I’m afraid of dying. As a Christian, I feel slightly guilty in saying this. But it’s true. I am not yet at the place where the apostle Paul was, in Philippians, when he could look forward to death: “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.”
I am unimpressed, therefore, when I hear atheist apologists, as I often do, accuse us Christians of being weak-minded—that our faith is a psychological crutch to help us cope with the harsh reality of death.
Oh, please! I find the materialistic alternative—that our existence ends in death—much easier to believe! In other words, without examining the evidence, without reasoning it through—relying on gut feeling alone—I find it harder to believe in heaven and future resurrection.
What about you?
I hope and expect, God willing, that this fear of death will diminish over time, that God will give me the grace to deal with my own death when I need it. In the meantime, I take comfort in reading credible testimonies of Christians who have near-death experiences. In saying this, I’m well aware that near-death experiences are controversial—and I’m skeptical of many of them, too.
But I do believe that in some cases, at least, God gives people a spiritual experience when they are close to death, which bolsters their faith when they recover. For them, these experiences are a gift of grace.
One such testimony comes from theologian Thomas Oden, which he describes in his recent memoir, A Change of Heart. He had open-heart surgery back in the ’80s. There were complications after completing the bypass, so the doctors needed to go back in for a second, emergency procedure. He nearly died.
I regained partial consciousness in between those two surgeries and could hear the voices in the operating room and was conscious enough to realize that a serious medical emergency was occurring. During that unforeseen waking moment, I had the clear impression that I had already died. Unexplainably I felt an unexpected sense of relief, joy and entry into a distinctly new world where a bright light was radiating into my soul.
I was bathed in a glorious world of light—stunning, radiant light of a different sort than I had ever seen. The light seemed to be not the light from the operating room ceiling but from somewhere far beyond. I was surprised that I was not at all afraid. After the second surgery, when I woke up I realized that I had not died…
The deeper discovery for me was the lasting realization that I was not afraid of dying. This is not a report of a near-death experience but rather an imagined death experience. After that I felt a freedom from the dread of dying that has offered inexpressible comfort to me in the ensuing years. At my lowest point physically I underwent a peace experience spiritually. It was as real as anything I have ever experienced.
1. Thomas Oden, A Change of Heart (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 182.