With all the sadness of the 100,000 (and counting) deaths in the UK from COVID in the last year, one issue has been resolutely avoided in the public domain. For thousands of years, the many religions in the world have seen this life as just leading on to a different and usually greater world beyond death.
Is this just outdated unscientific wishful thinking?
The experience of some people suggests it is something to consider.
Dr Andrew Miller writes of the death of his wife in 2013.
This world is not my home
When my sister started learning to play the guitar (mercifully, not for long), this was her signature song. For the Christian, this should be axiomatic. After all, Jesus himself said “Don’t hoard treasure down here; stockpile treasure in heaven. The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be.”
This concept was indeed very real to the southern black slaves who composed this spiritual, and to Albert Brumley who popularised it (he grew up picking cotton in Oklahoma); it greatly resonates too with millions of persecuted Christians around the world. But many Western believers think and understand little about heaven. With a lot of treasure on earth, isn’t here where our home actually is? Perhaps this is why most with extensive or recurrent cancer pursue medical intervention, usually unpleasant and unlikely to be curative. When prayer is (rightly) included, this is nearly always for healing - even though very uncommon - yet people shy away from seeking God’s help to prepare themselves and families for their death, as if this implies lack of faith.
But where there is a strong hope of heaven, faith and life can be very different, and this was something that my wife Ruth and I quite often talked about over the years. It became personal at age 62 when she was told that her breast cancer, previously fully treated medically, had returned with widespread bone secondaries. While welcoming palliation for these, Ruth declined further chemotherapy, for the above reasons. Moreover God made it clear to her that the prayers of us and others should be about embracing the situation and preparing for her real home, rather than for healing.
I remember a lovely November day as we strolled through a National Trust estate. One outside wall of the house, covered with a variety of plants, was stunningly beautiful, prompting Ruth to comment “That’s what I’ve ordered for my heavenly mansion”. She spent the months before her death inviting Jesus into her experiences, including fears and doubts, because she was deeply confident in His plans for her, and in many ways was more alive than ever before.
The song also talks about being beckoned “to heaven’s open door”. When that moment came, it was very special.
Andrew Miller January 2021
Last moments: Ruth Miller (age 64)
Four years ago this month, throughout the night before she died at home from liver secondaries, Ruth was deeply unconscious and unrousable; because the weather was warm, she only needed a sheet to cover her. At 0935 - her condition unchanged - I, my son and his wife, and two palliative care nurses saw Ruth suddenly raise her left arm quite high for about 15 seconds. As it dropped, she stopped breathing.
We were all curious about this - not least because Ruth was right-handed - but even with our combined extensive experience of death (all being medical) were unable to explain it.
Two days later my family was with me, so I took the grandchildren up one at a time to the bedroom. Since the oldest was age nine, I told her about this peculiar incident. She immediately said “Oh, I know what that was about. Don’t you remember the email you sent around recently?”
Yes, we did circulate many friends with health updates, but I had no idea that this grand-daughter saw them. She was referring to this:
Two weeks, when in spite of being deeply jaundiced Ruth was well and active, I was sitting by myself downstairs. I had a picture of Ruth and myself walking hand-in-hand (I was on the right) up a path towards the heavenly city. A door opened and Jesus came out, walking down the hill towards us, smiling. He then took Ruth’s free hand, and together they walked up to the door of the city, while I turned and went back down.
At the time and in the circumstances this seemed to be something I might easily have imagined, but it was sufficiently visible that, after sharing it with Ruth, we agreed to include it in the prayer update.
So at the moment of death, Ruth held out her free hand to take that of Jesus.
Andrew Miller May 2017