Deathbed doubts among the devout
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The pastor at Fiona’s funeral shared some surprising comments about his final visits with her. He mentioned the worries she’d shared with him and the frustrating sense of inadequacy that had filled her with fear and dread.
She’d described herself as a fragile earthen vessel, a leaky container unworthy of the living water she so believed she was created to pour out. She was afraid of the discomforts of dying, and she also harboured fears of death itself.
Fiona’s dismay came as a surprise to all who knew her. The kind woman had lived a full, largely joyful Christian life. She had been hospitable, productive and much appreciated, surrounded and supported by friends, family, church, career and community connections. She had borne chronic illness with rare grace.
She was a very good person to whom God was mightily important.
Yet in her waning days, her imperfections rose to the surface, doubts dominated and she didn’t feel ready to meet God. For decades she’d sung of her faith’s "blessed assurance" with great joy, but just when the pearly gates should have been coming into view, her confidence evaporated into question marks.
Fiona’s experience is not unusual. Anxiety about mortality is part of the human condition, a universal fear factor. This reality is helpfully addressed by all major religions and belief systems, and their explanations offer hope to both the dying and the grieving. They help make sense of the dark mystery.
But the unwelcome truth is that religious tenets do not always satisfy in the hour of death. Their help sometimes dissipates in times of deepest need.
Scholars have documented the mixed experiences of religious people. Multiple studies show religious people are often more afraid of death than nonreligious people. Many of the same studies also show religions provide a range of resources that can enable people to die well.
The ultimate consolation for many is the hope of heaven, a positive response to the mystery of death. Christians believe heaven is a place where the troubles of the world will be no more, struggles finally cease, conflicts vanish, pain is extinct, the weary find rest at last, and where humanity’s creative purpose is unleashed in joyful perpetuity.
But the welcome respite of heaven can only be claimed at the cost of the lives we hold so dear and cling to so tenaciously. Getting to heaven is hard — it demands death. Death is the end of all that we know for sure, and while it releases a human body from the travails of the world, it also begs the question of the hereafter.
What really does come next?
Any ideas about what happens to souls after their bodies cease to function are matters of faith, not knowledge. A true atheist will express absolute certainty that death is followed by nothing but the deterioration of a body devoid of breath. Most Evangelicals will be just as firm about the physical existence of both heaven and hell. We may hold opinions and beliefs about life after death with varying degrees of self-assurance, but no one can claim certainty based on scientific evidence.
So why do some of the most devout and committed Christian believers approach the end with terror troubling their souls? Why did Fiona experience so much doubt, guilt and regret as her end drew near? What happened to the stalwart faith she’d carried so comfortably all her life?
Like many Evangelicals, Fiona’s spiritual formation took place in the bosom of a church that was very clear in its teachings about both beliefs and behaviour. Such settings do foster genuine community for those who accept their parameters, often building an important sense of security and stimulating helpful service.
The flipside of belonging, however, is the fear of exclusion. In many faith traditions the boundaries are clearly marked, and conformity is de rigueur. Many of us learned of the consolation of heaven in contrast with the horrors of hell, and saw vehement rejection of doctrines deemed unacceptable.
In many communities anyone significantly out of step with the system is considered outside the protective fold. To behave or believe incorrectly, therefore, appears to be a ticket to damnation — eternal separation from God.
If this spectre of being excluded is a significant part of a person’s spiritual formation, it’s no wonder fears arise when their earthly end is imminent. It will be entirely natural to question whether or not they got it right. God alone will know for certain, yet God is also known to consign people to destruction. Even the most devoted will ask if they are truly on the inside, and many will be concerned about being left on the outside looking in.
The fear of eternal alienation from God is compounded by feelings of guilt that surface whenever people consider their own behaviour in the light of God’s perfection. To reflect on these things is to spotlight a great gap that can be fearsome to consider, like a person afraid of heights unable to step onto the glass floor in the CN Tower.
Many of us have learned codes of conduct from our religious communities, lists of things to do or not to do. Deviation invites censure, the judgment of a congregation where belonging depends on living up to certain standards. Failure to conform is seen as sinful, and sin builds barriers between God and humanity.
This is a scary thought, if only because none of us ever manages to live by all the codes. Our accomplishments rarely rate well when measured against even our own holy aspirations. The alarming dissonance stirs a clamour of fear deep within every sinner’s soul. "Was I good enough?"
It’s normal for people anticipating death to conduct some form of life review and moral inventory. In the process the abyss between expectation and performance looms dangerous, and although many of the regrets that arise on deathbeds appear petty in the grand scheme of things, specks of impurity long since forgiven may still seethe toxic in unsettled souls. It’s sad.
People dying with spiritual angst of that sort (and their families) appear to be projecting onto God some of the rigidity of their own religiosity. Amazing grace can feel sadly elusive.
Like a prone Isaiah lamenting his unworthiness, the very thought of an encounter with the living God causes many righteous and religious people to feel unfit for eternity. They know they are not good enough. They recognize their deficiencies and disqualify themselves.
People with less restrictive moral codes often don’t feel such stress. Nor do many nonreligious people whose regrets aren’t compounded by a detailed knowledge of God’s standards or their eternal destination.
BRIDGING THE GAP
Does this mean devout faith is a problem? Not at all. The same studies that link religiosity with mortality anxiety also reveal the deeply held convictions of religious people offer better preparation for death than anything else. Wholesome morals do generate good ethics and contented souls. The promise of perfect peace and rest is a wonderful comfort, an enduring hope and profound consolation.
Although what people believe is important, how those convictions are incorporated often has a greater influence on their last days. To believe is so much more than assent to certain tenets. It is to live with such natural confidence in your religious faith that it becomes a habitual posture that shapes a person’s self-expression and informs their calling like wind in a sail.
Those who embrace religion primarily as a means to an end are more apt to struggle when doubts arise — for example, those who accept proper doctrine in exchange for eternal life, or good conduct for wholesome community. A cosmic contract with little flexibility and few loopholes offers a formulaic approach that does not properly account for the complexities of life, and is a seedbed for fear and frustration.
Those who integrate their faith into their very being, on the other hand, are apt to be more at peace. The end is less fearful when a person’s beliefs have migrated from head known to heartfelt, and are naturally expressed in lifestyles and patterns of thinking that reflect deep confidence in the teachings of Jesus.
"Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:28–30).
It’s also instructive to observe that Jesus struggled mightily with the religiously rigid rulers of His era, and the Apostle Paul expended considerable energy to promote fewer rule-bound understandings of access to God’s grace. "The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life" (2 Corinthians 3:6).
Fiona’s struggle to reconcile the contradictions of her conscience and conduct may well have moved her with fear and trembling to the comforting conclusion that God’s greatness embraces the paradox that righteousness and justice can coexist.
It’s okay for us to tremble in the unsettling (yet ultimately restorative) truth that God’s forgiveness is often experienced through discomfiting personal awareness of our misdeeds, bad attitudes and moral failures – of our sin. We do well to acknowledge the weight of our guilt, for this is the very posture that beckons God’s mercy, the portal of Christian hope.
Integrated Christians embody the liberating truth that the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever. They feel in their bones God’s compassion extends beyond the heavens, and are fully confident forgiveness is embedded in the divine nature. They’ve learned godly love covers a multitude of sins.
Any person’s life history includes its damning incidents, yet no one is ever beyond redemption. As a Greek Orthodox friend explained, "We say that the sins of humanity compared to God’s love are like a handful of dust thrown into the ocean." We can rest in peace.
FT ON THE GO
We think one or more of these articles would be great to discuss with your small group or Bible study. We encourage you to make copies and share a brief discussion using these questions. (To share electronically, just point group members to www.FaithToday.ca/digital.) Let us know how it goes!
1. The article on crisis pregnancy centres (pages 30—32) quotes Sharon Boothroyd saying, "Sometimes we’re just that one person who says, ‘You can do this. I believe in you.’" Why do you think that makes such a difference for a woman in a crisis pregnancy?
2. In the story on palliative care (pages 33—36), death for the author’s friend was difficult. What have your experiences been with palliative care? Did you sense God’s presence — and if so, how?
3. The story on deathbed doubts (pages 37—39) says religious people can have a harder time with dying or a more contented time than unbelievers, depending on how integrated their faith is. How far along that road of integration are you? How can we move further?
4. The essay on being whole-life (pages 40—42) challenges us to broaden our horizons beyond the beginning and ending of life to include beauty, truth and justice across the lifespan. How can we do this without reducing our activism on issues of life and death?
Doug Koop is a freelance writer who meets many people in end-of-life situations in his work as a spiritual health practitioner at the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg. He previously worked 25 years as editor of ChristianWeek.