust in God has been deepened, and without in any way desirous of death, I find myself increasingly confident that death is not the end, and there is a part of me that is curious about it will be like. What has nourished my confidence?
1““Observing the natural world, of which I am a part, I notice that nothing ever disappears, but over time everything changes into something else, and is transformed. There is a constant process of recycling: of birth, growth, maturity, decline, death, and decay which in turn leads to new birth. This appears to be true of everything. Why should we be different?
Moreover, this pattern replays itself constantly throughout our lives. We grow and then we have to let go, and move on to more growth and yet more letting go. We grow in our mothers’ womb, but we have to leave that place of apparent security where everything we need is supplied, to be born into the world. We have to leave home for school; we leave one school for another; we leave education to begin work, we leave home to create a new home of our own; in time we leave work and retire. We continue with this process of growth followed by loss, followed by a fresh opportunity for growth, throughout our lives. Life is a constant process of growth through letting go of what has become familiar. You might argue that life is designed for us to learn to do this gracefully and hopefully. The opportunities for transformation come thick and fast, we often don’t welcome them, indeed, we are sometimes dragged kicking and screaming into them, but what looks unfamiliar and frightening frequently turns out to be full of gift and new possibilities. Hopefully as our lives draw to an end we will have become accustomed to this pattern, and learnt to appreciate it as gift, and that therefore there is never anything to be afraid of. As angels in the New Testament always seems to say, ‘Fear not.’
Does this process come to an end at death? Physically it does. When we die our bodies return to the earth, whether we’re buried or cremated, the result is the same. But are we just our bodies? Is there more to us than that?
“A starting point for any reflection on the nature of life is death, comparing the dead body of a person or animal or plant with the living state that preceded it. The amount of matter in the dead body is the same as in the living body, the form of the body is the same, and the chemicals in it are the same, at least immediately after death. But something has changed. The most obvious conclusion is that something has left the body and since there’s little or no change in weight, that which has left is essentially immaterial.” [Rupert Sheldrake]
I can remember coming to a similar conclusion on witnessing the birth of each of my daughters. When confronted with the awe and wonder of the arrival of a new life, I found myself wondering ‘where has this new life come from?’ A basic understanding of the biology involved felt like a wholly inadequate answer. It seemed obvious that something more than that was involved: that we are more than just our bodies.
I have thought for a long time that the question ‘is there life after death?’ can’t be answered apart from the question ‘is there life before birth?’ The two questions seem to stand together. I recall the comment of Deepak Chopra: “Every life is framed by two mysteries. Only one of them, birth, is considered a miracle. The other is death.” The two mysteries look rather similar as the story of ‘the twins in the womb’ suggests:
“In a mother’s womb were two babies. One asked the other: “Do you believe in life after delivery?” The other replied, “Why, of course. There has to be something after delivery. Maybe we are here to prepare ourselves for what we will be later.”
“Nonsense” said the first. “There is no life after delivery. What kind of life would that be?”
The second said, “I don’t know, but there will be more light than here. Maybe we will walk with our legs and eat from our mouths. Maybe we will have other senses that we can’t understand now.”
The first replied, “That is absurd. Walking is impossible. And eating with our mouths? Ridiculous! The umbilical cord supplies nutrition and everything we need. But the umbilical cord is so short. Life after delivery is to be logically excluded.”
The second insisted, “Well I think there is something and maybe it’s different than it is here. Maybe we won’t need this physical cord anymore.”
The first replied, “Nonsense. And moreover if there is life, then why has no one has ever come back from there? Delivery is the end of life, and in the after-delivery there is nothing but darkness and silence and oblivion. It takes us nowhere.”
“Well, I don’t know,” said the second, “but certainly we will meet Mother and she will take care of us.”
The first replied “Mother? You actually believe in Mother? That’s laughable. If Mother exists then where is She now?”
The second said, “She is all around us. We are surrounded by her. We are of Her. It is in Her that we live. Without Her this world would not and could not exist.”
Said the first: “Well I don’t see Her, so it is only logical that She doesn’t exist.”
To which the second replied, “Sometimes, when you’re in silence and you focus and you really listen, you can perceive Her presence, and you can hear Her loving voice, calling down from above.”
2“““`“So universal is the assumption that something does happen next that the reductionist scientific culture of the West is almost alone in its unshakeable belief in the finality of death.” [Peter and Elizabeth Fenwick ] If there was a democratic vote amongst all the humans who’ve ever lived on whether they believed in life in some form, after death, there would be an overwhelming ‘Yes’ vote. That doesn’t necessarily mean that its true, of course. But we do seem to be hard wired to believe it. Irvin Yalom wrote: “I have noted two particularly powerful and common methods of allaying fears about death, two beliefs or delusions, that afford a sense of safety. One is the belief in personal specialness; and the other, the belief in an ultimate rescuer………these are universal beliefs which, at some level of consciousness, exist in all of us.” What Yalom is saying sounds very like an example of what I have elsewhere referred to as a ‘Memory of Home’.
The assumption that death is not the end runs pretty deep in us, perhaps even is innate in us, and evidence is emerging that supports this assumption.
3““`Recent surveys have shown that between 10-25% of people who recover from a cardiac arrest report they have had an experience during it that is now called a ‘Temporary Death Experience’, a TDE, because they were clinically dead at the time. These TDEs have a number of common features:
A sense of entering into light
A sense of journeying, typically into an English country garden
A meeting with dead relatives who welcome them and sometimes send them back
But the features which are the most memorable and significant for the person concerned are the peace and calmness and, in the deeper experiences, the intense compassion, love and light that are experienced. They are life enhancing in that the person feels safe and cared for, and on their return to life have little or no fear of death any more.
This is consistent with Near Death Experiences, NDEs, where people do not clinically die, but have an experience which they describe as nearly dying. A Gallup Survey in the US in 1982 suggested that 4% of the population had had an experience of this sort. Peter Fenwick, the leading authority on NDEs in the UK says that a blueprint of a characteristic NDE will include:
An overwhelming feeling of peace, joy and bliss.
The person leaves their body and can look down on themselves, and is sometimes able to describe in accurate detail what took place in the operating theatre where their body lies.
They may enter darkness, usually a dark tunnel, and at the end they see a pinpoint of light, which as they approach it, grows larger and larger.
The approaching light is described as white or golden, but not painful to the eyes. Very often it seems to act almost as a magnet, drawing the person towards itself.
They may meet a ‘being’ of light, sometimes a religious figure, sometimes simply a presence, that is warm and welcoming.
Sometimes people sense that there is some sort of barrier between them and the light, which in some way marks a point of no return.
People often say they have visited another country, usually an idyllic pastoral scene, or that they have glimpsed such a place beyond the barrier.
Occasionally other people are encountered too, usually dead relatives, more rarely friends who are still alive, or strangers.
At some point the person may see events from their life flash before them. For some events are unfolded to them which are to take place in the future. And some are told there are tasks ahead of them which they must go back and complete.
Often people want to stay, but in every case realise that this is impossible, that it is not yet their time to go. Sometimes they make the decision to go back themselves, usually because they realise that they are still needed by their families.
The return to the body is usually rapid.
For most, the NDE, like the TDE, is one of the most profound people have ever had. Often the person returns changed in some way, though not always permanently. Virtually everyone reports that they have no fear of death, though they don’t particularly want to die.
Peter Fenwick and his wife Elizabeth have written a book entitled ‘The Art Of Dying’ that discusses some of the above but also evidence about the actual process of dying, what they refer to as ‘End of Life Experiences’ ELEs. One of them is what they call ‘Deathbed Visions’ that some dying people describe, usually in a clear or only moderately impaired, consciousness. The Fenwicks admit that they don’t know how common these experiences are, but they seem to be more common than previously thought. They are not dependent on religious belief.
The visions are nearly always seen as welcoming and the dying person responds with interest and joy. They are usually of dead relatives, frequently someone the dying person had a close emotional contact with, and their purpose seems to be to help the person through the dying process. Sometimes this process is taken even further, so that not only does the visitor appear in the room, but the dying person may journey with them to an intermediate reality that they perceive as being more real than the real world, and interpenetrated by light, love and compassion. Sometimes the dying person gets out of bed to try to go with their vision.
They may drift in and out of this area in the days or hours preceding death. Both relatives and strangers may be seen, but nearly always they are experienced as a comforting presence, there to help with the dying process and holding out a promise of a continuation of consciousness. There are many accounts of the ‘visitors’ making their first appearance in the days or weeks before death, and occasionally the ‘visitor’ may be given short shrift if their appearance is thought to be premature.
Like the NDEs there are feelings of absolute peace, bliss or joy, and the experience of light. In both the concept of journey is central, probably because the message of the ‘visitors’ suggests continuity and not finality. Its an optimistic message. The TDEs are more narrative than deathbed visions and more detailed in terms of the world in which the vision is occurring. The TDE is a journey with a beginning, middle and end, which is the return. In all three the other world into which the person moves has a quality of absolute reality.
4 Most religions have practices whereby worshippers invoke the aid of the dead, their ancestors, and sometimes sense their active presence in their lives. There is a recognition that individual worshippers stand in a tradition that they have inherited and that needs to be honoured and passed on to future generations. Gratitude is expressed to those who have preceded us in this world, and their continuing assistance is sought. As is the recognition that the dead have wisdom that we have forgotten, and that we need to access in making our decisions. Prior to the Reformation, the saints were invoked by Christian worshippers in very much this way, but we’ve mostly forgotten that now, to our detriment I sense.
We also need to be aware of generations yet unborn, because the decisions we make today will affect the greater interconnected community of humankind across time.
It is a commonplace to say that we tend to see only what we’re looking for, and for the most part our eyes are closed to signs of the activities of those who have lived before us and are now dead. We might know about them in our heads as history, but we don’t know it in our souls as presence. As I sit here writing, I’m sitting on a chair at a table, and likelihood is that those who made both chair and table are now dead. The men who built the house in which I live, most certainly are. The people who planted the trees I can see through the window are no longer here. When I leave my house I walk along a road which has been used for hundreds of years, mostly by people on foot. The country in which I live, and everything in it, its tradition and culture, has been shaped over centuries by the men and women who have lived here. As George Eliot put it “that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
I read books by men and women who are dead, listen to music by composers long dead, wonder at art by artists who died years ago. I am hugely influenced by people no longer alive and my life now is unimaginable without them: I owe them a great debt. Just as I owe a great debt to my parents who had a defining influence on my life, and still do, and beyond them to their parents who influenced them in turn, and so on back through the ages. I owe a similar debt to countless ‘teachers’ who’ve consciously or unconsciously shaped my life, many of whom are no longer alive. That I am who I am is a lot down to people who are now dead.
I can remember many years ago reflecting that it didn’t seem to make much sense to imagine that when I die everything will become clear and set, and that I will find myself in either heaven or hell or their equivalents. Rather it seems more likely that when I die I will be aware that I still have work to do before I achieve enlightenment, peace, fulfilment or whatever you might like to call it. In particular I assume that I will be even more aware than I am now, that there are people whose lives I have damaged in some way, and that I will feel the need to pray that they can successfully redeem the damage that I have done to them. Partly for their sakes, as people whom I know and love, but also for my own, for how could I enter heaven, find peace etc, without them having done so. This sounds rather like a modern version of purgatory.
I’ve shared this notion with people who’ve felt damaged by their parents behaviour in some way or another, as just about all of us inevitably are. I’ve suggested that their parents have only passed on to them what they must have received themselves, and that this process presumably goes back many generations with damaging behaviour being passed down. How could it be otherwise? Not all that gets passed on is damaging of course, much is creative and beneficial. If my notion contains truth then it follows that its appropriate that we should be giving thanks for all the benefits that our ancestors have bequeathed us, and meanwhile generations of our ancestors will be praying that we succeed in redeeming the damage they have passed on to us. In attempting to do so we will have the active support of our ancestors, as we are acting for them as well as for ourselves. There may be moments when we become acutely aware of that active prayerful support.
Moreover, we’re also hoping that if we are to some extent successful, then we won’t pass on the damage to our children for them to struggle with. We are all interconnected in some way, and salvation becomes a corporate as well as an individual matter.
5 All this has a personal energy for me because I’ve had three experiences, each of them very much to my surprise and bewilderment, of being addressed by people whom I knew to be dead, which has left me convinced that they are still in some sense alive, and that we are deeply interconnected. Two known to me personally and the other not. In each case it was less the content of the message that the experience conveyed, and more the unquestionable authenticity of the experience that was so powerful that it was impossible to doubt it. They each had a ‘Damascus Road’ effect, in turning my world upside down, while being hugely life affirming. Hence I take this stuff seriously.
I’ve been brought up as a Christian, I committed myself to follow Christ in my teens, I felt called called by God to be a Christian priest and was duly ordained. The Christian faith is the star that I have sought to follow all my life, and central to it, its foundation stone, is the Resurrection from the dead of Jesus of Nazareth. How does that story speak to all of the above?
I have always found it difficult not to believe in the Resurrection of Jesus as historically sound. I don’t pretend to understand exactly what happened, but certain facts seem to be clear. Namely that His followers either betrayed, or denied, or deserted Him. When He had been killed they all ran away and hid fearful for their lives. But a few days later they re-emerged full of confidence, telling anyone who would listen that He was alive, and willing to suffer & die for this conviction as they travelled around the then known world. The Resurrection stories are a bit confused as if the people who tell them do not quite know or understand what happened, but there is a pattern. People are surprised, often don’t initially recognise the figure who meets them, doubt the experience, find themselves forgiven, accepted, loved and then challenged and sent out. Forgiveness and acceptance without judgement are key. [A pattern you will recognise in the TDEs NDEs and ELEs that I described earlier] It appears undeniable that something must have happened. If you disbelieve their claim of Jesus resurrection, then you have to come up with an alternative explanation for this dramatic turn-around in their behaviour.
The significance of Jesus’ resurrection seems to me to be several-fold:
Jesus believed himself to have been called at his baptism to speak and act in God’s name. But he was caught on the horns of a dilemma. The very God of whom he spoke was primarily concerned with inner, not external, transformation. A few followers understood that, but the religious authorities of his day saw him as a threat, and connived at his death. At its most basic the resurrection of Jesus was God’s way of vindicating Him: of declaring that Jesus’ insight into, and knowledge of, the nature of God was fundamentally correct. If God exists and raised Jesus from the dead then we are offered a bigger picture that brings ultimate meaning and purpose to our lives.
For Jesus’ resurrection is a sign that death does not have the last word. There is a bigger picture that places this life on earth within a context in which we come from God at our births and return to God on our deaths. This life is not all there is, but is rather a preparation for what is to come. Jesus vision of God’s purposes will be realised beyond death, and Jesus’ resurrection is the first fruits of that. This seems to have been the core of the preaching of the first Christian communities.
They also believed that this Jesus of Nazareth whom they’d known, was still in some sense alive and continued to accompany and guide them. They prayed to Him and He seemed to answer their prayers and indeed to guide and direct them in ways that were starnge to them, and sometimes contrary to what they’d previously understood Him to teach. This is as true for us now as it was for them then. To learn to trust this process is to enter into eternal life and to begin to incarnate it here, now, as Jesus Himself had done.
In summary, my mullings have nourished my trust in God as revealed through Jesus; my awareness that the Risen Christ has guided and sustained me throughout my life, and my trust that He will continue to do so both in life and in death; and my hope that death is but a gateway through which we will all pass, and that there is nothing for us to fear. This life is a part of a bigger picture, in which we come from God at our births, are held and sustained by the Risen Cosmic Christ through our lives, and return to God at our deaths.