A Few Glimpses beyond Death

Here are some stories of what happens beyond the death of this body, and not mere stories, but ones passed down to us from the experience of the saints.

A great place to start is to read the life of St. Theodora of Constantinople.

In The History of the Franks, St. Gregory of Tours has a section on the “Death of the holy bishop Salvius“, in which we see the experience of one who rose from the dead from his funeral bier.

Similarly, St. Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, relates three stories, one of a person raised from the dead and what he had seen, another of one who before his death was shown the book of his sins by devils, and another who saw the place of punishment appointed for him before his death.

Then, turning to more modern stories, not necessarily passed down by saints, but still not in contradiction to the teachings of the Church, there is the rather lengthy article, “Unbelievable for Many, but Actually a True Occurance“.

And another, not available online, but nestled in a wonderful little book, is from Soviet-era Russia: a woman who mocked Christians, and how her experience beyond death affected her and the many people around her. I highly suggest buying On Earth We’re Just Learning How to Live by Archpriest Valentin Biryukov.

And last of all, a modern saint, St. John Maximovitch, wrote for us, “Life after Death“, in which he especially focuses on the forty days after death. Now, this article has more footnotes than it has St-John-written content, which themselves are a treasure trove of more potential research into life after death, including a list of saints’ lives which reference the toll-houses, to help understand what they are and what they are not.

Is “Heaven Is for Real”, for real?

Not too many years ago a book, Heaven Is for Real, came out about a three-year-old boy dying, going to heaven, and coming back to life. It certainly generated quite a lot of interest and has been widely read (and viewed, after being adapted into a movie). The story, retold by the boy’s father from what he gathered in conversations with his son, has received mixed reception. From my own perspective, it seems most folks are ready to receive it as a genuine experience, especially with some excellent proofs, like the boy seeing his mother and father in separate hospital rooms as he was dying on the surgical table, talking to a miscarried sister that his parents had never told him about, and recognizing a mid-life photo of his grandfather. (The soul looking on the situation of its own body immediately after death, is a very common thread…even in the story of a friend of my own.) A few folks, however, are quite vocal about their denouncements of the boy’s experience in heaven, mainly based on a comparison of his story with what we find in the Scriptures.

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“Do the People on Earth Know What Awaits Them?”

Now…finally…we make it to one of the best examples to help bring clarity to our questions about what happens after we die. I have shared several warnings: warnings about those who were not dead for long and have limited knowledge of life after death, warnings that our preconceptions can cloud our reasoning in these matters, and warnings that we should not try to over-simplify such matters. All of those warnings still apply. We must be careful not to over-analyze any of these experiences.

With that said, the experience of Venerable Theodora of Constantinople is particularly useful to us. For one, she died (and stayed dead), her soul left her body, she traversed everything between here and place of her soul’s repose till the last day. The obvious question is how we know this story: she appeared to another spiritual child of her own spiritual father, who recorded it for our benefit.

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What Happens? No Nice, Tidy Answer.

One of the first aspects of these after-death experiences that jumps out to the reader is how different they are from each other. How could they all be true, if they are so different? I am going to assume that all of those experiences passed down to us by saints are trustworthy, and yet, even among those, there are many differences.

I find one point enlightening when it comes to these differences: St. Bede passes down three such stories to us, and those three are far from identical experiences. Bede is ok with the differences, and I would think that means we, too, can be ok with these differences. The validity of these experiences does not lie in their similarity, nor were they passed down with such an intention. The differences in St. Bede’s stories seem to be the main reason he recorded them.

We need to keep something in mind, something similar to the angel’s response to one of the individuals in St. Bede’s accounts (Book V, Ch. XII): “I began to think that this perhaps might be hell, of whose intolerable flames I had often heard talk”, but the angel replies, “Do not believe so, for this is not the hell you imagine.” We all come to this topic with a lifetime-worth of presuppositions. We have heard sermons at church; we have heard eulogies at funerals; (and most influentially) we have soaked up the cultural understanding around us. There are many influences in all our lives that make us imagine a particular heaven or hell after death.

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The Problem of Coming Back to Life

The fundamental problem with the experiences of those who have come back from the dead is just that, they came back. They did not die and stay dead, which is important because their experience of death is limited to the time immediately after death.

Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose), in his book The Soul after Death, carefully and definitively shows how almost all of these stories we have heard of “near-death experiences” do fit into a true, full, and traditional Christian understanding of the soul after death, though not always how we might have imagined. If you want to understand more fully (than I have space to write here) how the accounts of Christians and non-Christians, heavenly and hellish, angelic and pagan-god-filled experiences could all confirm one truth, you would have to read his book…and I highly recommend it.

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