The preoccupation with the question of death is one of the surprising elements of both private and public thinking in our time. Until two decades or so ago, discussion of death was regarded to be morbid, and thus to be shunned as taboo. Such discussion was as greatly to be avoided then as was the subject of sex in the Victorian and post-Victorian eras. The fascination the subject of death holds for current thought is therefore a remarkable phenomenon.
That a topic which touches an issue so vital to human thought should in so brief a time cease to be taboo and become, in turn, a subject of such fascination, certainly calls for explanation. It is my purpose here to explore the reasons for this shift—a shift so drastic that it has led to the production of a body of significant literature, and has developed as well a sort of “-ology,” with its own rationale, its own metaphysics.
Some find a possible model for the drastic shift from taboo to preoccupation in the thought of Rudolf Otto. Two generations ago he suggested that human beings, when faced by the numinous (read, transcendent), tend to respond in a dual manner: in fear and in fascination. To Otto, these two elements occur simultaneously.
Thanatologists (those developing the current literature concerning death) use this formula, with the modification that these elements of fear and fascination are only theoretically juxtaposed. This means that they may be (and usually arc) evident in series or in alternation. Thus seen, the model may have its merits.
Thoughtful persons have speculated concerning the roots of this newer and disciplinary approach to the phenomenon of such a radical shift of emphasis. Certainly revised definitions of death have played a part. We have come a long way from determining death by holding a watch crystal in front of the mouth or nose of a person thought to be dead. Today death is no longer determined—in most cases at least—by simple observation of a cessation of heart or lung activity.
The issue of “clinical death” is complex. Those who have been regarded hopelessly and even irreversibly comatose have been resuscitated, and by the use of “heroic” measures have been kept alive until vital signs are again sustained by the patient’s brain. This has opened up an entire new area for interrogation and analysis of recalled experiences of those thought to be dead. Technology thus has been responsible, in part at least, for the shift of emphasis.
Some feel that urbanization is a factor. Millions of urban dwellers have been shielded from seeing the death of animals or relatives, with the result (it is said) that they are led to a vicarious “viewing” of death through the medium of scientific or quasi-scientific investigations of death in terms of clinical methods.
Others have suggested that the shock to the public psyche, caused by the Holocaust or by the nuclear holocausts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has contributed to the recent preoccupation with human death. Closely linked may be the general uneasiness over “the balance of terror” as a pitiable basis for world security, with the resulting sense of the fragility of man’s life on our planet.
This form of explanation points more specifically to the existential stance, which permeates our society in the West far more deeply than we realize. Here thought is focused upon death as that which threatens to negate all of our values. Death is thus something to be personalized, “internalized,” and if possible, understood. Some find that explorations of alleged after-death experiences contribute to the existentialists’ hope to overcome existential despair and to “authenticate” their existence.
Two more factors have been advanced to explain the contemporary shift of emphasis vis-à-vis death. The first is the element of “pendulum effect,” that one extreme in emphasis usually leads to an opposite stance. We will leave it to the sociologists to evaluate this factor.
Another and final attempted explanation has been that the experiences of the “drug scene” have created a mood which welcomes out-of-body experiences of any kind. Some have felt themselves to be actually out of the body under heavy drug use. Such experience, it is said, results in an openness on the part of a segment of our population to postclinical death reports from those surviving such “death.” An explanation such as this can, of course, be only limited and partial.
The publication of On Death and Dying (1969), by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, was a landmark in the development of the literature of thanatology. Kübler-Ross is especially famous for her systematizing by stages of the attitudes of the dying. Her researches were continued by Raymond Moody, while further investigations were embodied in At the Hour of Death, by Karlis Osis and Erlendur Haraldsson (1977).
All who take the Christian message seriously should be interested in the phenomenon of death, including no doubt, researches into out-of-body experiences of those resuscitated after clinical death. These researches do, however, have a special interest for evangelicals, in that they bear vitally upon elements essential to the Christian understanding of what occurs to men and women after death.
Reports of such experiences follow two major models: the “radiant” or euphoric, and the “dark” and foreboding. The radiant types dominated most of the earlier reports, and included such elements as floating, instantaneous travel, light, warmth, meeting of departed loved ones, and a sense of peace and well-being.
More recently, Philip J. Swihart of the Midwest Colorado Mental Health Center, in his The Edge of Death (1978), and Maurice S. Rawlings of the Diagnostic Hospital in Chattanooga, in Beyond Death’s Door (1978), have recorded a series of “strange encounters” of the dark and sometimes terrifying kind. In these, those reporting speak of seeing a lake of fire, or abysmal darkness, or tormented persons driven to Sisyphus-type tasks by sinister figures, together with a fearful anticipation of judgment.
The latter writers feel that their findings are the more authentic because they are usually gained through interviews almost immediately following “death” and resuscitation. They also note that this darker form of experience is likely to be lost out of consciousness in a very short time. Thus, those who gather and publish data at leisure on out-of-body experiences seldom secure this type of report.
The implications for evangelicals of the discipline of thanatology emerge from the fact that the euphoric type of out-of-body experiences make better copy than the dark type and attract the attention of the religious media. It thus tends to shape the thinking of the majority who read or hear such materials. It is here that scriptural teachings concerning judgment and future punishment can be undermined.
If the two types can be presented in balance, they may serve to undergird the clear teaching of our Lord concerning the final division of mankind. If the bland and euphoric type is given prominence at the expense of the more “realistic” form, the universalism and the lethargy it cultivates may undermine and corrupt the gospel of grace.
HAROLD B. KUHNDr. Kuhn is professor of philosophy of religion, Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky.
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