Thoughts on Religious Experience

Archibald Alexander, 1844

Preparation for death—The state of the soul after death

Since all men are appointed to die, there is no subject in the world which ought to be more interesting to all men. Whatever other evils we may escape, "in this war there is no discharge". Death is a scene of which we can have no previous experience, and therefore, it is prudent to learn what we can from the experience of those who have gone before us.

Death is an important and an solemn scene, and should therefore occupy many of our thoughts. If due preparation has been neglected in life and health—there is small probability that it will be made on a dying bed. If I had set down all that I have witnessed and read of the dying exercises of unconverted sinners, it would have presented an appalling object for our contemplation. Such scenes have often been exhibited in print, and are not without their use—but such narratives did not fall in with the scope of these essays. But however insipid, or even disgusting these accounts of the dying exercises of believers may be to some readers, there is a class, and a large one too, who will take a deep interest in these things, because they are now waiting until their change comes, and are looking forward with intense interest to that inevitable event of which we have been writing so much. These are the people whom the author has had principally in view, in selecting these experiences of departing saints; and as the hopes and comforts of the children of God in life are very various, so he has endeavored to show that a like variety is found in their views and exercises at the time of their departure out of the world.

The writer confesses also that, in dwelling so long on this subject, he had some regard to his own edification and preparation for death. As he knows from infallible evidence that he will soon be required to put off this tabernacle, and to emigrate from this lower world, he was solicitous to acquire as much information as he was able from those who have gone before, what were the difficulties, sufferings, and encouragements of pilgrims in this last stage of their journey. And, however it may be with others, he has derived instruction and encouragement from the contemplation of such scenes as are here described. It appears to him supremely reasonable, that during the short time which remains of his life, he should be chiefly concerned in the meditation of the things of another world, and in making actual preparation for his own departure. He once supposed that the near approach of death would of itself be sufficient to arouse the mind, and impress upon it the reality and solemn importance of eternal things; but he finds by sad experience, that however his judgment is convinced of the certainty of death and its consequences, nothing will bring these things to bear on the heart but the illumination of the Holy Spirit. He wishes, therefore, to engage in such reading, meditation, and writing, as may have a tendency to fix his thoughts on the solemn scene before him, when he must close his eyes on the light of this world, and bid adieu to all his friends and objects with which he has been conversant here.

He is not of opinion, however, that the best way to make preparation for death is to sit down and pore over the condition of our own souls, or to confine our exertions to those things which are directly connected with our own salvation. We are kept here to do our Master's work, and that relates to others as well as ourselves. We have a stewardship of which we must give an account; and the faithful and wise steward is careful and diligent in dispensing to others the blessings committed to him. This is especially the case in regard to ministers of the Gospel. We have a responsible office, and our account before the tribunal of Jesus Christ must be solemn and sincere; and it will not do to relinquish the proper work of our calling, upon the pretext of seeking our own salvation. Our own seeking will be entirely unavailing without the aid and blessing of God, and this we may expect most confidently when we are diligently engaged in doing His work, which is always the duties of our station and calling. Active duty must be performed as long as we have strength for the work; and like the Levites, we must attend around the tabernacle and altar, when we are too old for more laborious services. Many of the faithful servants of God have expressed a strong desire not to outlive their usefulness; and some have wished that their departure might occur in the very act of preaching. These things we may better leave to the wisdom of God, who directs all the circumstances of the death of His people, as well as of their lives. Even when, by reason of bodily infirmities, the servants of God are obliged to desist from public labors, they do not cease from serving their Master; their lives are not useless. God is as much honored by patient submission and cheerful resignation—as by zealous public exertion; and the greatest and most effectual work which can be performed by any on earth, they can perform—I mean the offering of prayers and intercessions, day and night, at the throne of grace.

Let not the infirm and aged say that they can now do nothing for God. They can do much; and for anything they can tell, more than they ever did in the days of their vigor. It is a beautiful sight to see men laden with gospel fruit, even in old age. Such fruits are generally more mature than those of earlier days; and the aged saint often enjoys a tranquility and repose of spirit, which is almost peculiar to that age. David, or whoever is the author of Psalm 71, prays most earnestly a prayer which should be daily on the lips of the aged: "Cast me not off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength fails." (Psalm 71:9) And again: "Now also when I am old and grey-headed, forsake me not, until I have showed your strength to this generation, and your power to all that are to come." (Psalm 71:18) Let the aged then tell to those that come after them, the works of divine grace which they have witnessed or which their fathers have told them. Let them be active as long as they can, and when bodily strength fails, let them wield the pen; or if unable to write for the edification of the church, let them exhibit consistent and shining example of the Christian temper—in kindness and good will to all—in uncomplaining patience—in contented poverty—in cheerful submission to painful providences—and in mute resignation to the loss of their dearest friends. And when death comes, let them not be afraid or dismayed; then will be the time to honor God by implicitly and confidently trusting in His promises. Let them "against hope believe in hope". (Rom 4:18) It is by faith that the last enemy must be conquered.

He who believes shall not be confounded, in this trying hour. The great Shepherd will not forsake His redeemed flock, for whom He has shed His blood; and though the adversary may rage and violently assault dying saints, he shall not overcome them. Each one of them may say with humble 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 your staff they comfort me." (Psalm 23:4)

Let us not desire to make a parade and ostentatious display on a dying bed. Death has been called the honest hour—but hypocrisy may be practiced even on a dying bed. Although this event often reveals secrets, and brings deceived souls to a conviction of the sandy foundation on which they have built their hopes—yet some keep on the mask to the last moment. More, however, suppress the expression of their fears and distress of mind. So much is said often about the manner in which people meet death, that some good men have wished and requested to be left very much alone: they have feared lest they should be tempted to vainglory, even on a dying bed; or they have feared lest their courage should fail them in the last struggle, and they should, through pain and imbecility of mind, be left to bring dishonor on their profession. The excellent and evangelical Simeon of Cambridge seems to have been under the influence of a feeling of this kind. But the best and safest way is submissively to commit all the circumstances of our death unto God.

We have no conception of the soul—but as a thinking, active being. The body is merely an organ, or instrument by which the soul acts while connected with it; indeed, it cannot be demonstrated that the soul performs all its acts here by the use of this organ. But whether or not is of little consequence. We know that activity belongs to the soul, not to the body; and it would be a strange conclusion, that that which is essentially active should cease to act, because it had been deprived of one set of organs. The only legitimate inference is that, when separated from the body, the mode of action is different from what it was before. As we learn the various operations of the soul only by experience, it is plain that we cannot fully understand or explain the precise mode of its action after it is separated from the body. Paul teaches us that the soul may exist and have conscious exercises of a very exalted kind; for he says, speaking of his rapture into heaven, "Whether in the body or out of the body, I cannot tell." (2 Cor 12:2-3) Now, if the soul could not act without the body, he could have told certainly that he was in the body, when he witnessed in the third heaven things which it is not lawful for a man to utter. But this truth is taught more clearly and directly by Christ Himself, when He said to the penitent thief on the cross, "This day shall you be with me in paradise." (Luke 23:43) This testimony is of itself abundantly sufficient, and there is no evasion of its force—but by an interpretation so frigid and farfetched, that it only serves to betray the weakness of the cause which it is brought to support.

Paul in another passage, speaks clearly and explicitly on this point: "Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord." (2 Cor 5:6,8) In the previous context the apostle intimates that when the clay tabernacle is dissolved, the soul will not be found naked—but that there will be another house ready to receive it; so that it will not be unclothed—but clothed. "Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life." (2 Cor 5:1-4)

It would seem, then, that the soul is never without a suitable dwelling; it will not be unclothed; it only passes from one house to another—from an earthly to a heavenly habitation. But what this celestial clothing will be, of course, we cannot now tell. When Stephen was dying, he cried, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." (Acts 7:59) The Lord Jesus is everywhere near to His saints; and as He watches over His sheep during their whole passage through the wilderness, so He is especially near to them when they come to the "valley of the shadow of death" (Psalm 23:4), so that they may then sing with the sweet psalmist of Israel, "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me." But as Jesus the Lord has His residence in heaven, where He occupies a place on the throne of God, at the right hand of the Father, and is surrounded by an innumerable army of angels ready to execute all His commandments; so He commissions messengers to attend at the dying bed of believers, and receive the spirits of the just and conduct them to His presence.

It is evident that the departing soul will need a guide and convoy, for utterly ignorant of the glorious world into which it has entered, it would not know which way to direct its course, or where to find its allotted mansion. For heaven is a wide domain. The house of the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has many dwelling places, and every redeemed soul has provided for it an appropriate residence, for Christ says, "I go to prepare a place for you." (John 14:2) And that guardian angels are sent to perform these kind offices for departed saints, we are not left to conjecture, for we read that as soon as Lazarus died, he "was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom". (Luke 16:22) There is no reason for supposing that the privilege now conferred on the beggar was peculiar to him; every saint needs the guidance and guardianship of angels as well as Lazarus; and we may conclude, therefore, that angels will attend on every departing saint.

Although we cannot now understand how the soul will act in the future world, when divested of the body of clay, we cannot doubt that its consciousness of its identity will go with it. The memory of the past, instead of being obliterated, will in all probability be much more perfect than while the person lived upon earth. It is by no means incredible, that memory, in the future world, will present to men everything which they have ever known, and every transaction in which they were ever engaged. The susceptibility of joyful emotions will also accompany the soul into the invisible world; and one of the first feelings of the departed saint will be a lively sense of complete deliverance from all evil, natural and moral. The pains of death will be the last pangs ever experienced. When these are over, the soul will enjoy the feelings of complete salvation from every distress. What a new and delightful sensation will it be, to feel safe from every future danger, as well as saved from all past trouble.

But the most important change experienced at this time will be the perfect purification of the soul from sin. The soul, heretofore struggling with inbred corruption which damped its ardor, darkened its views, and stupefied its feelings, now can act without any moral obstruction. Who that has often complained, like Paul, "O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" (Rom 7:24)—but will feel this to be indeed heaven begun, when there will no more be felt any secret working of pride, or envy, or selfishness; but when it shall be pure and sweetly conscious of its own purity?

As perfection in holiness supposes a clear knowledge of spiritual objects, so we know that we shall no more see the divine glory, as it were, by reflection from a glass—but directly, or "face to face". (1 Cor 13:12) The soul of man probably greatly enlarged in its powers, may have new faculties developed, for which there was no use here, and of which it had no consciousness; yet the field of knowledge being boundless, and our minds being capable of attending only to one thing at a time, our knowledge of celestial things will be gradually acquired, and not perfected at once. Indeed, there can be no limit set to the progression in knowledge; it will be endless. And no doubt the unalloyed pleasures of the future state will be intimately connected with this continual increase of divine knowledge. And as here, knowledge is acquired by the aid of instructors, why may not the same be the fact in heaven? What a delightful employment to the saints who have been drinking in the knowledge of God and His works for thousands of years to communicate instruction to the saint just arrived! How delightful to conduct the pilgrim who has just finished his race, through the ever blooming bowers of paradise, and to introduce him to this and the other ancient believer, and to assist him to find out and recognize, among so great a multitude, old friends and earthly relatives.

There need be no dispute about our knowing, in heaven, those whom we knew and loved here; for if there should be no faculty by which they could at once be recognized, yet by extended and familiar fellowship with the celestial inhabitants, it cannot be otherwise but that interesting discoveries will be made continually; and the unexpected recognition of old friends may be one of the sources of pleasure which will render heaven so pleasant.

But as the fleshly bond of relationship is dissolved at death, it seems reasonable to think that the only bond of union and kindred in heaven will be the spiritual bond, which unites all believers in one body, and to Christ their living Head. Therefore, we may presume that there will be felt an ardent desire to form an acquaintance with the most remarkable personages who have lived from Adam downward. Who, if admitted into paradise, could repress his curiosity to see, and if possible, to converse with the progenitor of our race? Doubtless, he could tell us some things which we do not fully understand. And who would not wish to see the first person who ever entered those blessed abodes from our earth? Yes, and Enoch too, who never tasted death, and who still possesses his original body, changed and glorified, it is true—but still substantially the same. We might expect to find him in the company of Elijah, who is similarly circumstanced; and some think that the body of Moses, though it was dead and buried, was raised again, as he seems to have appeared in his own proper body on the mount of Transfiguration. And where is Abraham, that venerable saint, who in faith and obedience exceeded all other men, and obtained from God the honorable appellation of "the father of the faithful", (Rom 4:11) and "the friend of God". (James 2:23) And who would be in heaven ever so short a time, without desiring to see Paul, the apostle of the Gentiles; and not him only—but Peter, and John, and all the college of the apostles?

But methinks we are in danger of indulging our imaginations too far, and of transferring to a heavenly state too many of the feelings and associations of our earthly condition. And I am reminded also, that as the twinkling stars are lost in the blaze of the rising sun, so there is one Person in the highest heavens, visible to all who enter that place, whose glory irradiates all the celestial mansions; whose love and smiles diffuse ineffable joy through all the heavenly multitudes, and in whom every believer has an absorbing interest with which no other can be compared. On His head He wears many crowns, and in His hand He holds a scepter by which He governs the universe; but yet He exhibits, visibly, the marks of the violent death which, for us, He once endured. His name is the Word of God, King of Kings, and Lord of Lords; the Alpha and Omega; the Almighty! And behold, all the angels of God worship Him. And the army of the redeemed, which no man can number, sing a song of praise to the Lamb, which no man can learn except those that are redeemed from among men; for the theme of their song is, "To him who loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood! (Rev 1:5) These are those who have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb!" (Rev 7:14) Every redeemed soul, upon being admitted into heaven, will for a while be so completely absorbed in the contemplation of that Divine Person, that he will be incapable of paying much attention to any others!

Like that Armenian princess, of whom Xenophon gives an account, who, after all the rest of the company had been expressing their admiration of Cyrus, one praising one thing and one another, upon being asked what about this royal personage she admired most, answered, that she did not even look at them, because her whole attention had been absorbed in admiring him (her young husband) who had offered to die for her. But the saved sinner may say, that his attention was completely absorbed in gazing upon Him, who not only said that He would die for him—but who actually did die in his place, and by this sacrifice redeemed him from the curse of the law, and from all iniquity!

The sweet and intimate fellowship which the redeemed soul will have with his Savior cannot now be conceived. It will far transcend all the ideas which we now can form, and will be a perfection of bliss so great that nothing can be added to it in any other way, than by an increase of the capacity of the soul. But still, all that is enjoyed in this intermediate state between death and judgment is but a part of that felicity to which the redeemed of the Lord are destined hereafter. It is only the enjoyment of a separate soul. But "the exceeding great and eternal weight of glory" (2 Cor 4:17) laid up in heaven for the children of God is for the whole man, made up of soul and body! And as even in this world many pleasures are enjoyed by means of bodily organs, who can tell what new and ever varying delights may be let into the soul by means of bodies of a celestial mold, bodies fashioned after the model of the glorious body of Jesus Christ! If our senses now bring to our view so many glorious objects both in the heavens and the earth, how rich and delightful will be the vision of the upper heavens by the eyes of the resurrection body? Then shall we see Jesus with our bodily eyes—then shall we behold what now no tongue can describe, nor even heart conceive!

The departed saints, therefore, though blessed to the full amount of their present capacity, yet are living in joyful expectation of a more glorious state. We should not think that the redemption and resurrection of the body is a small matter. The body is an essential part of human nature, and the glorified body will add to the felicity of the redeemed in a degree which we have no means of calculating. The inspired writers, therefore, when they speak of the blessedness of heaven, speak sparingly of the state of the separate soul; but when they describe the resurrection, they seem to be enraptured. Hear Paul, drawing a comparison between this mortal, corrupt, and earthly body, and that immortal, pure, and spiritual body, which will be possessed by every saint. "So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body." (1 Cor 15:42-44) "Just as we are now like Adam, the man of the earth—so we will someday be like Christ, the man from heaven." (1 Cor 15:49) "For our perishable earthly bodies must be transformed into heavenly bodies that will never die!" (1 Cor 15:53)

No sooner shall these resurrected bodies open their immortal eyes, than they shall behold the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven. And no sooner is the judgment set, than all these shall be caught up to meet the Lord in the air, and shall be so highly honored as to have a place, as judges, on the judgment seat with Him. And when the solemn transactions of that day are ended, the redeemed shall accompany their Lord and Savior to heaven, where they shall be put in full and eternal possession of that felicity and glory which Christ has purchased for them by His precious blood. In this sublime temple, their songs shall mingle with those of the holy angels forever and ever.

It need not be supposed that saints in heaven will be continually employed in nothing but praise. This, indeed, will be their noblest employment; and the anthems of praise to God and the Lamb will never cease. But may we not reasonably suppose that the exercises and pursuits of the saints will be various? The wonderful works of God will open to their contemplation. They may be employed, as angels are now, as messengers to distant worlds, either as instruments of justice or mercy: for we find that the angels are employed in both these ways. While, then, one choir surrounds the throne, and elevates the celestial song of praise for redemption, others may be employed in executing the commands of their Lord; and then, in their turn, these last ones may keep up the unceasing praise, while the first ones go forth on errands of mercy or wrath.

Some have divided the angels into worshiping and serving: the first are supposed to be always engaged in acts of worship, while the last are always employed in other services. But it would be much more reasonable to suppose that they all, in turn, take their part in both these services. Here, however, it becomes us to pause, and in deep humility, on account of our ignorance and unworthiness, to put our hands on our mouths, and our mouths in the dust. We are slow to learn earthly things; how then can we comprehend those which are heavenly? But if we are the children of God, we shall have experience of these celestial employments and never-ending joys! Soon, very soon, these things which are now dimly discerned by means of faith, will be realized, when every humble saint shall appear with Christ in glory—and shall never be exposed any more to danger of suffering! Let us, then, now begin the song which shall never cease to Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own precious blood!