Hospice care has been initiated for my mother, who is in her 16th year since her Alzheimer's diagnosis and is 95 years old. Last week she seemed near death but she has rallied and is understandably not pleased with her circumstances.
Below you will find the insights and comforts I've gathered regarding dying in Christ. This knowledge is helping me, but I must tell you that the most real help for me now is coming from the Lord's moment-by-moment grace, mercy, and guidance. I don't mean to say it is a tidy process. I'm tired and short-tempered and Mom is struggling. But I am also aware that His grace is covering us. Blessed be His Name.
There is nothing of paralysis, constriction, or altered consciousness about death; the opposite is true; in God’s hands and in His perfect timing, death is a freeing process that delivers us to new life. To onlookers, death may resemble falling asleep, but it is the physical body that falls asleep in death, not the spirit. For the Christian, death does not entrap, it releases. The distorted awareness and paralysis of anesthesia, which also looks like sleep, is responsible for fears some of us have harbored, but we can release any misconception that death is like anesthesia; it is nothing like being asleep and unable to awaken. In Christ, when our physical bodies fall asleep in death, our spirits awaken to a new life.
The Valley of the Shadow is a passageway to be traversed, not a place to set up camp. God's children do not linger in the valley. In the same way that a baby being born is pushed down the birth canal and then delivered, death is only the passage between this world and the next; and the Lord is with us. Dying is sometimes as simple as stepping across a threshold, and there is no need for fear. Those who live in Christ only pass through the cold vale of death, and enter immediately into the warmth of His eternal, perfectly protective, presence.
As a child, I harbored fears that I might somehow retain a conscious awareness of my mortal body even after death entraps the body in the grave. These fears dissipate in response to the reassurance that our physical bodies have no consciousness or awareness apart from our spirits. St. Paul clarifies the truth that we can’t be two places at once; we are either at home with Christ, or we remain in the body.
Confusion may arise because the discerning may sense something akin to an unconscious presence when in proximity to the physical body of a loved one who has departed, and in a cemetery there is a peaceful somnolence that makes us feel that something, if not someone, is still present. This sense of a presence we don’t understand can be disturbing, but in light of Scriptural truths regarding the resurrection of the physical body at Christ’s return, it makes sense that the seed of the physical body that is sown perishable but raised imperishable might have a presence—the “something but not someone” we feel in the restfulness of a graveyard—that can be sensed.
Thus our physical bodies have no consciousness, and return to dust. Remember we are created in God’s image, three in one. The spirit, mind/consciousness, and physical body are the three. Our spirits, including our consciousness or what we think of as “independent thought”—that sentience that makes us human—go to Heaven at death. If we think it odd that we will continue to be able to experience consciousness apart from a physical brain, let us be reminded that the Almighty God Himself is spirit and not flesh. Spirit and flesh are an odd coupling that God has engineered to work in the context of creation. Sin corrupted the workings. Jesus died to reset the clock, so to speak, to a time when flesh and spirit were at peace with one another, undamaged by sin’s influence. Sin took body and spirit out of harmony. Jesus made a way for for harmony to be restored.
The inaccurate conviction that thought or consciousness is impossible in the absence of a physical brain has to do with one of Satan’s great victories, which is to make us believe that we are animals. This faulty belief leads to faulty conclusions. We inhabit material bodies, but we are created in God’s image. Our essence, who we are, is spirit and not flesh. We live in these temporary bodies, but the physical bodies are not us. We are able to be separated from our bodies with our beings intact. Yes, this is a mystery to us, but it is not a mystery to the God who created us.
The presence of the physical bodies that will be resurrected and re-formed (remember Ezekiel’s dry bones?) on the day the trumpet sounds is what I have always sensed in graveyards; there is a quiet, peaceful sensation in a cemetery that is very much like being in a room where everyone is asleep but you. Because of this awareness of a peaceful presence surrounding the body of someone who is no longer alive, I was once fearful over the many Scripture passages that describe death as “falling asleep.” Yes, the body “sleeps” in the grave, but the spirit goes directly to Jesus just as we’ve always been taught. Our physical bodies retain no awareness.
Those who love us and have gone before are members of that great cloud of witnesses described in Romans 12:1. They have departed and are at home with the Lord, and so they see Christ with unprecedented clarity. The Holy Spirit is the One who is constantly present with us and God is the One who constantly watches us, but our loved ones who have died are surely informed about us as they see us through the Lord’s eyes. Love is the strongest bond of all, and those who love us do not lose interest in us when they enter Heaven. C.S. Lewis thought our loved ones may have some special influence on behalf of those they love, especially when they first depart, and so while we know that the Lord is our source of perfect love and help, there is comfort in the truth that our loved ones love us still. Death is not stronger than love. Love remains (find the C.S. Lewis reading at Biblegateway, here: https://www.biblegateway.com/devotionals/cs-lewis-daily/1913/04/23)https://www.biblegateway.com/devotionals/cs-lewis-daily/1913/04/23).
One of the unfortunate ways we deal with death is to trivialize it. It is impossible to watch an evening of television without running across a murder mystery or seeing someone portrayed as dying; but real death in real life is a holy and solemn passage. The emotion death elicits is something close to awe; similar to the feeling one might experience when walking into a huge cathedral with an immensely arched celling overhead. The terror is gone because of Christ but from our perspective, something of the chill of the Valley of the Shadow remains for us as onlookers. Our Lord is sovereign over death, but he does not dismiss our passage through death as being a trivial thing. The passage from this life to the next is precious to the Lord, and it is a blessed passage for those who believe.
Of one thing we may be certain, those who have died in Christ are not dead, but very much alive, waiting with joyous anticipation for the final resurrection at the end of all things, thrilled to participate in praise in the presence of God, joyous because suffering has, for them, been put into its proper perspective. If they see us at all, they see us in the light of God’s eternal perspective, and are full of the knowledge that our light and momentary troubles are gaining for us a greater weight of glory. Indeed, they nearly rejoice in our sufferings, because they know great reward awaits, and although they may feel compassion (God’s compassion) they do not grieve for us. They can see more clearly than we can see how sweet the reunion we will experience with them will be, but even more, knowing firsthand the all-encompassing pleasure of seeing God’s face, they thrill for us because they know that we who die in Christ also will have this pleasure.
Some of us have worried whether cremation is acceptable, or whether our physical bodies need to remain more or less intact. These are needless concerns. Our physical bodies do not remain in their present form, but will be raised, transformed. When we leave our bodies, they are empty husks until the resurrection awakens them and we are transformed into the likeness of Christ, clothed with our new, resurrected bodies, not of perishable flesh, but imperishable. The Lord does not lose any entrusted to Him. That which is imperishable cannot be destroyed by fire. This is a mystery we cannot comprehend, but trust in God and in the reassurances He’s given us in Scripture tells us that the manner in which the physical body is destroyed is of no consequence. The Holy Spirit is the power that preserves the imperishable germ that will spring forth with new life at the resurrection, and the Holy Spirit cannot be compromised or influenced by anything temporal; He cannot be broached.
1 Corinthians 15:42-44Ezekiel 37:1-14
Song of Solomon 8:6
1 Corinthians 13:13
2 Corinthians 4:17