The followers of many religions believe in some form of life after death and as we might expect there have been many attempts to ascertain whether or not there is any form of objective evidence to back up these beliefs. There is of course the obvious problem that different religions are not agreed on the form of this life after death. The biggest proportion of believers in the some sort of afterlife are loosely described as theistic (ie believing in a God), and would for example include many of the followers of Christianity and Islam, yet belief in a God neither requires a belief in the afterlife as was the case for the Sadducees nor does non belief in a God prevent a belief in life after death, with a number of the pagan faiths believing the soul continues to exist. Buddhists too believe in reincarnation with no associated belief in a God.
The beliefs are hardly free from those with vested interests. For example it is said by some historians that when many centuries ago the Aryan tribes invaded India they established the caste system, with themselves in the top caste and explained to the heathen who required subjugation, that they too could work their way up to this top caste – in the next life, if instead of rebelling against their conquerors they accepted their lot and made the best of it. Conformity to the will of those in authority in many Churches has been a requirement of entry to a satisfying afterlife for many centuries and which has occasionally reached absurd extremes. The selling of indulgences to get to heaven was widespread by the time of the reformation and it is claimed by some that this continues today in symbolic form with tithing and obedience to the form of ritualised liturgy such as acts of penance in the Catholic confession.
Some believe in a form of judgement with a simplified heaven or hell whereas others have very complex faith statements about the hereafter. While the assertions made are often agreed by thousands or even millions of faith adherents cf the statements made by Muslims about what will happen in paradise based on their acceptance of the obedience to the Q’ran, or the alternatives put forward by various sects of fundamentalist Christians, or for that matter the main Christian denominations like the Roman Catholics or high church believers from the Church of England. The Jehovah’s witnesses, taking quotations from the book of Revelation as their guide, believe that there is a tiered heaven with 144,000 of the most faithful at the highest level above the heavenly host of next most faithful. Some other religions believe that there is a long wait in a place of limbo and for some, heaven awaits some version of the final rapture. Many Hindus see it as a process of continual reincarnation with the good coming back in continued higher life forms and castes and the bad reincarnated further down the hierarchy.
When we add belief in ghosts, belief in a promised land, or the complex variety of beliefs associated with the various religions each claiming to teach how the afterlife is accessed, it becomes clear that unless the presumed form of life after death is actually dependent on the spiritual experiences of the groups we are born into or encounter during life these varying interpretations are unlikely to be simultaneously true. Indeed since beliefs in the afterlife are so idiosyncratic and their descriptions so easily accessed in the electronic age it is curious that there is little interest from main line religions in establishing which versions have more plausibility.
When we remember that in a modern age the followers of most mainstream religions include amongst their followers highly educated scientists and those versed in sociology, parapsychology and medicine. Why then is it that more interest is not shown in establishing how far a specific faith in the afterlife squares with what we know from various studies from the objective sciences?
The most direct set of experiences which seem to point to the possibility of some form life beyond death comes from the now well documented instances of near death experiences whereby a relatively large percentage of people who have apparently died in that their vital signs are no longer detectable, are either brought back to life by medical intervention or spontaneously recover without intervention. In both sets of instances there are some relatively common experiences reported. I have read some of the more significant major reviews as placing the percentage between 11% and 23% of those resuscitated in hospital operation reporting near death experiences. In these instances many patients report a sensation of leaving their body, with a surprising large number reporting hovering above the body, observing the medical attempts at revival.
Another relatively common reporting is of entering a tunnel of light – sometimes to be greeted on the other side by dead relatives or holy figures like Jesus. Many report that they find this experience comfortable and easy to the point where they felt they objected to being brought back to life, and again it is not uncommon for the patient to subsequently report that the experience has radically changed their attitude to life and death.
From a personal view I must confess that while I have encountered some impressive descriptions of personal experiences of this phenomenon from people I respect, including that of the Rev Dr Jim Stuart, one of the most respected senior Church leaders and theologians in the New Zealand Methodist Church, there are some observations that raise the question of natural physiological phenomena triggering the experienced sensations. For example the hovering above the operation looking down has been extensively tested for the last twenty years by various research groups placing worded signs and cards with distinctive patterns like a star, a square or a triangle in a place that could only be seen by someone in a hovering position in the operating theatre. To my knowledge there is not yet any agreed objective evidence that such signs and symbols have been seen and accurately reported. What has been measured is that the only factor that seems to correlate with the out of body experience is that in those patients there is a measurable increase in the amount of carbon dioxide in the blood. The tunnel of light phenomenon already has a clear physiological explanation in that measurements of the electrical activity of the brain of a dying patient’s show the shutdown of the visual cortex from the outside to the inside which would produce such a tunnel effect. For those interested in learning more perhaps I might suggest starting with the work of Susan Blackmore who spent 25 years working extensively with such studies before concluding physiology rather than religious encounter was behind the phenomenon of the near death experience.
This in no way should be taken as establishing that there is no such thing as life after death, but it does suggest that thus far, the near death experience is still a long way from being the persuasive test that life does continue in some form. What do others think?