Chapter 3: A Wife’s Premature Death: The Question of Immortality

When A Person Dies: Pastoral Theology in Death Experiences
by Robert L. Kinast

Chapter 3: A Wife’s Premature Death: The Question of Immortality


A thirty-five-year-old man is sitting in front of the fireplace in his home. It is about 10:00 P.M. The only sounds are the muffled sigh of the burning logs and the occasional wail of the wind outside. It had been cold earlier that day when he buried his wife who had died after struggling for three years against cancer. Their children were staying with his mother-in-law for the night. He welcomed the quiet, the stillness, the time alone. Just then the doorbell rang.

The husband had a pretty good idea who would be on the other side when he opened the door. He invited his pastor in and they sat by the fire, sipping coffee and sharing periods of silence together. The husband seemed to be in control of his feelings and wanted to reflect on what his married life, and especially the last three years, had come to mean.

He and his wife had been married for ten years. They met when he was a commercial airline pilot and she was a flight attendant. They found they had a lot in common, including a strong religious background. They created a deep, loving, compatible relationship and felt their marriage had been very blessed, particularly with their children.

About three years ago the wife had gone for a medical examination because she had not been feeling quite right. She seemed lethargic and had lost some weight. A series of tests revealed that she had cancer, and her prognosis was not good. That news was shocking to her. At first, she thought of not telling her husband. She herself didn’t want to believe it was true or that it was as serious as the doctors indicated. Probably something could be done upon further testing, or maybe if she went on some special diet or therapy, the cancer would clear up.

But she couldn’t hide her concern, and her husband sensed something was wrong. She hedged, not wanting to worry him or perhaps hear herself say it. This made her feel more uncomfortable, as if she were cheating on him, but she just couldn’t believe this was happening. She began to think that maybe God could intervene or that she could be a living sign of God’s miraculous power. Maybe God wanted to use her; maybe God was asking something very special of her. She didn’t usually think of God like this, but other people seemed to be used in this way. She became more and more confused; then she decided one day to go to her pastor.

She did not know him very well, but she had been impressed by him. He seemed sensitive, concerned, and "with it." Comments from other parishioners confirmed her impression. When she first went to him, she really didn’t know what she expected. She just hoped that he could help. He did.

They talked initially about her feelings and her reasons for not telling her husband. The pastor described the typical stages people go through when they are faced with an impending and untimely death. She quickly realized that she had been denying the facts or trying to bargain with God to remove them. Under the pastor’s skilled lead, she saw for herself that what she needed to do was accept her death. She also acknowledged that she couldn’t do that alone. She needed her husband. And the pastor pledged his support as well.

The first several months after she shared the news with her husband were very trying. They both felt awkward and self-conscious. They became overly sensitive to cliches like "over my dead body" or "drop dead" or when someone would say something about their children graduating from school or planning a career. In general, they were interpreting their lives in a very solemn and sad way.

It was a struggle but with their own good will, effort, and prayer, with the help of available resources, and especially the consistent support and presence of the pastor, they began to emerge to a new level of acceptance. They could speak about death openly. They talked with their children about what the future would be like without their mother; they grew in sensitivity and appreciation of one another and life and everyday events; and most of all, they deepened their experience of sharing one life with God.

Near the end of her life, while she was in the hospital, the pastor visited regularly and kept in touch with her husband. They both felt as though the pastor had shared their experience as fully as a third person could, and they knew his presence had kept their faith strong. When she died, her husband and the pastor were both present, just as they were that morning at the funeral liturgy.

Now that the long period of adjusting and waiting was over, the husband and the pastor wanted to be with each other, to put a final, personal closure on their experience. They knew they had been through something together that was very profound, very unique, something that would change both of them as few other experiences could. The husband seemed most in touch with what it was.

He mentioned that since she died, he had a new sense of his wife’s presence in his life. It was a very real presence, not just a memory of her or reminders of how she would say and do things. That too was present and painful, because she was no longer here in that way and never would be again. It was the "and never would be again" that clutched at his heart and thickened his throat and brought tears to his eyes.

But along with those deeply human reactions, there was this other feeling of her real presence. It was strange, although peaceful. And it was unexpected, almost like a gift. This experience led him to ask questions: Am I just imagining this or is there really a new kind of presence I share with her? Does she feel the same thing? Does she feel anything? What kind of experience do the dead have? Do we share in it? What really happens to us after we die? And when I die, will I meet her? Will we be united and know each other? The questions went unanswered as both the husband and the pastor sat before this mystery and stared at the fire.

Theological Question

The questions that the husband asked are all part of the general question of immortality or afterlife. The questions arose for him because of a new experience he had of his wife after her death. Even though he had anticipated her death, the actual experience was different. There were some feelings he had not expected at all. And these led him in a new way into an area of his belief that he had always affirmed and accepted without too much exploration -- immortality.

Now, however, immortality took on special importance. It was more than another item in the Christian creed or part of a general value system and interpretation of life. Now, immortality had to do with his wife and their relationship. Often we hear and analyze and affirm certain things, especially elements of our faith, and not really feel their significance until an actual experience makes them relevant to us. But in that existential moment, what we have previously heard or understood may not seem very relevant to the experience itself, or we can’t recall anything that may be pertinent from what we know. There is a continual interplay between our experience and our previous learning/reflection. Each helps us appropriate the other in a new way and perhaps see things we never saw before. Every actual experience is a new opportunity to affirm our faith and to understand what it means.

In this case, the question of immortality is threefold. First there is the question of fact. Are we immortal? Do we live on after our death? There is no clear proof to decide this question once and for all. Philosophical and theological arguments in favor of immortality are not self-evident. Everything depends on how the available evidence is interpreted, whether the interpretation comes from the nature of the soul or the promise of God or the resurrection of Jesus. Whether immortality is a fact or not is something we must decide upon. This is one of the reasons why death is threatening to many of us. We don’t know for sure if there is any life for us after death. We may believe it in faith or be convinced of it intellectually, but we don’t have absolute certitude. So when a loved one dies, we feel the question, as the husband did: Is my wife really alive and present or is it my imagination?

The second question about immortality, presuming there is an afterlife, is: What is it like? What is the experience of living after death? Are we conscious and if so, are we conscious all the time or intermittently? Are we conscious of ourselves only, of others who have died, of God? Do we feel space, time, size, location? Is our awareness clear and immediate and concrete or is it vague, dreamy, loose? Are there emotions? Do we change? Is it essentially a continuation of this life or is it a radically new, unimaginable experience? The questions are as extensive as our present experience of life because what we really are asking is how similar afterlife is to our present life.

Many people feel they get a glimpse into this experience when they read (or themselves experience) the accounts of near-death experience. These accounts are undoubtedly revealing and intriguing, but since the persons who had the experience did not fully die, it is hard to conclude much from them about the experience after death. The accounts are limited to beginning a transition from this life to an afterlife.

The third question is clearly related to the second. Is the afterlife connected with the present life? Do those who have died continue to relate to those who have not died? And if so, what is this relationship? How extensive is it? And is it reciprocal? In the first chapter, the grandmother expressed her conviction that she would continue to relate to her loved ones after her death. She envisioned a very close connection between this life and the next. In the present chapter, the husband indicates that he feels his wife still relating to him but in a new way. Is the grandmother’s expectation correct or only wishful thinking? Is the husband accurate or only imagining?

The aim of theology is to respond to these questions as clearly and accurately as possible. But this is not easy because theology doesn’t have much to go on. God has not been very specific about the experience of the afterlife or the connection between that life and this one. Much is left to our speculation, and speculation on the unknown can give rise to some very inaccurate conclusions. Nonetheless, these are important questions, and theology should have something helpful to say about them. It may even have something new to say.

Theological Reflection

Theology’s typical response to the threefold question of immortality is drawn from a combination of philosophy (mostly Greek) and theology (mostly biblical). Philosophy is used to argue that at least the soul is immortal. This is because the soul has no parts. It is, in a technical sense, simple, i.e., uncomposed. Hence, it cannot disintegrate or break apart or die. In this sense, the soul is immortal.

In addition, the soul is understood to be spiritual, i.e., it is not confined to the space-time context of matter. Although the soul is united to the body during a person’s earthly life, it is capable of transcending that relationship and existing apart from space and time altogether. Indeed, in the Greek conception of things, this was the goal of soul life: to escape the created world of space and time in order to abide in its proper state of contemplative perfection.

This vision of the ultimate destiny of the soul accented its quality as intelligent and self-conscious. It is the soul that sees, understands, intuits, speculates, and contemplates. These are taken as the highest perfections of the soul and are approximated only slightly in this life, but they may be exercised more fully in the next. In such a view, this life, especially in its material, changing, limiting aspects, is seen as negative. There is no loss in death because all the forces that inhibit the soul’s development are discarded. Death is a liberating event that allows the soul to achieve its own potential. Much of this negative attitude toward the material world infiltrated Christian theology, but it never entirely supplanted the biblical appreciation of wholeness and unity, as we shall see.

This cluster of soul attributes frames an image of what life after death may be like. It is unending because the soul cannot die. There is nothing in it that can disintegrate or be dismantled. Similarly, afterlife is unchanging. This does not mean inactive or static. It means that there is no shifting from one condition to another, from good to bad, better to worse, perfection to imperfection. Thus, there is no hunger, no illness, no weariness, no aging, no forgetting, no misunderstanding, etc. Within the range of experience proper to the soul, there is only that type of experience, but also within this range there is constant freshness, intensification, growth, satisfaction, delight.

The most important characteristic of afterlife derived from this philosophical view of the soul is that it is conscious. The afterlife is a fully aware experience. This means that our self-awareness, our consciousness that we are acting subjects/persons is also true of our afterlife existence. Thus, the deepest sense we have of ourselves as living beings in time is how we perceive ourselves all the time in the afterlife. Of course, it is hard to imagine an afterlife that would have much interest for us if it were not conscious. But from a strictly philosophical point of view, whether we want a conscious afterlife or not, the nature of the soul insures it.

On the whole, this view of the afterlife has not been terribly appealing to most people. It sounds so removed, so distant, so abstract when compared with the human experiences that mean the most to us. Sometimes this view has even led people to deny their best human experiences and to try to act in this life as if they were already in the next life. But apart from such aberrations, this vision of afterlife just seems boring and not very attractive. And that is understandable because this description does not present the whole picture. A typical theology of immortality, drawing upon divine revelation as well as Creek philosophy, does present the whole picture.

There is more to the human person than the soul. This is what God has revealed to us, and theology affirms it by remaining in touch with God’s revelation in Scripture. The decisive testimony for Christians, of course, in this regard comes in reference to Jesus and what happened after his death. This central mystery of Christian belief is not easily or totally understood, nor do the Scriptures present a unified, crystal-clear explanation. What they do say, however, is that Jesus truly lives after his death, and it is the same, whole Jesus who lives, although he is now in a radically new relationship both to God and to his friends.

The primary way the Scriptures describe this is through the language and imagery of resurrection, which in turn is based on the experience of waking from sleep or coming to consciousness from an unconscious state. This was not completely adequate to express the first believers’ experience of the event, but it seemed to be more adequate than any other language at their disposal. The first believers were limited by their actual condition too. Resurrection certainly implies that there is life after death, just as there is waking after sleep. And resurrection assumes that it is the same, whole person who lives just as it is the same, whole person who awakens.

Resurrection does not express quite so clearly or obviously that the resurrected one is in a radically new relationship with others. In fact, resurrection is more likely to suggest that a person is resuscitated, renewed, restored to the same, even if refreshed, relationship as before. The resurrection of Jesus is something other than this. Of course, what examples or language drawn from our experience in this life would be adequate to express an experience none of us has had? The challenge in using resurrection language is to remember that resurrection means a new relationship.

This is where the philosophical notion of immortality connects. Resurrection and immortality are not exactly the same. Immortality defines the nature, the essence of something (like the soul) because of what it already is. It will never die or cease to be. But something could be immortal without being resurrected. Resurrection refers to a particular way of becoming immortal -- not by nature but by a special act. The act is special because it is not necessary and because it cannot be performed by the one who is resurrected. Typical theology expresses these two characteristics of resurrection as grace and divine power.

Thus, the resurrection of Jesus means that God graciously raised Jesus from death to immortal life. In doing so, God bestowed on Jesus a new relationship, one we acknowledge by the title Lord. In the resurrection of Jesus, Christians believe, God also revealed the destiny intended for each one of us. Beyond these assertions, a typical theology of immortality can’t be much more specific. It can, however, speculate. If we were to speculate further about immortality using the general relational approach of the previous chapters, what else might we say?

In a thoroughly relational view, everything depends on the relations. As long as a person, like the wife, is in relationship (to her husband, to the pastor, to her children, etc.), she is actual or alive. But when she dies, her relationality appears to die with her. She is no longer an active, deciding, feeling, responding agent. This does not mean that her death has no meaning. As described in chapter one, her death has meaning for God, for herself, and for others, but it is the meaning of her life as lived. That is finalized at death. When the conditions that enable her to relate break down and stop functioning, she dies -- she ceases to be in active relationship.

In such a view, there is no natural, necessary immortality, as in the classic philosophical view. There is no aspect of the wife’s relationality that somehow transcends the structure of her relationships and continues to exist on its own. She is what her relationships have been, and apart from them she is no longer. This is another way of saying that death is the end of our earthly journey. We truly cease to become when we die.

If immortality is to be maintained consistently in this approach, it must come from a source other than the person who dies. The survivors cannot bestow immortality. Even if they could keep the wife alive in memory for a while, they themselves are mortal, and eventually the memory would fade as it is passed on. Whatever immortality this kind of action generates, it would eventually cease. What about famous people whose memory is kept alive and passed on, or others whose descendants culturally honor their memory without letting it fade? What is being remembered in these instances? The whole person or only selected moments, experiences, accomplishments? Surely the latter. So whatever immortality we can bestow on others is at best temporary and partial.

The same is not true for God. As chapter one pointed out, God relates to everyone and everything fully. God has a perfect, complete relation to everyone who lives. In the case of the wife, God knows her actual existence fully, more fully than she herself. God relates to her in all her relationships and keeps them alive in God’s awareness or experience. To speak in human terms, if God wanted to, God could reenact her whole life once it has been lived. Would God want to do such a thing?

The answer seems to be, yes. Why? In order to give back to us what we originally gave God -- our experience, our concrete existence. our selves, except that in this return gift, there is something new. During her lifetime, the wife’s experience was primarily an experience of her selfhood. This does not mean she was selfish or doted on her own feelings. It simply means that she was an acting, feeling, thinking subject. She was the center of her existence. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have been a person at all but a certain amount of energy or matter that would have been part of the total world but in no sense identifiable as this woman.

To be a subject is to be centered, to have a core of experience from which to relate to anything else. This core or center is one’s selfhood. As relationships change, the experience of oneself changes, but throughout there is a centering core that remains our selfhood. We recognize this process in stages of development, maturity, crisis, transition, etc. Relationships weave in and around ourself, constituting our actual existence. Everything that a person, like the wife, is in relation to is experienced as happening to her. In one very real sense, the whole world pivots around her; the way she experiences that world is her existence, her life, her selfhood. This is not by choice or an option; it is the nature of life in a relational world.

Now, according to what was stated in chapter one, the way the wife experienced her world, i.e., the world as centered around her, is a contribution to God and through God to others. It is a contribution because it is a unique experience of the world that only this woman will generate, and so it adds to God’s total experience or relationship. This is what God gives back to us -- our experience, our selves as God experiences us. This is the radically new element that God provides, that God alone can provide, and that gives us immortality because nothing In God’s experience ever fades or weakens or disappears.

So in answer to the first question about immortality -- does it exist -- a relational view would answer: If it does, it’s only because of God. This may seem evasive. It is, insofar as our own desire for immortality dominates the question. But Insofar as the primacy of God dominates, the answer is very clear and emphatic. God alone is responsible for immortality because God alone knows our actual selves so perfectly that God could reenact it and give it back to us. If God were to do so, what would that experience be like?

It would be the exact reverse of the experience a person, like the wife, had while alive. While alive, her experience was centered around her selfhood. The world existed for her insofar as it provided the material out of which she fashioned her relationships. And those relationships are who she is. Now that she has finally become who she is, her actual life is for the world -- or more accurately, for God and through God for the world. During her life, she could never experience herself in this way because to be living Is to be the center of her own existence. So for the first time she can experience herself as only for others. This may also be described as a feeling of being-with others as they continue to experience their world (including her) for themselves.

Seen in this way, there is a radically new relationship established after the wife’s death. It is a relationship that is possible, in its full sense, only after her death. If she is freed from anything through death, it is not the world as such, as the Greeks thought. It is the direction of her relationship to the world. Instead of the world being for her, she is now for the world. And she is for the world not as an element like any other (as one atom is like every other atom), but she is for the world precisely in her unique, actual, finalized experience. She cannot know what this is, but God does and that is what God gives back to us, something we cannot give ourselves. The reversal of relationship does not change her final experience of herself but situates it differently -- not in the particular series of occasions that constituted her life but in the ongoing mixture of occasions that constitutes others’ lives.

The reversal of relationship cannot be accomplished by the wife or by anyone else except God. Both God and others, however, have different contributions to make once the relationship has been reversed. God gives the wife back to herself as a whole because only God has experienced her as a whole. Others give her back to herself concretely, in particular, definite aspects because that is how they experienced her. God, of course, also knows what this experience is because God experiences everything and everyone fully. But because these concrete, actual experiences were initially generated in relation to particular persons, those persons can more effectively give them back to the wife. Thus, the particular feelings of her husband for her, what it is about her that especially delights him, how he would feel when she was around -- these types of experiences are brought into greater relief and intensified within the whole that God alone can give back to her. In this way, through God and others, the wife experiences herself anew; she has a radically new relation to the world; and she becomes immortal because God constantly reenacts her life experience even if others do not.

From this perspective, it is clear that her immortal life has a connection with this life. What that connection is, including the possibility of reunion with her husband when he dies, will be explained more fully in chapter five. Underlying this whole relational view is the conviction that everything is always related to everything else. The form of the relationship may alter, even radically; the quality or level of the experience in the relationship may change, even radically; but everything is interrelated or interdependent.

The foregoing is admittedly speculative. It seeks to be consistent with a relational view of life and to affirm what our faith reveals. In summary, we can say that an afterlife is not automatic or necessary or natural. It requires a special act of God. That act is manifested in the life of Jesus. What is described biblically as the resurrection may also be described as a radical reversal of a person’s relationship to the world. Instead of the world being for us, death enables us to be for the world, and God gives us back to ourselves in this radically reversed relationship. In doing so, God gives us back to ourselves as a whole, while those we related to in life give us back to ourselves concretely and specifically.

In this whole explanation, God is the primary and indispensable factor. Without God, most of our experience would simply be lost once it had occurred. Without God, there would be no possibility of genuine immortality. Without God, there would be no lasting connection between this life and the afterlife. If this is true as presented in the theological reflection above, does it shed any light on the husband’s experience and questions?

Practical Implication

The husband’s dominant feeling after the funeral was a new presence of his wife to him. He didn’t expect that and wasn’t sure if it was real or his imagination. Such an experience leads directly to the relational explanation offered above. From that perspective, when his wife died, he should have expected to feel her presence in a new way because she is in a new relationship to him. Death enables her to become fully for him (and others). This does not mean she wasn’t for him during her life. It means that while she lived, she was necessarily the organizing, unifying center of her life. From that indispensable core of her own becoming, she could be for him. Now that her becoming has ceased, she can be for him totally. Whatever that is specifically, he is feeling it both as real and as new.

There is another important aspect to this new experience. It is ultimately made possible by God’s gracious power to bestow immortality. If the husband is experiencing his wife now as immortal, it is because of God. But God’s causality in such an event is not external, remote, or predestined. It is like everything else in this view: relational, present, intimate. So, the husband is experiencing not just his wife in a new way but God as well, and he experiences God in a new way because his wife’s death, immortality, and presence are made possible only by God’s relational activity.

Finally, it could be suggested to the husband that his experience of his wife is not just receptive. His reaffirmation of her, his memory and feeling for her, his reenacting her presence is also a contribution to her immortal experience. He gives her back to herself in many specific, concrete ways, all of which let her know what she contributes to him. This knowledge is not like acquiring new information, which is characteristic of life before death. Instead it is a sense or feeling of what she has become for him. Without him, she would not know that concretely. And without God, she wouldn’t even be.