Do I live after death?
A tragic bereavement sent Professor Robert Crawford back to his comparative studies on consciousness and religious belief
One morning last year, I entered my son’s bedroom and got the greatest shock of my life. He was lying on the bed and not breathing. I felt his neck; it was dead cold. There was no pulse. I rang for an ambulance and the men confirmed that he had passed away in his sleep. It was unbelievable, for he was only 41 years of age.
Some time after the funeral had taken place, as I continued to reflect on this awful happening, I found myself consulting the book I had published a year earlier, Battle for the Soul (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). What grounds for hope of life after death are offered by our various faith traditions? Does the soul leave the body? What is the soul anyway? And how do concepts around the resurrection of the body fit in with the idea of an immortal soul?
At the time that I wrote the book, I explored these and other questions as an academic, surveying the perspectives of the major religions as well as reading up on scientific studies into the nature of consciousness. Since the loss of my son, of course, these questions have become more urgent to me and I feel more keenly the lack of definitive answers. Yet I find that the intriguing possibilities offered by new research and the common ground occupied by so many diverse religious traditions leave me feeling hopeful.
Dr Sam Parnia, founder of the Human Consciousness Project at the University of Southampton and leader of a scientific study on awareness during resuscitation has a second book due out next month on the subject of near-death experiences – The Lazarus Effect: The Science that is Rewriting the Boundaries Between Life and Death (Rider).
His years of research among cardiac arrest patients who were resuscitated after their brains apparently ceased to function, have revealed a great deal of evidence that consciousness may carry on after clinical “death”. Survivors of these near-death experiences have reported emotions, visions or thoughts, leaving their bodies, seeing bright lights and entering other worlds, where they encountered mystical beings.
It does not seem to matter what the religion or culture of the patient is – a near-death experience results in enhanced spirituality and a removal of the fear of death. Of course, skepticism abounds and many new questions are raised: do these experiences constitute glimpses of an afterlife, or nothing more than hallucinations brought about by a rush of chemical compounds that may be triggered by extreme trauma or approaching death?
Are we even dead moments after the brain stops functioning, when other organs and cells may still be operating? What if the brain stem had died and the neocortex that supports our capacities for consciousness and social interaction had not? It is clear that science has problems defining when we are dead, a challenge Dr Parnia’s book promises to explore.
While such enquiries are a relatively new interest of a particular field of science, the major faiths have developed ideas over thousands of years about what happens to human beings after they die. Though we cannot do justice to the complexities of different arguments and perspectives in a brief article, we can take a whirlwind tour of some basic positions.
The major Indian faiths
In Hinduism the soul is eternal and is the light within the heart. This atman is equivalent to consciousness and it remains after death. There is a cycle of rebirth: reincarnation. There may be many heavens and hells along the way, but there is evidence to suggest that they are temporary until a soul attains perfection and becomes one with the Divine.
Buddhism denies the soul or self as such, though all human beings share the same divine nature, the Buddha nature – we are basically good and need to cultivate this side of our nature. We are composed of qualities or energies that move into new stages; what we do will influence the next and later stages of our karma, in a process that continues after our death. There are many places where we can be reborn (including hell) according to the state of our karma at a given stage; but nothing is permanent and bad karma can be worked off as we deal with our sins.
Sikhism shares with Buddhism and Hinduism the belief in a cycle of birth, life and rebirth. The soul given by God is like a conscience that must be obeyed or a divine spark that must be cherished. We move closer to God through mindfulness of God and a commitment to ethical living and good deeds – ultimately, it is hoped, achieving complete union with the essence of God.
The Semitic religions
Judaism is generally much more focused on actions than beliefs, so that its sacred texts spend little time speculating on the world to come. Still, there are intimations of the soul’s immortality in the Psalms and the mystical writings of the Kabala, while the concept develops further in the apocalyptic writings.
Various views exist on the subject of the soul, with none having been officially accepted as tenets of the Jewish faith. Today, the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, believes that the body is joined to the soul, the dust of the earth joined to the breath of God. He said in a recent reflection: “The holy is the space within which we redeem our existence from mere contingency, and know that we are held within the everlasting arms of God.”
The Christian Gospels tell that Jesus appeared to his disciples and others after he rose from the dead. To many Christians, this renders the resurrection of the body a fundamental tenet of faith. However, many Christians today are uncomfortable with belief in a physical resurrection and prefer to speak of the immortality of the soul.
There are many different views over what might constitute heaven and the existence or otherwise of hell. Many modern Christians reject the notion that a loving God would condemn a soul to eternal torment in return for finite sins committed during one’s life on earth. Nonetheless many Christians retain beliefs in physical resurrection and in eternal judgement.
In Islam, as in Christianity, there are different views of heaven and hell and of whether these concepts are to be interpreted literally or symbolically. The soul is referred to many times in the Qur’an, which lays emphasis on good deeds as the way to salvation. The soul constitutes the inner core of the person, which is taken by Allah at death. Differences of opinion continue around the possibility of bodily resurrection or the immortality of the soul.
Amid the ongoing debates and developments surrounding these ideas, it continues to seem possible that, after death, the soul takes a new form. Most religions see the soul as “me”, the person, and I pass eventually into the new life. Our present bodies, which are subject to mortality, disease and dishonour may be replaced by bodies or entities that are incorruptible, immortal and full of glory. The thought is very comforting as I think of Paul, my son. He cannot come back to me, but one day I hope, I will go to him.
Robert Crawford is a professor of religion and a United Reformed Church minister. He has written nine books, the latest of which is Battle for the Soul (Palgrave Macmillan, £30)
This article was published in the February 2013 edition of Reform.