May 2, 1995
Daniel Webster, an orator and statesman who lived from 1782 to 1852, is not to be confused with author Noah Webster who compiled words into dictionaries. Daniel was just as well known for his skill with many words but he ended his life with just one.
It happened in Marshfield, October 24, 1852. Webster’s doctor, a sensitive man named Jeffries, gave him as much medicine as practically possible. Knowing death was near, he chose to be a friend rather than a physician. He picked up an old, well-worn hymn book and began reading one of Webster’s favorite hymns: “There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Immanuel’s veins. And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.”
Jeffries read every stanza. When he got to the last, Webster’s lips were moving too, but no sound came. The doctor read the concluding line: “When this poor lisping, stammering tongue lies silent in the grave, then in a nobler, sweeter song, I’ll sing thy power to save. I’ll sing thy power to save, I’ll sing thy power to save.”
Their eyes met and Webster uttered his final words: “Amen, Amen, Amen!”
This true story reminds me of books: “Foxes’ Book of Martyrs” and a more recent work called “Voices from the Edge of Eternity.” The first describes the heroic deaths of those persecuted for their faith in Christ. Some of them signaled without words to onlookers that their great God was not allowing them to feel pain during the torture they were receiving. For others, their last words were descriptions of their first glimpses of heaven.
The second book is by a modern doctor. During his career, some of his patients lost their vital signs yet were revived. Many of them described similar “near-death” visions of a tunnel of light and family and friends welcoming them into a beautiful place.
He also tells of others in the same situation but with a far different story. When they slipped toward death, they screamed in fear and horror at what they saw. Descriptions included flames, darkness and horrible creatures.
The doctor noted that the group who claimed to see wonderful things remembered what they saw and could tell others about it. Their experience also eased their fear of death. However, those who were terrified by a vision of darkness and fire quickly forgot what they saw and were quite unable to repeat it to anyone.
The validity of such stories is debatable. Were these “visions” the result of preconditioning? Did these people in fact die? Rather than form an understanding of what happens when we die from them, better information comes from the one person who truly did die, was buried, and then came back to life.
Hundreds of years before His death, a psalmist wrote: “Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay.”
The psalmist did die but the New Testament explains: “He was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that He was not abandoned to the grave, nor did His body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact.”
Near-death visions strengthen those who have them, but the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection gives a greater victory to all who believe in Him. Because He died and rose, we too can conquer death and, without fear of flames or torment, look forward to glory.