Thoughts on Religious Experience

Archibald Alexander, 1844

Remarks on Deathbed Exercises

The cases of religious experience, at the close of life, furnish much reason for encouragement and hope to the real Christian. We learn from them, that death, however terrible to nature, may be completely divested of its terrors; that the Christian religion, when it has been cordially embraced, has power to sustain the soul in the last conflict; that the supplies of grace may be so rich and abundant, that the bed of death may be the happiest situation which the child of God ever occupied, and his last hours the most comfortable of his whole life; that it is possible for such a flood of divine consolation to be poured into the soul, that the pains of the body are scarcely felt; by which we may understand how it was that the martyrs could rejoice in the midst of flames, and on the rack. We learn, also, that these blessed communications of the joy of the Holy Spirit are conveyed to the soul through the promises of God; and that all that is necessary to fill it with these divine consolations is a firm and lively faith.

There is, in all these ecstatic and triumphant feelings, nothing miraculous; nothing different from the common mode of God's dealing with His people, except in the degree. The things of eternity are more clearly apprehended; confidence in the promises is more unshaken; submission to the will of God is more unreserved, and gratitude for His goodness more fervent.

Another thing suggested by such happy deathbed exercises is that the dying saint never entertained a more humble sense of his own unworthiness than during this season of the anticipation of the joys of heaven. These experiences, therefore, furnish strong evidence of the truth of the doctrines of grace; indeed, free grace is the predominant theme in the minds of these highly favored servants of God. It is also highly worthy of our marked attention, that the Lord Jesus Christ is precious to the dying believer in proportion as His consolations abound. He attributes all that he enjoys, or hopes for, to this blessed Redeemer. And He who loved him, and died for him, is most faithful to His gracious promises at this trying moment. Now, when heart and flesh fail, He will be the strength of their hearts. Now, He enables them to say with confidence, "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and staff comfort me." (Psalm 23:4) Death is, indeed, a formidable enemy when armed with his envenomed sting; but when this sting is extracted, death is harmless; death comes as a friend to release us from a body of sin and misery. "The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law"; (1 Cor 15:56) but when the law has received a full satisfaction, and all sin is pardoned through the blood of Christ, the sting exists no longer. There is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. "It is God who justifies, who is he that condemns? It is Christ who died; yes, rather who is risen again." (Rom 8:33-34) "Precious in the sight of God is the death of his saints." (Psalm 116:15) The meek shall sing even on a dying bed. Here, often, the timid grow bold; the feeble strong. Here doubts and fears which harassed the weary pilgrim all the journey through are dismissed forever; and that joyful assurance is realized, which had long been ardently desired and hoped for.

Where else—but among real Christians, do we witness such happy scenes at the near approach of death? Can the infidel point to any of his associates who could thus exult in the prospect of death? Can the man of the world exhibit anything like this? Alas! they are driven away from all they love: they may die stupidly; they may be under an awful, blinding delusion; but the positive joys of the believer, they cannot experience. Now, as we must all die, and that soon—ought we not to take all pains, and use all possible diligence, to be ready to die the death of the righteous? When that solemn hour shall arrive, worldly honors and worldly possessions will be nothing to us. Royal scepters and crowns and treasures will be utterly unavailing. But the humble believer, however racked with pain of body, is safe in the hands of a kind Redeemer, who having Himself experienced the pangs of death, knows how to sympathize with and support His beloved disciples when they are called to this last trial. He will not then forsake those whom He has supported through their whole pilgrimage. His everlasting arms of love and faithfulness will be placed underneath them, and He will bear them as on eagles' wings. Truly, then, for them to die is gain! They rest from their labors and exchange darkness, sin and sorrow, for perfect light, perfect purity, and perfect felicity. Lift up your heads, then, you servants of God, for the day of your redemption draws near. The night is far spent, the day is at hand. With some of us, it must be near the dawn. The darkness will soon be past forever. Let us then rejoice in the hope of the glory of God, and wait until our salvation comes. Now is our salvation nearer than when we believed.

But, it may be asked, do all real Christians die in such joy and triumph as those whose experience has been related? No; this is not pretended. Some, no doubt, die under a cloud, and go out of the world in distressing doubt respecting their eternal destiny. It is to guard against such an event, that we would exhort all professors of religion, and include ourselves in the number, to begin in time to make preparation for death. Dear brethren, let us look well to the foundation of our hope; we cannot bestow too much pains and diligence in making our calling and election sure. We shall never regret, on a deathbed, that we were too much concerned to secure the salvation of our souls; or, that we were too careful in making preparation for another world. Let us remember that our time on earth is short, and that whatever is done must be done quickly. There will be no opportunity of coming back to rectify what has been done amiss, or to supply what is lacking. "Now is the accepted time, now is the day of salvation." (2 Cor 6:2) Let us work while it is day, knowing that the dark night comes when no man can work. Let us then awake to righteousness. Let us watch and be sober. Let us put on the armor of light, and especially let us see to it, that we have on the wedding garment; else we shall never find admittance to the marriage-supper of the Lamb. The only robe which can bear the scrutinizing inspection of the King, is the perfect and spotless robe of Christ's imputed righteousness. This will render us acceptable in the Beloved. With this, we must put on the robe of inherent righteousness; for "without holiness, no man shall see the Lord"; (Heb 12:14) and these two, though distinct, are never separated. Only, the latter is never perfect until we come to the end of the course.

This single consideration should reconcile us to the thoughts of death—that then we shall be freed from all sin. O how blessed is that state, where we shall see no more darkly through a glass—but face to face; where we shall know no more in part—but as we are known! (1 Cor 13:12) O bright and delightful vision of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ! Surely this is worth dying for.

But it may be asked, Is there not evidence of too much excitement in the experiences which have been narrated? May not a part at least of the elevated and exhilarated feelings be the effect of delirium? In answer I would say, that this may be admitted to have some effect in increasing the degree of excitement; but it never can account for the bright views and unspeakable joys which some experience. And the truth is, we are poor judges of the degree of elevated excitement which the sense of God's love will produce.

It must be confessed, that while we may admire and breathe after such an elevated and triumphant state of mind, yet we cannot so readily sympathize with such high emotions, as with a more calm and deliberate frame of spirit. Indeed, it is here as in health; when we see people much excited in regard to religion, or anything else, we do not place such entire confidence in what they utter, as when the same people calmly and soberly express their sentiments. The reason is, that in all great excitements, the imagination and feelings predominate over the judgment. Experience teaches that in all such cases there is a tendency to exaggeration, and to the use of strong expressions; and it cannot be doubted that, in some cases, the religious exultation experienced is somewhat delirious. The nervous system loses its control, and although its agitations are violent, they are somewhat irregular and excessive, so as to produce an irrepressible thrilling through the soul.

It is not wonderful, that while the mysterious connection between soul and body is coming to an end, there should be in the emotions something new, and in the looks, tones, and gestures, something out of the common way. This does not alter or vitiate the nature of the pious exercises of the soul, though it may modify them, and give them a peculiar aspect and expression. If any person chooses to suppose that, in some of the cases specified, while faith was triumphant and hope full of assurance, there might be superadded an exhilaration arising out of the peculiar state of the body, he will not have me objecting. The last exercises of that useful and devoted man, Jeremiah Evarts, were very remarkable for the degree of powerful excitement manifested; and the more remarkable, because his mind was highly intellectual, and very little subject to excitement, in common. Still it was well known to those intimate with him, that when he was aroused, his feelings were very strong.

Often, officious friends and physicians are extremely averse to have anything said on the subject of religion to the sick, lest it should disturb their minds, and so increase the violence of the disease. I would not, it is true, admit every loquacious old man or woman into the chamber of a friend dangerously ill—but a discreet and pious counselor is of great value at such a time. If the patient is hopefully pious, none can doubt the propriety and comfort of aiding such by holding forth to their view, the rich promises of a faithful God. But even when the character of the sick is different, it often gives relief to have an opportunity of conversation with a pious friend or minister. Anxious feelings, pent up in the soul and finding no vent, are far more injurious than a free expression of them; and if the person is in danger of death, will you, can you, be guilty of the cruelty of debarring him from the only opportunity of salvation which he may ever have? If you do, his blood will be found on your hands. To show how erroneous the opinion is, that religious conversation tends to injure the sick person by increasing his disease, I will relate a fact which fell under my own observation.

A young gentleman of fortune and liberal education had been for some months thinking seriously about his soul's salvation; but the work had not come to any maturity, when by making too great an exertion of his bodily strength, he ruptured a large blood vessel in the lungs, and was brought to death's door; not being able to speak above a low whisper. As he had been a pupil of mine, I was permitted to see him. When I inquired as to the state of his mind, he whispered in my ear that he was overwhelmed with the most awful darkness and terror—not one ray of light dawned upon his miserable soul. I prayed with him and presented to him a few Gospel invitations and promises, and left him, never again expecting to see him alive. Next day when I called, the physician, coming out of his room, informed me that while they were waiting for his last breath, a favorable change seemed unexpectedly to have taken place, and that he had revived a little. When I approached his bed, he looked joyfully in my face, pressed my hand, and said, "All is well—I have found peace. This morning, about the dawn, I had the most delightful view of Christ, and of His ability and willingness to save me." And upon inquiry, I found that that was the moment when the favorable change took place in his symptoms. Faith and joy accomplished what no medicine could, and acted as a reviving cordial to his dying body. He so far recovered as to live a number of years afterwards, though his lungs were never sound, and his consistent walk and piety attested the reality of his change. He soon joined himself to the communion of the church, and died in her communion.

While spending a summer in Germantown, near Philadelphia, I was sent for to visit a young man whom I had often seen. He did not belong to my charge—but two pious ladies who did, were his friends, and had come out of the city to nurse him. He had a hemorrhage of the lungs, which left little room to hope for recovery. As he was a mild and moral man, I did not know but that he might be a professor of religion; but upon asking him a question respecting his hope, he frankly told me that he had been skeptical for many years, and had no belief that the Gospel was divine. I never felt more at a loss. The man was too weak to attend to argument, and if I could by reasoning convince him of his error, it would not be a saving faith, and he must die before this process could be gone through. I found that his infidelity afforded him no comfort in a dying hour, and that he wished he could believe in Christ. It occurred to me that the Word of God contained light and energy in itself, and that if he could not attend to the external evidences, the beams of truth might shine in upon his soul, and thus generate a saving faith by the efficient aid of the Spirit. After pointing out the probable sources of his scepticism, I requested the ladies who were attending on him to read certain portions of the Gospel to him, as he could bear it—for he was very sick. This was done; and next day, when I came to see him, he declared that his doubts were all scattered, and that he had hope in Christ. Afterwards, he was never able to converse; but as far as is known he died in hope.

I never saw anyone approach death so deliberately and composedly, as the late Robert Ray, pastor of the church of Freehold, in New Jersey. He had spent a winter at St. Augustine, with the hope of restoring his health—but came home more diseased than before he went. His lungs were deeply affected, and he foresaw that his end was approaching. But as long as he was able to speak, he caused himself to be carried to the church and to be assisted into the pulpit, where he would preach and exhort until his breath failed, when he would pant as if about to die, and then be conveyed home as he came. This was done not once or twice—but for many weeks; for he said, as he must die, he might as well die preaching. He felt a strong desire to be the means of saving the people committed to his charge, and he hoped that a voice of affectionate warning from the grave might have the effect of awakening some of them. As he suffered but little acute pain, he appeared, until his dying day, as calm and cheerful as a man long absent from home would, when the time came to return to his friends. He conversed as familiarly and composedly about his approaching change, as if there was nothing formidable in it. Indeed, it had no terrors for him. Even when death was upon him, having observed some of his neighbors coming in, he said, "Well, you have come to see your pastor die." He then remarked that his feelings were very peculiar, such as he had never experienced before; and without any perturbation of mind or bodily agony, he gently fell asleep.

I wish to remark, that in all my life I have known few people who lived like Christians when in health, who did not, in their approach to death, manifest as much hope and fortitude in that trying hour, as could reasonably have been expected from the character of their piety. In many cases, as I have before stated, the comfort and assurance of some timid and desponding believers have risen far above what any of their friends dared to hope. In general the result of my observation is, that the pious find death less terrible on their near approach to the event, than when it was viewed at a distance. Some people have naturally a much greater dread of death than others, though their piety may be more lively.

The difference between the comforts of dying saints may be attributed, first, to divine sovereignty, which distributes grace and consolation as seems good unto Him; secondly, to bodily temperament, some people being more fearful than others, and more prone to suspect their own sincerity; and thirdly, to the nature of the disease by which the body is brought down to the grave. It is the tendency of some diseases, while they do not disturb the intellect, to exhilarate the spirits and enliven the imagination; while a distressing depression or perturbation is the effect of others; to say nothing of the different degrees of pain experienced by different people; and we know that some diseases have a deplorable stupefying effect. A fourth and frequent cause of difference in the exercises of dying people is produced by the medicine which is administered. When physicians can do nothing to cure, they think it right to lull their patients by opiates, or excite them by alcohol. I have, when sick, been more afraid of nothing than these intoxicating and stupefying, or even exhilarating drugs. O let no artificial means be ever used with me, in that dread hour, to interrupt sober and deliberate reflection!

Mr. Wilson with great propriety remarks, "It is the tenor of the life, not that of the few suffering and morbid scenes which precede dissolution, which fixes the character. We are not authorized from Scripture to place any dependence on the last periods of sinking nature, through which the Christian may be called to pass to his eternal reward. But though no importance is to be attached to these hours of fainting mortality, with reference to the acceptance and final triumph of the dying Christian, yet, where it pleases God to afford one of His departing servants, such a measure of faith and self-possession, as to close a holy and most consistent life with a testimony which sealed, amidst the pains of acute disease and in the most impressive manner, all his doctrines and instructions during his preceding years, we are called on, as I think, to record with gratitude the divine benefit, and to use it with humility, for the confirmation of our own faith and joy."