The Path – November 1891

DEATH — Alexander Fullerton

Theosophists who were not brought up under "Evangelical" influences have no adequate perception of the change Theosophy makes in the view of death. To an orthodox, death is a penal infliction indicative of Divine wrath, the close to all hope of change or reformation, mysterious and awful and terrifying in every aspect, but especially because it introduces into the immediate presence of God a soul which is then to receive assignment of woe or bliss. Which shall be assigned can never be foreseen, for, as not character but faith is the determining factor, and as no one can say whether the faith of the deceased was sufficient to "justify", there must be painful uncertainty in every case short of conspicuous saintliness. The harrowing fears, the agonies of doubt and misgiving undergone by pious relatives over every open grave, no arithmetic can ever compute.

But the conception keeps also the living in terror. St. Paul most justly describes those who "through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage". Not knowing when it would come, but only that it was horrible in its details and incalculably momentous in its consequences, with no security as to its outcome beyond a sentiment known to be fickle and avowed to be deceptive, is it any wonder that orthodoxy kept them shuddering along every step of the way towards the open tomb at which it ceaselessly pointed?

It is one of the measureless blessings of Theosophy that this odious libel on God and Nature is demolished, the whole demoniacal conception obliterated, and the aspect of death completely revolutionized. With an indignant sneer Theosophy shatters the terrorizing image, and substitutes for it a benignant, rational, and kindly figure.

The notion that death is a punishment for sin is the basis for the orthodox erection, and this is blasted to atoms by proof that death is a natural step from lower to higher planes, the necessary transfer from scenes one has exhausted to those still in store. It is no more arbitrary, no more terrific, than birth. But, in itself, it is not even a calamity. Far worse would be the fate of one doomed never to die, ever to pass centuries of wearied disappointment without hope of relief or change. Even the orthodox have occasionally sensed this, and, momentarily blind to the slight on the Divine judgments, have sung, "I would not live always; I ask not to stay".

Having thus removed the ground-work of the misrepresentation of death, Theosophy proceeds to erect a true conception. As death is but a door, a transit from earth-life to life beyond earth, all must turn on the view of each. Now earth-life, says Theosophy, is that era during which an incarnate individuality undergoes experience, forms character, and suffers whatever evil its demerits demand; life beyond earth is the era during which the individuality, no longer incarnate, digests the results of that experience, reposes in the wealth of that character, and enjoys whatever good its merits deserve. Here, in this mixture of right and wrong, and turbulence and serenity, and peace and warfare, we have our partial reward and also our copious discipline: there, in the calm sunlight of subjective existence, sorrows have passed away and heavenly rest comes to soothe and refresh the one who has ceased from his labors. But when that rest has fulfilled its needs, when full reward has been given and the time has come for another pilgrimage, the individuality returns to earth-life, assumes a different personality, and begins again the formation of its character.

Observe, says Theosophy, the contrast between earth-life and the other, and so the new view we must take of death. There is no "Day" of Judgment, for Judgment is daily and unceasing. There is no nearer presence of God, for, whether with bodies or without them, "in Him we live and move and have our being". There is no "final doom", for no finality is possible while character is forming, and "doom" has no meaning apart from desert. "Hell" is not a future and outside torment into which sinners shall be dropped when the loss of their bodies makes it possible to get at them, but a present and interior state which they create for themselves through their passions and wrongs. "Heaven" is not a remote and exterior scene where saints are to congregate in resurrected bodies and imperfectly disciplined souls, but a condition of the internal man, realizable on earth so far as his development has made it possible, and off the earth in a measure unattainable while enfleshed. Punishment is not future, but present; not there, but here; not beyond the earth, but on the earth. And happiness, though found here too, is there without alloy.

This being so, we see at once the different aspect Theosophy gives to natural death. Not the introducer to an uncertain future, with the chances greatly in favor of woe, but to certain, assured peace and happiness. Never the stern avenger, he is ever the kind friend who opens the door to bliss. No pain enters the unseen world, and we, with knowledge that only bliss is ever found within it, can lose all fear as we contemplate that door afar or see it opening for our approach. For where is the pain, where the discipline and sorrow that we know must follow our many faults? In life. Birth, not death, is what introduces us to sorrow and ensures that every sin shall meet its recompense. If we are to be terrorized at any of Nature's processes, it must be the cradle, not the grave. If any one is free from either danger or uncertainty, it must be that which ushers only to joy and peace.

What an unspeakable boon has Theosophy thus given to men appalled with the horrors of a mistaken creed! As true conceptions of life and death make their way throughout the land, what wretchedness will they dispel, what agony of spirit for self and loved ones, what hardness and coldness towards the Author of all good. If Theosophy did nothing to uplift higher motive and finer endeavor, if it disclosed no better ground for human fraternity and mutual help, if it solved no mysteries and lighted no gulfs and cleared no doubts, if it gave no rational interpretation to existence and furnished no adequate impulse to development — and it has done all these; yet it would have conferred this incalculable blessing, — emancipation from imaginary but bitter terror, the transformation of Death from an enemy to a friend, the resurrection, not of a disintegrated carcass, but of a rational belief.

The Path