“What Happens After We Die?” Part 2
By Rev. Dr. Orville James
Sunday, June 26, 2022
Reading: 1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-44, 51-53
In the first book, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and teach 2 until the day when he was taken up to heaven… After his suffering[a] he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.
The Resurrection of Jesus from the dead. What happened? It was and still is a transforming moment in history – full of stunned joy, and mystery. What does it show us about death and beyond?
We’ve got questions, don’t we? People of faith have always had questions – today’s passage outlines some from the 1st Century… “But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” I Corinthians 15:35
We have questions not just about Jesus’ resurrection experience; we are also curious about what else there might be, if anything, for humans – for those we’ve loved and lost, and for ourselves. What’s ahead… We do have glimpses: Dr. Mary Neal was white-water rafting with her husband and some friends when she got pinned under water, temporarily drowning.
She said, “I felt as though my soul was slowly peeling itself away from my body.” Then she felt a pop – a shaking off her heavy outer layer, freeing her soul. She was met by about 20 human spirits sent by God. They greeted her with “the most overwhelming joy I have ever experienced.” They had “formed shapes” but not with the distinct edges of physical bodies, blurred because each was “dazzling and radiant.” They did not speak using mouths, but simultaneously communicated their thoughts and emotions to one another. She was now in “God’s world” where everything is exponentially more colorful and intense.
Before she began a journey with her new companions, she looked at her earthly companions trying to revive her body on the riverbank. They looked “so terribly sad and vulnerable” as they begged her body to take a breath. She and her spiritual companions came to “a great and brilliant hall… radiating a brilliance of colors and beauty.” “I physically absorbed its radiance and felt the pure, complete, and utterly unconditional absolute love that emanated from the hall.”
She knew with profound certainty that this was “the last branch point of life… the place where each of us is given an opportunity to review our lives and our choices, and where we are given a final opportunity to choose God or turn away – for eternity.”
Though she longed to be “united with God” her spiritual companions told her that it was not time for her. She was reunited with her body, on the riverbank. Such was the experience of the orthopedic surgeon (and former director of spinal surgery at USC).
After her powerful near-heaven experience two decades ago, Dr. Neal told only a few people about it. She waited a dozen years, later, telling CNN that one reason she delayed making her story public sooner was her concern about her young children. She didn’t want them to think she was ready to desert them, but she says she felt so much love during her “near heaven experience” she didn’t want to come back, because where she was “truly felt like home.”
Dr. Neal is one of many whose near death (or near heaven) experiences have been documented and publicized. (MacLean’s magazine – had the headline “From bestselling authors to scientists, why do so many people suddenly believe in an afterlife?”)
The answer is the result of trends that include developments in neuroscience that have inspired ideas about human consciousness, the ongoing evolution of theology and religious overlap, and the hopes and fears of an aging population. Pollsters say that well over half of us think there is a heaven, but fewer than a third acknowledge hell. And there’s much speculation: Reincarnation is on the table for many, so too is belief in what has been called an “unreligious afterlife” – some form of continued existence without any God in sight.
Stories are similar to those told in dozens if not hundreds of books and in thousands of interviews with “NDErs,” (near-death experiencers) or “experiencers,” as they call themselves, in the past few decades.
Though details and descriptions vary across cultures, the overall tenor of the experience is remarkably similar. Western near-death experiences are the most studied. Many of these stories relate the sensation of floating up and viewing the scene around one’s unconscious body; spending time in a beautiful, otherworldly realm; meeting spiritual beings (some call them angels) and a loving presence that some call God; encountering long-lost relatives or friends; recalling scenes from one’s life; feeling a sense of connectedness to all creation as well as a sense of overwhelming, transcendent love; and finally being called, reluctantly, away from the magical realm and back into one’s own body.
Many NDErs report that their experience did not feel like a dream or a hallucination but was, as they often describe it, “more real than real life.” They are profoundly changed afterward.
Though some of these stories may be fabrications, and no doubt become embellished in the retelling, they’re too numerous and well documented to be dismissed altogether. It’s also hard to ignore the accounts by respected physicians with professional reputations to protect. (“The Science of Near-Death Experiences” The Atlantic, April 2015)
About a dozen prospective studies have been published, several of them in recent years. In these, researchers typically arrange for every consenting patient who survives a specific medical emergency (such as a cardiac arrest) at a hospital to be interviewed as soon as possible after. The patients are asked open-ended questions about what, if anything, they experienced while doctors were trying to revive them. If they report anything unusual, the researchers check their medical records and the accounts of people who treated them, looking for things that might explain the experience or show that their brain was shut down at the relevant time. All told, these studies have collected the near-death experiences of just under 300 people.
So, let’s look at a couple of other cases that have become quite famous: Colton Burpo, now in his 20’s, died as a four-year-old, from a ruptured appendix, and spent three minutes of earthly time in heaven – some of it in Jesus’ lap, some of it speaking with a miscarried sister whose existence he had never been told about. The book that his father wrote, Heaven is for Real has sold more than eight million copies and been made into a movie. That’s a touching story from a child.
Dr. Eban Alexander’s is different. A Harvard trained neurosurgeon, he woke one day in 2008 with an intense headache. “Within hours, my entire cortex – the part of the brain that controls thought and emotion and that in essence makes us human – had shut down.” he writes.
Doctors finally determined that “E. coli bacteria had penetrated his cerebrospinal fluid and were eating his brain.” For seven days he was in a deep coma, his family thought he was dying, and the medical staff were preparing them for his death. Meanwhile, Dr Alexander was experiencing magnificent out-of this world travels, and encountering God, whom Alexander frequently refers to as “Om.” He eventually recovered, a medical miracle in itself, but he was an entirely different man, in his worldview, and his relationship with science and the spirit world; not everyone was happy about it. And some medical and science people simply refused to accept his experience as legitimate.
Alexander diagnosed correctly that by current neurological understanding what happened to him was impossible if his cortex shut down – therefore they said, no matter what the clinical equipment, and his medical records say – the cortex of his brain hadn’t shut down. That kind of closed-minded thinking reminds me of Kierkegaard’s comment: “There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.”
I have no trouble believing in a form of existence beyond what is visible here on earth. Most humans do believe in something. But what? How much of these near heaven experiences are real? What details are accurate, or might they be hallucinations? And what do we do with other supernatural experiences?
There are multiple cases of people on the brink of death having out-of body experiences that gave them knowledge that is unexplainable. Dr. Eben Alexander (of the brain-dead cerebral cortex) could describe precisely what his medical team and his family were doing during his seven-day coma.
Perhaps the most famous documented case is that of a woman named Maria whose story was researched and recorded by her critical care social worker, Kimberly Strong. The day after she was resuscitated following a cardiac arrest, Maria told Clark how she had been able to look down from the ceiling, and then left the OR. She found herself hovering outside the hospital and spotted a tennis shoe on the ledge of the north side of the building’s third floor. She described it in detail. Maria, not surprisingly wanted to know whether she had really seen the shoe, and asked Clark to go look.
Quite skeptical, Clark went where Maria sent her, and found the tennis shoe, just as she’d described it. “The only way she could have had such a perspective,” said Clark, “was if she had been floating right outside and at close range to the tennis shoe.”
The question becomes, how can people have conscious awareness when they’ve gone beyond the threshold of death?
It’s a mystery… but there are elements that link many cases; two obvious points: First, the experiences are necessarily culturally specific. People describe their experience in language and images familiar from their past. We don’t lose who we are, we don’t forget our memories or vocabulary.
One way or another, a child who had gone to Sunday School, or a lapsed church goer like Dr. Alexander, will filter their near-death experience through the earliest religious tracks in their memories. Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, first famous for her five stages of grief, could see the effects of early enculturation: “I never encountered a Protestant child who saw the Virgin Mary in his last minutes, yet she was perceived by many Catholic children.”
I get that – it makes sense to me. Whatever the next life is like… we are who we are. We are still us!
Second, many people in their near-death experience share a common gaping wound, a pain or loss usually healed by simultaneously finding a lost loved one and realizing there is no blame or judgment to suffer, no forgiveness to offer of seek.
Eric Clapton puts into words the pain and yearning for his lost son, who died in a tragic accident. Remember the lyrics?
Would you know my name
If I saw you in heaven?
Would it be the same
If I saw you in heaven?
Beyond the door,
There’s peace I’m sure,
And I know there’ll be no more
Tears in heaven.
Little Colton Burpo’s account is a child’s-eye view of friendship with Jesus, but its most affecting passage is when he lifts years of guilt and anxiety off his mother, Sonja, by telling her that her miscarried child had been a girl, and that she was now flourishing in heaven as God’s adopted daughter. 4-year-old Colton had not known that his mother had lost a baby before he was born. How did he know? Mystery! Glorious mystery – worth exploring and dreaming toward.
Here’s another. “Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons... After this he appeared in another form to two of them… And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them.”
Throughout history, people have wondered what happens after death. While we may want a clear-cut answer, we are called simply to trust that ultimately, we will be in God’s care, and that His kingdom will come. Faith is the base of salvation, and it is that faith that calls us to trust that God holds answers humanity cannot yet understand.
We find in Hebrews 11:1: "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." While the Protestant tradition teaches us certain aspects of the afterlife, there is still much that remains held in the mystery of God that requires simple, happy faith.
I appreciate C.S. Lewis’ perspective when speaking of what heaven and the afterlife are like: “Guesses, of course, only guesses. If they are not true, something better will be.” Amen.