214 Life After Death

“The immortality of the soul,” said Pascal in his Pensees, “is something of such vital importance to us, affecting us so deeply, that one must have lost all feeling not to care about knowing the facts of the matter.”  From the building of Egypt’s pyramids to Socrates’ arguments in Plato’s Phaedo to the obituary notices in the most recent newspapers, the hope for life after death shines clearly in the human story.  This is, no doubt, because, as Ecclesiastes reveals:  God “has put eternity in their hearts” (3:11).  Thus it makes sense that Dinesh D’Souza endeavors—in Life After Death:  The Evidence (Washington, DC:  Regnery Publishing, Inc., c. 2009)—to explain and defend one of the most deeply engrained intuitions of our species.  In what Rudolph Otto called the “sense of the numinous” we find a persuasive awareness of a “world behind the world” (p. 42).  This awareness informs a quip by Woody Allen, who said:  “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work.  I want to achieve immortality through not dying.  I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen.  I would rather live on in my apartment’” (p. 4).  

Questions regarding immortality clearly haunt Woody Allen, but many of the “Enlightened People” who dominate our universities and media claim to give it little thought.  Atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett—reductive materialists to the core—deny any prospect of eternal life along with their denials of any traces of God in our world.  They all take for granted the dubious Verification Principle of David Hume without recognizing either its flaws or their own unstated (and perhaps unrecognized) faith in non-provable assumptions.  “In reality,” as D’Souza shows, “Hume’s principle not only wipes out all metaphysical claims; it also wipes out the whole of science” (p. 30)—the very discipline that scientists such as Dawkins revere.  To refute the atheists, to encourage the seekers, to comfort the believers, D’Souza has written this book, the “core” of which “consists of three independent arguments for life after death:  one from neuroscience, one from philosophy, and one from morality” (p. 18).  

Following Einstein and Heisenberg—envisioning a world that gets stranger each decade— physicists have increasingly questioned the materialist assumptions of biologists such as Dawkins.  They wonder at mysterious (and utterly invisible) realities such as dark matter and dark energy which may well constitute 95 percent of all that is!  They revel in the amazing fine-tuning details of the universe—all of which suggest the Anthropic Principle.  It really seems, as “explicitly stated by astronomer Fred Hoyle, that a ‘super-intellect must have monkeyed with the laws of physics’” (p. 85).  Furthermore:  “Fantastic though it sounds, modern physics has legitimated the possibility of the afterlife” (p. 74).   Even biologists increasingly seem to grant an “undeniable teleology” to the living world.  Paul Davies says, “‘The laws of nature are rigged not only in favor of life, but also in favor of mind.  Mind is written into the laws of nature in a fundamental way’” (p. 91).  Studying even the simplest cell reveals thousands of intricately interrelated molecules enabling to function like a sophisticated factory programmed with digital software, containing information “equivalent to that found in several encyclopedias” (p. 99).  Thus Francis Crick, famed for his discovery of the DNA, confessed:  “‘An honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that in some sense the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions that would have had to get satisfied to get it along’” (p. 100).  

Drawing upon both physics and biology, neuroscience now opens up vistas for our understanding of life after death, for there’s an inner mental reality that cannot be reduced to matter-in-motion.  “Our minds cannot be accounted for exclusively in terms of our neurons” (p. 107).  Whether I think or feel or remember or dream or love or hate or hope I’m ever aware that I am—there’s a real me, a consciousness self ever aware of a vast variety of undeniable realities.  So we must turn from neuroscience to philosophy as we wonder at the world, seeking meaning to existence.  In our minds we see beauty as well as rocks in mountains, love as well as color in another’s eyes.  There’s a rich inner world that defies all efforts to explain it in purely physical terms.  There’s an immaterial self—a soul, a mind—that most clearly defines us as a person and is most evident in consciousness and free will.  Invisible under a microscope, the soul is  self-evidently real to common sense thinkers who recognize realities that cannot be scientifically explained.  Indeed, as Immanuel Kant argued, “there is a part of human nature than transcendentally operates outside the physical laws of governing material things” (p. 143).  

An important part of our nature that transcends nature is our moral sense, what Adam Smith called the “impartial spectator.”  Immanuel Kant, in his Critique of Practical Reason, insisted that we must perfectly live in accord with the moral law in order to attain the holiness that constitutes our summum bonum.   We cannot, however attain that end on earth, so it is imperative for us to enjoy “endless progress” in “an endless duration of the existence and personality of the same rational being (which is called the immortality of the soul).”  Following Kant’s argument—a “postulate” of the practical reason, an ingredient of his “moral faith,” a necessary implication of his “categorical imperative”—D’Souza says:  “There has to be cosmic justice in a world beyond the world in order to makes sense of the observed facts about human morality” (p. 172).  Careful study of most religions, as well as philosophy, reveals a link between hope for life after death and cosmic justice:  after death comes the judgment!    

D’Souza finishes his argument for life after death with a rather conventional examination of the claims Christians (such as he) make regarding the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Given the historical information we have, nothing makes quite so much sense as the traditional position that He really died and was buried and rose again on the third day.  And, as Augustine stressed, “when we become Christians, we immediately become citizens of the heavenly city.  We don’t have to wait for the next life to get our membership cards; we get them right here and now.  Philosopher Dallas Willard writes that when it comes to eternity there is no waiting period; rather ‘Eternity is now in process’” (p. 234).  

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Whereas D’Souza sets forth arguments for life after death, Carlos Eire simply gives us A Very Brief History of Eternity (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, c. 2010).  Eire is a Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University and approaches his subject with an irenic air of ironic detachment.  He’s obviously curious about eternity (and eternal life) and appreciates its importance to individuals and societies, but he’s not committed to any position regarding it.  

The most ancient remnants of human history certainly reveal our species’ preoccupation with time and eternity.  “Many experts think that the cave paintings and fertility figurines were religious in nature, and an attempt to transcend mundane existence.  Paleolithic burial customs lend credibility to this hypothesis, for the caring respect shown to the dead, and the ritualistic behavior implied by such care, point to a belief in something beyond the material world” (p. 10).  For our Paleolithic ancestors, as for ourselves:  “Thinking and feeling that one must exist is part and parcel of human experience.  Conceiving of not being and of nothingness is as difficult and as impossible as looking at our own faces without a mirror” (p. 11).  Thus we find, Eire says, “eternity conceived” to comfort us as we acknowledge the reality of death.  Our most ancient written records, testify to our deep hunger for immortality.  Our earliest philosophical speculations, emerging primarily in Greece, quickly led to metaphysical (or ontological) inquiries, wondering about realities beyond the material world.  Plato—condescendingly called “naive old Plato” by the author (p. 224)—built upon the insights of earlier philosophers such as Xenophanes and Parmenides and concluded “there must be some ultimate, underlying all of existence” (p. 42).  

In Christianity there was a merger of Greek metaphysics and Jewish religious thought.  Hope for life everlasting was basic to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and the earliest saints and martyrs testified to their confidence in it.  Thus St Augustine, in The City of God, rejoiced in “the promise of a resurrected eternal existence as the greatest and most universal of all hopes shared by human beings.  ‘I know you want to keep on living,’ he said to his readers:  ‘You do not want to die.  And you want to pass from this life to another in such a way that you will not rise again as a dead man, but fully alive and transformed.  This is what you desire.  This is the deepest human feeling; mysteriously, the soul itself wishes and instinctively desires it’” (p. 64).  With the emergence of a distinctively Christian culture deeply rooted in the thought of Augustine in the Middle Ages, we find what Eire describes as “eternity overflowing.”  Benedictine monks, working and praying, reciting the daily office, gave witness to their eternal orientation.  The flying buttresses and rose windows in lofty Gothic cathedrals (such as Chartres and Notre Dame) continue to lift the gaze of all who enter in heavenly directions.  Mystics such as St Francis Assisi and St Bonaventura, tasting eternity in their ecstasies, bear witness to the fact that Medieval Christians lived with an intense awareness and expectancy of eternal life, of heavenly realities.  Erudite theologians—and preeminently the “angelic doctor” Thomas Aquinas—made it clear that highly educated and rational thinkers could make transcendent realities their ultimate concerns.  Importantly, “Christ was made physically present in the eucharistic bread and wine, the mass itself, and the consecrated bread, especially, became the supreme locus divinitatis, the ultimate materialization of the divine and eternal” (p. 84).  In the “age of faith” eternity was right at hand.  This Medieval confidence that the dead “were never really dead and gone” began to fade in 16th century as the Protestant Reformation wrought subtle and ultimately profound changes throughout Europe.  Luther and the Reformers certainly hoped to go to heaven, but they abandoned the important Catholic belief in the “communion of saints.”  The dead were simply dead and gone.  “This life and this world, then, became the sole focus of religion, as did the individual over the community and even over all of history itself” (p. 152).  

The past three centuries Eire characterizes as “from Eternity to Five-Year Plans.”  In his judgment, the awareness of and hope for eternal life have faded as Enlightenment skepticism and scientific discoveries dissolved Christian beliefs.  “Banished from physics, heaven went into exile in metaphysics, a location that Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) would soon unmask as an imaginary island” (p. 171).  To substantiate his assertions, Eire cites the usual sources, from Voltaire to Nietzsche to Stephen Hawking.  He fails, however, to cite equally brilliant scientists and philosophers who devoutly believed in life eternal.  And, importantly, he notes but fails to appreciate the fact that for the huge majority of ordinary folks this question remains highly pertinent.  Though he’s devoted his scholarly career to religious studies, he apparently agrees with the noted cinematographer Luis Bunuel, who “concluded that ‘when all is said and done, there’s nothing, nothing but decay and the sweetish smell of eternity’” (p. 223).

Eire’s work gives us a readable narrative, a description of various views of eternity, but it leaves us pondering precisely why it lacks the existential energy the issue commands!  The philosophical relativism, the chronological snobbery so evident throughout his treatise, renders it in the final analysis an exercise in futility.  Despair, however genial, demonstrates the loss of hope, the deadliest of all sins!  

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In Evidence of the Afterlife:  The Science of Near-Death Experiences (New York:  HarperOne, c. 2010), Jeffrey Long (a medical doctor specializing in radiation oncology) provides empirical data that “all converge on one central point:  There is life after death” (p. 4).  Long is a medical doctor who, in 1998, established the Near Death Experience Research Foundation with a website that has now compiled the testimonies of more than 1300 individuals who responded to extensive questionnaires and described their near-death experiences.  As a scientist, he shares Einstein’s view:  “A man should look for what is, and not what he thinks should be.”  So he and his team carefully studied the responses and “followed a basic scientific principle:  What is real is consistently seen among many different observations” (p. 3).  

Long discerns and details nine lines of evidence to reach his conclusion.  Though he’d read a bit about near-death experiences, he had no serious interest in the issue until he listened to one of his friend’s account—a highly credible person’s persuasive witness.  She’d “had an allergic reaction to a medication during” an elective surgery.  Her heart stopped, but then, she said:  “Immediately after my heart stopped I found myself at ceiling level.  I could see the EKG machine I was hooked to.  The EKG was flatlined.  The doctors and nurses were frantically trying to bring me back to life.  The scene below me was a near-panic situation.  In contrast to the chaos below, I felt a profound sense of peace.   I was completely free of any pain.  My consciousness drifted out of the operating room and moved into a nursing station.  I immediately recognized that this was the nursing station on the floor where I had been prior to my surgery.  From my vantage point near the ceiling, I saw the nurses bustling about performing their daily duties” (p. 21).   Soon she passed through a tunnel and entered a wonderful, peaceful place where she was reunited with deceased loved ones.  Given the choice to return to her body on earth, she reluctantly did so and awakened in the ICU.  But she ever remembered how she had entered a “realm of overwhelming love” where she “was truly home” (p. 28).   This woman’s account prompted Long to begin his scholarly investigation.  He’d become proficient in computer technology and decided to establish a website (www.nderf.org) carefully constructed to filter out spurious accounts and dedicated to near-death case studies.  This enables people around the world to contribute their information as well as read others’ accounts.  “By studying thousands of detailed accounts of NDErs, I found the evidence that led to this astounding conclusion:  . . . it is reasonable to accept the existence of an afterlife” (p. 44).  This leads him, in successive chapters, to set forth nine proofs of his assertion.  

Proof #1 is “Lucid Death.”  Witnesses clearly remember their deaths and provide details regarding their surroundings.  Unlike dreams or hallucinations, these moments are filled with sharp details and vibrant visions.  Proof #2 cites “Out of Body” remembrances.  “Approximately half of all NDEs have an OBE that involves seeing or hearing earthly events” (p. 69).  They remember seeing quite tangible things in areas they’d never seen before.  Proof #3 is “Blind Sight.”  Amazingly enough, people born blind see clearly as they leave their bodies!  Their testimonies “required me to consider what I would have thought untinkable early in my medical career:  perhaps NDErs are actually describing another real, transcendental realm of existence” (p. 91).  Proof #4 deals with the “Impossibly Conscious” awareness of anesthetized persons who apparently die and yet retain a perfect sense of consciousness.  Proof #5, the “Perfect Playback,” provides evidence regarding the “life review” many NDErs experience.  They do, in fact, see their lives flashing before their eyes!  They saw everything they’d said and done—good and bad—and realized the moral dimensions to all of life.  Proof #6 is “Family Reunion.”  “Many near-death experiencers describe dramatic and joyous reunions with people known to them who died long before their near-death experience took place” (p. 121).   As Mark Twain said, “‘Death is the starlit strip between the companionship of yesterday and the reunion of tomorrow’” (p. 133).  Proof #7, “From the Mouths of Babes,” takes seriously the stories of children, who affirm (without the possibility of cultural indoctrination) the same truths declared by adult NDErs.  Proof #8 focuses on the “Worldwide Consistency” of NDE witnesses.  All around the world people of various religions, educational levels, and ethnic traditions tell the same story:  life after death is utterly real.  Proof #9 sets forth “Changed Lives” as evidence regarding the credibility of the persons who’ve experienced NDEs.  What they’ve experienced leads them to live better and face death fearlessly.  

Though you need patience and persistence to move through the evidence presented in this book, its tabulations lend credence to the philosophical and theological arguments available elsewhere.

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Having earlier published a theological treatise—Heaven and the Afterlife—James Garlow and Keith Wall have compiled and organized anecdotal evidence for their position in their most readable Encountering Heaven and the Afterlife (Minneapolis, Minnesota, c. 2010).  They present more than 30 first-person accounts by specific, identifiable individuals, describing visions of heaven and hell, and encounters with angels and ghosts.  Many of the persons survived a near-death experience, but some of them simply slipped into a deeper realm of reality and recall details concerning it.  The book is, they declare, “an eclectic collection, offering an intriguing look into the lives of ordinary people who have had extraordinary spiritual encounters” (p. 14).  

Garlow makes clear that this subject challenges him, since he is by nature and academic training rather skeptical of such accounts.  Having never personally survived a near-death experience or seen visions of supernatural realities, he strongly identifies with the apostle Thomas and finds great comfort in the biblical passage declaring “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.”  Thus he and his co-author “used reasonable and consistent vetting techniques.  To accept stories as valid, one of us either needed to know the people personally—with firsthand knowledge of their integrity and credibility—or we had to know someone with a high degree of reliability who could vouch for the person being profiled” (p. 19).  

Taking all the testimonies together, Garlow and Wall find three distinct themes.  First:  “The division or distance between the physical world and the spiritual world is incredibly thin—like tissue paper.  It’s probably more accurate to say there really is no distance.  Beings with bodies and beings without occupy the same space, just on different planes.”  Second:  “The more we learn about life beyond the here and now, the less likely we are to be unnecessarily fearful.”  Third:  “The mystery and magnificence of God make life (this one and the one to come) an amazing adventure” (p. 15).  

Typical of the book’s presentation is the story of little Kennedy Buettner, whose father is “a Tuscaloosa physician and the University of Alabama football team doctor” (p. 35).  Kennedy somehow slipped away from a crowd and fell into a backyard swimming pool, where he lay on the bottom for more than 12 minutes.  When found, his skin was blue, his body bloated, and his pupils dilated.  His father frantically sought to revive him, but he “began to thrash around and exhibit behavior that doctors call ‘abnormal posturing,’ a kind of muscle seizure that indicates severe brain damage—and usually precedes death” (pp. 37-38).  In time the paramedics arrived and Kennedy was taken to a hospital.   Miraculously, he came back to life, telling about an angel who intervened to save him and describing his visit to heaven (where he saw Jesus and his recently deceased uncle) as well as earthly places he’d not seen before.  Precisely one week after the accident, Kennedy was back home playing baseball with his siblings!  

Reading this highly readable book deepens our hope for life everlasting, providing experiential evidence for the biblical promises that have comforted Christians for two millennia.