A Fact of Life

Gary B. Swanson

A Fact of Life

Leonard Lowe was one of a number of patients on a hospital ward in 1969 who had been reduced to a catatonic state decades before by an epidemic of encephalitis lethargica. Leonard’s physician, Dr. Malcolm Sayer, after attending a conference at which success was reported of a new pharmaceutical drug to treat patients with Parkinson’s disease, wondered if the drug could be beneficial to the patients on his ward.

With the appropriate approval, Dr. Sayer administered the drug to Leonard first. The result was truly astonishing. Leonard experienced a remarkable awakening from his catatonia to a normal state. To the amazement of Dr. Sayer and the staff, he was now able to communicate freely with those around him, to initiate activities of his own, to observe and appreciate everything going on in the hospital ward and in the world beyond.

This was the scenario at the center of a film released in 1990 entitled Awakenings. It was not a work of fiction. The film was based on the late Oliver Sacks’ autobiographical book of the same title published in 1973, in which he recounted an experiment that he had personally directed in his practice. Since that time Oliver Sacks, a professor of neurology, successfully published a number of books on medical topics that appealed to a far more general readership beyond the field of neurology. Earlier in 2015 he died at the age of 82. An opinion piece in The New York Times called him “a kind of poet laureate of contemporary medicine.”

In the film—and in the actual incidence on which the book and the film were based— Leonard Lowe and the other patients on the ward who were added to this drug study suddenly had to adapt to a new life and a new world. But after a time, each slowly slipped back into a final catatonic state. The story depicts an inspiring celebration of what it means to be human in the initial improvement of the patients and then a poignant sense of disappointment as this sudden awareness slowly but inevitably slipped away.

Oliver Sacks addressed a similar sense of personal loss shortly before he died of metastatic cancer. In “Sabbath,” an op-ed column published by The New York Times two weeks before his death, Sacks compared a human life to the first six days of the week and equated death and whatever comes thereafter as a sabbath, a kind of seventh day of rest for the human life.

Born in 1933 into an Orthodox Jewish community in northwest London, both parents physicians, Sacks knew something about the concept of Sabbath. “The butcher, the baker, the grocer, the greengrocer, the fishmonger,” Sacks wrote, “all closed their shops in good time for the Shabbos, and did not open their shutters till Sunday morning. All of them, and all our neighbors, we imagined, were celebrating Shabbos in much the same fashion as we did.”1

This weekly celebration of the Sabbath meant for the Sacks family ritual candles, prayers, Shabbos clothes, the Kiddush, the walk to the synagogue, and family visits. It included gefilte fish, poached salmon, beetroot jelly, honey cakes, and other fare. It was a deep, rich tradition.

He chanted his bar mitzvah portion in 1946, but thereafter began to drift away from the ritual duties, beliefs, and practices of the Jewish adult. After graduating from medical school in 1960, he left England to study neurology at UCLA, and his distance from the traditions of home and family widened in both geography and lifestyle.

In mid-2014, however, his return to England to fulfill a promise to a longtime friend turned into a full immersion in his extended family. During this time, he re-experienced some of the Orthodox tradition that he had renounced decades before, and he was moved especially by the celebration of the Sabbath. “The peace of the Sabbath,” he wrote, “of a stopped world, a time outside time, was palpable, infused everything, and I found myself drenched with a wistfulness, something akin to nostalgia.”2

As a physician, he may have known how little life was left in him when his very last piece of writing was published. “I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath,” he wrote, “the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”3

Whether Oliver Sacks himself believed in a resurrection, is there not an intrinsic sense of hope in his use of the word rest itself? Of what ultimate benefit can there be in rest without the assumption that there will be an awakening from it? This hope—this assurance—that there will be a resurrection of the period of rest at the end of one’s life is certainly biblical.

To the believers in Asia Minor, the disciple Peter proclaimed “a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3, NKJV).4 And this was coming from an eyewitness who had personally met his resurrected Savior at the seaside after he had witnessed His death on the cross.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul addresses the absolute centrality of the resurrection to the Christian faith. “But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead” (1 Cor. 15:20, 21). Marginal notes on this passage in the Andrews Study Bible point out that all resurrections of the dead, whether before or after Jesus’ historical resurrection, are made possible by His own resurrection.

The New Testament, in fact, is so replete with references to the historicity of Christ’s resurrection—and the hope that it offers to those who believe in Him—that the prophetic allusions in the Old Testament are often overlooked. Close study of the books of Job, Isaiah, and Daniel, however, make it clear that the resurrection is a fact of life.

The debate over the resurrection between the Pharisees and the Sadducees therefore implies that there were surely some in Jesus’ time who based their belief on the available Scriptures. Hoping to ensnare Jesus on a small detail of Scripture, someone asked Him about which of seven deceased husbands a widow would be wife of “‘in the resurrection’” (Matt. 22:23–29). After the death of Lazarus, his sister Martha spoke of her assurance that Lazarus would live again “‘in the resurrection at the last day’” (John 11:24).

But even before Jesus arrived at Lazarus’ tomb, He had assured His disciples that Lazarus was only sleeping, what Oliver Sacks may have described without knowing it as resting on the seventh day of his life. If this implies an awakening, then the resurrection of Lazarus is one of a very few recorded instances of those who may actually experience a return to life twice, once to life again on this earth, and a second and final awakening at Jesus’ return.

And there will be nothing temporary, nothing regressive about this final awakening like that experienced by Leonard Lowe. “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16, italics supplied).



1. "Sabbath," The New York Times (August 16, 2015), p. SR1: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/opinion/sunday/oliver-sacks-sabbath.html?_r=0. Accessed November 24, 2015.



2. Ibid.



3. Ibid.


4. All Scripture references in this article are quoted from The New King James Version of the Bible.