Love Beyond The Grave
A woman in northern Virginia wrote to me, saying that her father had died and how much she missed him. The father had been an exceptionally loving parent and had raised his children to enjoy life by sharing freely with one another in the family. When he died, it tore a big hole in the fabric of the woman's happiness.
"I am not complaining about his death," she said. "I am grateful for my memories. But there is one thing I cannot understand. I was always taught that love is the essence of our faith. If that is so, and I believe it, then how can that love be cut off by death?"
The question was not merely rhetorical. What the woman wanted was an assurance that death had not ended her relationship with her father. She wanted to know that he could still see her and be involved in her daily existence--that death had not completely dissolved their beautiful arrangement.
I understood what she meant. There is nothing harder to bear than the death of someone we love. During the early stages of grief, the heaviness can be almost unbearable. Even a great saint like C. S. Lewis was staggered by it when his wife Joy died. He felt as if he were drunk or confused. He said, as if there were a blanket between him and the rest of the world. The worst part of it was that he could not pray. Every time he tried, it was as if a door were shut in his face and he could hear it being bolted from the other side.
This was what the woman was experiencing. The raw finality of death, the emptiness that comes with the loss.
What could I say to her?
There are two answers to the problem of love after death. One is a "safe" answer and the other is not so safe. It is speculative, in other words.
First, our safe answer. Love is not cutoff by death; it is merely tested. Relationships are not ended, they only enter another phase. Things are not the same, of course; one would be foolish to argue or pretend that they are. There is hurt, anguish, loneliness. But what there was--whatever transpired between parent and child, husband and wife, brother and sister--still exists. It is fact. It cannot be erased by death.
I know a woman whose husband died while she was still a young woman. For years, until she herself died, she set a place for him at the table. She did this even when guests were present. And when she thought of something she wanted to say to him she said it out loud, as if he were there. She was fully aware that he was dead, and expected no answer from him. But she continued to live in the relationship that had meant so much to her.
We would realize, if we could take the long view and see things from God's perspective, that the interruption in the relationship is not a long one. It seems long to us, in the way that even a brief separation seems unbearably lengthy to a child who feels desperate for its mother. But in the span of centuries, against the backdrop of eternity, it is but a moment, the blinking of an eye.
This is the "safe" answer, then. Love is not completely ended at death. Traces of the relationship remain.
But you must have the other answer as well, and make your own judgment of it. It is, I warned, the "unsafe" answer--the controversial one.
Let us begin safely, at any rate, by asking if there are any hints in the Bible about continuing relationships with those who have died. There are a few;
For example, there is the story of Dives and Lazarus (LK 16:19-31), in which Dives thinks in the afterlife of his five brothers and asks Father Abraham to send Lazarus to their house to warn them against wasting their lives in self-indulgent living. At first, Abraham counters this possibility by saying that there is "a great gulf" fixed between the worlds of the living and the dead. Then he seems to weaken the case somewhat by saying that the brothers would not pay any attention to such a messenger, even if he rose from the dead.
There is another oblique reference to the matter in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul's great essay on death and resurrection. Having talked about Christ's victory over death, the apostle asks, "If this were not true, what do people hope to gain by being baptized for the dead?" Early Christians obviously believed that our actions in behalf of those who have died can be meaningful to them in their existence beyond this life.
Then there is the Transfiguration narrative (LK 9:28-36) in which Jesus is visited on the mountain by Moses and Elijah, long dead, and they discuss his impending death.
And finally there are the several appearances of Jesus to his disciples after his death and resurrection. We shall comment on them later.
These are not terribly conclusive passages for positing continuing relationships with the dead. It is almost as if the early church had no great interest in the subject. Various reasons could probably be adduced for this. Life was much more tenuous then than it is now. Loving relationships within families were less common than today. Most early Christians expected the imminent end of the world, and were more concerned about their relationship to Christ than about relationships with loved ones who had died.
But perhaps the significant thing is that the Bible suggests little that would contradict the continuance of human relationships following death. The few hints there are, in fact, posit a world view in which such a continuance seems entirely plausible.
Now, given this plausibility, we are put back upon our own experiences. What do they suggest of continuing relationships? Here, of course, is where our second answer begins to become controversial, for we are getting into the question of whether there are voices and manifestations from the dead--whether there are, in other words, such things as ghosts and apparitions.
Do you believe there are? Do I believe it? I confess that in this matter I am not always sure what I believe. I know I have heard some very persuasive stories that I am not inclined to disbelieve.
A woman in the Tidewater area of Virginia, in whose home I was staying, told me this story. Her brother, whom she described as "a hard-headed lawyer not given to any nonsense," moved into
an antebellum home near the site of a Civil War battle. One night he awakened to see a stranger standing at the foot of his bed. The stranger was dressed in a Confederate soldier's uniform, and appeared to be staring at him. When the lawyer started to rise, the visitor moved to the corner of the room and disappeared without going through a door. The lawyer did some research and discovered that a boy who had once occupied his bedroom had enlisted in the Confederate Army and had been killed in a nearby battle.
Was all of this mere fancy, or do such things actually happen?
I have had many reports of people's having personal encounters of various kinds with loved ones who have recently died. A woman described for me a dream--though she said she was actually awake--in which she saw her son who had died standing with his father and grandfather, both of whom were dead, on the other side of a small stream. They waved and then moved off in the opposite direction.
Another woman told me about the loss of her son, a boy of twelve, in a gun accident while they were on a camping trip. She and her husband never wanted to return to the campsite. But a few months later something impelled them to go back. The woman took a walk in the woods. An impulse told her to stand very still. She did, and a small fawn walked up very near to her. They stared at each other for five minutes or more. The woman felt very strongly that she was in the presence of her son. Finally the fawn turned and walked away. "I'm so glad we went back," said the woman; "otherwise, I would not have seen him that last time."
Sometimes there are visitations from dead relations who had very strong personalities, and these may occur even years after a death. A media executive told me about the Christmas when his mother gave each of the grown children a large photograph of the family standing on a stairway. Everyone was in the picture except their father, who had died several years earlier. The executive and his brother looked at their pictures and gasped. Each saw their father standing in the same place in the family grouping!
Does all of this seem strange? It doubtless does, for it is not the stuff of our rational, everyday world. Yet think about Jesus' appearances to the disciples. Walking with those men to Emmaus and going in to eat with them--only as he was breaking bread did they realize it was the crucified One who had been with them. Coming to Peter and the other disciples through closed door--they had barred the doors for good reasons-they did not feel safe in a city where their Master had been killed--and then the Master was standing in their midst. Or that morning by the seashore--walking with them, talking with them, eating fish they cooked on an open fire. These are ghost stories, aren't they?
Perhaps we are not generally sensitive enough to the world of the spirit. We live with our left brains and not our right brains. We are so hard-headed and realistic about everything that we become inhospitable to appearance--even the appearance of Christ himself.
What if someone were to walk into a room with you today and say, "I have just had a visit from Christ. I saw him standing next to me, as real as you are"? What would you think? You would question the person's sanity, wouldn't you? You would wonder what you should do to help the person.
Yet why should Christ's freedom to appear to someone today be proscribed? If the gospel is really true--if Christ really did appear to the disciples as the New Testament affirms--why couldn't he do the same for disciples in our own day and age?
Perhaps he has spoken to you, walked with you, sat with you in the quiet of your room. The problem is that we don't share stories of this sort today. We live in such a half-brained world that we hesitate to speak of such visitations, lest everyone think us crazy. We even begin to question our own sanity in such matters. After all, is anything real if other persons don't know about it?
Among the early Christians there was no hesitance to share such narratives. Their ethos encouraged it. Ours doesn't. We are stifled by the weight of our orthodoxy--by printed Bibles and great rituals and prosaic mindsets. We have a great need, in our day, for more openness and awareness in these matters.
Sometime after I received the letter from the woman about her father's death, I had occasion to visit her. Her own openness and attentiveness had done much to answer the question she asked about death and separation. And interestingly, the answers corresponded to the two answers I have suggested.
On one level, she realized that the separation from her father was only temporary and that she must be patient. This insight came to her, she said, one day when her two-year-old daughter wanted something lying on the table where she could not reach it. The daughter asked for the object and the mother replied, "Not now, dear."
"Now!" demanded the little girl.
"I realized," said the woman, "that I have been saying 'Now!' to God. I missed my dad and wanted him now." So she had to learn patience.
And on the other level, the one I said is controversial, she reported this experience. Actually, it was not her experience, but her brother's. Yet it had great meaning for her.
Her father had been a piano repairman. When he died, he left several instruments lying about in great disarray in his basement, with parts scattered everywhere. His son, who had once worked with him, came home to try to reassemble all the pianos and return them to their owners. But the disorder was so great that he seemed to be making no headway. Exhausted, he lay down to take a nap. While he was asleep, he was convinced, his father came to him and told him which parts belonged in which piano. When he awoke, he quickly returned all the pieces to their respective places.
Was it this man's imagination, a dream, a figment of his unconscious mind? Or did his father actually appear and guide him? You must decide for yourself.
But remember this. Our imaginations, our dreams, our unconscious selves may be the thin membrane separating the physical dimension of life from the eternal dimension. They may be the medium through which transactions between the two worlds most naturally occur.
The woman had the right attitude. "I must be open to these possibilities," she said, "because there is much I do not understand. The one thing I know is that God loves us, and God's love will not let any of our love be lost."