Light after Death:
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This work is not an official endorsement of the Near Death Experience (NDE) by the Bahá'í Faith, rather, it is simply one individual's comparison of the NDE with the teachings of the newest of the world religions. There is, nonetheless, an astounding similarity between the two which can, without exaggeration, be termed uncanny.
Despite all that mankind has discovered about the origins and size of the universe, most of us still think of ourselves as being at the center of things. Similarly, our concept of time is generally reduced to the span of time it takes our planet to complete eighty revolutions around our sun. The possibility of life after death, however, compels us to think of such lofty concepts as eternity and the immortality of the soul. In order to put all this into a proper perspective, it might be useful to review some of what we've learned about the universe and our place in it.
The known universe consists of untold billions of galaxies, each containing many billions of stars. The galaxy in which we find ourselves, the Milky Way, is believed to contain well over 100 billion stars. Its diameter is about 100,000 light years (5,880,000,000,000,000,000 miles). The nearest known star, Alpha Centauri C, is over 4 light years from earth. Our sun is a rather average star about 32,000 light years from the center of our galaxy and it completes an orbit every 225 million years. About 4.5 billion years ago our sun and its nine planets are believed to have been formed from the stardust of an interstellar cloud.
When we look in the other direction and delve into the subatomic world, we eventually reach a stage in which the distinction between matter and energy disappears, beckoning a strange and exotic world in which untold possibilities are shrouded by our current lack of understanding. If, for example, we accept the Big Bang theory we maintain that the mass of every single galaxy, each with its billions of suns, planets and unimaginable amounts of dark matter, was at one point compressed into something smaller than the size of an atom! Indeed, our unimaginably grand universe is a source of awe and wonder on every conceivable level.
When we examine our own roots we find that the first hominid is believed to have appeared a mere 10 to 14 million years ago. Sometime around 2.5 to 1.6 million years ago Homo habilis, with an estimated brain size of 750 cc, appeared. Homo sapiens , with a brain size of 1400 cc, are thought to have emerged about 300,000 years ago. Modern Homo sapiens have been traced back 40,000 years. Of course, this estimated timeline is constantly changing as fresh discoveries are made, but it's clear that in a cosmic sense we have just arrived in our obscure corner of the universe.
Modern Homo sapiens, with a brain size of up to 2000 cc, have been graced with an intelligence which vastly exceeds the evolutionary requirements placed upon us by our environment. This fact, in and of itself, raises some intriguing questions and seems to hint, at least to some, at a cosmic plan. Allan Sandage, the noted astronomer, once remarked:
"Out of the big bang has come a non-chaotic system, because otherwise, cause and effect, which surely exists, would be impossible. The design that one sees in the universe may be completely natural as an outcome of the differential equations, but the mystery is why is the world describable in terms of differential equations, and it is! That's the answer physics gives. All students...are mystified by the recipes that the great scientists have found, and the universe works by those recipes. The universe we observe is not a chance phenomenon."
Humans possess the ability to laugh, to cry and to systematically build upon the achievements of previous generations. Although other creatures may be endowed with certain abilities not found in humans, man's intelligence has enabled him to augment his own natural endowments to a remarkable degree. Not only can man fly, he's even managed to safely leave his home planet and then return. Why is this possible, and why are we here? How might one answer these questions? The founder of the Bahá'í Faith addressed these points often in His writings:
"The purpose of God in creating man hath been, and will ever be, to enable him to know his Creator and to attain His Presence. To this most excellent aim, this supreme objective, all the heavenly Books and the divinely-revealed and weighty Scriptures unequivocally bear witness." 1
The purpose of endowing man which the gift of intellect is explained in this manner:
"First and foremost among these favors, which the Almighty hath conferred upon man, is the gift of understanding. His purpose in conferring such a gift is none other except to enable His creature to know and recognize the one true God--exalted be His glory. This gift giveth man the power to discern the truth in all things, leadeth him to that which is right, and helpeth him to discover the secrets of creation." 2
As we've discovered the secrets of creation, we've also learned that our own sun will eventually burn out rendering our planet uninhabitable. Escaping otherwise certain extinction would surely be a compelling reason to endow our species with the such intellectual capacity. Thus, not only have we discovered that our planet is doomed to extinction, but, equally important, we humans have been given the aptitude to develop technologies which in due time will enable us to inhabit other solar systems. This being the case, would it make sense for individual humans to spend a short time on Earth and then vanish into annihilation? Or would a divine plan ensure that not only would the species survive the death of its planet, but the individual would survive the death of his or her physical frame?
If we believe that a Supreme Being created and sustains the universe, then the answer is clear. But if one rejects the idea of a divine cosmic plan, considering life a fortuitous interaction of random elements over eons of time, then the concept of an afterlife might not appear especially logical.
An afterlife requires that consciousness survives the disintegration of the physical body. This is certainly a difficult pill for someone to swallow who believes that individuality and consciousness are a chemical process brought about by the interaction of 100 billion neurons in the brain. Many "rational" thinkers have thus attributed the universal belief in immortality to a psychological defense mechanism. In their view man's inability to deal with his own annihilation compels him to believe in immortality in order to overcome his fear of death. Admittedly, it's a rational theory, but is it a categorical explanation for the belief in a life after death?
Mankind has now reached a stage of medical advancement in which millions of individuals have been resuscitated after having had a near-death-experience (NDE). There appears to be some sort of universally shared experience among the majority of these individuals. This fact has been acknowledged even by various rational thinkers, for example, Dr. Carl Sagen. Sagan in his book, Broca's Brain, Reflections on the Romance of Science, attempts to find a rational solution for such occurrences. Sagen postulates that the NDE is merely a reliving of the birth experience. Sagen goes on to pose the question, "If religions are fundamentally silly, why is it that so many people believe in them?" His explanation is that religions also resonate with birth, the one primal experience common to all. According to Dr. Sagen's symbolism, the finger of God in Michelangelo's painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is an obstetrical finger, baptism is a metaphor for amniotic fluid, and so on.
On the surface, Sagen's explanation seems plausible and would account for the universal nature of the NDE, regardless of religious or cultural background. The infant is whisked through the dark tunnel (birth canal), emerges in a room filled with light and encounters a loving being (the mother or mid-wife). While it's true that the infant's 100 billion neurons are in place as are the trillion glial cells, the problem is that the hard wiring of the brain hasn't advanced far enough to allow the degree of perception called for by Sagen's explanation. Life experiences and sensory stimulation after birth are responsible for the connections between dendrites and axons which later allow humans to perceive and encode experiences. In any case, it's interesting how readily elaborate theories are spun to gainsay even the possibility of the existence of a spiritual dimension.
To their credit not all scientists are predisposed against the existence of a reality beyond that which we currently understand. For twelve years Dr. Candace Pert was in charge of biochemical brain research at the National Institute of Mental Health. She discovered, among many other accomplishments, the opiate receptor and numerous other peptide receptors in the brain and body. She makes the point that in current scientific tradition "soul" is a four-letter word, a remnant of the agreement reached between Descartes and the Roman Catholic Church. According to Pert:
"...there's a form of energy that appears to leave the body when the body dies. If we call that another energy that just hasn't been discovered yet, it sounds much less frightening to me than 'spirit'. Remember, I'm a scientist, and in the Western tradition I don't use the word 'spirit'." 3
As much as we would all like to have a definitive answer to the question of whether there is life after death, there is no guarantee that we will ever be able to physically prove the existence of an immortal soul. However, the universal belief in something greater than ourselves, the universal belief in immortality, and the NDE appear to be signs pointing towards a spiritual dimension. The Bahá'í teachings give the following explanation:
"God, the Exalted, hath placed these signs in men, to the end that philosophers may not deny the mysteries of the life beyond nor belittle that which hath been promised them. For some hold to reason and deny whatever the reason comprehendeth not, and yet weak minds can never grasp the matter which we have related, but only the Supreme, Divine Intelligence can comprehend them..." (Writings of Bahá'u'lláh)
I assume the majority of those reading this book are familiar with the work of Raymond Moody or Kenneth Ring. This book isn't intended as a substitute for their documented research on this subject. Although you need not be acquainted with their work in order to enjoy this book, I feel it would undoubtedly enhance your evaluation of the subject in question.
As an undergraduate I read Raymond Moody's book, "Life After Life" while studying at the University of Nevada, Reno and was struck by the similarities between the Bahá'í teachings and the NDE. As a member of the Bahá'í Student Association I suggested to the other members that we hold a panel discussion on the topic of LIFE AFTER LIFE. One day I casually mentioned to my calculus instructor that we were looking for a room on campus to hold the event. She confided to me that many years previously she had had an out of body experience. She had experienced cardiac arrest and had watched the resuscitation efforts of two physicians and a nurse on her own body from a corner of the room near the ceiling. She remembered one saying, "Give it up, she's gone." The other continued his efforts and exclaimed, "She's too damn young to die!" It's worth mentioning that she was a rock solid rationalist, as discriminating and analytical as one might expect someone in her profession to be.
After the panel discussion a mature and well-spoken woman stood up and said her sole reason for coming that evening was the possibility of meeting someone else who had had such an experience. She was a secretary to one of the college deans, who spoke of her NDE with conviction and integrity. The experience of these two people gave me a very tangible indication that the phenomenon researched by Moody was indeed credible.
Nonetheless, how can one logically maintain that the individual can survive physical death? Keeping in mind the incredible complexity of life, the immense size of our universe, and the elegance of physical laws, can one rationally contend that matter was simply present and that through its random interaction life appeared and evolved of its own volition? Personally I feel the answer is no, a creation presupposes a creator, and it's certainly possible that the creator fashioned a spiritual reality in addition to the physical world. We should always keep in mind that describing creation and physical reality by means of physical laws, mathematical formulae and scientific theory does not preclude the existence of God in any way. Thomas Jefferson, although no friend of organized religion, wrote to John Adams:
"So irresistible are these evidences of an intelligent and powerful Agent that, of the infinite numbers of men who have existed thro'all time, they have believed, in the proportion of a million at least to Unit, in the hypothesis of an eternal pre-existence of a creator, rather than in that of a self-existent Universe. Surely this unanimous sentiment renders this more probable than that of the few in the other hypothesis. ... Of the nature of this being we know nothing."
Benjamin Jowett, 1817-93, a classical scholar and translator of Plato wrote, "You must believe in God, in spite of what the clergy say." In this regard the Bahá'í teachings confirm Jefferson's and Jowett's views:
"Consider then, how all the peoples of the world are bowing the knee to a fancy of their own contriving, how they have created a creator within their own minds, and they call it the Fashioner of all that is--whereas in truth it is but an illusion. Thus are the people worshipping only an error of perception."
"But that Essence of Essences, that Invisible of Invisibles, is sanctified above all human speculation, and never to be overtaken by the mind of man...His is another realm...The utmost one can say is that Its existence can be proved, but the conditions of Its existence are unknown." 4
Our creator, the Supreme Being, the Great Spirit, generally referred to as God, has, through a series of divinely inspired messengers, given us the knowledge than man possesses an immortal soul. This book deals primarily with the teachings on life after death of the latest of these messengers, Bahá'u'lláh, 1817-92, the founder of the Bahá'í Faith. Moody documented parallels from ancient sources, e.g. Plato's Republic, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and The Bible, to various aspects of the NDE. The teachings of the Bahá'í Faith, however, represent the first conclusive and comprehensive affirmation of the entire core experience of the NDE by an established world religion. The Bahá'í teachings specifically refer to a realm of light, a Being of Light, a life review, a reunion with friends and loved ones, and the continuation of learning and knowledge in the spiritual dimension. Additionally, the Bahá'í teachings closely parallel the spiritual transformation which many who have had a NDE report, i.e. a de-emphasis of dogma and doctrine, an emphasis on the unity of mankind, service to others, the unity of science and religion, and a recognition that all religions, in their true form, are one in essence.
You will notice that this book contains very little commentary. The Bahá'í writings concerning life after death, written over 100 years prior to Moody's LIFE AFTER LIFE, require little interpretation or explanation. Moreover, this book is intended as an extension of the on-going research on the NDE and not as an introduction to the Bahá'í Faith. The following chapter will provide a very brief overview of the Bahá'í Faith after which we can turn our attention to the truly remarkable parallels between the NDE and the newest world religion.
The author wishes to express his gratitude to the following publishers for granting permission to quote from their works:
Mockingbird Books Inc., Reflections on Life after Life, by Raymond A. Moody
Penguin Books Ltd., Return from Death. An Exploration of the Near Death Experience, by Margot Grey (Arkana, 1988), copyright Margot Grey, 1988
Random House, Inc., The Doctor and the Soul, by Viktor Frankl (First Vintage Books Edition March 1973).
George Ronald Oxford, Bahá'u'lláh, The King of Glory by H.M. Balyuzi (1980)
Bahá'í Publishing Trust of India, Bahá'í Holy Writings
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