What Is Death?

We all have to go through it.   This is the “After Death Site”.  So what is death?

If you are a strict materialist, you believe that death is the end of a living creature–nothing more.  This is what it looks like for sure.  But revelation from all corners of religion and near death experiences, let alone just the experience of being conscious suggests that death is something more.

Medically death is easy to measure.  The heart stops. Brain activity becomes immeasurable in a short period of time.   The experience from the inside, as reported by those who went through a near death experience, is very similar for all people.  You experience a tunnel with a light at the end.  The light has proven to be Heaven, or Hell (technically Sheol), or something that appears heavenly but is likely a deception.

What has happened? Not having direct experience myself, I lean on 2 Corinthians 5:1-4 for insight:

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.  For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked.  For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened–not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.

This passage is a little confusing in that it weaves two metaphors for our bodies–a dwelling and clothing.  When we are “alive” here on Earth our bodies are referred to as a tent because they are temporary and fragile.  We groan while in them, because we are aging, experience pain, and want, and Monday mornings.  That being true, we still have the will to live.  We do not want to be “unclothed”, meaning that our spiritual self would have no connection to our physical self.

Death “unclothes” us for a moment.  Our earthly body is too damaged to go on, and we drift free of it.  It is the nature of our “soul/conscious” to reconnect, but not on Earth.  We don’t reincarnate.  We are drawn away instead and reconnect to a body either in Heaven or Sheol.  This is what the Bible refers to as the “first” death.  Could this process be sloppy, allowing some to reincarnate and others to drift free like ghosts?  I don’t know, but the Bible would suggest not.

For those who have a Heavenly dwelling because of Jesus, death has a two-edged significance.  To be separated from our bodies is part of the punishment for sin.  Our bodies are sin damaged and we must leave them.  So death is bad.  But on the other side, death allows us to connect with our Heavenly dwelling (further clothed), or as 2 Corinthians says, “be swallowed up by life”.  So death is good.

For those who do not have a place in Heaven, they emerge in Sheol (please see the other articles on Sheol in this blog).  This is not good.  You are aware of the judgment that has befallen you and you have a physicality that can experience the harshness of your new environment.  It is not the final judgment, but it much like it.  Those who have experienced this through a near death experience have reported about it with terror and shame.  They did not want to return.

Death can be as scary as Halloween presents it, or it can be the greatest moment of your existence to date.  Jesus is the difference maker.

Let not your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God; believe also in me.  In my Father’s house are many rooms.  If that were not so, I would have told you.  (John 14:1-2)

Can Near Death Experiences Be Deception?

What does it mean to die?  It certainly doesn’t mean to slip into non-existence.  When we die what is conscious and immaterial about us breaks from what is material.  People experience this sometimes as hovering above their bodies, or going through a tunnel toward a light, or they experience the horrors of Sheol, but many times the experience is of a joyful, loving Heavenly bliss.  No one who experiences these joys is interested in returning.  Life suddenly loses its interest.  But, as we know, many people are resuscitated and live to tell the story.  But is the story real and accurate?

The majority of reported experiences are of Heaven.  “Reported” may be the key word here.  Most people don’t want to report they experienced “Hell” or for that matter even remember the experience.  Those who experience “Heaven” are more willing to speak, though no one wants to be considered delusional.

I don’t doubt the reality of Heaven nor the possibility that one might experience a bit of Heaven in a NDE.  I do have some doubts that everybody who reports seeing Heaven actually did see it.

A fairly large group of people return proclaiming a message that Heaven is a place of pure love that everyone will experience.  They endorse universal salvation.  This pronouncement runs contrary to those who experience Sheol.  It also runs contrary to what Jesus proclaims in the Bible.  Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  He also states, “For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.”  That’s not universal salvation.  How did people come back to life with a contrary message?

Transcendental Meditation seems to have a similar capability of separating your conscious self from the physical self.  This practice is not benign.  Some practitioners have reported experiencing evil, perhaps Satan himself, in whatever dimension TM puts you.  Could death, even temporary death, also put a person into a dimensional space (not Heaven) to encounter a spiritual being who there to deceive?  I think the answer is “yes”; and all experiences, no matter how positive or blissful, need to be tested.

I would very much wish for universal salvation.  Even God desires universal salvation.  But if universal salvation is not the truth, then a message of universal salvation is extremely dangerous and is exactly the type of misinformation that Satan wants to spread.

The goal of those who experience a NDE and return with a message of universal salvation is not to deceive.  They want to spread hope and remove the fear of death.  But they are the one’s who have been deceived.  We are neophytes when it comes to experiencing death.  We don’t know what we are experiencing and could easily be misled.  Perhaps this is part of the reason why God strongly forbade practices that could lead to such out of body experiences.  A NDE just happens to us, but discerning the reality of the experience takes some caution.

What Should We Think of Near Death Experiences?

Near Death Experiences (NDE) and Out of Body Experiences (OBE) are two similar events where a person is conscious of being separated from their bodies.  Experiences like this have always happened, but because of medical advances they now happen by the thousands.

In the Bible there are visions where the person experiences beyond their physical location, but it is not a true OBE/NDE.  When Daniel sees God on His throne or when Isaiah or John experience Heaven, these would seem to be visions.  The distinction is that God is viewed directly (which should not be possible for a sinful human) and/or much of what is viewed is symbolic.  It is more of a Powerpoint than a field trip.  A biblical exception is reported by Paul in 2 Corinthians 14.  In this passage, Paul speaks of himself going to Heaven and hearing “inexpressible things than man is not permitted to tell.”  Some theorize that this happened after an unsuccessful stoning of Paul.  If true, this was a Near Death Experience.  Paul refers to what he hears as “inexpressible” which could mean that he has no words to convey it, but he also says that he was not permitted to convey it.

Death normally separates body and spirit.  Other, not recommended, procedures seem to do the same thing temporarily.  We will get to that later.   Since we know so little about the interface of body and spirit, it is hard to medically or theologically explain the moment of separation and why it is possible to do this “before our time”.

Skeptics dismiss NDE’s and OBE’s as illusions created by the brain in distress, usually blaming it on hypoxia, a lack of oxygen to the brain.  There are several facts that make the hypoxia argument not credible.  First, hypoxia makes a person confused not hyper-aware.   Many people having a NDE find themselves floating above their bodies and they can recall details of the room or even details outside of the room accurately.  This takes us to the second reason it is not hypoxia.  People can see and hear without having their eyes open and with no discernable brain activity.  It is the soul operating without the body.

Careful recording of the nature of the experience is important before drawing too many conclusions.  People tend to under-report NDE’s.  The reason is that they fear skepticism or judgment.  This is especially true if the experience is bad.  Most reported NDE’s are about a beautiful experience of Heaven.  Some even come back with a message of universal love and salvation.  These collide with experience of many, and perhaps even more than is reported, who experience what is reported as Hell.  Obviously, universal salvation is incorrect if some are experiencing “Hell” (I would reserve the word “Hell” for a post-judgment day place. What they experience is technically Sheol–see my other blogs about this).

I believe the ultimate truth about the afterlife and many other things is the Bible.  Experiences like NDE’s are interesting and exciting but they need to be tested against the facts presented in the Bible.  The Bible itself warns to “not treat prophecies with contempt.  Test everything.  Hold on to the good.” (1 Thessalonians 5:20)  NDE’s could be seen as a type of prophecy.  It is information about the afterlife that gets to us by a different means.  But that doesn’t make the information correct.  It needs to be tested, because intentional deception is possible.

Who would the deceiver be?  I am not laying this on the people who have a NDE.  I suspect Satan has ways to intercept this experience and spin it in a way that disseminates false information.  On the flip side,  I see no reason to conclude that all NDE’s are the “work of the Devil”.

So with a degree of caution, we will examine in later blogs some of the NDEs and OBEs reported in books on the topic to see if there is anything to learn about life after death.

Can You Tell a Person’s Destiny?

Knowing what happened to somebody who died, or knowing what will likely happen to somebody when they die are two pieces of information we can greatly desire.  Sometimes you want to know because you care.  Sometimes you want to know because you want to minister to them appropriately.  Sometimes that knowledge would help you to grieve.

But can you know?  Jesus urges us not to judge in Matthew 7:1.  This command is especially relevant here, because there are many factors that could lead to the wrong conclusion.  Here are a few:

One cannot determine a person’s eternal destiny based on how they died.  It is common to view a peaceful death that is well anticipated as a superior sign over a violent, unexpected death.  But the cause of death says nothing about a person’s eternal destiny.  Jesus confronted this popular misperception when a tower that was under construction collapsed.  People concluded that the workers who died must have been worse “sinners” than others.  Jesus put us all in the same boat.

Nor can we conclude anything based on experiences as one dies.  Some have visions of Heaven.  Some express nothing at all.  My own mother had the experience of “falling” as she was dying.  Sheol isn’t actually down and Heaven is actually up.  So experiences of going up or down are just caused by the failing of the brain.  In my next blog entry, I plan to start to address Near Death Experiences.  While both experiences of Sheol and experiences of Heaven occur, also in the mix are intentional deceptions by Satan.

One cannot make an absolute judgment based on behavior.  When we are connected to Jesus and saved from our sins the Holy Spirit does change us for the good.  This change of qualities and increase in love should be observable.  But even saved people continue to struggle with sinful nature.  As such, the progress of our sanctification (being made into somebody good in our actions) can be slowed with periods of digression along the way.  Don’t get sucked into the “good enough” evaluation.  We are not saved by our deeds.  We are saved by Christ’s deeds.  While good works are valuable, they are neither the source of salvation nor a trustworthy way to evaluate whether somebody is saved.

One cannot make an absolute judgment based on whether a person’s faith is unwavering.  Ephesians 2:8 says we are saved by grace through faith.  This sentence uses the word “faith” to describe a connection that God makes between us and Jesus.  That type of “faith” can produce the “faith” that is certainty in what is unseen but promised by God.

Many solid disciples of Jesus can have frightening doubts as they approach death.  It is common.  You are not saved by your certainty.  You are saved by Jesus.  So do not get sucked into the “faith enough” evaluation either.  Comfort a dying person who is afraid.  Don’t beat them into believing better as if that were possible to do.

In the end, judgment is God’s business alone. Our ministry to the dying should be one of sharing and reaffirming God’s promises of grace.  Our “self-evaluation” can be this simple three-question quiz: 1.  Did Jesus really die and rise again?  Yes or no. 2.  Did God promise eternal life to all who call on Jesus?  Yes or no. 3  Is God a liar?   If you can answer yes, yes, no, it is because God chose you and gave you those answers.

Any other circumstantial evidence should kept at arm’s length.  It probably doesn’t mean anything.

Are Those Who Die in the Womb Saved?

A pregnancy is a powerfully emotional experience.  If you really want a child, then the baby in the womb in precious and you feel connected to this child very early in the pregnancy.  If you didn’t want a child, the same connection can be felt, but sometimes the desire to be free of the upcoming responsibility can trump any recognition of the pregnancy being your child.

As we know, whether for human reasons or biological reasons, not every pregnancy results in a live birth.  Is the deceased child a person with an eternal existence?  If so, when does it start?  Even more important, what happens to them?

I will be up front.  The Bible doesn’t give us much information about these questions, so definitive answers are elusive.  The Bible teaches that a human is both a body and a soul.  These aspects of ourselves are separable.  Because of sin, our body dies and remains dead until the resurrection.  Our soul assumes a different body in Heaven or Sheol depending on the status of our relationship to Jesus.  Can a body and soul be separate at the beginning of life as well?  We don’t know, for sure.

The Bible speaks of us being “sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” (Psalm 51:5)  This is an acknowledgment that sin is part of our nature and therefore a part of our genetics and body.  Does it automatically mean that we have a soul from conception?  It could, but it’s not clear.  The Bible also speaks of God knowing people in the womb (i.e. Jeremiah, John the Baptist).  You don’t need the Bible to tell you that being born doesn’t make you into a human.  You are a human before you are born.  But when?

Science tells us that the fertilized egg is genetically distinct from the parents.  It is not a “part” of the mother.  But science as a whole struggles with what consciousness is and what is the unique value of a human being.  We have no way to measure a soul.

To fill the void that the Bible leaves on this emotional question, the doctrine of the “Limbo of the Unborn” was created by the Roman Catholic church.  This is a place of comfort, but without the visible presence of God meant for those who die unbaptized.  Such a place is not found in Scripture, but it acknowledges our human conundrum.  We are born sinners.  We are not born saved.  But God is merciful.  That is His character. Still God operates strictly by His Law.  So what does He do?

I can share a bit of anecdotal evidence from a relative of mine.  He experienced an out-of-body experience following a truck accident.  In this experience he met someone in Heaven who identified himself as a biological brother.  The only problem is that he didn’t have a deceased biological brother to his knowledge.  He had arrived at the hospital as DOA (Dead on Arrival) but doctors were able to revive him.  Later, he relayed the experience to his mother.  She revealed that she had a miscarriage of a male child that she had never told to him.

Make of this what you want.  I personally don’t think that all of the unborn are saved.  The Bible shares that a relative few are saved among the living.  However, I also believe that God has His way to reach those who haven’t or can’t be reached by the power of the Gospel during their lives, however brief.  This thinly attested belief will have to do for now.

Holy Week and Life After Death

For many, Holy Week is a forgotten celebration.  The only remnant of it left in their lives is Easter, and Easter is nothing more than a celebration of Spring and a chance for kids to get candy for some reason.  Talk about missing the boat.

The events of Holy Week are not only historical, they are critical to any of us having life after death versus suffering after death.  Jesus had to do what He did or God’s Law would scoop everyone of us up and drop us in the same bucket with the most evil people who ever lived and Satan himself.  We are all sinners.  Something had to be done about that.  Holy Week is the celebration of the fact that somebody did.

In his life, Jesus did many miraculous and beautiful things.  He fed thousands of people, healed many sick, freed many from demons, gave us clearer insight on God and life after death, laid out a morality based on love and more.  None of these were his main purpose, however.  He was born the way he was (from a virgin mother) so that he could fulfill God’s Law on behalf of the whole species and so that he could bear the required punishment for the sin of all mankind.  To do this he had to be sinless.

The Bible says that we are all born sinful–altered from how God created humans and resulting our in being selfish and hostile to God.  Jesus’ unusual birth allowed him to be without our genetic deformities.  His life stayed within the bounds of God’s Law.  Making Jesus the only sinless human since the beginning.  This is why there is no alternative path to eternal life.  There is only Jesus.  Jesus said of the way to Heaven, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.”

For God, sin demands death.  This is more complicated than it seems on the surface.  Our life includes our physical body which easily becomes non-functioning and decays away; but it also includes our (mind, consciousness, soul).  This is not caused by our physical body.  It interacts with our physical body.  This aspect of ourselves God has made to be eternal.  Death for our soul constitutes being forsaken/exiled from God, and it is miserable.  Such a thing could happen anywhere, but the plan of how this judgment is to be executed is to resurrect/recreate an indestructible body for all and to cast both that body and our soul into Hell.

That sounds harsh, but it seems appropriate when you understand that it takes the rejection of an enormously costly rescue attempt by Jesus.  Jesus was forsaken and physically died for us that first Holy Week.  His voluntary sacrifice makes a whole different narrative possible.

It seems strange to us that one person’s actions could potentially result in the satisfaction of a condemning law for all people.  That isn’t our idea of fairness.  But if you understand that one person’s decision (pick Adam or Eve) resulted in a modification of our DNA to make us sinful, and that this was inherited by everyone; the idea seems less out there.  Jesus was doing what needed to be done to save the people he loved.

If you still celebrate Holy Week, celebrate it again with a fresh appreciation of how much those events have changed your life and eternity.  If you are skeptical or unsure of such things, I exhort you to read one the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ death and ask God to keep your sinful nature in check if possible.  Perhaps you will see this story through a different set of “eyes” and understand that God is real, He loves you, and the road to eternal life in joy has been cleared for you by Jesus.

 

 

 

Grieving with Hope

On Sunday night I watched a “60 Minutes” piece on a couple who had lost their daughter in one of the senseless mass shootings that has plagued our world.  Years later they still feel the pain, but they have channeled their grief into an effort to assist other families of mass shootings.  I admired their dedication and compassion.  There task is a difficult one.  No one is unphased when loss, especially unforeseen, untimely death enters our lives; but many people are less prepared than others.

As a pastor I have been privileged to be with many people at the lowest and highest parts of their lives.  I have often asked myself, “How would I handle this?” What understanding of life can prepare you and how should we think about such a tragedy?   I think it is a good thing to ask such questions before having to face your own tragedy.

Let’s start by talking about loss that is a shock and trauma–like a mass shooting.  This kind of grief often is accompanied with ongoing uncontrolled symptoms that we now call PTSD (Post-Traumatic Shock Disorder).  PTSD is a maladaptive attempt by your brain to protect you.  It doesn’t of course.  I gives you an additional problem.  But the neural pathway that develops is supposed to prepare you for a similar tragedy, which most likely won’t happen.  Can we be inoculated at all against PTSD?  I think so.

We need to have a very grounded and complete understanding of how the world is.  There is profound evil in our world. We should not be kept naïve about evil, how bad it can be, and what is possible.  On the flip side, we don’t want or need to live fearfully or be indifferent to pain.  In short, we need a theology about evil and death.  Kids need a theology about evil and death.  If we understand evil and death, they should not surprise us. The shock of the reality of evil in this world causes the involuntary reactions like PTSD.

Death is to be understood as a part of everybody’s life eventually.  The Bible attributes most evil to a corruption that is part of every human being.  It’s called sinful nature.  Ultimately, evil can be traced back to a source, Satan.  It is real and sometimes very ugly.

We also need hope.  In this context, I don’t mean wishfulness.  I mean confidence that God is greater than Satan and good is more powerful than evil.  Hope stands on a promise of eternal life through Jesus, and God is faithful.  When you have this hope, you can know that the evil and ugliness of this world is temporary; and you can have confidence that those who lose their lives but have Jesus are moving on to Heaven.  This kind of hope is key to getting past any type of mourning.

The final part is renewed purpose.  Death changes our lives.  We lose a part of us when we lose a role, whether that was as a parent, child, friend, co-worker or whatever.  Jesus said,

But everyone who hears these words of mine but does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.  The rain came down, and the streams rose, and the wind blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a mighty crash.  (Matthew 7:26-27)

As much as we love people, our lives cannot depend on our relationship with them for purpose, happiness and meaning.  That is the “sand” in the passage above.  Those things must be founded on our relationship with God.  We will lose relationships, sometimes to death, but we will continue to have a God-given purpose that transcends those relationships.

We recently had some suicide deaths among the survivors of mass shootings in our country.  Survivor’s guilt and an unrelenting sense of loss can drive a person to try to escape the pain by any means.  We should grieve.  Love will eventually necessitate grief.  But if we understand our world, still have hope and have a purpose that is resting on the Word of God; we can grieve, honor the dead and rediscover how to be happy.