Death is often called the ‘great equalizer’. Whether we’re rich, poor, black, white, religious or not, death is the one experience that’s universal to us all.
But the greater fascination tends to be with what happens after the final breath. What happens when somebody takes their final look upon the physical world and drifts off into eternity?
Religions offer varied answers.
Christianity often teaches that Heaven awaits those who ‘get right with God by beginning a relationship with Him through His Son Jesus Christ’ (1), and those that go without salvation end up in Hell. This varies by denomination, as Catholicism teaches of a third destination – Purgatory, for those ‘who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified’ (2). Other branches of Christianity rule out Hell altogether – notably the Jehovah’s Witnesses (3) , Seventh Day Adventists (4) and Christian Scientists (5). They often teach that the unworthy are merely annihilated from existence.
Islam provides vivid descriptions of Jannah (Heaven) and Jahannam (Hell) . The former is described as being filled with ‘rivers of water, rivers of milk, rivers of wine, rivers of clear honey’ and is likened to a garden populated by beautiful women (6). The latter is ‘a real place prepared by God for those who do not believe in Him, rebel against His laws, and reject His messengers’ (7). Jahannam is levelled, with the more severe sinners being punished in its depths – ‘Surely, the hypocrites will be in the lowest depths of the Fire’ (Quran 4:145) (8).
Judaism isn’t entirely clear on the afterlife, and seems to emphasis the importance of being a good person on Earth, regardless of the destination after death (9).
Buddhism and Hinduism both teach that humans are reborn into new bodies through the process of Reincarnation. However, a lesser known fact is that, in Buddhism, one should strive to escape this cycle. It’s considered ideal to enter Nirvana (Essentially a heaven of sorts) rather than to continue being reborn (10).
All these diverse ideas have spread across the world, and resonated with billions of people. But ultimately, nobody knows until the moment they die.
But many have argued that Near Death Experiences are proof of an afterlife.
According to a 1992 Gallup poll, 5% of Americans (That’s 13 million people) had experienced a near death experience (11). Many experiences share similar traits – seeing deceased family members, floating above their own body and in some cases, speaking to God.
It’s also a big way to draw in money (Not to be cynical…), as proven by the 2014 film, ‘Heaven Is For Real’, about a young boy who visited Heaven whilst having emergency surgery. The film itself earned $91 million in the US, and the book it was based upon had sold 10 million copies (12).
And it’s not the only one of its kind – ‘To Heaven And Back’, ‘Proof Of Heaven’ and ‘The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven’ (The author of the third book came clean in 2015 about having lied about his experiences).
A popular scientific explanation for this phenomena is that a surge of electrical activity in the brain is responsible. This was determined by studying dying rats, in which it was discovered they had high levels of brainwaves at the point of demise. The researchers believed that in humans, this could give rise to a higher state of consciousness (13).
The traits associated with near death experiences aren’t unique to the phenomenon. The feeling of ‘being dead’ is seen in patients diagnosed with Cotard (Or ‘walking corpse’ syndrome), which is often experienced following trauma, such as sclerosis. Out-of-body experiences can also occur in patients with interrupted sleep patterns, and is frequently seen among people suffering from sleep paralysis (14).
Research has found that a number of medicinal and recreational drugs mirror the euphoria felt in near death experiences, such as anesthetic ketamine. Ketamine affects the brain’s opioid system, which can naturally become active when animals are under attack. This seems to indicate that near death experiences are triggered by trauma (14).
In my own personal opinion, near death experiences aren’t proof of an afterlife. But discrediting these experiences doesn’t necessarily rule out the existence of a life after death.
There’s too many contradictions in the stories told by people who have told of near death experiences. By culture, the religious figures seen differ – an Indian man recalls seeing Yamraj, the Hindu god of the dead (15), whereas a ISIS fighter claims he was denied from Heaven and converted to Christianity upon awakening (16).
It’s unspoken of in religion that each person should have a unique afterlife experience. If an afterlife should exist as the true religion would dictate, then everybody should see the same thing.
But they don’t.
For obvious reasons, I don’t know what happens after death. Nobody does.
But one should be wary of accepting visions as proof of a world beyond our own.