Sunday, 15 February 2015

what happens when we die?

One of the benefits of being a priest is that I get to hear a lot of your stories. There are certain stories that you don’t want to tell because you think people will think you’re crazy, but I get to hear those stories. I get to hear the stories about a kiss received from a loved one who recently died. Or, seeing a dead family member wave to you from the side of the road. Some of you have seen dead friends wink at you from a picture. Others have felt their shirt tugged after a partner has just died. These stories wouldn’t necessarily convince a sceptic, which is why you are often reluctant to share them, but I hear these stories over and over.   

In our Gospel reading Jesus is seen with two men who have died- Moses and Elijah (Mark 9:2-9).   As Jesus is being crucified he promises the criminal next to him that he would soon be with him in paradise (Luke 23). So there seemed to be the idea that we are still in some way having experiences after we die. We see this in the Old Testament too, we might look at King Saul visiting the witch of Endor and calling the prophet Samuel from the mysterious place of the dead (1 Sam 28). The Bible seems to teach that people have some kind of existence after death, though it doesn’t say a lot about it. In our reading from the book of Wisdom (3:1-3) we read, “the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace.”   

Our big question this week is, “As a senior at 88yrs, I look forward to the brightness of a new life promised by Jesus”. The implied question is that they would like to hear a bit more about what this might be like. What should we expect when we die?
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was a medical doctor and psychiatrist who studied death and dying. She came up with the famous stages of grief- denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. She was very important in pioneering work with the terminally ill, and her work helped with the development of hospice care. She spent thousands of hours with her dying patients and heard many stories about people having experiences when they were near-death or considered “dead” and were then resuscitated. She became interested in the possibility of life after death and began researching peoples’ experiences. She noticed a pattern when looking at the near-death stories of many people.[1]

These stories span across cultures, across ages, and across religions (including atheists and agnostics). People have reported these experiences after having sudden deaths, and after long drawn out deaths.[2]  After looking at these experiences she noticed a pattern of 3 stages.  In the first stage, before death, we are connected to our bodies. She calls the body a “cocoon” that we are contained within. This is not an overly Biblical image but we will get to that later.

In the second stage there is a sense of being separated from the body (A). The person perceives what is happening in the room where their body is present (a hospital room, or the place of an accident, etc). The person has “no blood pressure, no pulse, no breathing, and in some cases even no measurable brain waves” (p5). And yet they are able to describe details surrounding their unconscious body, “for example, that three blow torches were used to cut [their] body out of the car… or the license plate number of the car that ran into them”[3]. In one case a patient having an out-of-body experience mentioned a shoe on a windowsill in a different part of the building than her body, which was found. Another patient, while “out of their body”, mentioned overhearing conversations outside the hospital room that were later verified.[4]
At this stage they also report a sense of bodily wholeness (B). The blind are suddenly able to see. Those who are deaf or mute can hear and speak. Those who can’t walk are suddenly able to walk. Those with amputated limbs, find their limbs restored. Cancer patients without hair are once again conscious of having hair. Kubler-Ross reports doing a project involving “Blind people who had not had any light perception for at least the last ten years. Those who had an out-of-body experience and came back can tell you what colours and jewelry you were wearing if you were present. … They can tell you the color and pattern of your sweater, or of your tie, and so on”.[5] These blind people could say “who came into the room first and who worked on the resuscitation”.[6]

People in this stage also report not being alone (C). They say they can instantly bridge thousands of miles to be with those they love on the other side of the earth.  They also say there where people waiting for them who died before them. This was often a mother, father, grandparent, or a predeceased child. They sometimes talk about angels or other religious figures that greet them. Kubler-Ross even reports cases of people meeting family members they didn’t know existed. For example, there was a 12 year old girl who met a brother her parents hadn’t told her about who died three months before she was born.[7]  People also report being greeted by people they hadn’t known had died. She speaks about a case where a family was in an accident, but only members of the family who had actually died were present in the person’s experience (p 53-55).  We might say it is merely wishful thinking, but with children you would expect them to be greeted by their parents, “but not one of these children who nearly died has ever seen mommy and daddy at this time unless their parents had preceded them in death”.[8] Some people seem to experience theses visits with pre-deceased loved ones before they actually died.[9]

Next in the second stage there is usually the experience of a passageway (d)- a tunnel, bridge, gate, or mountain pass.[10]  At the end of the tunnel these people say they are embrace by an incredible light and are overwhelmed by an intense unconditional love. After experiencing this they don’t want to return.

In the Third stage, while in the presence of this incredible love there is something like a life review. You look back on your life from the beginning to the end. Every action, experience, word and thought are brought to your mind and you are suddenly aware of all the consequences resulting from these choices. In this moment they come to see that in life they were their own “worst enemy”.[11]  

That is a brief overview of what has become known as Near Death Experience. We want to take this with a grain of salt and remain somewhat skeptical. There have been those who have eventually confessed that they made their story, such as Alex Malarkey whose story became the book, “The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven” (not “Heaven is for Real”).  As Christians we rest our hope on God’s revealed truth rather than people’s subjective experiences, but the testimonies are interesting and I think they shouldn’t be dismissed too quickly.     

There is some tension here with the Biblical understanding of life after death. In our creed we say we believe in “Resurrection”. Jesus as the firstborn among the dead (1 Cor 15; Col 1) was resurrected. His tomb is empty. His spirit didn’t exit his body and fly to heaven. His physical body was raised from the dead. In a biblical sense, we and our bodies can’t really be disconnected. Our body is a part of what makes us, us. The ultimate end that God has in mind for us is resurrection, not a disembodied existence as a spirit without a body. So we should be wary of talking about our body as a mere “cocoon” for our spirit. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has said, “Christian faith says that since God has come to encounter us in this world of material bodies, as a material body, and since God continues to use material things and persons to communicate who and what he is, we can’t suppose that life with him will ever simply sidestep our material life. The Bible speaks rather seldom of life with God in heaven; it is more inclined to talk about a renewal of creation”.[12] Bishop N.T. Wright has said “We will become more human, not less. If, in the present, we have been given tasks to do, vocations to pursue, the ability to delight in music and love and light and laughter, then it would be strange if, in the new creation, none of this mattered anymore”.[13] As Christians, we can’t let go of our bodies that easily as if they were just “cocoons” for our spirits. Physical matter is important to God. 
I tend to believe we have some kind of existence after death, but I also think that is just a stage in life after death. I think we will have a conscious existence when we die, but after that we will have a new embodied existence. In the book of Revelation we are taught that there will be a new Heaven and a new Earth (Rev 21:1). There will be a close relationship between Heaven and Earth, with a heavenly holy city present on Earth where God will be present with human beings in a uniquely intimate way (Rev 21:2-3). In that new existence God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev 21:4).

We should not think of the afterlife as a kind of ‘create your own heaven’ (as in the TV show Supernatural, or ‘what dreams may come’), or as a ‘holodeck’ like in Star Trek. The afterlife is paradise because we are so close to the source of all life, pleasure, peace, and joy. Being with God and with God’s perfected creatures is what makes paradise great. You will never be bored because you have an infinite God to explore and you will be surrounded by an incredibly loving community of God’s family.    
We want to also be careful when we talk about how great the afterlife is.  A faithfully biblical understanding of life after death should protect us from escapism. Jesus did not plead with God to die on the cross so he could escape the corrupt and painful world. Jesus wanted to live. Jesus saw the gift and the beauty of life and didn’t want to lose it. So we should beware of a tendency to reject life in the desire to “fly away”. At the same time we do not have to be afraid to die. John the Baptist did not want to die, but in the face of threats on his life he was still willing to speak what he believed. Similarly, when we understand the biblical view of life after death we won’t be so controlled by the incidental values surrounding us, but rather by the eternal values of Jesus- love and compassion (especially for the marginalized).  Our understanding of life after death should ultimately help us live this life with incredible courage, even in the middle of horrible circumstances. It was that belief that allowed Christians to stay in plague ravaged cities in the Roman Empire to tend to the sick, and to face martyrdom with courage.   When we understand that we will live forever then we won’t feel so dependent on the passing pleasures of this life for our happiness. We will find ourselves not wanting to waste a minute of life on this earth because each moment is a gift and we will give an account of how we have used each opportunity to love God and our neighbour. But, we don’t behave this way because it buys our way into paradise, rather, it is the way of eternal life. This is what living eternally looks like.[14] The preacher Jonathan Edwards said it this way, “There in heaven this Fountain of love, this eternal three in one, is set open without any obstacle to hinder access to it. There this glorious God is manifested and shines forth in full glory, in beams of love; there the fountain overflows in streams and rivers of love and delight, enough for all to drink at, and to swim in, yea, so as to overflow the world as it were with a deluge of love”[15]  


[1] At the time of her presentation in 1980 over 25,000 cases had been collected from all over the world (p 45).   
[2] over half of cases are sudden death              
[3] “On Life after Death” by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross,  p. 4

See also “Life After Life” by Raymond Moody, and “Proof of Heaven” by Eben Alexander

Raymond Moody wrote “Life After Life” which is a look at Near Death Experiences. Moody is very educated with PhDs in philosophy and psychology. He is also a medical doctor. He eventually began studying consciousness and Near Death Experience. He collected over a hundred reports from people who experienced “death” and had subsequent “Near Death Experiences”. He found remarkable similarities among these reports and found that in some cases people “came back” with knowledge they could not have gained if the experience was only inside the person’s skull.

Eben Alexander‘s “Proof of Heaven“. Alexander has been an academic neurosurgeon for over twenty-five years. Some of that time was spent at Harvard Medical School. Alexander had concluded that Near Death Experiences were the product of neurobiology alone, and that it does not reflect an experience that takes place anywhere outside the human brain. He had his own Near Death Experience, however, that convinced him otherwise. Based on his physical condition and the reports of his brain activity while he was in a coma he concluded that there is no way that he should have been able to have the kinds of experiences he had.

[4] A story retold by Raymond Moody
[5] Kubler-Ross p. 7
[6] Kubler-Ross p. 49
[7] Kubler-Ross p. 28
[8] Kubler-Ross p. 29
[9] Kubler-Ross p. 42
[10] Kubler-Ross p. 10
[11] Kubler-Ross, p. 11-12
[12] “Tokens of Trust” by Rowan Williams, p. 140
[13] “Simply Good News” by NT Wright, p. 96
[14] If you don’t want to live that way now, you won’t want Paradise.
[15] Jonathen Edwards “Heaven Is a World of Love”

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