What Is It Like to Die?

January 27, 2020
After the CAT scan showed I had a mass in my Pancreas, after I learned Pancreatic Cancer had a survival rate of 10% or less, after a second scan and more blood tests confirmed it, after learning how complicated the surgical remedy was; then after I told my wife and sons, and finally after telling my youngest son, separately, what it meant, I was emotionally spent. As they wheeled me on the gurney to my room, I caught a glimpse of what it looks like to die—just a blip, but overwhelming.
I saw everything fading away, except me. They call it "passing away," I thought. The hospital, the gurney, the people walking through the halls, which meant all my friends, my family and all relationships were severed, and I was alone for a moment as I kept moving away. Then I splashed into a world of blazing lights, voices, with movement all around, and a great Somebody right in front of me, but I was too close-up to see, but I knew it was Somebody. It was scary. Then it ended. Maybe a few milliseconds long?
So, what was that? Was that God and all the angels? Maybe I caught a flash of what Isaiah saw? "I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted…Seraphim stood above Him…one called out to another…the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke." (Isaiah 6:1-4)
Or maybe it was a glimpse of what John saw? "I saw a throne in heaven and someone sitting on it…as brilliant as gemstones—like jasper and carnelian…the glow of an emerald circled his throne like a rainbow…thrones surrounded him…they were all clothed in white and had gold crowns…From the throne came flashes of lightning and the rumble of thunder… In front of the throne was a shiny sea of glass, sparkling like crystal…around the throne were four beings, each covered with eyes, front and back…" (Revelation 4:2-6)
The glimpse was too brief to see such detail. I remember fear or maybe terror or maybe lots of anxiety filling me because I knew I was completely at the mercy of whatever happens now—like hitting a sheet of ice while driving a car and suddenly no traction, no brakes, no steering, just floating, and there is nothing to do but watch what happens next. Very much like that, because in a car spinout you know you will hit something, you almost see what it is, but it's over before there's enough time to be really scared. But you start to feel scared. Then it's over.
What remained was an acute awareness that I lost all control and someone else was in control. That is what death looks like—there was nothing I could say or do about it. I also knew at that moment everything I ever thought or worried about or said was finished, done, passed away. What mattered did not matter anymore. Everything I was so certain about no longer applied. There was no way to understand the new world I entered.
Birth probably was like this, except nobody remembers it. Leaving all the warmth and protection and darkness of pre-birth life, then pushed and squeezed and dragged away, the newborn plunges into a world of blazing lights, stabbing noises, voices and blurry movements, all mixed together, terrifying. It is so foreign, so overwhelming, so incomprehensible. Then a giant hit the baby who takes the first gasp of cold air, filling lungs never felt before. The baby cries and cries, under the control of whoever took control. It was like that when I died, except I was too shocked to respond. It was over too quickly to grasp the details.
They wheeled me into my new room at 2 AM. They muttered instructions while I nodded, changed into flimsy hospital garb, felt the ghost of that death-glimpse. Something big just happened. It was big, but not real. But no, it was real.
Then, alone at last. What happened to the "warm light" near-death experience everyone talks about? No warm light. "Basking in love," some call it. No, nothing like that.


Then it hits me: "It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the Living God," the Bible says. "No man can see me and live," said the One who "Dwells in unapproachable light." Isaiah was given a snapshot of "the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and exalted," surrounded by seraphim, and (quoting loosely) he said, "I am so screwed! I can't even talk right; my mouth is too foul! I am surrounded by people who only talk foul and rotten…" He was terrified, yet he was God's prophet, God's friend, right? Same with the prophet Ezekiel, whose knees buckled like his body melted, and "I fell on my face," he said. Same with John, the disciple "whom the Lord loved," said, "When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead." My own fleeting glimpse was so much closer to those descriptions. Not "warmth" or a "loving glow". To react to the "Almighty God," the "Creator of Heavens and Earth…from whose presence Heaven and Earth fled away" in such a benign and banal manner requires a great deal of inebriation.
Obviously, it must be "a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the Living God," right? A warm glow? Floating in love? Not possible. The human brain cannot work that way. Snatched from everything and anything familiar, dragged helplessly into a world so foreign, bizarre, so overwhelming, stripped of all control—it is objectively terrifying.
God knows it is terrifying for us. He has told us He is sensitive to our sensitivities, and so He handles us carefully, knowing how easily frightened we are—also, how proud and so easily offended we are! Even so, people use his kindness to criticize Him. "Why doesn't He just show Himself? Why is He so sneaky? How can I trust Him if He doesn't trust me enough to show Himself? Why won't he face me?"
In answer to all the complaints of God's evasiveness, He said He most certainly will show Himself, but for now He grants us enough space and time to experience His Creation and get to know Him from a distance—which is still far, far more than we can grasp. I do so very much love following the latest discoveries of astrophysicists, biologists, and the range of science. Every year new discoveries reveal new layers of complexity in Creation, in Dark Matter and Dark Energy (physicists now admit only 5-10% of the universe is made up of matter and energy we understand, so vast is our ignorance), with DNA, CRISPR, and the list goes on. They discovered the "God Particle," (the Higgs boson, smallest particle we can detect), and still nobody understands what gravity is or where it emanates from; yet is not gravity one of the most primitive and earliest discoveries in life? With every breakthrough discovery, rather than grasping how well-engineered the universe is, scientists discover new layers of complexity and ignorance. Atheistic evolutionists respond to these breakthrough discoveries with god-like language, like, "Evolution found a way…" (which seems very unscientific). They cannot help but use anthropomorphic, metaphysical language to marvel at the genius of Creation. When I was but a young lad, Karl Sagan ran a popular science TV show called Cosmos, where every week he announced, "The Cosmos – all there is, all there was, all there ever will be!" This was posited as a scientific fact, but now we know the universe is anything but self-contained. Now physicists use more appropriate terms like "Multiverse, parallel universes, alternate universes", since it is more scientific and factual to speak in terms of infinite universes! It strikes me that even the most atheistic scientist describes the universe in highly metaphysical terms. Acknowledging this, new generations of scientists argue, in part, that "that Homo sapiens is, with high probability, the only intelligent species in the Milky Way." (The Anthropic Cosmological Principle) Whatever. It thrilling to see it is no longer ignorant or uneducated to see a Creator at work around us, especially since it haunts us from birth to death.
Terror (and aversion) is, perhaps, a most reasonable barrier between God and humankind. It is reasonable to distrust what is not understood. It is a great relief to discover that God knows this and works with the "reasonable distrust" of humankind.

Understanding God

"For now, we see in a mirror dimly, but then face-to-face," Paul writes (1 Cor. 13), and thank God we only see that much, else we humans would be so overwhelmed! God's explanation of the "mirror dimly" is to consider it a courting period, like in the old days, before sex became a casual, meaningless affair. God is giving each of us a personal marriage proposal during this brief lifespan. So, the personal question is, what kind of relationship do we really want with Him? It is, in fact, the most vital question, not all the infinite, peripheral (and irritating) questions we can imagine.
Oddly enough, no matter how large, infinite, eternal or whatever the Creator is, humans still somehow grasp the existence of such a person. This is rather easily grasped at the youngest, conscious age. God "has set Eternity in their heart," God explains, yet He adds He "did not reveal the entire Plan to us." (Ecclesiastes 3:11) This black box should not block an understanding of God—it is unnecessary to understand everything in order to understand something. Quite the opposite, God's evasiveness is an act of kindness on His part, as He explains it: "I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and to do good in one's lifetime." Ecclesiastes 3:12. God intrudes into our conscious awareness, but not so much that He dominates our many other interests.
Oh yes, God is courting us from a distance. "It is surprising, but marriage is a picture of our relationship with Jesus," Paul wrote in Ephesians 5. The "Assembly" (the "Body of Christ") is the "bride" courted by Jesus, who is the groom.
A marriage proposal from a great sovereign king surely was terrifying to a potential fiancé. So courting was the way to acclimate a bride to her groom.
Oops, now I must go to surgery. Sorry. More later.