Raymond A. Moody’s Life After Life: The Investigation of a Phenomenon—Survival of Bodily Death (New York: Bantam Books, c. 1975) was my first introduction to a scholarly investigation of near-death experiences. Moody earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Virginia in 1969 before going to medical school and becoming a psychiatrist. The book takes a tentative, but respectful attitude towards the subject that makes it compelling.
We human beings have forever pondered death’s mystery. “There is a graveyard in Turkey which was used by Neanderthal men approximately 100,000 years ago. There, fossilized imprints have enabled archeologists to discover that these ancient men buried their dead in biers of flowers, indicating that they perhaps saw death as an occasion of celebration—as a transition of the dead from this world to the next. Indeed, graves from very early sites all over the earth give evidence of the belief in human survival of bodily death” (p. 13). In accord with this ancient inclination, when Moody, rather inadvertently, began to hear reports from people who claimed to have “died” and lived to tell of it, he was motivated to study some 150 such accounts.
The people he studied (mostly through personal interviews) came from remarkably different “religious, social and educational backgrounds” (p. 15). Nevertheless, they had remarkably similar “experiences” (p. 21). Crafting a composite of such experiences, summing up his findings, Moody urges us to envision the following:
A man is dying and, as he reaches the point of greatest physical distress, he hears himself pronounced dead by his doctor. He begins to hear an uncomfortable noise, a loud ringing or buzzing, and at the same time feels himself moving very rapidly through a long dark tunnel. After this, he suddenly finds himself outside of his own physical body, but still in the immediate physical environment, and he sees his own body from a distance, as though he is a spectator. He watches the resuscitation attempt from this unusual vantage point and is in a state of emotional upheaval.
After a while, he collects himself and becomes more accustomed to his odd condition. He notices that he still has a “body” but one of a very different nature and with very different powers from the physical body he has left behind. Soon other things begin to happen. Others come to meet and to help him. He glimpses the spirits of relatives and friends who have already died, and a loving warm spirit of a kind he has never encountered before—a being of light—appears before him. This being asks him a question, nonverbally, to make him evaluate his life and helps him along by showing him a panoramic, instantaneous playback of the major events of his life. At some point he finds himself approaching some sort of barrier or border, apparently representing the limit between earthly life and the next life. Yet, he finds that he must go back to the earth, that the time for his death has not yet come. At this point he resists, for by now he is taken up with his experiences in the afterlife and does not want to return. He is overwhelmed by intense feelings of joy, love, and peace. Despite his attitude, though, he somehow reunites with his physical body and lives.
Later he tries to tell others, but he has trouble doing so. In the first place, he can find no human words adequate to describe these unearthly episodes. He also finds that other scoff, so he stops telling other people. Still the experience affects his life profoundly, especially his views about death and its relationship to life (pp. 21-23).
Though there is a commonality to the reports, some of the book’s statements are most memorable. In the section on “ineffability,” for example, one woman said: “’Well, when I was taking geometry, they always told me there were only three dimensions, and I always just accepted that. But they were wrong. There are more. And, of course, our world—the one we’re living in now—is three-dimensional, but the next one definitely isn’t. And that’s why it’s so hard to tell you this. I have to describe it to you in words that are three-dimensional. That’s as close as I can get to it, but it’s not really adequate’” (p. 26). Recounting his out-of-body experience, a “young informant” said: “I was sort of floating about five feet above the street, about five yards away from the car, I’d say, and I heard the echo of the crash dying away. I saw people come running up and crowding around the car, and I saw my friend get out of the car, obviously in shock. I could see my own body in the wreckage among all those people, and could see them trying to get it out. My legs were all twisted and there was blood all over the place” (p. 37). Most of the witnesses say they entered into another body, different from but decidedly resembling their earthly body. It’s a “spiritual body,” weightless and time-transcending, but still a body! “A person in the spiritual body is in a privileged position I relation to the other persons around him. He can see and hear them, but they can’t see or hear him” (p. 46).
Virtually all the people encountered a bright, warm, loving being of light. Some think it was an angel. Others think it was Jesus. Subsequently, they all considered loving others and gaining knowledge the great purpose of life on earth. Many who had little interest in such things come back to life with a deep determination to spend the rest of their days loving and learning, activities that will flourish in the hereafter.
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Howard Storm’s My Descent into Death: A Second Chance at Life (New York: Doubleday, c. 2005) is a fascinating near-death account. A university art professor, a “self-sufficient” Stoic with no religious inclinations, Storm was in Paris in 1985 when he suffered a life-threatening perforation of his stomach, much like a burst appendix. He’d hoped for artistic fame. To become a “great artist” he’d been willing to sacrifice everything, and everyone. “I didn’t believe in life after death. When you died, it was like having the switch turned off. That was it, the end of your existence, finished, just darkness” (p. 23).
But that belief all changed in a moment! His wife rushed him to a hospital, but it was a week-end when most of the staff enjoy their leisure, so he lay, untended for some 10 hours. Lying there, he confesses to giving up on life: “Saying to myself, ‘Let it end now,’ I closed my eyes. . . . . I knew that what would happen next would be the end of any kind of consciousness or existence. I knew that to be true. The idea of any kind of life after death never entered my mind because I didn’t believe in that kind of thing. I knew for certain that there was no such thing as life after death. Only simpleminded people believed in that sort of thing. I didn’t believe in God, or heaven, or hell, or any other fairy tales. I drifted into darkness, a sleep into annihilation” (p. 9).
What followed was not “annihilation” but a “descent” into another realm of Reality, a descent that totally transformed Howard Storm. He was aware of moving about the hospital, seeing others while being unseen. He saw himself, looking like a “wax replica of me” (p. 112), lying unconscious under a sheet in the bed. Leaving the hospital, he encountered various people, taking a journey, feeling deep despair and hopelessness. He was surrounded by creatures who “were once human beings” (p. 17) who jeered and screamed and attacked him. Immersed in darkness, he experienced some of the horrors of Hell.
All alone, lying on the ground, under lethal attack, something inside him urged him to pray, to ask God for help. As a child he had prayed, as taught in Sunday school. But for years he had never even though of praying. But his world had changed! So he tried to remember how to pray, cobbling together fragments from the Lord’s Prayer, the 23d Psalm, and “God Bless America.”
To my amazement, the cruel, merciless beings tearing the life out of me were incited to rage by
my ragged prayer. It was as if I were throwing boiling oil on them. They screamed at me, “There
is no God! Who do you think you’re talking to? Nobody can hear you! . . . . But at the same
time, they were backing away . . . . I realized that saying things about God was actually driving
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I was alone in that darkness for time without measure. I thought about what I had done. All my life I had thought that hard work was what counted. My life was devoted to building a monument to my ego. My family, my sculptures, my painting, my house, my gardens, my little fame, my illusions of power, were all an extension of my ego. All of those things were gone now, and what did they matter? All those things that I had lived for were lost to me, and they didn’t mean a thing (pp. 19-21).
Fortunately, his prayer (however feeble) delivered him. He also remembered a song, “Jesus Loves Me,” and began singing the bits of it he remembered. He suddenly knew how much he needed such love!
“For the first time in my adult life I wanted it to be true that Jesus loved me. I didn’t know how to express what I wanted and needed, but with every bit of my last ounce of strength, I yelled out into the darkness, ‘Jesus, save me.’ I yelled that from the core of my being with all the energy I had left. I have never meant anything more strongly in my life” (p. 24). Then came the Light, brilliant and beautiful! But “it wasn’t just light. This was a living being, a luminous being approximately eight feet tall and surrounded by an oval of radiance. The brilliant intensity of the light penetrated my body Ecstasy swept away the agony. Tangible hands and arms gently embraced me and lifted me up. I slowly rose up into the presence of the light and the torn pieces of my body miraculously healed before my eyes. All my wounds vanished and I became whole and well in the light. More important, the despair and pain were replaced by love. I had been lost and now was found; I had been dead and now was alive” (p. 25).
The Light was Jesus. “I was unconditionally loved and accepted. He was King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Christ Jesus the Savior. Jesus does love me, I thought” (p. 25). Never before had he been so loved.
Still more: “This person of blinding glory loved me with overwhelming power. After what I had been through, to be completely known, accepted, and intensely loved by this beautiful God/man of light surpassed anything I had ever known or could possibly have imagined. I had called out to Jesus and he came to rescue me” (p. 26). Jesus delivered him.
In the presence of Jesus and the angels, Storm then went through an honest “life review,” presenting the often painful and disgraceful aspects of his past. He realized how all of us, in time, will be judged. The truth about us will be revealed. Storm realized that only God’s love will save us. But unless we live in that love and live rightly we will not fare well in the Judgment. Full of questions, Storm wondered “what happens when we die,” He learned:
When people die, they don’t know that they have died. The world looks the same to them, and they feel completely alive. Whatever trauma a person experienced in dying is only a vivid memory. The suffering is gone and the person feels physically better than he or she ever did in life.
There is disturbing confusion, however, because the individual cannot interact with other people or his surroundings. No one can hear or see him. Nothing responds to her touch. Most people are not ready to die and can’t accept the fact they have died. Some people are ready and are relaxed and eagerly anticipate the reunion with loved ones who have preceded them. This is the condition that makes their transition beautiful and advances them toward heaven.
After death, you will be receptive to God’s love or you will not, depending on how you have lived your life. Only God knows what is in a person’s heart. How we judge people has little to do with how God knows us. We judge people by their actions, and God knows us by our intentions. God knows every deed, every thought, and every motivation that we have. If we have loved God, loved the one that God has sent to us, loved our fellow person, and loved ourselves, we are drawn toward God. If we have not loved God, God’s son, our fellow person, or ourselves, we are repulsed by God’s love. There is nothing in between. Every person knows inside whether or not he or she has lived lovingly. God knows (pp. 49-50).
Hopefully, Storm says, while still on earth we will come to terms with God’s will and walk His way. We need to ever remember, he says, that:
This life that God has given us is a precious gift. We are to use it wisely because this opportunity to prepare ourselves for heaven is given only once. No one will ever be given this exact opportunity again. God does not bestow the gift of life on us frivolously or arbitrarily. We are given this life opportunity to prepare ourselves for our continuing spiritual growth in heaven. Failing to use our life opportunities wisely and lovingly is a rejection of God. Throwing one’s life away is a rejection of God and is not preparation for heaven. The choices we make in this world determine whether we are candidates for heaven or not. In each of us we know whether we are going to heaven or not. If you don’t know the answer, you are in big trouble and need to ask God to show you the way immediately Fortunately God wants us to come HOME, and God has sent us someone to show us the way home. His name is Jesus (p. 59).
Jesus is the answer! He alone is the “way, the truth, and the life,” the “resurrection and the life.” Faith in Him brings us eternal life. That Storm met Jesus in his near-death experience has made all the difference in his life. And though he wanted to stay with Jesus and the angels, he was sent back to earth with a mission. So he awakened in the Paris hospital, discovering that against all odds he had survived 10 hours with a medical problem that should have killed him much earlier. Surgeons finally operated and the perforated stomach mended. Somewhat miraculously, he managed to leave the Paris hospital and fly home to the U.S, where he soon found himself in another hospital, fighting double pneumonia, a collapsed lung, hepatitis, and a horrendous fever. This resulted in a weeks-long, excruciating time. Again his life was at risk. And yet the realities he’d earlier encountered were sustained.
Several times during this period, when I was awake, believing that I would die soon, an angel came into the room. The room would fill with radiant white light, and the most beautiful figure of a luminous angel would appear by my bed. This happened only when I was awake, and I was amazed by the angel’s appearance. The angel would assure me that I was going to live and that God was watching over me. I would immediately feel better physically and emotionally. The angel never came when someone else was in the room and always left before someone arrived. A nurse would often come into the room immediately after an angel had departed. I would be sitting up in bed, tears running down my face, and I would tell her that an angel had just been in the room. The nurses would always laugh and tell me to get some rest; I knew they didn’t believe me. I also knew that the only reason I was alive was because the angels were helping me heal (p. 93).
Storm suffered much pain in the hospital, but he discovered that prayer often brought more comfort when drugs (which he generally refused to take so as to stay alert to what was taking place). In praising Him, in vowing to serve Him in any way possible, he found peace. He also began to read—especially the Bible, which became a fountain of truth. Rightly read, listening for God to speak through His written Word, tells us what we really need to know. The writings of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton became a special blessing. In time he visited Merton’s grave in Kentucky. While praying there, a young man came into the cemetery and gave him a copy of Merton’s poems. He read, appreciatively, a poem. He then noticed that the young man was gone. He asked a friend who was with him if he had seen him, and he had. A bit later, “when I was looking at photographs of Thomas Merton, I saw a picture of him when he was in his early twenties. He looked just like the young man in the cemetery!” (p. 119). Given his awakened sensitivities to the eternal world, Storm says: “I believe the spirit of Thomas Merton had visited me and consoled me at his grave. He reassured me that he understood my struggle of living in limbo between heaven and earth” (p. 119). Just as he discerned Merton’s presence, so too he senses angels, God’s special messengers, in our world. He finds God speaking to him through nature and other people as well. Indeed, rather than astounding us with their glory and power, “Angels sometimes appear to us as people” (p. 137).
After regaining his health, he attended United Theological Seminary and received a Master of Divinity degree. Much that he studied, however, he had already learned from Jesus and the angels in his near-death experience. He began to tell his story and attending church, finding a home in a United Church of Christ. Before long, his university work became less and less interesting, and he embarked upon a pastoral ministry in that denomination.
In her laudatory introduction to this book, Anne Rice says, “This is a book you devour from cover to cover, and pass on to others. This is a book you will quote in your daily conversation. Storm was meant to write it and we are meant to read it.” That’s high praise from a highly successful writer and recent convert to Christ. And she sums up nicely my commendation as well. There are some underlying theological issues I could criticize (Storm is, after all, a minister in perhaps the most liberal of American denominations), but as long as one simply listens to his story it is most persuasive and edifying.
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