Why do some Christians die a terrible death? The late Basilea Schlink explains in her book What Comes After Death?
Who will come for us in the hour of our death? A parish worker once related bow she had served for many years in a church that had a reputation for being especially ‘religious’ – the members were born-again believers. Yet at the deathbeds of some of these church members she was deeply distressed to see old people, believing Christians, die a terrible death. Indeed, the power of darkness could be sensed in the rooms of the dying. Later this woman was transferred to another church where the members were God-fearing in the truest sense of the word. And she noticed that the sick there usually had a much easier death. What could be the explanation? Jesus says, ‘Not every one who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven’ (Matthew 7:21). Thus in the second church the members may have had less knowledge of God, but what little they knew they put into practice with God-fearing hearts. In the especially ‘religious’ church, on the other hand, the people may have known much, but done little – the great danger for us believers at all times. This is how Satan gains such power!
Those who are convinced that the angels of God will carry them into the kingdom of glory in the hour of death will have a terrible shock if instead they have to hear and experience Jesus’ verdict one day that the first are now the last and vice versa. God revealed this truth most vividly to one of the fathers of Pietism, Jung-Stilling. In his well-known book about scenes from the realm of spirits, Szenen aus dem Geisterreiche, Jung-Stilling depicts a few figures wandering about confusedly in the realm of shadows, lonely and unhappy. Significantly enough, all of them had been believers, contemporaries of Jung-Stilling.
One of them complains, ‘I am at a loss as to what to say. It was our firm conviction that we would be given precedence in going to heaven. But can you imagine, brother, I saw that many of those whom we did not think were born-again have been led by the angels in triumph into the kingdom of the blessed. But so far no angel has taken any notice of me.’
Of another soul wandering about sad and forlorn in this realm of shadows, it is said, ‘A short while ago he approached one of the heavenly messengers, but the poor soul was burled far away by the electric shock that proceeded from the angel like a bolt of lightning.’
The souls are utterly bewildered at all this, for they had held this particular man in high esteem. ‘His gift of eloquence and knowledge was so great that we acknowledged him as our leader. His exemplary life in the presence of God, his detachment from the world and his faithfulness in pointing out what was amiss in our lives convinced us all that he would receive a glorious inheritance here!’ Instead this soul and all the others drift about in the realm of shadows in darkness, looking wretched and emaciated. No angel deems them worthy of a glance, for there is no trace of Jesus’ image to be seen in them.
One of them says, ‘If deception is still possible here, then the Word of God is not the Word of God! No, I believe that the souls whom we saw being taken away were being conveyed to places of purification. Perhaps it is evil spirits who have come for them in the guise of angels of light!’
The second replies, ‘That’s not the way it seems to me!’ But their conversation does not lead them to any conclusion.
Then a third calls out, ‘What do I see there? What glorious beings are these descending the mountains in the light of the rising sun?’
‘They are angels who judge the souls [by this a preliminary judgment is meant]. Would you like a look?’
‘Do you see Brother E. standing before the angel? 0 Lord, he’s shrinking into a dwarf! Now a flame is shooting out of him! Do you see the terrible things in the red flame?’
‘It is awful! Almighty, merciful God! He’s changing into a monster . . . .’ [His appearance now reflects his true self and being, which was so evil.]
The souls in the realm of shadows continue their conversation. ‘See how he flies away into the night with a hissing sound, as though the flame were singeing him!’
The deceased now see another angel standing before a soul, who begins to glow with an aura of ever-increasing light. One of the deceased says, ‘I know him. Is that not the schoolmaster Elias? He was very ill when 1 died. But surely that cannot be him. This soul is so transfigured, he looks like a saint. But the schoolmaster was not even born-again!’
An angel draws close to them. ‘Yes, this indeed was the schoolmaster Elias. Now he is a prince in the land of the righteous and his inheritance is magnificent.’
The first soul addresses the angel, saying, ‘Excuse me, O glorious one, if I may be so bold as to ask you a question. We cannot understand how this schoolmaster can go to heaven, when he was not even born-again. Don’t the angels know what “born-again” means?’
The angel replied, ‘Whether we know it or not is not the question – rather whether you know it.’
The believer answered, ‘Praise God! I know it, for I have been born-again for over forty years. A person is born again when he recognizes his sinful wretchedness and repents wholeheartedly of his extremely corrupt state, turning to God and Christ in all sincerity.’
Now comes the most crucial point in the angel’s reply: ‘The concept in itself is perfectly right and the commandment it contains is a welcome duty to those who wish to go to heaven. But you sought to fulfil your religious duties solely with pious devotions, Bible reading, praying and hymn-singing. To be sure, you avoided the more obvious sins, but you harboured and fostered the more subtle ones, which are far worse – spiritual pride, feigned humility, disdain and criticism of those who were better than you. And not only have you done so, but you have considered it to be zeal for the House of God. You have always taken pains to know what to do in order to please God, but you have taken this knowledge for action.’
Do we too take our knowledge for action?
The angel went on to say, ‘All mortification and crucifixion [of self] without true and active love is an abomination to God, for it only fosters pride. Who goes to further lengths in the mortification of all desires of the flesh than the fakirs in India? But who is more proud? As long as you have not cut off this source of pride and faultfinding in yourself, you cannot go to heaven.’
Thereupon came the answer of the souls in the realm of shadows, revealing their deep-seated pride. ‘But in our soul we had the deep assurance of being children of God and the Spirit bore witness to us of this!’ .
‘The true witness of being a child of God,’ rejoined the angel, ‘is expressed in heartfelt humility. Remember how good the Pharisee felt in his heart when he could say, “God, I thank Thee that I am not like other men, that I am not a sinner like this tax collector.” But how can this confidence [this superior attitude and spirit of criticism] be a witness of being a child of God? You have all been exposed before the judgment seat of the Sovereign of the world; your innermost heart has been laid bare and you can see your whole life lying before you with the utmost clarity and yet in your pride you aim higher still, laying claim to the Kingdom of God. Beware that you do not fall under the judgment of the rebels!’
But even at this admonition these believers had only a pious answer. Then the angel began to shine most frighteningly. ‘Depart with haste, so that the wrathful fire of the Most High does not cast you into the outermost darkness! You think that your love is stronger than hell, but you have not even begun to love. Begone!’
Behind this scene depicted by Jung-Stilling are biblical truths. Jesus loves us and has paid a high price for our redemption. How much then must He yearn to take us into His kingdom as the fruit of His suffering and receive us there with the words, ‘Come, 0 blessed of my Father. Enter into the joy of your master!’ (Matthew 25:34, 21).
But what a grief it is for Jesus when, in spite of His precious sacrifice, souls that He has redeemed cannot enter His kingdom, even though they counted themselves among the believers! Much to Jesus’ grief such believers did not take to heart the words, ‘Depart!’ and ‘I do not know you’, which He spoke time and again as a warning for those who were so sure that they belonged to Him. They took their knowledge for action, as the angel said. They were so confident that the gates of the Kingdom of God would be open for them and that they would be present at the Marriage Feast of the Lamb.
Let us remember the parable of the ten virgins – ‘five of them were foolish’. The foolish virgins never imagined it possible that the door could be closed to them one day, for had they not gone out to meet the Bridegroom? Thus we could liken them to devout people who read the Bible, pray and are active in evangelistic outreach. ‘On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers”‘ (Matthew 7:22f). They incur such a severe verdict, since they had forgotten to do the simplest things that are expected of a disciple of Jesus, that is, of a believer: they had failed to do His will and obey His commandments not to criticize, quarrel, be angry or irreconciled, embittered, proud or condemning.
It was on account of these very sins that Jesus’ wrath came upon the religious people of His day, the Pharisees. They clung to their sins, they continued to transgress without any qualms and refused to recognize Him as the Saviour, who had come to save and deliver those who grieve over their sins. Although it is an irrefutable fact that, as the Victor over Death, Jesus has delivered us from Death and the kingdom of the dead, we must claim this redemption and Jet it be manifest in our lives. Otherwise the hour of death will disclose that we did not truly believe in Jesus.
A true and living faith in Jesus Christ keeps us in constant touch with Him, the living Lord. The person that truly believes is convicted by the Holy Spirit of the sins he commits day by day- an experience that brings him to contrition and repentance. This in turn will drive him ever anew to Jesus, for as a sinful being who continually heaps fresh guilt upon himself he has to claim Jesus’ redemption daily. This kind of faith bears the opposite characteristic to the faith of the proud, faultfinding believers in Jung-Stilling’s book. Humility is its salient feature, a broken and contrite heart that does not criticize and condemn others or become aloof with a feeling of superiority, but rather seeks to be reconciled in humble love.
Soon the hour will come when Death will stand at our deathbed, when he will unmask and accuse us. Like all other princes of darkness he is probably granted the right to accuse souls; for as it is written in Revelation 12:10, Satan can even come before God to accuse men. Whenever he has an opportunity to accuse a soul, he laughs scornfully and exults with his demons, while Jesus and His angels mourn. But there is joy in heaven when a soul repents- even if it be at the very last moment as with the thief on the cross. Then the soul will experience that Jesus is the Victor over Death and has deprived the accuser of his power.