Science and Religion:  Near-Death Experiences and Belief in the Afterlife

 

April 16, 1992

 

 

INTRODUCTION

           

            Belief in an afterlife has been with us for centuries. The Egyptians made elaborate preparations for the journey of the dead to the afterlife. The Tibetan’s have their Book of the Dead which gives instructions and guides one through the perils encountered on the journey from death to new life. Christian’s may believe in a life in Heaven or Hell after death. Some Buddhists believe in a life after death in the Pure Land of Amida Buddha. In fact most cosmologies throughout the ages have had some belief in an afterlife.

            This paper reviews beliefs regarding the time after death and proposes that near death experiences may be a way to scientifically study and validate a belief in life after death.

            We begin by looking at what happens at death. Davis (1989) presents four possible answers to that question. He defends the resurrection model where the physical body dies, but is later raised form the dead by God to live again (pp.viii-ix). Kelsey (1982) presents data in support of a belief in the afterlife from various sources such as Swedenborg and other persons with near- death experiences including Carl Jung. Russell and Nielsen present the belief that there is no God, therefore no afterlife.

            From here we go to the actual accounts and research of near- death experiences. First Kenneth Ring (1980) validates Raymond Moody’s (1975) original reports of NDEs with a focus on the core experience, religiousness of the subject, and the changes that occur after the NDE. Gibbs (1985) then evaluates recent research by Ring and Sabom to support Moody’s interpretation that NDEs represent a separation of the mind from the body at death rather than Siegel’s assertion that NDEs are a dissociative hallucination (pp. 72-78). Next C-reyson presents a psychodynamic explanation of NDEs that may be heuristically valuable in prompting more research. Rhodes looks at Swedenborg’s visions and life as validation of the NDE and Swedenborg reports in Heaven and Hell his personal accounts of life after death. Eli confirms accounts of an afterlife in the myths and legends of diverse cultures. Finally, a glimpse at recent, unusual research into possible scientific proof of the existence of a life force by Slawinaki (1987). We conclude with Moody’s (1988) most recent book on NDEs the Light Beyond.

 

 

WHERE DOWE GO FROM HERE

Davis, S T. (Ed.). (1989), Death and Afterlife. New York:  St.Martin Press. HAML BD 444M34 1989.

 

            In his introduction to Death and Afterlife, Stephen Davis notes four answers to the question of what happens after death.

            1.         Nothing happens.  It is the end of the person.

            2.         The physical body dies, but the spiritual body, soul or jiva is reborn on earth in another body either human or in a non-material world forever.

            4.         The physical body dies, but will later be raised up from the dead by God live again. This is the resurrection model (pp.viii-ix).

            In chapter 5, the Resurrection of the Dead, Davis defends the resurrection model. His defense presupposes a belief in Christian God. Rather than interpret resurrection as the immortality of the soul as many recent theologians have, Davis contends that this is not the traditional Christian view (pp. 120).   He believes in the biblical view that the soul and body are one entity, a psycho-physical unity, instead of the dualist view of the separate soul temporarily inhabiting the physical body (pp.120). At death the soul temporarily separates from the physical body and is united with God in a disembodied form until such time as God in his greatness resurrects the bodies and reunites them with their souls (pp. 122-123).

 

 

Kelsey, M. T. (1982). Afterlife. New York: Crossroad. HAML ST 902.K37 1982

           

            Death is a problem to be solved in the modern world rather than an experience to participate in. If one has no belief in an afterlife one is met with fear; fear of death, fear of dying, fear of the unknown. Kelsey asks if it makes a difference what we believe happens to us after death (pp. 2). He affirms that it does make a difference-—a great difference (pp. 2). How death is viewed determines how one’s life is lived and vice versa (pp.2).

            Kelsey’s book examines the Christian hope of an afterlife and traces how this has been lost (pp. 2). He contends that loss of belief stems from an inadequate view of the world and a pre modern view of science (pp. 2). He presents data to support a belief in life after death.

           As data for belief in life after death Kelsey includes Near Death Experiences from a number of sources. For instance, Arthur Ford’s experience is recounted and seems to be consistent with the reported experiences of Swedenborg as related to our class by Dr. Jakobovits (pp. 265-268) Likewise an experience by Carl

Jung is reported along with one from his patients (pp. 268—273, 295—296).

            Kelsey further speaks of a spiritual hypothesis that perhaps we can know or gain knowledge through some other sense than the five senses (pp.284). This spiritual sense or knowing is supported by the biblical statement in Luke that the kingdom of God is within (pp. 284).

                        According to the spiritual hypothesis Jesus meant by the kingdom of God a non-physical, invisible reality, which was

                        most clearly discovered in one’s own soul. We might therefore also call it the “psychological hypothesis” since it was

                        a reality personally discoverable by an individual in his own life and being.....the kingdom is not something coming upon

                        man from outside himself, initiated supernaturally by God, but us a reality within himself, already present in him, as the

                        archetypal foundation of his life, yet waiting to be recognized and entered into by the individual believer (pp.284).

            Kelsey contends that contrary to the monist materialist view that life is “out there”, modern science with quantum physics and the like must support the spiritual hypothesis (pp. 287).

 

 

Russell, 3. (1957). Do we survive death? In E. S. Shneidman (Ed.) Death: Current perspectives, 3rd ed. Palo Alto, CA: Mayfield.

           

           In this short essay Russell quickly deposes the idea of life after death as improbable and unreasonable (pp. 399-402). He equates life or what constitutes the person with a river (pp. 399). Would the river continue to flow if the river bed had been obliterated by an earthquake he asks (pp.400)?  He believes that it would not, similarly the mind or brain since they seem to be the same to him, would cease to exist once the body had died (pp.400).

            From his experience of human beings, Russell believes there are no God and therefore no validity to arguments alluding to man’s inherent goodness or evil (pp. 400-401). Although Russell’s arguments are amusing and somewhat compelling from a pragmatic standpoint, they are emotionally unappealing.

 

 

Nielsen, K. (1988). The faces of immortality. In S. T, Davis (Ed.) Death and afterlife. (pp. 1-28). New York: St. Martin’s Press.

 

            Nielsen, an atheist, present the view that since there is no omnipotent God as believed by the Judeo-Christian-tradition, there can be no resurrection of the body after death because it is logically impossible and incoherent (pp. 1).  He also rejects immortality based on Cartesian dualism of a disembodied existence (pp.10). Lastly, he contends that it is not necessary to believe in immortality to give meaning to an otherwise bleak and hopeless life on earth (pp. 2).

           Nielsen actually makes the thought of resurrection sound absurd by use of batteries re-energizing dead bodies (pp.2). Similarly, he has disembodied spirits wandering around as ghosts to emphasize the unrealistic belief in this scenario (pp. 7). Yet, he goes on to say that it is reasonable that some people may hold unreasonable beliefs (pp. 7). While his objections are logical and well thought out, he seems mainly to be a pragmatist and realist in that he is more concerned with how one conducts one’s life on earth in the now rather than concentrating on some illogical future existence.

 

 

VISIONS AND VALIDATIONS

Ring, K. (1980). Life at death. New York: Coward, Mc Cann & Geoghegan. HAML BF 789 R56

 

            This book is one of the first systematic scientific studies of near-death experiences following Raymond A. Moody, Jr’s 1975 book, Life After Life. As a psychologist trained to do experiments Ring proceeds to study every aspect of the WOE by means of interviews, surveys and case studies. The focus of the research was 1) the incidence of the core experience; 2) the invariance of the core experience; 3) prior religiousness of the subjects; and 4) the nature of the changes after the WOE (pp.26).

            Findings from this research tend to validate Moody’s original research as stated in the article by Gibbs (1985). Moreover, the findings do not support alternate hypotheses of depersonalization, wishful thinking, hallucinations or other physiological or neurological explanations (pp. 206-217). Recommendations for future research include more rigorous studies with different populations in order to evaluate universality of NDEs, investigation into why some subjects remember a NDE and others do not, more study of the aftereffects of NDEs, need for research centers where direct observation of dying patients could be done and finally more neurologically trained investigators to study the neurological and physiological speculations (pp.258).

 

 

Gibbs, J. C. (1985). Moody’s versus Siegel’s interpretation of the near-death experience: An evaluation based on recent research. Anabiosis--The Journal of Near-Death Studies, 5 (2), 67-81. HAML BF 789.D4 A52

           

            In this study Gibbs concludes that the recent data from Ring and Sabom tend to confirm Moody’s original research of Near-Death experiences and even that “death is a separation of the mind from the body, and that mind does pass into other realms at this point” (pp. 78). Contrary to Siegel’s hypothesis that NDEs are the result of some kind of dissociative hallucination that is somehow triggered by autonomic arousal it was found that the experiences occurred In an non-aroused brain state rather than aroused (pp.72—79). Furthermore, Moody’s assertion that NDE’s were common and consistently coherent was confirmed (pp. 68—69). Similarly, Moody’s assertion that subjects reported NDE’s to be quite real rather hallucinatory was also confirmed. Subject’s who had previously had hallucinations were clearly able to distinguish them from what they experienced with the WOE. While this study doesn’t claim that NDE’s confirm the belief in an afterlife, it certainly validates the need for more research into this area.

 

 

Greyson, B. (1983). The psychodynamics of near-death experiences. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 111, 6, 376 HAML RC 321.J83

 

            Greyson interprets near-death experiences from a psychological perspective. He believes that near—death experiences should be investigated since they are profound psychological events whether or not they originate from epiphenomenal hallucinations or transcendental realms (pp. 376). This study discusses psychological meaning of the NDE, component parts and possible its clinical applications for suicide prevention and in counseling terminal patients and bereaved friends and family members (pp. 376).

            The first model for the psychology of the NDE is a type a depersonalization that is used when faced with a threat of impending death (pp.376).  The second model that comes from Graf and Halifax (1977) is the state dependent reactivation of birth memories (pp.376). While this model may at first be tempting it lacks acceptance and has been criticized by Becker on grounds that the experience is incompatible with a neonatal nervous system (pp.377). A third model is a type of regression in service of the ego, along with other mystical experiences (pp.377). According to this model one perceives a threat and regresses to a pre-verbal state where a state of blissful happiness and a feeling of oneness or unity is achieved (pp.377). This model my offer advantages over the others since it has been successfully employed with other mystical experiences (pp. 377).

            Specific components of the NDE and their psychological basis are discussed such as positive affect, conviction that one has died, out of body experience, the tunnel experience, life review, and encounters with unearthly beings and realms (pp. 378). Objections to a psychological approach are also advanced especially that no psychological benefit could be had if the person was encountering the irreversible dying process (pp. 319).

           Greyson concludes this article with the admonition that a psychological explanation should not explain away the NDE, but may be used to develop theories on other levels ranging from neurochemical to eschatological (pp. 380). He sees this research as beneficial in counseling and understanding patients with suicidal ideation and also to assist patients and relatives adaptation to impending death (pp.380).

            Although I did not agree with most of the psychological interpretations of the NDE, I do support the development of other levels of theory as recommended. I find the use of this information with suicidal and terminal patients to be consistent with my experience as a Hospice volunteer. Knowledge in the area of NDE is helpful to me in the area of acceptance, and I believe will also be to others, either as patients or in a counseling situation.

 

 

Rhodes, L. S. (1982). The NDE enlarged by Swedenborg’s vision. Anabiosis--The Journal of Near-Death Studies, 2, 15-33. HAML BF 789, D4          A52

 

            This article begins with a biographical sketch of the lath century scientist and mystic, Emanuel Swedenborg’s life. He was widely recognized for his accomplishments and abilities in many fields (pp. 16). As a seeker of true knowledge, he began with the abstract and mechanical sciences, to math and physics, chemistry, biology and anatomy, then into philosophy, and finally to his search for the soul (pp. 17).  As a scientist, Swedenborg had developed the ability for keen observation and notation along with a searching analysis and good discipline and organizational skills (pp.17).

            At the mid-point of his career he began having mystical out of body experiences which he kept accounts of in his journals (pp. 17—18). Thus begins an almost 30 year odyssey into the unknown spiritual realm (p.20). Stephen Larsen’s (1980) study of “Swedenborg and the Visionary Tradition” equates Swedenborg’s visions with ancient and far-Eastern mysticism, contemplative orders, ESP and trances (p.20). He further postulates that this ability to “go within” is available to everyone and believes Swedenborg to be an excellent guide to these inner regions or dimensions (p.20).  This is a belief that I heartily agree with.  From my own experiences in meditation, rebirthing and various other journeys I have an inner, gut knowing that this is all true.

            In 1748 Swedenborg had the first experience of dying and waking in another world (pp.20). This appears to be a near-death experience except for the fact that they continue to occur over a period of many years unlike the single NDE most subjects’ report (pp. 20).  From this time on Swedenborg moved from the spiritual world back and forth to the real world with ease (pp. 21). He continued to be in good health both mentally and physically (pp 21). Swedenborg asserted that the purpose for his spiritual sight was to reveal the knowledge he gained about the afterlife to mankind (pp. 21). This view of Heaven and Hell and the afterlife is contrary to accepted religious beliefs, yet similar to what NDEers come back believing from their brief visit--in a unity or oneness and a peaceful calm affect.

            Swedenborg went on to document in numerous volumes the geography and societies so to speak of the afterlife. It is not necessary to go into that in this paper. What is important is that Swendenborg’s experience and that of NDEers should continue to be studied and validated.

 

 

Swedenborg, E. (1990). Heaven and hell, translated by G. F. Dole. New York: Swedenborg Foundation, Inc.

 

            In sections 445-452 of Heaven & Hell, Swedenborg describes his own personal experience of what happens when one dies and is reborn In heaven (pp. 344—349). He continues in further sections to recount the fact that when a person dies they leave their physical body and ascend to a temporary place where they become aware that they have died. It is here that they find that they still have a human form (pp. 350-357). It appears likely that previous to Swedenborg's nearly thirty year account of the spiritual world, there existed only a partial disjointed story of life in the afterlife.

            What Swedenborg documents from his personal experiences in the afterlife seem to me to possibly be not only more in depth accounts of NDEs, but even more important they may be a reason why the far-eastern religions believe in reincarnation. If an ancient visionary had likewise been exposed to the afterlife for the purpose of revelation, perhaps the interpretation would have been different or incomplete. As we know, the Tibetan Book of the Dead seems to document the journey a person takes at death to the next world. The various bardos that one goes through may account for the levels of heaven and hell that Swedenborg documents. I look forward to being able to delve more deeply into this area when more time is available.

 

 

Eliade, M. (1967). Death, afterlife, and eschatology. New York: Harper & Row.

 

            This book presents beliefs held by various world religions, past and present, of death and the after life. Accounts of the road to the afterlife are taken from diverse traditions such as the Goldi of Siberia, the Zoroastarians, the Greeks, the Winnebago Indian Tribe of British Columbia, Canada and the Maori’s of New Zealand (pp. 40—52). They all have similar stories. The Polynesian tale sounds exactly like what are described by those who have a near death experience (pp. 51-52). Therefore, the near death experience is not a new or modern phenomenon. It has been around for centuries and may be verified in the myths and legends of many societies around the world. This could be from a universal need to demystify death or as I assert, from personal experience of a life after death that has been passed down from generation to generation through myths and legends.

 

 

Slawinski, J. (1987). Electromagnetic radiation and the afterlife, Journal of Near-Death Studies, 6 (2), 79 - 92. HAML BF 789.D4 A52.

 

            I found this study while checking out The Journal of Near- Death Studies, and had to include it in the bibliography since it directly addresses the assertion recently made in my paper on chapter 8 that scientific proof may eventually be available on the existence of the life force through use of chromatography or something similar.  Dr. Slawinski asserts a death flash” of electromagnetic radiation that is measurable in all living things (p.79). He believes this may be how science will answer the age old question of what happens to one at death (p.79).

            While this article by no means purports to have a definite answer to the mind-body problem, it does begin the scientific study of a new area of investigation.  In fact the whole journal is devoted to evaluation of his research by other scientists and proposals for more study.

 

 

Moody, R, A. (1988). The Light beyond. New York: Bantam Books.

            In the forward to The Light Beyond, Andrew Greeley, priest and writer, asks if NDE research has proven that there is life after death (p. viii).  He answers that, no it probably can’t and won’t, but that is no reason for scientists not to study the phenomena of the NDE that does occur previous to or just at death (p.viii). Greeley goes on to say that he believes that NDEs do increase the probability that there is indeed life after death (p. ix).

            Throughout the book, Moody continues his documentation of NDEs and current findings from other researchers. He concludes that after over twenty years of scientific research there is no proof that NDEs are evidence for an afterlife (p. 154). Yet when asked if he believes if there is he answers, yes (p. 154). He is convinced that NDEers do get a glimpse of life beyond (p. 154). He comes to this belief from a leap in faith as Greeley mentions in the forward that is all that is necessary. Similarly, I also have taken that leaf in faith from my readings of NDEs and transcendental experiences to arrive at a belief in a life after death filled with love and happiness,

 

 

CONCLUSION

 

            In this paper the question of the reality of an afterlife was addressed. To that question different people give quite different answers. Some say yes there is an afterlife, but we can never prove it scientifically. Others say there is no God or organizing principle therefore no afterlife. This is all there is. Still others believe that yes there is an afterlife, but do not agree on what it is and what that life entails. Near-Death experiences and the eye-witness testimony of Emanuel Swedenborg can help one to make a leap in faith to believe that there is an afterlife. While there still is no scientific proof of an afterlife, there is documentation that the NDE is a valid event that occurs at the threshold of death and more research is warranted that may subsequently reveal proof or then again it may not.

 

 

REFERENCES

 

Davis, S. T. (Ed.). (1989). Death and afterlife. New York: St.Martins Press.

Eliade, M. (1967). Death, afterlife, and eschatology, New York: Harper & Row.

Gibbs, J. C. (1985). Moody’s versus Siegel’s interpretation of the near-death experience: An evaluation based on recent research. Anabiosis--The Journal of    Near—Death Studies, 5 (2), 67—81.

 

Greyson, B. (1983). The psychodynamics of near-death experiences. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 171, 6, 376-380.

Kelsey, M. T. (1982). Afterlife. New York: Crossroad.

Moody, P. A. (1988). The light beyond. New York: Bantam Books.

Nielsen, K. (1988). The faces of immortality. In S. T. Davis (Ed.) Death and afterlife. (pp. 1-28). New York: St. Martin Press.

Rhodes, L. S. (1982). The NDE enlarged by Swedenborg’s vision. Anabiosis--The Journal of Near-Death Studies, 2, 15-33.

Ring, K. (1980). Life at death. New York: Coward, Mc Cann & Geoghegan.

Russell, B. (1957). Do we survive death? In E. S. Shneidman (Ed.) Death: Current perspectives, 3rd ed. Palo Alto, CA: Mayfield.

Swedenborg, E. (1990). Heaven and hell. Translated by C F. Dole. New York: Swedenborg Foundation, Inc.

Slawinski, J. (1987). Electromagnetic radiation and the afterlife. Journal of Near-Death Studies, 6 (2), 79 - 92.

 

 

 

BACK HOME