A Short Guide to Death & Dying
"Millions Now Living Will Never Die" (1920). My Auntie Margo trusted that false prophecy with all of her heart. She was born in 1922, so she was one of those millions who would never die. In the 1950s when life insurance salesmen went from door to door, she would always invite them in and explain to them that she was one of Jehovah's Witnesses. She wouldn't need any life insurance because she was never going to die. Just recently, my uncle sent me the handout from her memorial service: Margo, born 1922-died 2007. Unfortunately there was no life insurance for my uncle to collect, but he wouldn't get to enjoy it for long anyway. He isn't going to be alive much longer himself. The death rate in this country and in the rest of the world since the beginning of time has been 100%.
So how do those of us who were never going to die learn to cope with the reality of our own death? How do we accept it with peace and faith, rather than with fear and dread? Difficult as it is for humans in general to conceive of dying, it may be that we former Witnesses have a particularly troublesome time of it because we struggle with trust-and death is the ultimate act of trust. We have zero control over what happens to us after we die. That is why Jesus emphasized the need to trust him and to trust God at the hour of our death. In John 14, Jesus said:
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. (John 14:1-3 NIV)
"Trust in God; trust also in me"-easy to say, but hard to do for many of us raised by Witness parents. As we were growing up, if we performed in accord with Watchtower standards, we were loved; if we failed, we were shunned. Conditional love does not inspire trust. If we haven't been loved or learned to truly love and trust our earthly parents whom we have seen, no wonder we have problems loving and trusting a God whom we haven't seen.
In addition, we grew up with the Watchtower's version of Jehovah. Since the organization represented God on earth, then their description of him and their actions in his name defined him as God to us. In many cases, especially when we made mistakes, he was a distant, unloving God who appeared to give us a stone when we asked for bread (Matt. 7:9, 10).
I must admit that for most of my life, I viewed God the same way as the man with the one talent in Jesus' parable. After he buried his talent, he had this to say about his master:
Master, he said, I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. (Matt. 25:24, 25)
The slave feared his master and didn't trust him. I believed that in the new system God would answer my personal prayers, but in this system he was more concerned about the organization and getting the good news preached. He had no specific plan for my life. I was as much a victim of "time and unforeseen occurrence [chance]" (Eccl. 9:11 NWT) as anyone else in the world.
Add to this mistrust of God five years at Bethel where I saw how expendable individuals were, and the result was deep-seated cynicism-which is the antithesis of trust. The slave with the one talent in Jesus' parable was a cynic. He served his Master because he was a slave and had no choice, but there was no real love in it, only fear. Therefore, he hid his talent and missed out on life. Cynics seldom live up to their potential.
Unhealthy fear of God = fear of death = fear of life. The writer of Hebrews put it so well when he said that Jesus became a human and died for us so that he might "free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death" (Heb. 2:14, 15). So if we are tired of living in slavery to our fears, those of us who are cynical former Witnesses must learn to trust God. But how do we do that, and where do we start?
First, I believe we need to get a biblical view of what kind of life God promises us after we die. Now that we know we only have one hope (Gal. 4:4), we may feel that going to heaven means that we will now be like the 144,000-giving up all earthly ties and becoming spirits, not very appealing when compared to a paradise earth. But this is not the life with Christ that the Bible describes. Ironically, it is more like what the pagan Greeks believed in Jesus' day-that an invisible part of us (our personality, according to the Watchtower) goes to heaven, never to be reunited with our physical body.
However, Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 15 to prove that the Greeks were wrong! Verse 35 asks, "How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?" The rest of the chapter discusses our physical body and how it will be changed in the resurrection.
So it will be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. (1 Cor. 15:42-44)
The text does not say it is raised a spirit, but a spiritual body. The word soma, meaning body, is used in both places. The natural body is made up of flesh and blood and cannot inherit the kingdom of God. But the same body made imperishable or spiritual can inherit the kingdom. Paul explains further: "And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so we shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven . . . " (v. 49).
In other words, we will be like Jesus (the man from heaven) when he was raised from the dead. That may be one reason why Jesus showed himself to his followers after his resurrection-to give them a taste of what they had to look forward to, having a body that would live in both a new heaven and a new earth! Jesus assured his followers that he was not a spirit, but he had a body of "flesh and bone" (Luke 24:39), different from the purely human body of flesh and blood, but one with a form much like our physical bodies. Jesus was able not only to enjoy earthly pleasures--talk and walk and eat and drink with his spiritual body, but he was also able to pass through a wall and travel to another dimension beyond our universe.
As a Witness, I often wondered why the Society spent so much time "proving" that Jehovah disposed of Jesus' physical body. Now I know why. Who would choose the earthly hope of being confined to a purely physical body on this tiny earth for eternity when we and our loved ones can be like Christ, enjoying eternity in both a new heaven and a new earth, where the physical and the spiritual will be connected in a way that is beyond our imagination? And compared with the biblical hope, who would choose to live on a paradise earth where our pleasure in our physical bodies will be dependent upon the luck of the draw in this unfair world? In Watchtower doctrine, only the great crowd or those fortunate enough to survive Armageddon will get to be married, enjoy sex, and have children. The unlucky ones who, through no fault of their own, happened to die of cancer or get killed by a drunk driver will be resurrected as other sheep with fleshly physical bodies, but will be destined to watch from the sidelines as only the survivors of Armageddon enjoy the above-mentioned earthly pleasures.
The Society bases this teaching on the scripture at Matthew 22:29-31 where Jesus says that no one marries in the resurrection. Since Jesus goes on to use Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as examples of those who have died and since they had the earthly hope, then the interpretation follows that no one who is resurrected to the new earth will marry. Only survivors of Armageddon will marry and have children. However, the last direct statement commenting on this viewpoint was made in the 1987 Watchtower, where they admit that this is a dismal prospect for those who are resurrected. As a result, they advise everyone to wait and hope. In other words, maybe Jehovah will change his mind.
Contrary to this teaching, the Bible promises that those who are resurrected in the likeness of Christ will all get the same wonderful new bodies at the same time (1 Thess. 4:13-18; Heb. 11:39, 40). In these new bodies, we will all be married to Christ in a completely new and exciting and different arrangement from anything we have known on earth. There are no "haves" and "have-nots." Luck has nothing to do with our future life. It doesn't matter when we die! When Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, he said at the resurrection Christ would bring with him those who had died so that those alive at the end "would not precede those who had fallen asleep in death." (1 Thess. 4:15)
What Paul said raises another question about what is called the "intermediate state." Since resurrection in the New Testament refers to our physical bodies becoming spiritual bodies and since this event doesn't occur until the end of this system, what happens to us now when we die? Paul also spoke about being with Christ immediately after death, rather than describing a period of unconsciousness before the resurrection. At Philippians 1:21-24, he writes:
For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain . . . I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far . . .
So Paul spoke about departing and being with Christ right away. Consequently, it appears that there is an intermediate heaven where we will be disembodied spirits, waiting for our eternal "building" or spiritual bodies when Christ returns. During that period of time (if the concept of time is even a part of God's dimension), Paul speaks of consciously and joyfully being with Christ.
Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body, we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. (2 Cor. 5:1-6)
So we will be "at home with the Lord" from the moment we die until Christ comes again. Then when we all get our resurrected bodies, life will be incredible in that new heaven and new earth. As joint heirs with Christ, we inherit everything that has been given to him, except for worship (1 Cor. 3:21-23). Heaven and earth will be connected (Rev. 21:1-22:7); we will eat and drink with Christ and act as judges (Luke 22:29, 30); we will enjoy all of God's creations on a new earth free from bondage to death and decay (Rom. 8:20-23); we will have interesting, fascinating work to do in both heaven and on earth (John 5:17); and we will all find joy and fulfillment in our relationship with our bridegroom Christ (2 Cor. 11:2; Rev. 19:7-9).
Getting this biblical vision of heaven is the first step in learning to trust God enough to die in peace. Yet the cynic would say: These promises sound good on paper, but what proof do we have that God is really the God he says he is in the Bible? How can we be sure these promises are true? No one has come back from the dead to verify this wonderful life after death, has he? Actually, tens of thousands of people outspokenly claim they have come back from being just a little bit dead in what are called "near death experiences" or NDEs.
These people were considered clinically dead, but because of modern medical techniques, they regained vital signs and recovered. What is encouraging to us about their experience is that when they revived, they shared two important characteristics. First, they had no doubt in the existence of a loving, all-powerful God-even former atheists were instantly converted. And second, they had absolutely and utterly no more fear of death. That isn't to say that they lost their fear of the pain and suffering that often lead up to death, but as for the event itself and what follows, they said it was peaceful, beautiful, awe-inspiring, and life changing.
Also of interest to us is that they never lost consciousness. One minute something traumatic happened to them, and the next minute they were out of their body, very aware of traveling through a tunnel and being drawn into an irresistible light. When they reached that light, they felt they were in the presence of God, and they felt loved and full of wonder and joy. They had come home, at last, where they really belonged. And these people cannot be talked out of what happened to them. They know without a doubt what they have seen and felt and heard. Many of them volunteer at hospices to assure dying patients that they have nothing whatever to fear about death.
Not all Christians, though, are convinced that NDEs are from God. Some believe they are only hallucinations produced by the human brain when it is affected by drugs or deprived of oxygen during the dying process. If that is the case, then God is the one who designed us to die in such a beautiful and peaceful way. Heaven is just a step beyond the dying process. Others believe NDEs are from Satan. If that is true, then we can still be sure that there is no break in consciousness at death. If Satan made the transition from death to life so exciting and easy, then God will make it even better!
Therefore, after discovering the wonderful future God has planned for us in both a new heaven and new earth and after taking into account the sheer number of NDEs, you may feel you trust God enough to live and die in relative peace. If that is where you are, then you are ready to dig up the talent Jesus gave you in his parable, dust it off, and start making it grow. However, there may be some of you who secretly harbor just a tad of envy for those NDEers who are so passionate and sure of the existence of God and life after death. You may desperately want that same level of trust in God, but are not willing to pay such a high price to get it.
Consequently, there is one more question left to answer. Is it at all possible for us to have a similar experience to an NDE without becoming roadkill first? This is a scary question. Recovering cynics are not far removed from the adage, "Be careful what you pray for." We still may fear that if we tentatively ask God to increase our trust to, possibly, the two-talent man, he might mistakenly get the numbers mixed up and think we said the five-talent man. Once they're scraping us off the highway, it will be too late to make the correction.
This is where we take a leap of faith based on the trust we've gained in God so far. The next level of trust calls for us to put it into action-to test it. The difference between reading about trust and testing our trust is the same as the difference between "taking in knowledge of God" and coming to "know God" (John 17:3). It is a step forward that God longs for us to take. In both the Old and New Testaments, Bible writers give us God's invitation, "Taste and see that the Lord is good" (Ps. 34:8; 1 Pet. 2:3). Remember, he is the God of individuals, so he knows how big a taste of him each one of us can handle.
How, then, do we begin this process of testing our trust? I believe, if we ask God to help us come to know him and feel his presence within us to such an extent that we will not be afraid to die, then we can expect God to answer that prayer in a way that is tailor-made to us. Be prepared, though, for some discomfort in the process. We learn to trust only when we have exhausted all of our own efforts, when circumstances force us to surrender completely to him because there is no other way out. When we reach that point and God makes it obvious to us that only he could have rescued us or changed us or given us peace at the very moment when we most desperately needed it, we will trust him and trust his love for us for the rest of our lives.
This act of surrender to God is not a new concept. It has been a part of Lutheran and Methodist theologies for hundreds of years. William James, psychologist and philosopher, describes it in his well-known work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, as follows:
Give up the feeling of responsibility, let go your hold, resign the care of your destiny to higher powers, be genuinely indifferent as to what becomes of it all, and you will find not only that you gain a perfect inward relief, but often also, in addition, the particular goods you sincerely thought you were renouncing. This is the salvation through self-despair, the dying to be truly born, of Lutheran theology, the passage into nothing of which Jacob Behmen writes. To get to it, a critical point must usually be passed, a corner turned within one. Something must give way, a native hardness must break down and liquefy; and this event is frequently sudden and automatic, and leaves on the Subject an impression that he has been wrought on by an external power. . . . (italics mine)
With those who undergo it in its fullness, no criticism avails to cast doubt on its reality. They know; for they have actually felt the higher powers, in giving up the tension of their personal will. (pp. 105, 106)
When we trust in God to this extent, and he is obviously there for us, it causes our "native hardness" (cynicism, in my experience) to "break down and liquefy," and we have passed a critical point or corner in our relationship with God. We know from within ourselves that we can trust him and that he is intimately interested in us. If he knows and loves us this much in life, he will know and love us equally in death. A German author quoted by William James summed up his experience with God in this way:
The compensation for the loss of that sense of personal independence which man so unwillingly gives up, is the disappearance of all fear from one's life, the quite indescribable and inexplicable feeling of an inner security, which one can only experience, but which, once it has been experienced, one can never forget. (p. 252)
So for those of us former Jehovah's Witnesses who were never going to die, coping with the reality of our impending death is not something we have to do alone. The God who led us out of the Watchtower organization has brought life and immortality to light for us through the resurrection of Christ and through our new understanding of what our resurrection will be like. The more we read about it, the more glorious and exciting it becomes. (Eph. 1:17-20) That same great God of the universe wants us to love and trust him, not just by reading about his promises or how he has revealed himself to others, but ultimately by personally experiencing his love and care for us. When that happens, we will have the freedom from fear we need--in death and in life--to make our talents grow and someday hear Jesus say:
Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!" (Matt. 25:21, 23)