What it Feels Like to Die
by Rev. Donald L. Rose
The Writings testify that human life is in reality a progression from the world to heaven, "and the last age, which is death, is the transition itself." (AC 3016) The part of human life which is called death is in reality an awakening. It is eminently secure and tranquil. It is guarded by the Lord through the agency of angels, and we may call it perhaps the safest interval of our life. Note what is said about one of the things that occur during the transition called death. ". . . but all this so gently that the same spirits who are now here present withhold me, by every means in their power, from using any expression implying pain; a sign that they are afraid lest anything be felt but what is of a gentle and soothing effect, for they love . . . every soul whom they attend." (SD 1116)
During that transition called death we are safe from disturbance from evil spirits, a safety represented in a certain aroma, (HH 449) and we are also safe from any anxieties that might emerge, for the angels are "extremely careful" about what ideas may emerge from one who is resuscitated. (HH 450)
Above all let us note that resurrection is of the Lord. The drawing forth of the spirit, which Swedenborg was given to feel, was of the Lord (HH 449e). The reality here is the Lord's burning and powerful love. (SD 300) It is of His mercy from which "He wills to draw all men." (SD 1104; see Jn. 12: 32) As the Psalmist says, "God be merciful unto us, and bless us, and cause His face to shine upon us." (Ps. 67: 1) Every New Church person is aware that at death an angelic face will look into our face, and that these angels "love every one." (HH 449,450) Let us note well that when the Writings speak of the intensity of angelic love they could not be more emphatic in saying that this love is not of the angels, but of the Lord. (AC 2077, 6478) The charity in an angelic face is not of the face, but of the Lord's inflowing. (AC 1568) As man is beheld by the face of love at death, so has he been loved through his life, even from the time he was a little child, for it is said of little ones that their angels do always behold the face of the Heavenly Father. (Matt. 18: 10)
There are people who speak of life after death, who do not believe in God. That is, they speak of a mechanism of reincarnation that somehow operates by itself. Now, although we will talk of a process and will even make a diagram of it, we are not talking of a mere mechanism. We are talking of the Lord's love and wisdom, for He says in so many words, "I am the resurrection and the life." (Jn. 11: 25) We are not speaking of a dark and perilous voyage or of a spirit to be feared, for the Lord says, "Be of good cheer: It is I: be not afraid." (Mk. 6: 50)
We do not think of the transition called death as one sudden event. just as in the New Church we do not think of rebirth as an instantaneous thing but rather as a distinct process, (TCR 583, 586) so we see the awakening to eternal life as a distinct series of things. Indeed, instead of speaking simply of one awakening, we can from the Doctrines understand seven different stages, each one having its own kind of feeling and each having something of the nature of an awakening.
Let us not allow this over-simplification to limit our thinking, just as we should not allow a diagram to limit our thinking. But let us briefly list these stages in sequence, noting in each case that a special kind of joy seems to be present. For what the Lord makes known to us here is good and happy tidings.
"Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world." (Matt 25: 34) "Come in, thou blessed of the Lord; wherefore standest thou without? for I have prepared the house ..." (Gen 24: 31) "And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto Myself ..." (Jn 14: 3)
We have emphasized the joyful aspects of this transition from the world to heaven. Much might be said of the adverse aspects of the transition. Death is a separation, and separation is a grievous thing. Although the ancients knew well that death is but a transition "it was customary to weep for the dead," for death is "the last farewell." (AC 4565) It is grievous for those who lose someone by death. We do find reference to certain spirits who lamented that they were losing their relatives in passing from the natural world. "But the reply was made them, that they would receive thousands in their place whom they would love much more, and more happily," and they were told they should acknowledge the Lord as the Father of us all. (SD 3032, 743, 1236) One is reminded of the saying in the Gospels "...they shall receive an hundredfold...brethren, and sisters and mothers and children ...and in the world to come eternal life" (Mk. 10: 30)
A serious aspect of the transition of death is the matter of judgment and rendering account of one's life. "Let no man any longer believe," we read, "that he is not to render account of his thoughts, and of his deeds." (AC 2488, see HH 463) "Whatsoever ye have spoken in darkness shall be heard in the light." (Lu. 12: 3; AC 7454, 7795)
One of the repeated teachings of the Writings is that our states of life will return in succession. (AC 561, 823, 868e, 1618e, 1906, 2116) In Dr. Moody's book, Life After Life, we read of people experiencing a review of their life, and there has long been the saying that near death one's whole life passes before the eyes. It is not always clear just when the succession of states return, but there is a hint of it in the early state of "self -acknowledgment." (AC 1890) In a later state the review can be quite detailed. In fact Swedenborg observed what a man's thoughts had been for a month as they arose from day-to-day. (HH 462)
Dr. Moody's book is very useful in awakening interest in this subject. The book has virtually nothing to do with our faith in life after death, although for some it may be what miracles are said to be..."an argument of no great weight that confirms their faith." (DP 133) This passage says that the good "think from the Word," and in relation to the transition called death we should think from what the Lord has revealed.
Actually books like Dr. Moody's have in many cases stimulated us to do more reading of the Writings. And as we do this we usually find that there are things there that we had not noticed before. For example: Dr. Moody says "in a very few instances, people have come to believe that the being they encountered were their 'guardian spirits'." (Life after Life, p. 57)
We find the teaching that "the very societies in and with which men have been during the life of the body, are shown them when they come into the other life." (AC 687) Also we read, "When a man comes into the other life he has with him his unbelief in there having been with him any spirit . . . There is therefore shown him, if he desires it, the society of spirits in whose company he had been..." (AC 5861)
How useful it is that a book tending to promote belief in life after death is so popular. Let us remember that even a mistaken or imperfect concept of the afterlife "is attended with this useful result, that they believe they will live after death." (AC 10758) And let us note that where there is the basic affirmation of life after death there is unconsciously present a truer concept than may be evident from what a person says. We are told that the simple "believe they will live after death; in which simple faith unknown to them, there is hidden the belief that they will live there as men, will see angels, will speak with them, and will enjoy happiness." (AC 6053) There is a "common, perception" on this subject which sometimes is manifest in those about to die. (CL 28; DP 274)
Our thinking relative to the teachings about resurrection has developed. It was thirty years ago this Spring that Dr. Hugo Odhner presented his view to the council of the clergy. He said, "there is some uncertainty or difference of opinion among us as to what is meant by the process of Resurrection, and whether the manner of a man's death hastens or retards this process." He put forward the view that "the resurrection process is the same with all deceased adults," and that resurrection is completed rather than begun on the third day. (NEW CHURCH LIFE, 1947, p. 357. See also correspondence on autopsy, 1958) Besides the chapter on the resurrection in Dr. Odhner's book The Spiritual World, we would recommend for a comprehensive view of the teachings two articles by Rev. Ormond Odhner. (NEW CHURCH Life 1945, pp. 455, 497) Rev. Odhner emphasized the following words. "One thing is certain: No harm to the spirit could possibly come, for the spirit is preserved in integrity and peace, no matter how violent the nature of the death." (Ibid., p. 460)
Rev. Odhner remarked on the "keen sense of humor" of those who greet newcomers after death." (Ibid., p. 504) Dr. Moody reports that people with near death experiences found such a sense of humor. (Life after Life, p. 63) Yes, there seems to be a playful and delightful humor when angels talk to newly-deceased persons. We read of them questioning people "with smiling countenance," (5 Mem. 8) and we are told that they are "greatly delighted" with the give and take of conversation with those who do not realize they have died. (5 Mem. 6) The angels speak to them "merrily" and say such things as "Look at yourselves, and touch yourselves . . . You have departed from the natural world." They tell them to stamp on the ground to feel if it is real. And then the good news is received with joy. (5 Mem. 10)
I think we may conclude that Swedenborg intended humor when he told certain people that arrangements were being made to bury them, Quite deliberately he said "THEY" were being buried, rather than their bodies. "I mentioned that arrangements were now being made for burying their bodies; I said, 'for burying them;' on hearing which they were smitten with a kind of surprise, saying that they were alive." (HH 452. 213 AC 4622: 4)
There is a very apt humor in the case of people witnessing their own funeral through Swedenborg's eyes. (AC 452 7: 3) One talked to Swedenborg about funeral rites while Swedenborg walked in his funeral procession. (AC 4622:4) Christopher Polhem, a materialistic thinker, died at the age of ninety. Swedenborg, who had been his close associate went to the funeral, and Polheim listened with indignation to the priest stating that he would not rise to life until the day of Judgment. (SD. Min 4752)
The things that happened to individuals are part of the way the Lord has revealed to us the nature of life after death. The specific examples are used to infill our understanding of the general statements. Philip Melancthon is a particularly helpful example, and we will conclude with observations on this specific case.
Melancthon died early on the evening of April 19th, 1560, in Wittenburg,. One historian writes that on the 17th "the fever returned, so that he began to bid farewell to his friends, and he wished once more to dictate his last will, but he was unable to do." (Melancthon, by Robert Stupperich, Lutterworth Press, 1966, p. 150)
Later, we read, "To the question whether he desired anything, else, he replied "Nothing but heaven.' While his friends prayed and while hundreds of students stood outside the house, he expired about seven o'clock on the evening of April 19, 1560." We learn from the Spiritual Diary [Spiritual Experiences in current translation] that "because he had thought deeply about it, he was allowed to ascend temporarily that he might know what heaven is like." (SD 5923) In the account of Melancthon the Writings point out that "most people" find a house like the one they had known in the world. Melancthon was "as if he had just awakened from sleep" and he sat down at his desk and started writing. (TCR 797) It seems significant that he did not awaken as an invalid attended with people as he was when he died. Evidently he simply did not reflect on this change of circumstances. As an appendix to this study we are adding a list of the teachings that show that until the gift of reflection is granted by the Lord the newcomer does not realize he has died even though circumstances should lead him so to believe.
Let us hope that our turning our attention to this subject will stimulate more reading of the wealth of material in the Writings. As Dr. Moody puts it, Swedenborg's works "abound with vivid descriptions of what life after death is like." (p. 123)
The transition called death should not be an unknown fraught with fear. The man of the -New Church is not to walk in darkness with respect to this subject. (TCR 771) The Lord is the resurrection. He tells us that we do know the way, and that He is the way, the truth and the life. (Jn. 14: 6)
-New Church Life 1977;97: 286-291, 332-335