Four days had passed since the stone had been laid on the tomb. The body, according to the Holy Scriptures, already had a foul odour. However, Lazarus came back to life and became an indisputable symbol of Jesus’ omnipotence: His power over life and death extended beyond the threshold of eternity.
However, what the Evangelists do not tell us, and what contemporary man would certainly love to know, is what Lazarus saw when he passed from this life to the next…
What happens after death?
This is a question that has been hidden under the veils of absolute mystery throughout the ages. We believe, by faith, that death is the final gateway to eternity, the obligatory passage to Heaven or hell, but who can say exactly what we will find when we close our eyes for the last time?
In reality, only someone who had passed through death’s door could shed light on this question with certainly… which is not a frequent occurrence, given that the step into the afterlife is usually a definitive one.
However, some of the “dead” have come back to life and told us what they found when they crossed into eternity. Before having a look at some of these extraordinary cases, let us recall a few principles.
On the “frontier of death”
Today, countless scholars are dedicated to examining the so-called near-death experiences, which, from a scientific perspective, come close to what we Catholics believe in by divine revelation: the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.
Although medicine has not yet managed to determine the exact moment when life ceases and gives way to death, in order to define the latter a differentiation is made between so-called clinical death and biological death, as these are distinct situations.
Clinical death is characterized by signs that can be monitored, such as mydriasis, cardiorespiratory arrest, the total absence of reflexes and the suspension of brain activity, reflected in a flat electroencephalogram. With modern technology, however, it is possible to reverse this situation between three and ten minutes after death, thus preventing “departure” into eternity.
The definitive and, so to speak, irreversible death of a person is called biological death, and its most obvious sign is when the process of bodily decomposition begins.
Theologians, for their part, define death as the separation of the soul from its own body, and differentiate between two stages: apparent death and actual death. Fr. Royo Marín, OP, explains: “Between the moment called death and the instant when it actually occurs, there is always a period of latent life, of greater or lesser length […],” since “death does not come suddenly; it is a gradual process from the present life to apparent death, and from this to actual death.”1
It is worth noting that the cases reported below most likely occurred between clinical or apparent death and biological or actual death, in a state that we could call the “frontier of death”.
A complementary question
There is still a question to answer in this intricate matter: were the souls of those who “came back to life” judged? According to theology, the particular judgement takes place at the very moment of death, and its sentence is instantaneous and irrevocable. So what are we to make of these rare exceptions? Simply that they came back to life before being judged. In other words, in the foreknowledge of their return, they were not subject to the particular judgement, which will take place after their second and final bodily death.2
Leaving aside the debates on the subject, since science and theology have not yet managed to pinpoint the real moment of death, let us turn our attention to the experiences of those who have gone through this process and remember what they saw and heard, for they can give us some idea of what will happen to us on the day when God wishes to call us.
St. Hildegard of Bingen, the great 13th-century mystic, underwent several near-death experiences, in one of which the entire community was already mourning her passing.3 The abbess teetered between life and death for thirty days and finally seemed to succumb to a fever: “My body,” says the Saint, “seemed to melt under the attack of acute pain. My flesh, my blood and the marrow of my bones were drying up. My soul seemed ready to break free from my body…”
When her soul began to head towards a great light, she saw the glorious St. Michael, surrounded by his warriors, who called out to her: “Come, Come! Why are you sleeping, and with you the knowledge that God has given you for His service? […] Awaken, get up! The sun rises; get up, eat and drink!”
Then Hildegard heard the entire heavenly host sing a resounding chant: “Listen to the voice! The messengers of death have been silenced; it is not yet time to leave. Virgin, arise!”
And she came back to life.
Salvius, the man who came back from Heaven
Not every near-death experience is so beautiful… Sometimes it leads to conversion, on other occasions it can serve as an incentive to embrace a path of greater perfection.
St. Gregory of Tours,4 the historian of the Franks, recalls the testimony of St. Salvius, a monk who returned to life after having seemingly contemplated something of heavenly bliss.
Four days had passed since his death when he “awoke” exclaiming: “O merciful Lord, why have You made me return to this dark abode of the world, when your mercy in Heaven was better for me than life in this perverse age?”
Surprised, the onlookers wanted him to tell them what had happened to him, but Salvius kept silent and fasted for three days, after which he recounted: “Two Angels took me to Heaven, so that I seemed to have under my feet not only this filthy earth, but also the sun and the moon, the clouds and the stars. Through a door that was brighter than day, I was then ushered into a dwelling filled with ineffable light and of indescribable immensity, the floor of which gleamed with gold and silver.”
Salvius greeted numerous Angels, martyrs and confessors in a luminous and supernatural atmosphere, as he approached a light more intense than the rest: “A perfume of extreme sweetness enveloped me, so that, nourished by this sweetness, I no longer hungered or thirsted. And I heard a voice saying: ‘Let him return to earth, for he is needed by our churches.’”
As can be imagined, the unfortunate man lamented bitterly at being forced to leave the delights of Heaven and return to this vale of tears… “‘Alas, alas! Lord, why have You shown me these things if I was to be deprived of them? Behold, today I am expelled from your presence, to return to a fragile world and never to come back here again. I beg You, Lord, do not withdraw your mercy from me, but allow me to live in this place so that I do not perish when I leave it.’ And the voice that had spoken to me said: ‘Go in peace, for I will be your guardian until I bring you back here.’”
From the innocent description that history has left us, everything indicates that the pious monk, the future Bishop of Albi, did not reach the splendours of the beatific vision – from where he would certainly never have returned – but only caught a glimpse of those delights that God reserves for His elect, perhaps for the edification of his immediate listeners and the benefit of posterity.
From Purgatory to earth…
No less impressive is the experience recounted by St. Bede,5 which “took place in England so that the living could be awakened from the death of the soul.”
This case involved a certain devout man who had died after a serious illness. His relatives kept watch over his body during the night, but at dawn he came back to life, to the great astonishment and panic of those present, among whom only his wife had the courage to remain by the coffin… “I have been allowed to be in human company again; however, from now on my life cannot be as before, but I must live in a very different way,” he explained to her.
He then told how a guide resplendent with light had led him through a long, deep valley. The path they followed was flanked by a sea of fire and a field assailed by snow and hail. “Both sides were full of souls who seemed to be tossed from one side to the other as if by a violent storm…”
The horrible sight made him think it was hell. However, the infernal entrance was further ahead and, as he stared at the terrible fate of the damned, his guide abandoned him… Lost in the blackness of the valley, he was terrified as the demons surrounded him and tried to seize him, until the guide reappeared and took him to another place.
They walked towards a very high wall, and the sight of the other side made him forget the painful scenes he had beheld: “There was a vast and pleasant plain, whose flowers dispelled with the marvellous sweetness of their fragrance the stench of the dark furnace that had seized my nostrils. So great was the light that spread over this place that it seemed to exceed the brightness of the day, or the rays of the midday sun. In this field there were countless men dressed in white, and many groups of jubilant crowds.”
Ahead, he saw a very beautiful light and heard the sound of sweet singing, but the guide explained that they had to return by the way they had come. As they walked, he explained the visions he had seen: the sea of fire and snow was the place where those who had repented of their sins only at the moment of death were purged, while the flower-filled plain – to our amazement – was not yet Heaven, but the region where those souls who were not yet perfect enough to contemplate God were completely purified.
Returning from the world of the dead, this man lived a life of great penance, waiting for the moment when he could be admitted to the eternal mansions. This experience was undoubtedly a very special grace, intended to produce a genuine renewal of fervour.
A soldier saved by Padre Pio after being shot
Let us now take a look at a more recent report of an incident that befell one of Padre Pio’s spiritual sons, Fr. Jean Derobert, a soldier who faced a firing squad…6
One morning, Jean received a note from Padre Pio saying: “Life is a battle, but it leads to the light.” In the evening, the village where he was holed up in Algeria was attacked by rebels and he was shot along with five other soldiers.
“I saw my body next to me, lying covered in blood among my murdered comrades. And I began a curious ascent through a kind of tunnel. Familiar and unfamiliar faces emerged from the cloud that surrounded me. […] I continued my ascent until I found myself in the middle of a marvellous landscape, enveloped in a gentle, bluish light. Then I saw Mary, so marvellously beautiful in her mantle of light, who welcomed me with an indescribable smile… Behind Her was Jesus, of wondrous beauty, and behind Him, a zone of light that I knew to be the Father, and into which I was plunged…”
“Then I felt the total fulfilment of all my desires… I experienced perfect happiness… And suddenly I found myself on earth again, with my face in the dust, among the bloodied bodies of my comrades.”
Some time later, on a visit to his spiritual father, Jean heard him exclaim: “Look what you put me through… But what you saw was very beautiful!” He was alive thanks to Padre Pio, and he had also lost his fear of death because he knew what awaited him “on the other side.” Once again, we can see the pedagogical intention of Providence in providing such extraordinary experiences as those narrated, which emphasize, in a way, something of what Catholic doctrine teaches us about the afterlife.
An encounter with Jesus at one hundred and thirty kilometres per hour
In 2008, film director and writer Natalie Saracco was involved in a terrible car accident at one hundred and thirty kilometres per hour on a road on the way to her home near Pacy-sur-Eure, France.7 She was trapped in the wreckage and gradually felt her life ebbing away as she spewed streams of blood. Then she found herself in a place outside the limits of space and time and in front of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who was showing her His Heart surrounded by thorns.
“He was weeping and drops of blood were flowing from His Heart. And those tears were also flowing from my own heart. It seemed to me that He wanted me to experience His terrible suffering. A suffering so deep that it made me forget my fear of dying and the people I was leaving behind. I asked Him: ‘Lord, why do You weep?’ ‘I weep because you are my beloved children. I gave my life for you and in return I only receive coldness, contempt and indifference. My Heart is consumed with a mad love for you…’”
Natalie knew that God loved people, but before this experience she could not have imagined that this love was so great! “Lord,” she said, “it is a shame to give up my soul now that I know You love us to the point of folly. I wish I could return to earth to bear witness to your boundless love and console your Sacred Heart.”
She continues: “As soon as I said this, I felt small and fragile: the time had come for my judgement before the heavenly tribunal. I heard a voice saying: ‘You will be judged on your true love for God and for your neighbour.’ After these words, I felt as if I had been reintroduced to my body: a sensation of warmth ran through my whole being, from head to toe. I stopped vomiting blood. The fire brigade pulled me out of the car. At the hospital, the doctors could not understand how I was still alive after such a brutal accident. It was inexplicable. What is more, I felt extraordinary peace and joy. I was flayed alive, but I felt that everything was in order, at peace.”
There are still thousands of facts to recount, but we must leave them for another occasion… However, we are permitted to consider that, far from being mere accidents, “miscalculations” or strokes of luck, these experiences were certainly allowed by God for the spiritual profit not only of those who benefited directly, but also of all those who would learn of them later.
May the Heavenly Father, who knows and guides our destinies, and the Blessed Virgin, whom we ask every day to pray for us at the hour of our death, prepare our souls for that tremendous and all-important moment. That way, when it finally comes, we will be able to exclaim with St. Therese of the Child Jesus: “I am not dying, I am entering into life!” ◊
Taken from the Heralds of the Gospel magazine, #193.
1 ROYO MARÍN, OP, Antonio. Teología de la salvación. 4.ed. Madrid: BAC, 1997, p.254; 256.
2 Cf. Idem, p.280.
3 Cf. FRANCHE, Paul. Sainte Hildegarde. 3.ed. Paris: Victor Lecoffre, 1903, p.62-63.
4 Cf. ST. GREGORY OF TOURS. Historia francorum. L.VII, c.1.
5 Cf. ST. BEDE. Historia ecclesiastica gentis anglorum. L.V, c.12.
6 Cf. THEILLIER, Patrick. Experiencias cercanas a la muerte. 2.ed. Madrid: Palabra, 2017, p.147-150.
7 Cf. Idem, p.92-94.