This is Holy Week, during which we meditate about human wickedness and perversity in the minds of official religious clerics, regardless of the faith they claim. We contemplate the death of Christ, and throughout Lent, we have considered our own mortality. We all have to die sooner or later, and our Christian faith exhorts to be ready at any time. We don’t know the day or the hour.

We live in a time when many tell us that there is nothing after death. Our bodies die and we cease to exist – we lose consciousness forever. Our life depends on our body and our thoughts on our physical brains. It is easy to have doubts and wonder if this is so, the inescapable reality that no amount of wishful thinking can push away. Even for a Christian, we sometimes wonder.

On the other hand, there are testimonies of near-death experiences, out-of-the-body experiences and séances with mediums who have direct communication with the dead. There have been apparitions of Our Lady and the Saints to certain souls, and the communication between the worlds was no less real. At Fatima in 1917, there was a miracle of the sun seen and experienced by thousands of people, including atheists. The evidence seems overwhelmingly in favour of the continuation of consciousness after physical death. I recommend an open-minded examination of claims on a website by Victor Zammit, a retired Australian lawyer who devotes his life to the cause of acceptance of the afterlife.

Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson was son of an Archbishop of Canterbury and became a Roman Catholic in the very beginning of the twentieth century. He died in 1914 of an illness at the age of only 43.  A friend of Mgr Benson, Anthony Borgia, allegedly received channelled communications from his friend, and wrote them in a book with the title Life after Death in the Worlds Unseen. Here is a quote from Benson on experiencing death:

I saw my physical body lying lifeless upon its bed, but here was I, the real I, alive and well.

For a minute or two I remained gazing and the thought of what to do next entered my head, but help was close at hand. I could still see the room quite clearly around me, but there was a certain mistiness about it as though it were filled with smoke very evenly distributed. I looked down at myself wondering what I was wearing in the way of clothes, for I had obviously risen from a bed of sickness and was therefore in no condition to move very far from my surroundings. I was extremely surprised to find that I had on my usual attire, such as I wore when moving freely and in good health about my own house. My surprise was only momentary since, I thought to myself, what other clothes would I expect to be wearing? Surely not some sort of diaphanous robe. Such costume is usually associated with the conventional idea of an angel and I had no need to assure myself that I was not that!

Such knowledge of the spirit world as I had been able to glean from my own experiences instantly came to my aid. I knew at once of the alteration that had taken place in my condition; I knew, in other words, that I had ‘died.’ I knew, too, that I was alive, that I had shaken off my last illness sufficiently to be able to stand upright and look about me. At no time was I in any mental distress, but I was full of wonder at what was to happen next, for here I was, in full possession of my faculties and, indeed, feeling ‘physically’ as I had never felt before. … the whole process must have taken but a few minutes of earth time.

(Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson, Life in the World Unseen 10-11.)

The Astral Plane – Arrival

Of course, we are relying on apocryphal texts that may or may not be authentic. We can only take it on a certain degree of belief rather than empirical evidence. I think that if we do have this sort of doubt, we need to pray for the gift of faith. We can also read Mr Zammit’s site and see the various videos of him explaining things and other videos from other sources including scientists specialised in quantum physics.

For a long time, I have been convinced that Christianity must have a purpose other than being the only way to a happy afterlife, when evidence from elsewhere indicates that Christianity changes nothing in this respect, except by raising the soul’s spiritual life. The purpose of Christianity is not saving “souls from hell” but bringing them to the beauty of God’s gift to humanity and the world (the universe) through Christ and the unique way he showed and taught. It is a much higher ideal, and it also can help us to live better and more selflessly, and therefore to be ready for a degree of beatitude not known on this earth.

Christ, being divine and human, had the reassurance that death was only a passage (in his case the resurrection of his body into a spiritual-physical body), but feared the torture and the agony together with the hatred of lewd and bigoted people. He lived his Passion both divinely and humanly in this great mystery of the hypostatic union.

I often think about death, and have always done so since my childhood. Sometimes I am horribly anguished, and sometimes it calls me gently and lovingly – but always in God’s hands. That is also a part of my self-discovery of having everything in common with the Romantics. Love this life and we will lose it. Lose it for Jesus’ sake and we will find it. Unless the seed falls into the ground and dies, it cannot bring forth fruit. We read this a few days ago in St John’s Gospel. It certainly changes our perspective in life!

Death is bitter and sweet at the same time. As we celebrate the death and Resurrection of Christ, may this Paschal Mystery be a type of our own passage sometime soon (the way the years flash by when you pass the 50 mark!).

Oh, and by the way, hat tip to Fr Jonathan Munn in Holy Week 2014: Tuesday.

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14 Responses to Death

  1. Stephen K says:

    Dear Father, you are writing of a favourite subject of mine: the mystery of after-death. Clearly, as one formed in Christianity, I am thoroughly habituated to imagine this as a kind of personal ongoing self-consciousness. It seems a plausible corollary to a theology predicated on a concept that God loves us personally.

    But, rationally, coldly perhaps, viewed, I have to disagree that the evidence of “near-death” experiences or mass phenomena like the whirling sun of Fatima stand as persuasive evidence of anything but personal projections. The truth is, we generally find it impossible to imagine the great neant, the nothing, the non. It seems to me that even in our eschatological speculations, our egos must have their say!

    I myself think that the Resurrection – even for a Christian – does not have to entail the idea of perpetual ipsidity (if I may be so bold as to coin a word: my well-read co-readers will know exactly what I signify). Indeed, I think that it may be very well be salutary to frame one’s life around the idea that death will indeed be the end of oneself. I do not think that it would encourage necessarily wantonness: rather it may well help put all our vanities into perspective.

    Gautama did not think speculation about the precise nature of after-death was useful. It is not that he did not think after-death was not important. Just not worth thinking about. We will die, so do good and purify while you can.

    It is true that Jesus speaks of “preparing a banquet” and the judgments of God. It would be interesting to see if what he said is reconcilable with the idea that we merge back into the divine stuff.

    I am wary of thinking that simply because we have certain psychological propensities, things must be so as we think, or hope. I can’t help feeling some theological problems – not to mention religious or pastoral ones – might be resolved if we detached ourselves from some traditional eschatological imagery.

    Anyway, these are my thoughts. What do my dear co-readers think?

    • You reflect the questions we all have. Some writings propose the idea that the consciousness of a person goes on a journey, between an existence very similar to earthly life to a continuum of ascents to being absorbed in the divine essence or universal consciousness. At that stage, we would no longer have the need of being an individual. I suppose it would be like the Nirvana of the Buddhists. Of course, there is only one way to find out! Our instinct of self-preservation will do its best to put off that revelation for as long as possible.

      There are many similarities between Hindu teachings and the more mystical visions of Christian eschatology.

      Atheists often advance the argument that we would take better care in this world if we thought or “knew” there was nothing after death. I see little sign of it. Some atheists can be good people, but are not always that optimistic about humanity.

      If anyone else would like to add something, that would enrich this conversation. I have often wondered how things would be if I were present at a séance where I could be convinced that the medium communicated with a departed soul is not cheating! We are discouraged from seeking spiritual experiences and wonders, but all my life, I have only ever gone on faith (or lack of faith).

  2. Fr Matthew Kirby says:

    Both the Scriptures and the Church Universal inform us that all practices associated with mediums claiming to communicate with the dead are evil. Interestingly, Christianity seems to have no dogmatic position as to whether what mediums ever do is what they claim or not, if I remember correctly. That is to say, whether some communication with the dead occurs sometimes or whether it’s all a mix of fakery, self-suggestion and demonic deception is not clear. However, the Catholic Faith very clearly warns against such practices and all trust in them. I am content to trust the Church and its long experience of spiritual warfare.

    The practices associated with the Communion of Saints are unrelated to the Occult, as it is accepted that, though we may address the faithful departed in prayer, they are not expected to answer, and only rarely communicate, and do so by God’s sovereign initiative.

    As for NDEs, while I have done some reading on the matter, all one can conclude is that there is persuasive evidence that a materialist, reductionist approach cannot account for all the facts, due to the apparent physical impossibility of certain mental states and knowledge acquisition. Unfortunately, since a number of the persons experiencing these could have been reasonably predicted to have recovered even while “near death” we cannot exclude the possibility that they were deliberately deceived by evil spirits taking a useful opportunity and acting as “angels of light” so to speak. This would be one way for the Enemy to encourage indifferentism, by persuading humanity that happiness awaits the dead regardless of whether they follow Christ or not. However, some NDEs are Hellish. So, without knowing what is really happening with NDEs, whether it is a foretaste of Particular Judgement or a deception of souls who aren’t really close to “crossing over” yet, this testimony is of limited value.

    What we need is the testimony of one who has certainly and fully died, stone cold dead, and then come back later to tell us what it’s all about, either directly or through representatives he has arranged for the purpose. Oh, wait, we’ve got that, haven’t we? The testimony of Christ to his Apostles, and through them, to us, teaches us that bodily Resurrection is not just a once-off event, and so neither is perpetuation of individual identity.

    We are not “Ipsum Esse” but the One who is, is a Creator, not a Swallower or a Greedy Monad. Thanks be to God.

    • I too am extremely wary about practices that can easy open us to the influence of evil spirits. You are correct about NDE’s and what we all read about them. One thing I found disturbing about being put under anaesthetic for surgery was that I experienced nothing. I was not aware or conscious. OK, that’s fine because the alternative is suffering excruciating pain from the operation! Sleep is never that profound.

      Christ … teaches … neither is perpetuation of individual identity? I have the impression that we may lose our identity, as a person in philosophical terms is composed of body and soul. On the other hand, are we sure that this is what Christ taught or what the Church teaches?

      In many of these things, I have the impression that there is the “next world” or whatever, and the Church’s teaching is only like a reproduction of that reality using a 1950’s TV camera and TV set.

      We are not “Ipsum Esse” but the One who is, is a Creator, not a Swallower or a Greedy Monad. Thanks be to God.

      Could you expand on this? I find it difficult to understand what you are trying to say.

      • One interesting thought came into my mind this morning. If communication with (or bad influence from) the dead or other dis-incarnate spirits (those who have never had bodies) is possible, then it is evidence that there are spirits beyond our material world and they have each one their identity. I have always thought the demons are stupid in a way, because, blinded by pride, they fail to make man believe only in the “material”. Another thought about matter is that quantum physicists begin to discover that matter is pure energy, from which we could infer that there is no distinction between “natural” and “supernatural”.

        Is everything already of the divine essence as the pantheists believe, creation being only a manifestation of the creator? I am not a scientist and don’t understand quantum physics, but some of those scientists are concluding the survival of consciousness beyond bodily death independently from religious belief. We as Christians need to face that reality and work with it.

      • Fr Matthew Kirby says:

        Sometimes the Scriptures seem to support a bipartite understanding of human nature, body and soul, other times tripartite, these plus spirit. However, this ambiguity does not affect the key question of personal, individual continuity. The Scriptures and Holy Tradition do teach that the soul sans body retains its identity, though the person thus lacks “fullness”. The Catholic dogmas affirming the existence of the intermediate state and plural souls within it, some of whom we invoke as distinct persons in continuity with identifiable Christians, are proof of this.

        The true assertion that our understandings of both the intermediate state and the Life beyond the General Resurrection are only partial and dim does not change the fact that they are true in what they affirm. “More” is not “contrary to”.

        My “Ipsum Esse” reference deliberately harked back to the newly coined term “ipsidity”, while noting that Existence Itself is not the only Existent or the only Self. He is a true Creator, whose plan for Creation does not involve mere Absorption, for the gifts of God are without repentance, and the granting of real though dependent existence to finite beings is such a gift according to Catholic Dogma.

      • Fr Matthew Kirby says:

        So, pantheism is in fact excluded as heterodox in the Catholic consensus.

        And I’m afraid your speculations regarding QM are entirely beside the point. My training is in science, and I can assure you that your perception of the significance of QM is very confused indeed. QM does precisely nothing to explain the qualia for example, and to assert it did would be a category error. Therefore it can neither assert nor deny conciousness apart from functioning brains.

        It is Relativity that gave us the mass-energy equivalence, by the way. You seem to think energy is some ethereal, unphysical concept. It is certainly a subtle concept, often misunderstood, but it is not “spirit”. It is a property of a material system quantified by the capacity to do work.

    • Stephen K says:

      Do the Gospels, Father Kirby, actually recount that Jesus came back to tell us what it’s all about? My understanding is that Christians do not see it necessary to believe that bodily resurrection is not just a one-off event: in the creed the Christian recites Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum, et vitam venturi saeculi which does not strictly entail this. It is our imagination, and our conventional imagery that corporealises our after-death. St Paul, in 1 Cor. 2:9, tells us that no eye has seen or ear heard or mind able to imagine what God has prepared for those that love Him. Our own experience is only that people who were once conscious cease to be so and that their body begins corrupting immediately. This would have applied to Jesus, also. Reading how Thomas was invited to place his hand in the wounds suggests Jesus was somehow embodied in his crucified form, and traditional theology explains this as a glorified body, not in its immediate post-death state or condition.

      Whatever or however Resurrection occurred on that first Easter, clearly it has never applied in a bodily sense to anyone else. I think the Easter Resurrection has to be understood in a different way than a physical resurgence of a 2 day old corpse. I think even the Gospels take care to present the event as an event of and in faith, and keep short of getting bogged down in details. Jesus died, his tomb was found empty, and his disciples saw and encountered him – that appears to be the essence of the matter.

      • Fr Matthew Kirby says:

        Yes, Jesus did, among many other things, rise again to teach us (by this mighty act and his words and giving of the Holy Spirit to the Church in consequence) what Life and Death are all about. This is not the same as saying he came to teach us all of what it is about. Note the difference.

        Unfortunately, your approach to the Creeds is fundamentally wrongheaded. You wish to exegete them merely according to a minimalist literal and grammatical sense, much like Anglicans do the 39 Articles. But, while there are compelling historic, theological and canonical reasons the Articles must be interpreted this way, the opposite is true of the Creeds. They were never intended as Dogmatic Minima, but as Dogmatic Summaries. Their interpretation is not limited to whatever might be plausibly deduced from the words in isolation, but is in fact mandatorily tied to their understanding in the Tradition, which includes Scripture. This Tradition teaches definitively that Christ’s Resurrection is the forerunner of a General Resurrection, where our distinct souls are united with distinct albeit glorified bodies, bodies which have some mysterious but real continuity with the “seed” of the earthly body.

        To put it another way, the Word did not become flesh to then abandon flesh, nor to cause us to abandon fleshliness (in the sense of flesh in John 1) for pure spirituality. We do not become angels, and we do not lose our identities and knowledge of self to become part of the Divine Essence. Note that for all of Eastern Orthodoxy’s rightful insistence on theosis, they are equally rightfully insistent that we do not ever become literally part of the Divine Essence, and in fact repudiate this as heresy.

        The statement that it is our imagination that corporealises after-death is precisely contrary to fact in our culture. The natural tendency of human imagination and human philosophy in the Western tradition (in isolation from Revelation) about after-death has been to dematerialise it to some extent. The Jewish and Christian insistence upon a general Resurrection of humans at Final Judgement was in clear opposition to the wider emphasis on a perpetual, shadowy existence of disembodied souls. It is Divine Revelation that, in addition to compelling us to submit humbly to the “scandal of particularity” surrounding the Incarnation, compels us to do the same with regard to the scandal of universality regarding human Resurrection.

        Finally, the fact that Resurrection is much more than resuscitation is undeniably true, but this truth in no way entails that individuals are submerged into an oversoul, or that resurrection must be interpreted as incorporeal for Christians. To suggest it did would be a non sequitur. St Paul teaches that our Resurrected bodies will be “spiritual”, not natural. But spiritual does not mean non-physical.

      • Fr Matthew Kirby says:

        PS: Surely you can see that the statement that “our experience” is that those once conscious cease to be so at death is absurd as an attempted generalisation?

        NDEs are evidence to the contrary for medically “reversible” deaths, whereas we can have no experience of our own to refer to for irreversible human deaths, obviously! Thus you have no strictly empirical data whatsoever to support your statement in the latter case (apart from contrary indications from the witness of Christ and the Saints), and inconsistent evidence in the former case.

      • Fr Matthew Kirby says:

        In any case, I see little point in continuing this discussion further, I’m afraid. The Catholic Faith allows a great deal of freedom in theological speculation wherever the Vincentian Canon does not apply. However, where the Tradition is clear in excluding certain positions, such as pantheism and indifferentism, and in affirming others, such as a general bodily Resurrection and the continuity of distinct persons within the Communion of Saints, our duty as Catholics is to submit with reverence and trust to Holy Tradition. For this is to trust God’s promises to the Church, and is thus supremely rational and right. I am bound by this submission, but also freed by it. As a shepherd of souls, such submission helps protect my flock, by the grace of God, from the Deceiver. I pray it will ever be thus.

      • Stephen K says:

        Thank you for your comments, Father Kirby. I take your point about the distinction between dogmatic minima and dogmatic summaries. Just a couple of places however where I think you have misinterpreted things I suggested.

        (1) my statement about our “experience” of death was perhaps inelegantly framed, but, if reframed, not absurd. It is trite and tautological to say that no-one who has not died can have a direct experience of their own death. But NDEs do not stand outside that restriction either: a ‘near-death’ experience is still not a ‘death’ experience. It is therefore equally clear that a NDE cannot tell us about the after-death – in the sense we are talking about – although they may be telling us about another phase or another kind of experience we are still trying to understand.

        So, what is ‘our’ experience? That is, the experience of the living about the dead? Our experience is truly that when other people are declared dead – and stay dead – they not only cease to show us signs they are conscious. When someone is knocked out, we say they are unconscious, when it is a condition not likely to endure. When someone is dead, we no longer say they are unconscious, but dead, meaning they won’t regain consciousness ever again i.e. for all earthly intents and purposes. If we believe the personal identity persists in what we would call ‘consciousness’ it is obviously in a disembodied manner as yet unknown to us who still live physically.

        (2) my statement that we ‘corporealise’ after-death was actually intended to mean that our imagination of ghosts and spirits seems to endow them with human form (aka the ghosts of ‘A Christmas Carol’), that’s all. If our art – whether representative or abstract – is anything to go by, we seem unable to truly imagine pure spirit unless it has shape and form of some kind. It may be true that our Western culture thinks of after-death as non-material, but certainly not as amorphic. My vocabulary fell short here, I admit.

        Finally, (3) my statement that I think that the Resurrection must be understood in a different way than the resurgence of a 2 day old corpse is not the same as your statement that Resurrection is much more than resuscitation. Mine does not assume resuscitation so easily, nor do I argue that resurrection must be interpreted as incorporeal for Christians because Jesus did something more than resuscitate. No, I meant to suggest that we should understand the concept of resurrection differently because whether it is a figure for some kind of glorified embodiment or not, I can’t see how such embodiment can serve as a motivation for Christian existence. I don’t see any non-sequitur in anything I said here.

        I accept, of course, that ultimately you have embraced as truth all that Tradition presents because you have embraced the official Church that proclaims it, and that causa finita est. On the contrary, I tend to think that causa semper aperta. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Best wishes.

      • ed pacht says:


        As I see it, our ‘experience’ regarding death tells us nothing one way or the other about what comes next. As you say, it is obvious that none of us have a genuine experience of our own death, and that NDE, in that it is not permanent is not really an experience of death, but of some other transient phenomenon. As to our experience of the death of others, what is it that we witness? Not much we can really discuss, actually. The body has ceased to function and we no longer have the kind of contact with the person that we once had. Is there, or can there be, any measurable evidence for either continuance or noncontinuance of that personality? I don’t see how there can be any. For further knowledge we require some form of revelation as our senses give us no answers.

        As to corporealeity of the departed spirits and our seeming inability to imagine ‘pure spirit’ — well, that is thoroughly imbedded in traditional Christian theology. It is a pagan Greek concept and not a historically Christian one to make the body no more than a vessel for the spirit, which latter is seen as the essential person. God breathed the breath of life into the clay and Adam ‘became a living soul’. Thus a disembodied spirit remains conceptually joined to its body, waiting for its reunion with that body at the resurrection that we profess in both creeds.

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    For an exciting, even hair-raising book, which we know R.H. Benson wrote, about ‘spiritualism’ and “practices that can easily open us to the influence of evil spirits”, allow me to recommend his novel, The Necromancers (available online at Internet Archive). Interestingly, we know from his early Arthurian Commonplace Book that Charles Williams, who later used vivid imaginations of after-death experience in such novels as War in Heaven, Descent into Hell, and All Hallows’s Eve, and in the plays, Terror of Light, and The House of the Octopus, knew this novel of Benson’s.

    A philosophical theologian friend, who knows a lot more about the relevant physiology than I do, once told me that all of the instances recorded in the Bible of someone who has certainly and fully died, stone cold dead, and then come back later in a way including the physical resurgence of his or her X-day old corpse – such as Lazarus, the widow’s son, Jairus’ daughter, the son of the widow of Zarephath, Dorcas, and so on – are strictly miraculous, given changes ordinarily irreversible. All such presumably died again, a second time, and stayed that way with repect to their bodies. The Resurrection of Our Lord was of another kind, with corporeal continuity but transformed in a final way.

    Attention to “soul” and “spirit” * (1 Thessalonians 5:23), ‘mind’, and ‘consciousness’, in possible relations to, and distinctions from, the continuum of matter and energy (as currently understood), and to ‘Superessentiality’ (as used in the Corpus Areopagitica) in relation to, and distinction from, all created ‘being’, all invite our attention in this context.

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