For most of human history most people have believed firmly
that death is not the end. Something awaits us beyond the grave: not darkness,
but light. If you ask where this belief comes from, one answer is simple:
because people had been there – and then come back.
Nowadays we call this a “Near Death Experience” or NDE. It’s
something that many people report having when they’re close to death after a
serious accident or during a serious illness. They feel as though their spirit
leaves their body and travels to heaven or experiences other extraordinary
things. They have a feeling of warmth and safety, as though the struggles and
problems of earthly life are finally over. Peace envelops them and joy can fill
them. It’s as though the fleshly body is a chrysalis and the soul is a
butterfly, bursting to freedom and light.
Through all this, they feel sure that they are dead. The
worst possible thing has happened: their lives are over. But it no longer seems
like the worst possible thing. Instead death seems like a gateway to a better
place, where pain no longer exists and the true purpose of existence is
revealed. During an NDE, people can feel as though they have floated free of
their body and are looking down on it. Sometimes this happens in a hospital and
they see doctors and nurses struggling with their abandoned body, trying to
keep it alive.
Then some people report that they face a decision. Should
they return to that body? Should they wrap their spirit in flesh again, as
though they are putting on heavy clothes on a sunny day? They feel reluctant,
but they do so, moving back across the frontier that separates life from death.
And when they are back in the flesh, they often find that their near death
experience has transformed their view of the world. They no longer have a fear
of death and see the world in new and richer ways.
Of course, some people must have NDEs and not report their
experiences, because they don’t recover and can’t speak about it afterwards.
Those that do recover will obviously speak about what has happened to them: “I
entered a tunnel of light... I met my dead husband... I met beings made of pure
light... I entered the presence of God... It was beautiful and serene...”
For thousands of years, people have been telling stories
like those all over the world. It’s no wonder that belief in an afterlife has
lasted for so long and been part of so many cultures. And NDEs can also explain
why that afterlife is sometimes divided into a good place and a bad place:
heaven and hell. The experience of dying and passing to another world is not
always positive. A minority of people report fear and dismay. Rather than
meeting beautiful spirits or entering a tunnel of light, they can feel as
though they are being hunted by evil spirits or being dragged to a dark and
But that’s only a minority of people. Most of those who have
an NDE report that it was positive and beautiful. The feelings of peace and
security can stay with them. They lose something that has haunted countless
people down the millennia: the fear of death. That is a good thing, whether
NDEs are telling us something real about the universe or not.