Across all cultures, men and women have found consolation and courage in the belief that death is not the end, but that it is followed by another, better life to come. How this next life will come about and what form it will take are questions that have occupied the human race down the centuries – and the answers people have come up with for them would easily fill a book.
Generally speaking, the world's major religions all agree that though our bodies decompose and return to the earth, our souls are released to another plane, either returning to their source, or moving on to find another frame. My grandfather, writer Eberhard Arnold, says that our flesh, blood, and bones are not, in the truest and deepest sense, our real selves. Being mortal, they die. Meanwhile the real seat of our being, the soul, passes from mortality into immortality, and from time into timelessness. It returns from the body it was breathed into back to its author, God. That is why, my grandfather says, the human soul longs perpetually for God, and why, instead of merely dying, we are “called into eternity” and reunited with him.
For those of us who call ourselves Christians, it is impossible to contemplate such a future without recalling the resurrection of Jesus, the “Son of Man,” and the price he paid for it – a harrowing public execution on a Roman cross. After all, his death was not just an isolated historical event, but (as he himself indicated by saying, “Follow me”) the unavoidable gateway through which each of us must pass if we want to share everlasting life with him. “Whoever tries to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses it for my sake will find it.”
To the extent that our paths must trace Christ’s, the fear of death is not only understandable, but natural. He himself cried out in anguish, “My father, why have you forsaken me?” and begged him, “Let this cup pass me by.” When I first heard the story of the crucifixion from my father, I could not stomach its cruelty, and everything in me rebelled. Why couldn’t there be Easter without the horrors of Good Friday?
Over the years, however, I found an answer that I could accept: just as there can be no spring without the cold of winter that comes before it – just as the glory of a sunrise would be nothing if it did not break through the darkness of night – so the pain of suffering must precede the triumph of new life. In finding this faith, I gradually overcame my fear of dying.
Those who do not believe in a life beyond the grave sometimes dismiss the idea out of hand, and given our inability to describe the future, except in terms of vague hopes, this is understandable. But to a dying person who does have faith in resurrection, it is not just an abstraction. It is a source of courage and strength so real that it can even alter him physically. Sometimes it is a matter of something as simple as a smile; sometimes there is an unexpected burst of energy or the sudden return of mobility and speech. It is as if the dying one is standing on the threshold of eternity. Moments like these hint at the immortality of the soul – and the beauty that is still there in the most exhausted, decrepit body.
The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who died at forty-three, met death with a radiant joy – and with the certainty that it was not just an end, but a beginning. His nephew wrote:
Never have I seen the spirit break through the earthly husk and impart to it such a glory… He took my hand in both of his – how small they were and thin and palely transparent – and said, “Thank you for coming, and now farewell.” But these simple words were accompanied by a look the match of which I have never seen. It shone out from a sublime and blessed splendor that seemed to me to make the whole room light. Everything was concentrated in those eyes as the source of light and heartfelt love, the blissful dissolution of sadness, a penetrating clearness of mind, and a jesting smile.
Having witnessed the final moments of many dying people, I have sensed the nearness of another place – call it eternity, heaven, the kingdom of God, or whatever – and according to hospice workers and others quoted in the book Final Gifts, this is a common experience among those who provide end-of-life care. Nick, whose brother Matt died of cancer, says he was given such a glimpse, after becoming aware of another presence or dimension in the room:
Right after Matt went, his wife said that she could hear music or something like it. She said it was like singing, but more of a loud rushing sound. It's funny, but I swear that when she said that, I listened and I could hear something too. It’s brought me to a different level of thinking about everything. I think we’re so much more interconnected with the other world, as you might call it, than we sometimes assume. We have our little plans and go on with our little lives, but there’s always that connection.
Bound as we are by the limits of time and space, we can only guess at what such things might mean; as the Apostle Paul says, we can only see “through a glass darkly.” All the same, an inkling of eternity can – as Nick found – change our worldview in a significant way, and remind us that heaven is not just “pie in the sky.” It is a reality here and now, even if a mysterious one.