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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.

1) There is first an awareness, although it is obscure, of the loving presence of celestial angels. This may be called a passive state in which affections are induced upon us, but those affections evoke in us peace and assurance. There is a change in the facial expression of our spirit (HH 449) which might on occasion be reflected on the physical face of a dying person. Let us note the teaching that angels "do not see the faces of men in their material form, but in their spiritual form." (AC 5102)

2) A distinct stage from this is that in which we are given light and are told we are a spirit. At first this light is like the dim light through the eyelids "on first awakening from sleep." (HH 450) It is as if a veil had been taken away, and in this stage we feel the joy of being taught about the other life by angels eager to be of service. We are not really "ourself" in this state. Our "self" cannot interfere with the simple enjoyment of angelic teaching on eternal life. (This is probably related to an unconscious belief of which we will speak later, the belief that "they will see angels, will speak with them, and will enjoy happiness.") (AC 5063)  This stage is not to be confused with a later stage in which one is told that one is in the spiritual world, for this delightful fleeting stage will soon be forgotten.

3) The next stage is one in which we feel we are taking up life anew. There is a sense of newness of life without realizing that one is not still in the natural world. (AC 2119)  How one can fail to realize this we will mention later on. In this stage the newcomer is in his "own life." (HH 450) The Writings mention it as "a new beginning of life" (AC 316) in which the senses are sharper and the faculties of thought and speech superior. Although this state is clearly enjoyed, the newcomer does not really reflect upon it." (AC 321)

4) This brings us to the next delightful awakening, when we are told we are in the spiritual world. Now it is possible at this stage to feel shame and chagrin, disbelief and extreme astonishment. (AC 447)  But let us note that this stage is filled with distinct joy. We might represent this joy in someone crying out, "I made it. I made it." As it is put in one passage people said, "Thanks be to God that we are alive, and that death has not extirpated us." (5 Mem. 7) And the passage ends, "I have seen them gladdened on account of their resurrection."

Swedenborg joined angels in conversation with a group who did not know they had died. And here we see that both this stage and the previous one is an awakening as if from sleep. We read, "During the first few days after death, no one knows but that he is still living in the :same world in which he lived before; for the time that has passed is like a sleep, on being awakened from which he had no other feeling than that he still is where he was before ... We said . . . 'You are no longer in the natural world, but in the spiritual world, and we are angels.' Then, being quite awake, they said, 'If you are angels, show us heaven'." (TCR 160: 7)

In this stage it is not uncommon for people to want to go into heaven but to be told that their time has not yet come. "They were answered that it was not yet their time, but that they would be admitted another time, when they were ready." (AC 2130: 4; see AC 53 7-546)

In this stage besides the "I-made-it" feeling, there is the joy of saying, "You made it" to friends. "I have often heard that those who come from the world were rejoiced at seeing their friends again, and that their friends in turn were rejoiced that they had come. Very commonly husband and wife come together and congratulate each other . . . . " (AH 494)

5) What, then, is the next awakening? It is the passage from the state of externals to the state of internals, a change marked by the fact that the person involved changes in appearance so that he or she would be unrecognizable. Swedenborg saw acquaintances in the former state and recognized them, and then saw them in the second state and did not recognize them." (HH 457)   An example of this in a moment. Angels told new-comers, "You will no longer be recognized by your companions, nor even by yourselves." (TCR 568: 5)

People are said to "glide" into this state (HH 502) and when they do it is said that they are "like those aroused from sleep into full wakefulness." (HH 506)  "The internal is awakened." (DP 298)

And what is the feeling? "Heaven even flows into their thoughts and affections with an interior blessedness and delight of which they had previously had no knowledge." (HH 506)

Let us note an actual example of the saying, "I have seen some who have recently arrived from the world, and have recognized them from their face and speech; but seeing them afterwards did not recognize them." (HH 457)

Under the heading, THAT THE FACES OF MEN ARE ALTERED IN THE OTHER LIFE, we read that Swedenborg saw two good men whom he had known in the world. He was asked whether he recognized one of them, and he started guessing. At last it was discovered that it was Hans Bjork. (SD 4717)  The other good man was Johan Moraeus. That man had in the world been present at Swedenborg's baptism (Swedenborg Epic, page 2) and had been his tutor from age eight to age fifteen. (Docu 1: 239)

The face in this stage, in the case of the good, is seen to be "more youthful, fair and delightful." (SD 4730)

6) The next stage is that of specific instruction for heaven. It is called the "third state" in Heaven and Hell. Here there seems to be a new arousal of the love of use, "and that love is exalted by the hope of becoming an angel." (HH 517)  This state lasts a "short time" and it sets one on the path to heaven. (HH 519) There is an awakening of a longing and the opening of the eyes to see the path. When the desire for heaven is kindled "presently their eyes are opened, and they see a way . . . " (AR 611)

7) The last stage, of course, is the actual arrival in heaven, One is "recognized and received with joy." (HH 519) There is a joyful sense of belonging. "There they are in the enjoyment of their life, and in a fullness of bosom delight derived from peace of soul." (AR 611)  He meets those who are spiritually related to him, "and what is wonderful, when he meets them and sees them it is as if he had been acquainted with them from infancy." (DP 338: 4)

"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

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Feels Like to Die

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