Theological and spiritual perspectives on death and dying

While many people draw strength and comfort from church tradition, expressed both in its teachings and in art and iconography, the Church as well as wider society has largely abandoned ideas of death once typical of what might be called ‘Victorian’ spirituality. The naïve image of our loved ones hovering on wings, white-robed, looking down on us from above the clouds, no longer holds any consolation. While grief for lost children can still be expressed through use of the word ‘angel’, we may rightly be reluctant to console the grieving with the bland words “s/he has gone to be with Jesus”. What, then, is the redemptive story of which Deborah Wilde speaks?

The Christian Faith arose from and centres on the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. From its earliest days, the church believed and preached that his resurrection guaranteed resurrection for all who were joined to him through faith. In 1 Corinthians 15:12-19, the apostle Paul regards faith as futile without this core understanding; whilst in John’s gospel Jesus tells Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26).

However much modern medicine strives to delay death, it is inevitable throughout the natural world and humans cannot evade it. Yet archaeological evidence suggests humans have always had an innate belief or hope that individual life does not simply end when the body dies. In some ancient philosophies and in certain religions, as well as in much popular culture, humans are considered to have a non-physical soul which is freed at death to a new kind of existence, whether in a spirit world or re-incarnated in another earthly creature. In contrast, the Christian creeds affirm that at death life entirely ends, as it did for Jesus, but that God then likewise raises us to a life everlasting for which “heaven” serves as shorthand. We will no longer have our earthly bodies but ‘spiritual’ or ‘resurrection’ ones, as considered in 1 Corinthians 15:35-58.

Christians therefore believe that we have a life to come with God, and with Jesus who has prepared it for us - “I go to prepare a place for you, and I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am you may be also” (John 14:2-3). And if all believers are thus with Jesus then of course we are re-united with each other through that relationship.

Long before some Jews in later Old Testament times began to hope for resurrection (such as Job in Job 19:25-27), God’s people learned to think theologically of dying as a sign also of what happens to our spiritual wellbeing if we separate ourselves from God and choose instead the way of sin. This truth is graphically portrayed in the story in Genesis 3, familiar at least in part to most people, which ends with God guarding the tree of life so that humans might never by themselves obtain eternal life. “Hell” is our shorthand for a life completely devoid of God and therefore of goodness; there is no point in attempting any further description.

When we think about death and dying, the Christian tradition invites us to appraise seriously what matters most to us. Do we above all prize an earthly life lived by our own decisions about what to value? Or are we seeking to be ever closer to God through a relationship with Jesus? If it is the latter then that relationship with Jesus which begins in our earthly life will continue beyond resurrection; and in that sense we are able to truly say that we already have eternal life.

Revd Dr Jonathan H Pye says in his Personal view (link below): “For Christians, whilst death is unavoidably ‘an’ end it is not, and can no longer be, ‘the’ end; for the Christian story points us beyond this life to participation in a new, but not discontinuous, life in Christ. How this is to be experienced, however, lies beyond our articulation and must remain, at best, speculative. What is important is how we live now in the anticipation not only of our future life but the knowledge that we, and those around us, will one day die”. As long as we live it is never too late to consider our mortality and re-focus our purpose.

While not everyone is possessed of a Christian faith, or even subscribes to any religious teachings, it is commonly said that we all have spiritual needs. “Spirituality is what gives us meaning, hope and purpose in our lives. It is hard to define because it is an individual thing, different for everyone. Although for some people it is very closely linked to their faith, it is a broader term than religion” (Birmingham and Solihull handbook, see link below). Meeting our spiritual needs is part of the very definition of palliative medicine (see the section on caring for those approaching death).

Whatever our spiritual, religious or theological standpoint, arguably we all have a need to try and make sense of our lives and of our own mortality. Some, like Dylan Thomas, may rage against the dying of the light; others, with Charles Wesley (Singing the Faith (StF) 355), may feel able to sing “Safe into the haven guide; Oh, receive my soul at last”. The suggested resources are a starting point for further study and reflection.