I was a young pastor, only a few months at my first posting, when the call came in to my office. “One of your church members is desperately looking for you! Her son has choked on some food and is now in the hospital. They don’t expect him to live. You had better get to the hospital!”
We had just moved to the area and I had hardly had a chance to get to know my parishioners, but I remembered Maureen. She often sat close to the front and seemed to be genuinely engaged in the worship service each Sabbath. Now her life was in crisis! Her son Kyle was only eight years old. It was close to Christmas and they had received a box of food from some friends. It was on some of this food that Kyle had choked. Being a poor family, they had no car to rush him to the hospital. By time the ambulance had arrived and the medics started administrating CPR, about 15 minutes had already passed.
At the hospital, the doctors had been able to get Kyle breathing again with the help of a respirator, but with that much time passing without oxygen, they did not hold out much hope that he would be able to be revived. Over the next couple of days there were a lot of prayers lifted up and a lot of tears shed. Finally a decision was made to take him of the respirator, and I watched him take his last breath and become very still.
As the doctor quietly said “he’s gone”, Maureen turned to me and asked with tear-stained eyes, “Where is Kyle now, Pastor?”
My mind raced! I knew what our church taught on the question. They even had a unique term for the doctrine, called “the state of the dead”. In essence it states that people do not have a soul that survives the death of the body, at least not in any kind of conscious state. Some of our textbooks, pastors and evangelists even proclaimed quite definitively, that at death, people “cease to exist”!
“Why didn’t Maureen know this?”, I wondered. Perhaps she was a new member, not fully “up to speed” on all of our teachings. What could I possibly say to this grieving mother it this critical moment in her life? Somehow this did not seem like the right time to turn to the book of Ecclesiastes and give her a bible study on how the “living know that they will die, but the dead know not anything”! I did the only thing that I could think of, I put in a quick call to the only “Senior Pastor” I had. I breathed a silent prayer to God to give me the right words to say to this broken heart. I was so relived with the words that flooded my mind and quickly shared them with Maureen. “Kyle is now … safe in the arms of Jesus.” I could see the relief pour in to her exhausted frame.
But what had I just done? So engrained in my mind were the teachings of our church, that I was almost shocked to hear myself say the words I had just said! For a few fleeting seconds I even felt a little guilty about saying them. Had I taken the easy way out? Was I being responsible to the “truth” or was I simply taking the comforting route at a very difficult time? What would Maureen think about this important subject for the rest of her life, based on what I had said? And yet it seemed like such an overwhelming answer prayer for the right words to say, that ultimately I was peaceful with what had happened.
Now, some 30 years later, after having read much on the topic, after having given the matter much prayerful thought, I am still at peace with the answer that God shared with me at that most critical moment. While I still believe that there is a lot of validity to the Adventist teaching on the state of the dead, I have come to the conclusion that this is one of those “flowers of truth” that could have benefited from a little more “unfolding.” While Kyle most likely did not have some type of invisible energy force that carried his consciousness off to Heaven, I believe that he is very much, “safe in the arms of Jesus”!
Jesus taught very clearly that those who believed in Him would “never die”. (John 6:47-51; 11:26) How it is possible that people will “never die”, (especially when they do seem to die all around us, all the time) is a mystery that even the learned Paul struggled with. (1 Corinthians 15:51) However, even without the convenience of an invisible "spirit-entity" or "soul", that can protect our person-hood through the transitional period of the death of the body, I believe that there is a very clear way to understand how it is that Jesus’ teaching on eternal life is true, and Kyle is safe in His hands.
We will develop these ideas further, under the heading “The Nature of Life”, as we continue our discussion here at Timeless Themes.