Life after death: hope in a time of sorrow
The death of my grandfather, which happened suddenly in the middle of the night, was devastating. My brother ran around the house crying, "Where is he? Where is he?" It would be years before I realized that the correct answer was "Here and everywhere."
– Deepak Chopra, Life after Death: The Burden of Proof
Since ancient times, humans have found hope in the belief that life continues in some form after death – a belief that continues for most people today. Eventually, it seems, any discussion of death and dying will lead to discussion of an afterlife.
Religous teachings on life after death
Often rooted in religious teaching, ideas and beliefs about what happens after a person dies are as diverse as the religions and cultures of the world. In most religious traditions, life after death is seen in terms of reward or punishment for the life lived here on Earth. Beyond that common thread, however, specific beliefs in regard to an afterlife vary widely.
Judeo-Christian tradition, for example, teaches that after a person dies, the soul lives on eternally in a place of happiness (heaven or paradise) or torment (hell or purgatory). Specific beliefs regarding heaven and hell, bodily resurrection, and what is required to attain eternal reward are further distinguished in Judaism and Christianity, and among the various sects and denominations that comprise these two major religions. Followers of Islam also subscribe to a belief in a place of eternal reward or punishment based on the conduct of the person's life on earth.
What about the possibility of reincarnation?
Reincarnation is a term used to explain what happens after death in the beliefs of Eastern religions, such as Hinduism or Buddhism. In one form or another, reincarnation also plays a part in the beliefs of Native Americans, modern Pagans, and New Age religions, among others.
For people who believe in reincarnation, life continues after death, as the soul or personality or essence of a being returns to earth in a new human body or in another life form, such as an animal or a plant. The cycle of incarnation and reincarnation continues until a state of nirvana, bliss, or oneness with the divine is reached.
Less common beliefs center around aliens from outer space, who will take us away in spaceships after we die, or the notion that we are time travelers. Existentialists and atheists, on the other hand, believe that life simply ends at death – period.
The eternal question: is there life after death?
Most Americans – 72 percent, according to one survey – believe in some kind of an afterlife. But is there any real evidence to support such a belief?
Apart from religious teaching, there is no conclusive, scientific answer to the question. Evidence from research on a number of phenomena, however, suggests the possibility of an afterlife. Reports of near-death experiences, communications from the dead, out-of-body experiences, and ghostly apparitions shared by multiple persons are thought by many to point to the existence of life after death. Among these phenomena, the near-death experience has been particularly intriguing to scientists and theologians alike.
As the name suggests, a near-death experience occurs when the patient is very close to death. In some cases, the patient's heart may have stopped beating, and there may be no sign of brain activity; the patient might even have been pronounced clinically dead.
The most compelling aspect of reports of near-death experiences is the fact that they are very similar. Many people who have been revived after being so close to death report the same things: leaving their bodies and watching as medical personnel try to resuscitate them, entering a dark tunnel, seeing light at the end of the tunnel, seeing family and friends who have died, experiencing an incredible sense of peace... and then returning to their bodies. Some have even been able to describe in detail events that were occurring in other locations at the time of "death"; others have accurately described things yet to happen.
Scientists who question the validity of near-death phenomena as evidence of an afterlife cite circumstances such as lack of oxygen or medication side effects to explain these experiences. But for each objection, there seems to be a case that will stand up to it – patients who remained on oxygen or received no medications, for example.
While near-death experiences cannot prove the existence of heaven or hell, they clearly support the idea that a person's soul or consciousness lives on after the body has died. Still, the question of life after death, like so many other spiritual matters, remains a question of faith.
Further sources of information
You may find our other articles in the Death and dying: a broader context section helpful too.
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