death and dying

The big question: What does Christianity say happens to believers after death?

The big question: What does Christianity say happens to believers after death?

PAULA’S QUESTION:

When people say their loved one went to heaven, why doesn’t the preacher tell them that no-one goes straight to heaven? If they did, what would be the reason for the resurrection?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Christian doctrine says that after death a believer’s soul enters the presence of God in the blessedness of heaven, and then in the end times will be reunited with a transformed body. Christianity contrasts with Eastern religions’ belief in reincarnation, a long series of rebirths into varied conditions and biological species based upon performance in the prior life.

With typical Presbyterian precision, the Christian teaching is spelled out in the 17th Century Westminster Confession, accompanied by citations of 14 Bible texts:

“The bodies of men after death return to dust, and see corruption, but their souls, (which neither die nor sleep,) having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them. The souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies.” Then at “the last day ... all the dead shall be raised up with the self-same bodies, and none other, although with different qualities, which shall be united again to their souls forever.”

The modern-day Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches the same: “In death, the separation of the soul from the body, the human body decays and the soul goes to meet God, while awaiting its reunion with its glorified body. God, in his almighty power, will definitively grant incorruptible life to our bodies by reuniting them with our souls, through the power of Jesus’ resurrection” at “the end of the world” when Christ returns.

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What does death feel like? The Atlantic gives readers some faith-free answers

What does death feel like? The Atlantic gives readers some faith-free answers

The come-hither title “What It Feels Like to Die” admittedly drew my eyes to the top paragraph of this Atlantic article. Why? I had watched my father slowly die over a period of weeks this past June and it was quite eye-opening (and depressing) watching him slowly shut down. When he even lost interest in his beloved cats,  I knew the end was near.

As the article relates, dying people are in another world weeks before the final moments and they’re not talking about it much with us. Many sense a summons to pack it up here for the big move to the Beyond. As I read through the piece, however, I noticed a gap.

“Do you want to know what will happen as your body starts shutting down?”
My mother and I sat across from the hospice nurse in my parents’ Colorado home. It was 2005, and my mother had reached the end of treatments for metastatic breast cancer. A month or two earlier, she’d been able to take the dog for daily walks in the mountains and travel to Australia with my father. Now, she was weak, exhausted from the disease and chemotherapy and pain medication.  
My mother had been the one to decide, with her doctor’s blessing, to stop pursuing the dwindling chemo options, and she had been the one to ask her doctor to call hospice. Still, we weren’t prepared for the nurse’s question. My mother and I exchanged glances, a little shocked. But what we felt most was a sense of relief.
During six-and-a-half years of treatment, although my mother saw two general practitioners, six oncologists, a cardiologist, several radiation technicians, nurses at two chemotherapy facilities, and surgeons at three different clinics—not once, to my knowledge, had anyone talked to her about what would happen as she died.
There’s good reason. “Roughly from the last two weeks until the last breath, somewhere in that interval, people become too sick, or too drowsy, or too unconscious, to tell us what they’re experiencing,” says Margaret Campbell, a professor of nursing at Wayne State University who has worked in palliative care for decades.

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Election-year theodicy? Washington Post explores rise of faith-haunted, political obits

Election-year theodicy? Washington Post explores rise of faith-haunted, political obits

So do you remember Mary Anne Noland of Richmond, Va.? Her name surfaced recently in a way that was both humorous and poignant, during a "Crossroads" podcast about the "lesser of two evils" dilemma faced by many voters in this year's White House campaign.

All over America, people were talking about her obituary in The Richmond Times-Dispatch. Some people thought this was a hoax, perhaps something from The Onion. The folks at Snopes.com quickly verified that this viral sensation was the real deal.

If you do not recall the details, here is how the Noland obit opened:

NOLAND, Mary Anne Alfriend. Faced with the prospect of voting for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, Mary Anne Noland of Richmond chose, instead, to pass into the eternal love of God on Sunday, May 15, 2016, at the age of 68. Born in Danville, Va., Mary Anne was a graduate of Douglas Freeman High School (1966) and the University of Virginia School of Nursing (1970). A faithful child of God, Mary Anne devoted her life to sharing the love she received from Christ with all whose lives she touched as a wife, mother, grandmother, daughter, sister, friend and nurse. ...

You could see, in the Noland obituary, that this family's faith was woven into this story and linked, somehow, to the disdain they felt toward the two major candidates (depending, of course, on the outcome of the crucial FBI primary and the growing revolt among GOP delegates, many of them cultural and moral conservatives).

Surely this obituary was a one-of-a-kind heart cry, right? As it turns out, it was not. That leads us to a quite amazing feature in The Washington Post that ran under the headline, "Disdain for Trump and Clinton is so strong, even the dead are campaigning."

Did this feature deal with the moral and religious elements of this phenomenon? Sort of.

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Godbeat time travel: Check out these religion-news feature ideas from 43 years ago

Godbeat time travel: Check out these religion-news feature ideas from 43 years ago

Decades ago, award-winning Houston Chronicle religion writer Janice Law left the beat after a major ruckus with her editors. She became an attorney, judge, author and lately the founder of D.C.’s American Women Writers National Museum. While cleaning out clutter recently she came across a Religion Newswriters Association “News Letter” from 1974 and mailed it to the Religion Guy for a look.

Nostalgia flowed while reading about patriarchal mentors George Cornell of The AP and competitor Louis Cassels of UPI, who had just died all too young at age 52, succeeded by David Anderson. Anybody out there remember the bylines of other valued colleagues mentioned in the issue? Try these -- Jim Adams, Jim Bowman, Betty Brenner, Ken Briggs, Russ Chandler, Larry Cohen, Virginia Culver, John Dart, Bill Folger, Marjorie Hyer, Ben Kaufman, Lee Kelly, Betty Medsger, Louis Moore, Dorothy Newell, W.A. (Bill) Reed,  Dave Runge, Bob Schwartz, Lee Steele, Dan Thrapp, Hiley Ward, Bill Wineke.

At the time, The Guy was running RNA’s annual contests and 158 newswriters had submitted collections of articles from 1973. There were spot stories, local angles on national disputes, reaction roundups (e.g., Jews, Christians and Muslims addressing the latest Mideast crisis) and other standard fare. Sally Priesand, vastly covered as America’s first woman rabbi, won that year’s “Flack Award.” 

The Guy listed features from the entries for an “idea exchange” that’s interesting from a 43-year perspective. Some might even work today. A sampling: 

* What do pastors say to parents of a dying, dead, or deformed child? Similarly, pondering why God doesn’t intervene in peoples’ troublesome situations.

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How to die well: Talking to Jesuit, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel omits a key question

How to die well: Talking to Jesuit, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel omits a key question

I've been hearing and thinking about end-of-life and death issues a lot lately.

In recent weeks, my 90-year-old father has been in the hospital twice and while he's (thank God) coming home tomorrow, the prognosis we got on Wednesday is not good. My brother Steve wrote an amazing column for the Oregonian on my father's journey to Minnesota in July to see his 100-year-old sister, possibly for the last time. And of course there's friend-of-this-blog Rod Dreher's posts on the death of his father on Tuesday. There's a sadness that never goes away and death arrives in the midst of our lives.

We don't talk about it much, but to the people in my parents' retirement home, the imminent end of one's life is a reality they face all the time. This is true for us all.

Man knows not his time. Which is why I was intrigued by a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel story on John Schlegel, a Catholic priest who is dying of pancreatic cancer. Dying well seems harder to do than ever, and here's one person taking the not-so-easy way out. 

The Rev. John Schlegel, pastor of the Church of the Gesu, has pancreatic cancer. He is foregoing medical treatment because he does not believe it would increase his quality of life. He has been visiting friends and carrying on his duties while he awaits the inevitable.
Since being diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer in late January, the Rev. John Schlegel has given away most of his books, artwork and clothes.

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