What Awaits Us at Death?
We begin with a statement acknowledged by atheists as well as by people of faith. Death is the one certainty of life and it is an issue with which we shall all have to deal.
1. The nature of life and death in biochemical terms.
Biological life derives from the capacity to generate high-energy phosphate bonds, the key molecule being adenosine triphosphate or ATP. There is a property of matter that is called entropy. In plain terms, the natural history of both the universe and individuals is that everything is running down. We see entropy in action all the time: buildings crumble and fall into ruin, fruit rots, we age and die. Death is defined as the state caused by the inability to generate ATP so that everything runs down.
This can occur by multiple mechanisms. While the electron transport chain can be poisoned by drugs, most often the terminal event is an inability to deliver oxygen to the tissues secondary to failure of the heart or lungs or the controlling centers for these systems in the brain. Less often hemorrhage or infection can cause shock, a disastrous fall in blood pressure, that even a sound heart cannot overcome thereby producing the oxygen deficit. Operationally death is declared when the physician finds no pulse or respiration. For those on life support, absence of brain waves by EEG represents clinical death.
2. The nature of humans and the concept of spirit or soul.
There is not much mystery at the gross level about the human body. We know almost everything about how it works and what can go wrong with it. The real problem comes in understanding the essence of life. What is it that gives life to the body? Philosophers and theologians have called the unknown life force the soul or spirit or some similar term.
In one sense there is no mystery in death. Its sign are clear: no heart beat, no respiration, no brain waves. But there is mystery in the event of passage from life to death. From many years of observing death first hand, let me describe the act of dying. Death is usually peaceful when it does not occur from violence. That is because in moments of injury or in disease with impending death the brain releases wonderful molecules called endorphins - opiate-like signal transducers that act to minimize pain and fear. One does not have to fear the act of dying. Sometimes eyes are closed but often they are open in the final hours. They usually rove up toward the ceiling and around the room. It is as though the one dying sees something we can’t see, that they are searching for something. It is like they are seeing or searching for God at the threshold of death. Then death comes. One moment life is there and the next it is gone. What has left? The organs still work. They can be transplanted and last for years. But life has gone. What is “it?” The only answer I know to give is that the soul has gone.
3. The negative fears and positive hopes of death.
There are, fundamentally, two subset serious questions that comprehend the larger question before us, what awaits us at death? The first is: When I die, do I cease to be? The second is: If I do not cease to be, is there judgment in the universe? And if so will I be found wanting, guilty of an insufficient mortal life? In the first lecture, “Does God Exist?” heavy weight was given on the positive side to the fact that humans generically have always worshiped a higher being. It is likely that thoughts of God are intrinsic to human hood, induced by the God who wishes His creatures to find Him.
The same is true about actions presupposing life after death and judgment in the universe. We now know that Neanderthal man (70,000-50,000 B.C.) already believed in the continuation of life after death. A classic later expression of belief in the afterlife coupled with judgment is seen in the Egyptian Book of the Dead around 1,500 B.C. According to the book, after the soul entered the afterworld and recited shortcomings during life, the heart was weighed against “the feather of truth” to determine worthiness to enter the company of Osiris, the chief deity of the dead. From earliest history in India the theory of reincarnation was operative, with future life based on the consequences of actions in earlier life.
4. The Christian answer to what awaits us at death.
The answer of Christianity to the subset questions is straightforward. In death we do not cease to be and there is judgment in the Universe after death. The God of the Bible is a transcendent God who stands outside humanity and makes moral demands on our lives. His ultimate demand is that we love Him exclusively. Failure in morals or failure in divine love brings judgment. Judgment is present from beginning to end in the Bible. Only mercy is of equal or greater importance.
The history of life after death in the Bible was slower in development. For more than a thousand years doctrine of Israel was that death was followed by entry into Sheol, a space beneath the earth, dark and silent, a place of oblivion, not joy. Hints of resurrection or life after death began to be found in the Psalms: (139th) “When I awake I am still with thee.” The New Testament is unequivocal in teaching that there is life after death. At the death of Lazarus, Jesus says: “I am the resurrection and the life, he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” In the farewell discourse He says: “Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you I will come again and will take you to myself that where I am you may be also.”
What awaits us then at death? First, we cannot know precisely because much of the language is symbolic. Moreover, there are inconsistencies. Some of the scriptures suggest deep sleep until resurrection on the last day of the world. On the other hand, Jesus tells the thief on the cross that he will be in paradise that very day. Here is what awaits us in our individual death or the end of the world, as extracted from the New Testament scripture:
First, we will come into the unmasked presence of God. The mysteries of the invisible God in temporal life will become clear and answered. Corinthians 13: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, then I shall understand fully even as I have been fully understood.”
Second, we will be faced with judgment on our lives. As John wrote in the Apocalypse:
“…another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, by what they had done.” A word about judgment, which is a great fear. That is because it may be negative. The soul is either accepted (Heaven) or excluded from eternity (Hell). Paul Tillich noted that God’s justice is that He lets one choose hell through self-destructive choices in life. His reconciling love offers mercy and forgiveness in the Christ event. One of the gifts for which Christians are most grateful is that they have already received forgiveness in life and therefore know minimal fear of judgment after life.
The third thing that awaits us at death is a beatific life. Whatever eternal life turns out to be, in the Kingdom of God the negatives of finitude are no more: no pain, no tears, no sorrow, and no death.
The fourth thing that awaits us is reunion with deceased loved ones and communication with all the saints. That this is likely is clearly understood from the great vision of transfiguration recorded in Matthew 17. Jesus speaks on the mountain top with Moses and Elijah and they are recognizable essences, not anonymous ghosts.
How do you get ready for your own death? I would say you live in the lively hope of Christ and in anticipation of the beatific life that begins with our death. C.S. Lewis once wrote that Christians never say goodbye, just so long, see you later. That is the hope of hopes. That is what the gift of this faith brings - that you can have a glorious death, provided you have had a long walk with Christ.
I close with two quotations. Both have to do with the sometimes difficulty of faith and belief. Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, the writer, came back to faith after a long absence and wrote these words: “Can I prove that what I love exists? Of course not. Proof is the work of grace. But if my belief in the immortality of the soul, the inevitability of judgment and the hope of resurrection is a lie, it is a lovely delusion - a necessary delusion. I make no claim to living a good life. I know I would live a worse life without Him. And I would always be lonely.” The Methodist theologian, Fred Craddock, said the same thing more succinctly. “For those who will not to believe, no proof is enough. For those who will to believe, final proof is not necessary.”
Daniel Foster, M. D.
Brown Lecture #6 1999 www.openringclass.org/