[November 3, 2022] Yesterday was All Souls’ Day. This week–and especially this coming weekend–in many places people pay special attention to loved-ones who are no longer among us. Like All Saints’ Day, which is celebrated one day earlier, All Souls’ Day has a Roman Catholic past. Around the year 1000 this day was first celebrated as a time specifically devoted to praying for all the souls who are not yet in heaven, but are still suffering in purgatory. The name “all souls day” dates back to the thirteenth century. For most people “all souls day” now has a broader meaning. Even for many non-Catholics it has become a day when we think especially of our loved ones who have gone before us. This is also the content of a ceremony that will take place next Sunday at noon at the public cemetery of the place where I live (the village of Zeewolde in the Flevopolder). I am not planning to go to this event, as my wife and I have another important appointment, but in the first week of November I also think more than usual of loved ones who have died. In this week were the birthdays of my mother and my youngest sister. My mother would now, if she were still around, be celebrating her 110th birthday and my youngest sister would have turned 72 a day later. Unfortunately, she only lived to age 33.
In the Adventist Church, it is not customary to publicly pay much attention to those who have died at same time in the past. Some church members might quietly light a candle somewhere, but they will not talk too much about this, since many fellow believers would tell them that lighting candles is a Catholic custom. In a number of places in the Netherlands, Adventists rent a Salvation Army building for their worship services. In these buildings there invariably is a sign somewhere on a wall with the list of the names of the corps members who have been “promoted to glory.” I like that custom, although, of course, our theology demands that we would phrase it differently.
I was struck a few days ago by what David R. Larson, an American friend (and professor emeritus of the theological department at Loma Linda University) wrote on his Facebook page. His comment was part of a discussion about what are the main Adventist doctrines. As expected, in such a discussion one hears mostly about the Sabbath, the Second Coming and the heavenly sanctuary. But, according to Larson, that is incorrect. By far the most important “fundamental belief” for us as Adventists, he wrote, is our view of death. There is no other aspect of our faith that we dwell on as often as our mortality and what awaits us at the moment of our death.
I quote a few lines from what he wrote:
“Few people go to bed wondering whether the true Sabbath is on the first or seventh day of the week, when the Second Coming of Jesus will occur, what Jesus is doing in the Heavenly Sanctuary, whether the Spirit of Prophecy was active in Ellen White or whether the term “Righteousness by Faith” properly applies to Justification alone or to both Justification and Sanctification.
Many go to bed wondering what happens to us when we die and how to live well before we do. People in all walks of life wonder this; however, there are also academic experts in many disciplines who are studying this as they research issues concerning mind and body, freedom and determinism, continuity and discontinuity in human identity. . .”
The Seventh-day Adventist view of death is no longer as unique as it once was, and is nowadays shared by many other Christians. However, it remains an enormously important element of what we have to say to the world around us. For, as Larson emphasizes: there is no other subject that people dwell on so often. And we can assure everyone: We do not have an immortal soul that leaves the body when we breath our last, but we “sleep” for a while, awaiting the moment we can begin our perfect, eternal, life.