My mother phoned just now to tell me that an elderly lady in our town died at home last night. Mom got the news from a family member who held the dead lady’s hand as she passed.

“I know you’ll be interested in this part of the story, because of that book you read,” said my mother, referring to Patricia Pearson’s Opening Heaven’s Door, a journalistic investigation of what happens as death nears. My mother told me that as the woman lay dying, she began talking to family members who preceded her in death — as if they were present in the room.

For the sake of privacy, I won’t pass on the direct quotes, but the dying woman addressed them as if they had come to bring her home. She said to the family members who sat next to her, holding her hands, “Don’t you see them?”

The others did not see them, of course. According to the family member who broke the news to my mom, the dying woman appeared to delay her dying so she could convince the two loved ones holding her hands to go with her and the others.

According to a study Pearson cites in her book, over 40 percent of those who died lucidly — that is, not compromised by large doses of drugs — have some kind of experience like this, in which they appear to see certain of the dead present with them in the room at the very end, or they have unusually vivid dreams of the dead shortly before they themselves die. It happened to my sister Ruthie. It happened to my Aunt Julia. It happened to my friend’s father, who died this year.

I bring this up because it raises an intriguing theological question. (If you don’t believe in life after death, this is going to sound like nonsense; I’m addressing this to those who do, in particular, those who hold Christian beliefs about this.) I am not aware to what extent this particular woman’s family members were religious believers, so all this is mere speculation. I am aware, however, of a couple of these cases in which the souls of the departed were not religious believers of any serious conviction — yet they apparently came to escort the dying to the afterlife. In fact, I can think of one case reported to me in the past by a friend, whose dying kinsman was an atheist, yet who experienced this phenomenon, dying peacefully in the company of the shade of his dead wife.

If it’s entirely a hallucination, that explains it. But if these events are real — and I believe they are; Pearson presents a compelling case that something objective is happening in these instances — well, how do Christians account for this, theologically? Personally, I am pleased and comforted by the possibility that God’s mercy is so great that He would welcome home those whose belief was meager, and those who had no belief, but who lived kindly and generously. I am certainly not disappointed that the impious would be spared the fires of Hell! Still, it’s hard to reconcile this fully to Scripture (e.g., Jesus, in Matthew 7: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter.”)

What do you think? I’m just throwing it out there for discussion.