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.
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.
Alarmed by the obvious implication of near-death experiences, atheists have been laboring assiduously to explain them away. Today, the best atheist explanation is that near-death experiences are the result of a dying brain. When the brain irreversibly breaks down, psychologist Susan Blackmore contends, it generates special effects that closely track the near-death experience.
There are several problems with this theory but one fatal one is that many survivors of clinical death are now going to work, looking after their families, and functioning just fine. So much for an "irreversible" breakdown.
Insights from modern physics
In my research I also explored evidence from physics, biology, and brain science to see if life after death is consistent with or even corroborated by these fields of study.
Consider the evidence from physics. For the Christian conception of life after death to be viable, there have to be realms beyond the physical universe that are quite literally outside space and time. This is what the Christian concept of "eternity" means. God is eternal and heaven is His eternal realm. But in Newtonian physics these concepts made no sense, because time was presumed to extend indefinitely into the past and the future, and space was presumed to stretch unendingly in all directions.
Today, however, you just have to wander into an introductory college science class to see how 21st-century physics has greatly widened our horizons. Today scientists routinely speak of hidden dimensions, multiple realms, and even multiple universes. What do we know about multiple universes? Not a lot, but we know that if they do exist they would have laws radically different from those in our universe.
One of the direct implications of the Big Bang is that not only did the physical universe have a beginning, but space and time also had a beginning. Space and time are properties of our universe. This means that in realms beyond our universe, if such realms exist, there might be no space and no time. Suddenly the Christian idea of eternity is rendered intelligible.
In considering the question of life after death, I moved from why it's possible to why it's probable to why we should embrace the idea. Since we are dealing with a future event, I acknowledge that we cannot have certainty. I don't claim to prove my case beyond a reasonable doubt, but I do claim to prove it by a preponderance of the evidence. In the end, we have to resolve this residual uncertainty by asking a practical question, "Is it good for me to believe?"
For me, the clear answer is yes. If there is no life after death, we are like passengers on the Titanic: We can rearrange the deck chairs and turn up the music, but we are ultimately doomed. By contrast, if there is life after death, we can face death with serenity, viewing it is a gateway to another life. Also we have reason to hope that good will eventually be rewarded and evil held accountable. Moreover, recognizing that our terrestrial existence is part of a larger drama, we can forge a sense of lasting purpose in our lives. So not only is belief in an afterlife reasonable; it is also good for us.