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The undiscover’d country

21 February 2014

David Winter considers the part played by faith at the end of life

I THINK that many who hold the Christian position on eternal life do so for two reasons - which I share. The first is that, beyond doubt, Jesus believed it. However you read the Gospels, that cannot be denied. So, if the Son of God believed it and argued the case with passion and eloquence, who am I to disagree? Belief in a resurrection flows froma belief in Jesus.

The second reason is what I shall call personal experience. I don't, of course, mean experience of living on the other side of death, but events, powerful impressions, even significant signs that have accompanied the death of someone close to me.

I watched my wife die in hospital and, within two or three days, knew (and I choose the verb carefully) that she had not ceased to exist. The experiences were too intimate and private to put into print, but I have found that many other people in my position have had similar and equally convincing evidences that personal life, in a spiritual sense, does not terminate when this earthly body breathes its last.

I realise that this is not "evidence" for anyone else, but the cumulative experience of so many people down the centuries must offer some kind of support for the arguable but unprovable case set out by Paul, which has been the teaching of the Christian Church throughout its history.

Does this kind of belief make a decisive difference to the well-being and happiness of the old person? That is not as easy to answer as it might sound. I know people without any religious faith who seem to approach death with equanimity, just as I have ministered to people of faith who have found the whole prospect distressing.

In general, however, my experience is that those with a strong belief in life beyond death, based on a considered and serious faith commitment, face the onset of death with a high degree of calm.

Of course, the unseen and unknown is always unsettling. Few Christians could equal the confidence of a friend of mine who sent a text message from hospital a few hours before she died, observing "Death is so exciting." At the same time, I have never seen terror in the eyes of a dying person, believer or not, and often a sudden surge of faith towards the end brings a quiet acceptance that their time has come.

Dylan Thomas urged his dying father to "not go gentle into that good night", but to "rage against the dying of the light". I think that is very much a younger person's view of the way in which an old person might see the approaching end.

We who are old are not much given to "raging" about such things. We reserve real rage for keys we can't find, cooking instructions in tiny print, and endless repeats on summer television. Why wastegood anger on something you cannot possibly change or avoid?

The night prayers, Compline, include a repeated petition: "Into your hands, O Lord, I commendmy spirit." Whether we actually say the words or not, I think a lot of us go to bed at night in that attitude. We expect to wake up the next morning, but accept that one night we might not. There is not much we can do about it, except to place ourselves into the hands of the One who first gave us life, and who, in the ultimate sense, determineswhen that earthly life shall end.

Rage is altogether too violent and negative a reaction. Head on the pillow, reflections on the day that is past, and then "Into your hands,O Lord": what more could one ask?

This is the last of four edited extracts from

At the End of the Day: Enjoying life in the departure lounge by David Winter (BRF, £6.99 (CT Bookshop £6.29); 978-0-85746-057-8); Features, 10 January

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