Life after death: What does the evidence show?
Even if we set aside religious conviction, there are compelling reasons to believe in life after death.
Rancho Sante Fe, Calif.
Is there life after death? I don't think there is a thoughtful person alive, whether believer, atheist, or seeker, who hasn't pondered that question.Skip to next paragraph
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For me, the question seriously arose a few years ago when my dad died. And then a year ago my best friend was diagnosed with cancer. "What I have learned from this," he told me, "is that the apparent normalcy of our everyday lives is a sham." To him and others, death is the great wrecking ball rolling down the corridor, threatening to wreck all our past accomplishments, present projects, and future plans.
It seems impossible to figure out what comes after death, since none of us can return from the other side of that curtain, nor can we interview those who have already died.
Yet belief in life after death is both timeless and global. Almost every culture believes in an afterlife. Belief in life after death runs especially high in non-Western countries, but even in America it runs as high as 75 percent. Only in parts of Asia and Europe is belief in an afterlife an uncommon view.
Atheists who deny both God and an afterlife may be vastly outnumbered, but they think they occupy the intellectual high ground on this question. That's because religious believers typically affirm the afterlife on the basis of faith, while atheists regard themselves as denying it on the basis of science and reason.
Reasons for believing
Setting aside religious convictions, what does reason alone say about life after death? That's the question I sought to answer in my latest book "Life After Death: The Evidence."
I began by leveling the playing field between atheists and believers. Sure, the believer hasn't been to the other side or questioned any dead people, but the atheist hasn't either. So what information does the atheist have that the believer doesn't? None. The absence of proof is not proof of absence, so the atheist's denial of life after death, like the believer's affirmation of it, is ultimately a faith-based position.
The evidence that does exist mostly cuts the other way. Consider the only empirical evidence we have, which is near-death experiences. In these cases, patients were clinically dead; their hearts stopped. Yet tens of thousands of such people around the world report that consciousness and experience continued even when their body ceased functioning.
From a scholarly compendium of articles on the subject, "The Near-Death Experience: A Reader," edited by Lee Bailey and Jenny Yates, we discover that these accounts are remarkably similar. Subjects report being drawn through a tunnel and seeing a bright light. They often experience their whole lives flash before them, what scholars terms the "life review." In many cases, they encounter deceased relatives and friends. Frequently they are in a presence of a celestial being.
When near-death experiences were first reported by Raymond Moody in the 1970s, they were written off as anecdotal and unverifiable. But now these experiences are so widespread from across cultures that they cannot be easily dismissed and there is a whole body of scholarship devoted to studying how they come about and what they mean.