An Understanding of Death
by Rev. Frederick L. Schnarr
In the Writings of the Lord's second coming we are presented with a concept of the order, the cause and the purpose of death which is entirely new and alien to all the thought of present day theology. The teachings of the Writings, on which the New Church is founded, now make it possible for man to understand the statements of the Old and New Testaments concerning death, and to enter into an intelligent and rational understanding of the use and purpose of death in the order of creation.
The Writings explain that the word "death," as it is variously used throughout Scripture, refers either to the state of damnation or to the state of salvation. (AE 899) It never refers to the actual dying of man's physical body. The state of damnation is one wherein man loves what is evil and false and rejects what is good and true. The love of evil and falsity is what makes man spiritually dead, and the man who is in such love is said to die and to be dead. This does not mean, of course, that an evil man does not continue to live after death, for everyone who is born lives to eternity; what it means is that an evil man has nothing of the life of heaven within him. He has killed in himself everything that was from the Lord, everything good and true.
When we think of "death" as referring to the state of damnation, the life of evil and falsity, the meaning of many passages in the Word at once becomes obvious. In Isaiah we read, in a prophecy concerning the Lord's work upon earth: "He will swallow up death in victory." (Isaiah 25: 8) The death that the Lord was to swallow up was not natural death, the death of the body; rather was it the power of evil and falsity from hell, which the Lord was to overcome through victory in temptations. The Lord said to His disciples: "If a man keep My saying, he shall never see death." (John 8: 51) Here the Lord certainly did not mean natural death, but that those who obeyed and lived the truths of the Word should never come into the state of damnation, which is spiritual death. We find in Scripture many passages in which death signifies what is evil and false, that is, the state of damnation. "The dead shall not live." (Isaiah 26: 14) "The soul that sinneth, it shall die." (Ezekiel 18: 4) "We have made a covenant with death, and with hell are we at agreement." (Isaiah 28: 15) "Thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling. I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living." (Psalm 116: 8, 9)
Many other passages in the Word refer to the "shadow of death," by which is meant a state of being in the presence of the influx of evil and falsity. "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil." (Psalm 23: 4) "The people which sat in darkness saw a great light, and to them which sat in the region and shadow of death light is sprung up." (Matthew 4: 16)
As we have noted, however, death refers not only to a state of evil and falsity-or the state of damnation, which is spiritual death-but also to resurrection into the life of heaven, or, what is the same, to salvation. "The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live." (John 5: 25) By the "dead" here are signified good spirits who, through ignorance, were bound by falsities and evils. At the Lord's first coming these spirits were freed from bondage and were raised into heaven. In the Apocalypse we read: "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from henceforth"; (Revelation 14: 13) and in explanation of these words we read in the Writings that "death signifies resurrection, and thus the ‘dead' signify those who rise again into eternal life, having lived a life of charity from the Lord." (AE 899)
The Writings also tell us that when the word, death, is mentioned to the angels of heaven, they think nothing about the death of the body but only of resurrection, or about the spiritual meaning of death. To them, death is but a continuation of life, for they know that through death man merely passes from a life in the natural world to a life in the spiritual world. In this transfer of his life from one world to the other he loses absolutely nothing that makes him a man. As to everything of his thought, his love and his life he is the same. He is given a new body, a body more healthy and perfect than the one he had in the world. To the angels, then, the body which is left behind in this world is of no concern whatever, for it has no further use to serve. Because of these things the angels can think of death only in terms of resurrection-of entrance into a better and more perfect life. That is why, in the Word, "death" or "to die" often means resurrection into spiritual life. "Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life." (Revelation 2: 10)
When we consider the subject of the death of the natural body, it is well for us to keep in mind the fact that the references to death in the Word do not relate specifically to natural death. They refer either to the spiritual death of evil and falsity, or to the resurrection of man's spirit into eternal life. The Word directs our thoughts to what is important, to what is eternal, namely, the formation, the nature and the quality of our thoughts and loves; and in so doing it gives us the means to see temporal things, including the death of the natural body, in their proper order and place.
If it were not for man, the entire natural universe would not have been created by the Lord. If all the Lord had desired were creatures who could receive His love through the instincts with which they were born - creatures who could not depart from the order of life into which they were created because they could not will or think to do so, creatures without the capacities of liberty and rationality, and therefore also without the ability to return the Divine love which they received as of their own volition: if this had been the Lord's desire, the natural world would not have been created, for it would not have served in the least the happiness of the Divine. The Lord's happiness in creating the world as a starting place for the existence of human life lay in the fact that He foresaw that by this means a being could be formed who would be able to receive the Divine love, feel it as if his own, and give it to others and to his Creator freely as he chose. The Lord's purpose in creating the human race was that He might give of His love to others; give it in such a way that they might enjoy the most abundant and delightful happiness possible.
Now for such a human being to exist it was necessary that he be born into a world of fixation, a world in which man's environment would exist in a stable and permanent form, and this quite apart from man's own thoughts and affections. Such a world of objects fixed quite apart from man's nature was necessary for the formation of the rational or reasoning faculty; for that faculty, in order to develop, must have fixed ultimate ideas of space and time relationships. Only as it accumulates many such natural knowledges can it possibly begin to think about abstract ideas and qualities, whether they be civil, moral or spiritual. Because, then, the limitation and fixity of space and time objects and ideas are necessary to the rational development of man, and hence also to the formation of his loves, the Lord placed him in a world where such limitation and fixity exist.
But let us note that the Lord places man in this world only that his loves and affections may be formed through his understanding and thus become permanent. He does not intend that man should continue to be limited and bound by the laws that govern the natural world once that formation has been completed. For this reason He has provided another world: a world where the loves that man has formed may be free to express themselves and to find their full joy and delight, unhampered by the limitations of the laws of the natural world.
In order to accomplish the purposes for which we have been born into this world, the Lord has provided each one of us with a material body, a body formed in a wonderful order from the material elements of the natural world. In outward appearance we think of the body as being the man himself, yet we know that the real man is not the body but the various loves and affections, the ideals and thoughts, which form the spirit that is within the body. The natural body is but an outer covering, a garment designed to clothe the spirit, a means by which the spirit may grow and develop. It is an instrumental means that enables man's spirit to acquire the knowledges and experiences which constitute the ultimate basis of the eternal life and progress of the spirit.
We know also, however, that although the Lord has given us a natural body most perfectly designed to serve the spirit on the natural plane, it can do so only for a time. Sooner or later, as the spirit develops, the body's natural limitations, imperfections and infirmities begin to hamper the life and use of man's spirit; and this they do more and more, until the body finally becomes a greater hindrance to the spirit than it is of use. Just when this state is reached is known, of course, to the Lord alone.
Nevertheless, in order that we may have some intelligent idea of why and when death occurs, the Writings set forth four reasons explaining why death comes at different ages and periods of life. It is extremely important for us to consider these reasons because only in them do we see an explanation of why the Lord permits long periods of disease or infirmity, of pain and suffering, to precede the death of the body.
The first reason that the Lord permits some to continue to live regardless of their physical condition is the use which their living performs to other men in the world. It may seem harsh, in a sense, that one man should suffer physical pain, or that he should live in the extreme feebleness of old age, simply to serve others. Yet when we think of the fact that man may in some way be a means by which the Lord is able to lead another, or others, to eternal happiness in heaven is it not a greater mercy to allow his relatively short period of suffering or discomfort, which he will soon completely forget, that another may find an eternity of greater happiness?
The second reason that the Lord permits some to continue to live on earth is that they are of use while in this world to angels and spirits in the other world. Many things are involved in this teaching concerning the relation of the natural and the spiritual worlds which we cannot enter into here. However, we would recall the teaching that natural creation, and the things of natural life, serve as bases for spiritual creation and the things of spiritual life. Also, we would note that as long as man lives in this world, spirits are able to use the things that are in his memory, and this in many different ways and for many different reasons.
The third reason man continues to live is for the use that may be served to his own spiritual welfare. We have noted that the reason man is born into the natural world is that he may form permanent loves and affections through knowledges and conclusions in the understanding. The Lord wills that man should form his loves and affections through the truths of the Word, and thus prepare himself for the life of heaven. However, the Lord does not force man to do this. He leaves him in freedom to choose what his loves shall be. If the Lord foresees that through the continuation of his life on earth man may better prepare the nature and quality of his eternal life in the spiritual world, He then preserves man's natural life until that use had been performed.
The fourth reason man is permitted to continue in this world is that he may be more fully prepared to perform his particular use either in heaven or in hell. Every man is created to perform a use, and this to all eternity. His use includes not only his employment or work but every other association he has with others. Only the Lord can possibly see the complex nature of each man's use, and only He can foresee how it can best be performed to eternity. Where He sees that man can be better prepared for his eternal use by continuing to live on earth, then the Lord assures the continuance of his life here. (SD 5003)
Any of these four reasons, then, may be the cause of man's remaining in this world. But if all of these reasons for natural existence have been met as far as possible, then it is that the Lord calls man to his eternal home in the spiritual world. Then it is that the life of the spirit is withdrawn from the natural body, and man leaves the confines of this world to enter the freedom of the spiritual world.
The Lord does not will that man should die of disease, with suffering and pain. He does not will that man's body should be crippled or malformed, or that he should die a violent death. Such disorders and perversions have arisen from the wrongly directed exercise of man's freedom. They have arisen from man's choice of evil and from his defiance of the Divine laws of order. The Lord is constantly striving to bring an end to the disorders engendered by mankind; but He cannot openly direct and protect man's natural freedom and the concerns of his natural life without utterly destroying the very quality of the human. The Lord can operate only through the secret workings of His providence, and through the influence of the truths of His Word upon men's minds.
Although the death of the body is often violent or preceded by long suffering, let us remember that the order of creation which the Lord has provided wills it otherwise. In that order, death is not an act of violence, not a result of sickness or disease, not a giving out and wasting away of the body, but an act of the Divine Providence filled with mercy and love. It is the peaceful departing from this life to enter the life of heaven after the orderly uses of this world have been fulfilled. That such an order of death existed in the golden age of this earth is evident from the fact that it still exists with the people of certain other planets. We read, concerning the people of Jupiter: "On that earth they do not fear death, except on account of leaving their wives, their children or their parents; for they know that they will live after death, and that they do not go out of life, because they go into heaven. Therefore they do not speak of dying, but of being heaven-made. Those who on that earth have lived happy in conjugial love, and have taken care of their children, as it becomes parents to do, do not die by diseases, but tranquilly, as in sleep, and thus migrate from the world into heaven." (AC 8850)
Because of the teachings which the Lord has given in His second coming we should not, nor indeed need we, allow ourselves to be influenced by the morbidity and mystery which surround the subject of death in the Christian churches. Death, after all, is a part of the Divine order in creation. It was provided by the Lord because it was necessary for the development
of human quality. All of life, from infancy to old age, is nothing but a progression from the things of the world to the things of heaven, and death is merely a transition, a step on the ladder. (AC 3016)
The release of the spirit from the natural body is the purpose and use of death, and when we look upon it from considerations of purpose and . use, as the New Church is instructed to do, we are led to see that the death of the body is essentially a merciful act of providence. It is evidence of the Lord's infinite love for and kindness toward man, being, not the end of his life, but the continuation of life in a far more beautiful, free and perfect state. (LJ 25, 27; HH 493; AC 5006)
With this in mind, then, while we may feel deep grief at the temporary parting from those whom we dearly love, we may at the same time rejoice that the Lord has so wonderfully provided a spiritual world where loved ones will meet again with all their human qualities and characteristics, in a state freed from the bonds and limitations of natural existence with all its confusion, disorder and disease, suffering and deep sorrow. We may learn to think of death as the angels do, as resurrection into eternal life. We may learn to prepare ourselves for that life intelligently through the truths which the Lord has given us in His Word, that we may remain faithful unto death and receive from the Lord the precious crown of heavenly life.
-New Church Life 1964;84: 456-462