Tom Harpur was an Anglican priest in a suburban Toronto parish when, in 1963, he took part in a research experiment organized by a British psychiatrist involving the hallucinogenic drug LSD. According to Harpur, his sensations after taking the drug resembled those described by people who have had near-death experiences. Still, Harpur, a journalist since 1971, has concluded after many years of research that near-death experiences are glimpses into the next world. His 1991 book, Life After Death, assembles evidence that death is only a passage into another phase of life. And he contends that the concept of heaven is based on reports from people through the ages who have had near-death experiences. His report:
The words, from the well-known hymn, speak of “Jerusalem the golden, with milk and honey blest....” The hymn, which is still often sung at funerals today, is part of my boyhood memories as a chorister at a church in Toronto’s east end.
I hadn’t a clue as to the words’ meaning. But they had a vaguely comforting ring and the tune was rich and haunting. It was only much later that I realized that however comforting it might be to some, the hymn portrayed a stereotypical, unreal vision of an afterlife that was strangely out of touch with the hopes and aspirations of modern men and women.
This hymn was not alone. You can scan the hymnbooks of all Christian denominations and find that heaven is typically described in terms of celestial choirs, gates of pearl, streets of gold and a host of other similar yet highly dubious delights. It all sounds like endless church services in a setting conceived by a cosmic televangelist.
Down the ages, heaven has been imagined in a myriad of different ways by various tribes, peoples and cultures. It has been depicted in terms of a garden paradise, a return to Eden, an endless wedding feast, the ecstatic union of the soul with its divine lover, a “happy hunting ground” where game abounds and the waters teem with fish, a place of restoration, healing and reunion with loved ones, or one of eternal contemplation of the face of God. Rev. Charles Kingsley, who served as chaplain to Queen Victoria during the last century, conceived of heaven as an everlasting, explicitly erotic conjugal union with his wife, Fanny.
But for the Christian world, and for Western
society as a whole, the symbolic language of the Bible, particularly the Book of Revelation, has provided the basic vocabulary for any depiction of the afterlife. For the most part, those verbal symbols and images have come to us filtered through the creative imaginations of poets like Dante Alighieri and John Milton. The great painters of the Renaissance set the norms for any visualization of the same realities.
Unfortunately, given the human penchant for mistaking metaphors, imagery and symbols for the truth they are meant to convey, the language used to describe the joys of heaven has tended to ossify. The images have hardened in our consciousness and so have become impediments instead of signposts. As the poet T. S. Eliot noted, words crack and strain under the burden we impose on them.
Glorious: What has to be remembered in all speech about an afterlife is that one is trying to describe the transcendent in the only way we know—in terms of the here and now. The writers of the Bible knew every bit as well as Dante and Milton that there are no words or similes to do full justice to the vision of what lies beyond. Each did the best he could. Images of golden streets, gates of pearl or angelic choirs are simply meant to convey that which is unutterably glorious. As the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung said after his own near-death experience during a cardiac arrest, “What happens after death is so unspeakably glorious that our imaginations and our feelings do not suffice to form even an approximate conception of it.”
Putting the matter another way, the common factor running through all the various views of heaven, from those of ancient Egypt to the present, is that they are attempts to answer the question, what would perfect bliss be like? If you are a strict Buddhist, for example, and see the illusions to which the ego is prone as the source of all human suffering, it is natural to envision bliss as the extinction of the ego and the end of all illusions in a final nirvana, an absorption into the All.
At this point, the skeptics can hardly wait to say, “Aha! What this is really all about is wish fulfilment. People, afraid to face their possible total extinction, imagine their perfect bliss and then project it into the skies, the future or wherever.” But this is precisely where the plethora of new information about the neardeath experience offers a radically fresh insight. One of the most significant aspects of this
entire phenomenon is that, while modern medicine, with its ability to save lives that would have been lost a generation ago, has vastly increased the number of persons having neardeath experiences, the experience itself is universal.
Such an experience is reported in Plato’s Republic, written in the fourth century before Christ. Around the year 1500, the Flemish painter Hieronymus Bosch executed his nowfamous The Ascent into the Empyrean, in which the familiar tunnel of light is there for all to see. The literature of the Middle Ages is replete with stories of otherworldly journeys. Now, while some eight million Americans have reported near-death experiences, studies from around the world show that it is no respecter of race, age, color or creed.
Discovery: Researching this during the past four years, in the light of a lifetime study of world religions, has brought me to a dramatic discovery and conclusion. It is now my conviction that it is the phenomena related to neardeath experiences that have convinced humans from earliest times that there is life beyond the grave, rather than the other way around. Instead of it being the product of an attempt to deal with the enigma of death by projecting
one’s wishes into another world, the nearuniversal belief in a hereafter is, in my view, the attempt to express what has already become known, at different times and in different places, through direct experience.
That accounts, I believe, for the fact that while the near-death experiences of Hindus will differ from those of Christians, and those of Japanese from those now reported in thousands of cases from Eastern Europe, there are core features that remain true of all such experiences. One of these is the absolute certainty and clarity of the transcendental or “otherworldly” nature of the experience. Since a large proportion of those I have personally investigated—and other studies bear this out—have been people with no religious faith whatever, including articulate agnostics and atheists, the power of the near-death experience to change people’s minds about the reality of life after death is singularly impressive.
The second core characteristic is the awareness of bliss. Generally, this is described in terms of feelings of great peace, joy, “being surrounded by an incredible love,” or of having one’s heart’s desire fulfilled. For Jung, it was
the vision of a temple where, had he entered, he had the deep intuition he would learn the complete meaning of his life and of life as a whole. For the author of the Book of Revelation, it was being in the presence of God, seeing the river of life flowing from the “throne” of God and knowing there were trees by it with leaves that were “for the healing of the nations.”
Ineffability: The third and in some ways most significant feature of the near-death experience is the sense of what theologians would call ineffability. Simply put, the experience lies beyond the power of words to express. In the hundreds of near-death experiences that I have now heard, as well as all the hundreds more I have read about, the experiencer begins by saying something like this: “Look, I’ll do the best I can, but nothing I can say will truly communicate to you what happened to me.”
They repeat this caveat when they talk about the way they see their lives pass in review before them, about how they feel and know the wrong they did to others or the duties left undone—and yet at the same time know themselves forgiven in the presence of the
light and the undergirding love. They say it when they speak of communicating with dead loved ones and again when they describe being tom between wanting to remain there and yet being made to know they are meant to return.
It’s this basic ineffability or “otherness” of the experience that brings us back to the differing views of heaven or the life beyond with which we began. Because we have to use the language at hand and the cultural values of our time to express any truth, and since, in the case of the near-death experience (and any other experience of a metaphysical or otherworldly kind), we are dealing with what is essentially unutterable, it is only natural that they vary from religion to religion.
Skeptic: It is only natural, as well, that there will be as much resistance from the rigidly religious to new insights as there is from the rigidly skeptical. Both sense that there may be much to lose. For the skeptic, the evidence of an enormous amount of personal testimony from such a vast range of people—from young children to the aged, from the learned to the illiterate, from every country and century—is extremely threatening. They might have to reexamine their whole code, philosophy or world view. For established religions, especially the conservatives and the fundamentalists in every creed, the perceived threat is just as serious. Many have their own version of the Roman Catholic doctrine of the “keys of the kingdom.” If you don’t “go to heaven” their way, you don’t go at all. The idea that atheists or agnostics are received into the light and experience love, joy and forgiveness without belonging to a particular religious club comes as deeply disturbing.
I speak with some knowledge of both phenomena. My book, Life After Death, produced an enormous response. Any opposition, however, has come just as powerfully from fundamentalists as from unbelievers. The most common defence used by the religious right against the near-death experience has been to say that it is the work of the devil. The vision of the light and all the rest are, by their account, satanic delusions sent to deter the “unsaved” from finding true salvation.
The secular skeptics, blinded for the most part by an unexamined devotion to scientism rather than true science, resort to a curt dismissal of the experience as the product of hallucination. From my research, I can say with certainty that this is the tactic of the desperate. The hallucination theory simply does not account for the near-death experience, its power to change lives, its transcendental quality or its universality.
In sum, such experiences open up new possibilities both for religion and science. Both disciplines are locked into rigid thinking increasingly out of touch with the masses. Religion needs new symbols and language in which to express its age-old convictions about the afterlife. Science, especially medical science, which has not yet caught up with the new interlocking universes of physics, needs new paradigms. Reality is much larger and much stranger than either religion or science knew before. □
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