The Hour of Death
by Rev. Donald L. Rose
When the Writings speak of "the hour of death," it is often with reference to those who imagine that one can be saved by death-bed repentance. (AC 4352, 4370, 7278, 7779, DP 339) "States of imminent death" are mentioned as states of compulsion when promises of repentance do not represent a free determination. (HD 168; see also DP 140) One such passage mentions those who expected to die and seemed to return to religious faith, but who then recovered. (SD 5974)
Our interest in this article is in the hour of death as a special state in which there may be clarity and insight. The Writings indicate that remains stored deep within may come forth at certain times, including "the hour of death." (AC 268) There are times when externals are subdued "during misfortunes, sickness and grief of mind." (Ibid.) "The like happens at the hour of death, when corporeal things begin to be extinguished." (AC 857) External passions become quiescent "especially at the moment of death." (AC 2041: 3) When someone close to us is dying or has died, it often brings a wise state of reflection. A man who has loved his wife and children says within himself when they are dying or have died, "that they are in God's hand, and that he will see them again after his own death, and will again be conjoined with them in a life of love and joy." (CL 28) The Writings invite us to think of the subject of death, not just theoretically, but personally. They say to the man inhibited by false doctrine, "Think of your own state, or of the state of your friends, or of the state of your infants after death." (CLJ 6) When we think rightly, we realize that there is no such thing as death. The angels cannot think of death, but only of newness of life, and we can think of death in a positive way devoid of apprehension.
Actually there is implanted in everyone a rational conception that he will live after death as a human being. When the Writings state this, they add most interestingly, "Does anyone when dying think otherwise?" (DP 274) This passage seems to indicate that the thoughts of a dying person may serve as evidence upon which we may base valid thinking. The simple truth about life after death may be seen from the common faith of good people, "especially from their faith in the hour of death, when they are no longer in worldly and corporeal things, in that they believe they will go to heaven, as soon as the life of their body departs." (LJ 19) In the pages of this magazine last year a physician is quoted as follows:
This physician, writing in 1974, relates that many experience a surpassingly peaceful passing. He goes on to say, "In accord with other doctors' experiences, I have now heard the same or similar descriptions from enough patients to almost accept it as a fact." And so Dr. Marshall Goldberg's faith in life after death is in no sense diminished by a scientific approach.
Methods of resuscitation have been so developed that there are now far more examples than ever before of people "returning" from a state of - what shall we call it? - clinical death. Recently Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, an internationally respected expert on the psychological aspects of dying, has related the experiences of many people who have virtually been "dead" for a few moments. She says, "Not one of them have ever been afraid to die again." She feels that she has actual proof that there is life after death. What impresses her is that patients who have lost apparent consciousness and have no heartbeat or respiration demonstrate that they are aware of what is going on in the room.
This observation, particularly as described by Dr. Raymond Moody (of whom more below), may give us a new angle on this unusual passage:
Are these new insights good? They have the evident good use of giving people comfort and hope. And really that is good enough. Incidentally, a man at the University of Iowa, Dr. Russell Noyes, has been doing studies of people who nearly escape death by accident. His findings are comforting. Our affections come from the spiritual world, and it seems likely that at times when we might expect to feel terror and dismay, we receive from the angels a calm sense of well-being. "Who does not comfort a sick person, or one appointed to die, by the assurance that he will shortly come into the other life? And he who is in the agony of death and is prepared, believes no otherwise." (AC 5078: 5)
Apart from the use of giving comfort and hope, one can see in these researches something that may restore a balance in a skeptical world. People ought to think of immortality. (AC 8939, 8981: 3, HD 269) How many today are like the man described thusly:
The preoccupation with worldly things that prevails with many comes from sensuous spirits who keep the mind on mere externals. And we are told that such spiritual association not only takes away interest in the subject of eternal life, but even causes aversion to hearing about it. The passage describing this concludes, "In order for a man to be uplifted from these spirits, he must think about eternal life." (AC 6201)
The Lord sometimes breaks the grip of worldly preoccupation by allowing sickness and calamity. (AC 857, 933: 4, 3147) We do observe that people who would otherwise show no interest in the Writings seem to be prepared, perhaps by the death of a friend or even by a narrow escape, for a new view of life which is receptive to truth. External traumas can "determine and uplift the thoughts to interior and religious subjects." (AC 762) Of course that moment "when their life is in danger" does not actually bring faith. (AC 9242) It may promote serious thinking, however. Perhaps these studies may be used to help people to a more balanced perspective in which there will be greater receptivity to the things revealed in the Writings. In states after trauma man may "see and apprehend these things, because then the dominion of the external man ceases." (AC 5127: 3)
The book that seems most deserving of wide attention now is Life After Life, by Dr. Raymond Moody (Mockingbird Books, 1975). The author holds a doctorate in philosophy as well as a medical degree. He describes with disarming frankness the similarities in the experiences of people who have been resuscitated from seeming death. In one section of the book he relates these findings to four sources: the Bible, Plato, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and Emanuel Swedenborg. This book ought perhaps to be reviewed in this journal. It is enough now to commend it to the attention of readers. Let us hope that it is widely read. Lest a spirit of denial that prevails especially with the learned should corrupt the simple, the Lord granted Swedenborg's intromission into the spiritual world. And as he was given to experience the dying process, or rather the process of awakening in that world, he observed "that the angels at first tried to ascertain what my thought was, whether it was like the thought of those who are dying, which is usually about eternal life; also they wished to keep my mind in that thought." (HH 449)
-New Church Life 1976;96: 401-404