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Interpretations of near-death experiences are influenced by religious and psychosocial teachings about death and afterlife beliefs. Different religious beliefs have resulted in the formation of numerous religious groups who have fostered their own interpretations of death, afterlife, and the immediate transition period between life and afterlife. This essay provides an overview of reductionist theories and for the plausibility of transpersonal theories of near-death experiences. The essay then provides an overview of the human consciousness of what seems to be life after death, religious beliefs concerning death and afterlife, and interpretations of near-death experiences by different religious groups. This essay contends that religious interpretations combined with the contemporary work on near-death experiences and the arguments against reductionism provide grounds for the plausibility of the transpersonal theories concerning near-death experiences.
A near-death experience is a conscious experience in which the individual experiences a sense of being detached from the physical world during the process of physiological dying. Individuals may experience their own physiological dyings and deaths and at the same time become aware of their disembodied existences in an altered state where they may experience a sense of peace, a separation of consciousness from the body, entering darkness, seeing a light, meeting spiritual entities, having a panoramic life review, and a sense of judging their lives (Moody, 1975; Morse, 1990, Ring, 1980). Near-death experiencers are generally positively affected by their experiences and their confrontation with death seems to give more meaning to the individual’s life (Kalish, 1981). Near-death experiences could be considered “transpersonal” experiences due to their nature of transcending the usual “personal” physical and mental realms of human consciousness. Transpersonal experiences are those incidents that are of the highest or ultimate human potential and beyond the ego or personal self (Lajoie & Shapiro, 1992, p. 90).
In order to evaluate near-death experiences effectively, it is necessary to have an understanding of personal beliefs concerning life after death. According to Kellehear & Irwin (1990), the interpretation of the near-death experience may be related to the social conditioning and beliefs of the experiencer, such as interpreting the experience in relationship to the experiencer’s religious beliefs concerning life after death.
Numerous surveys have documented that the majority of people in the United States believe in life after death (Kalish, 1981; Kellehear & Irwin, 1990; Klenow & Bolin, 1989, Rodabough, 1985). Psychologist Charles Tart (1991), in his article, “Altered States of Consciousness and the Possibility of Survival of Death“, discusses his belief that humans regain some type of consciousness after death. He states:
“The direct experience of existing and experiencing in some form that seems partially or fully independent of the physical body is relatively common in various altered states of consciousness, and this kind of experience constitutes the most direct knowledge of survival an individual may have” (p. 37).
Past-life researcher Brian Weiss (1988) reports there are experiences of what seems to be life after death, as reported by many of his subjects, and that the different experiences and concepts of the subject’s lifetime, involving religion and death, can influence the individual’s understanding of death and afterlife.
Religions involve group practices of similar religious beliefs. An individual’s personal religious beliefs are experienced within the individual’s consciousness and may be related to others through various religious practices. Through social participation individual beliefs may be formed and heightened. Religious beliefs may both provide explanations for unexplained phenomena and communicate the essence of human transpersonal experiences.
Interpretations of near-death experiences can be influenced by religious beliefs in life after death. The effects of religious diversity may not only influence the interpretations of near-death experiences but also may account for some of the differences in the descriptions of encounters with incorporeal entities, the setting of the experience, and in the activities reported during the experience. Religious beliefs can provide references to explain the “difficult to explain” experiences associated with a near-death experience (Foos-Graber, 1989; Kubler-Ross, 1991; Moody, 1975, 1977, 1988; Ring, 1980, 1982). Most reported near-death experiences appear to support many philosophical and religious theories of what is anticipated in life after death such as communion with incorporeal beings and the existence of afterlife polar planes of good and bad, heaven and hell.
It is the intention of this essay to provide a review of the near-death experience phenomenon and the beliefs in life after death of some religious denominations who have reported near-death experiences, as well as their interpretations of these experiences. The essay will conclude that these religious interpretations, combined with contemporary near-death research, and arguments against reductionist interpretations provide grounds for the plausibility of transpersonal theories concerning near-death experiences.
3. Near-Death Experiences
Near-death experiences appear to be a universal phenomena that has been reported for centuries. A near-death encounter is defined as an event in which the individual could very easily die or be killed, or may have already been considered clinically dead, but nonetheless survives, and continue his or her physical life (Moody, 1977, p.124). Reports of near-death experiences date back to the Ice Age. There are cave paintings, in France and Spain, depicting possible after life scenes that are similar to reported scenes related to near-death experiences (Zaleski, 1987). Plato’s Republic presents the story of a near-death experience of a Greek soldier named Er. In this account, the soldier is killed in battle and his body is placed on a funeral pyre. Just before he is to be cremated, he awakens and tells a story of leaving his body and traveling with others to a place where they were all to be judged (Plato, 1928). Historical figures such as Carl Jung, Thomas Edison, and Ernest Hemingway have also reported their own near-death experiences (Jung, 1961; Moody, 1977, Zaleski, 1987). Modern researchers, such as Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, Raymond Moody, Kenneth Ring, and Melvin Morse, have provided modern accounts of near-death experiences. Through their research, they have been able to provide phenomenological evidence regarding these experiences as altered states of consciousness, and qualitatively demonstrated that the great similarities between the different reports of these experiences are not a result of chance or accident.
According to a 1991 Gallup Poll estimate, 13 million Americans, 5% of the population, reported they have had a near-death experience (Greyson, 1992). Research has demonstrated that near-death experiences are no more likely to affect the devoutly religious than the agnostic or atheist. Near-death experiences can be experienced by anyone (Moody, 1975, 1977, 1980, Morse, 1990; Ring, 1980, 1985). According to Talbot (1991), near-death experiences appear to have no relationship to “a person’s age, sex, marital status, race, religion and/or spiritual beliefs, social class, educational level, income, frequency of church attendance, size of home community, or area of residence” (p. 240).
Near-death experiences have been recorded in folklore, religious, and social writings throughout the world. Reports have been recorded from societies such as Native American, Tibet, Japan, Melanesia, Micronesia, Egypt, China, India, Africa, Australia, Europe, and the United States (Greyson, 1992; Mauro, 1992). According to Ring (1980), there does not appear to be any relationship between, on one hand, an individual’s spirituality and religious practices, and on the other hand, the likelihood of experiencing a near-death experience or the depth of the ensuing experience.
4. The Phenomenology of the Near-Death Experience
Near-death experiencer consistently report similar experiences. According to Talbot (1991), “One of the most interesting aspects of the ND phenomenon is the consistency one finds from experience to experience” (p. 240). Although most near-death experiencers may not experience all of the traits associated with near-death experiences or in the same order, experiencers consistently report similar experiences. The following is a constructed description of the content of a near-death experience representing most of the major traits:
At the onset of the near-death experience, the individual may experience a sense of being dead, and surprise at being dead, yet will remain peaceful and have no feelings of pain. Following the peaceful awareness of being dead, the experiencer may have an out-of-body experience, a perception of separating from the physical body and moving away from the deceased body. The individual may experience a sense of moving through a tunnel, during the stage of entering into the darkness. As the individual passes through the tunnel, there may be an awareness of a bright light towards the end of the tunnel. While experiencing the consciousness of the light, ethereal forms recognizable by the experiencer may be seen in the light. In the later part of the near-death experience, the individual may sense he or she is rising rapidly towards the light into what he or she may consider heaven or another plane of consciousness. During this ascension, the experiencer may encounter a Being of Light reported to be either God, another spiritual deity, or an energy form recognized by non-theists. The encounter with the Being of Light engulfs the experiencer with a sense of unconditional love emanating from the Being. During this encounter, the near-death experiencer may become conscious of having a total panoramic review of his or her life and may experience a sense of self-judgment when observing his or her life events in review. The judgment is not by the Being of Light but is a personal judgment by the experiencer. Throughout each of the stages, and particularly in the latter stages of the near-death experience, the individual may be reluctant to return to his or her former life.
Although most near-death reports are positive, in that they are pleasurable experiences, there are some reports of negative or “hellish” type experiences. The reports of negative near-death experiences appear to be rare. Of all the reported near-death experiences, a 1982 Gallup poll estimated that less than 1% are considered to be negative, hellish, and frightening experiences. The negative near-death experiences are reported to contain similar traits as positive experiences but are associated with a sense of extreme fear, panic or anger, a sense of helplessness, and possible visions of demonic creatures (Moody, 1988, p.25, 27; Staff, 1992 p. 1-2; Horacek, 1992, p. 3).
Many individuals who have experienced a near-death experience claim a fuller understanding of their religious or spiritual insights and their impact on their lives (Moody, 1988; Peay, 1991; Ring, 1985). They report feeling closer to God after their near-death experience. Ring (1980) comments:
“The way in which post-incident religiousness reveals itself among core experiencers is primarily in terms of an inward sense of religion: They feel closer to God, are more prayerful, are less concerned with organized religion and formal ritual, and express a sense of religious tolerance and religious universalism. It isn’t clear that their belief in God per se grows stronger, although it is clear their religious feeling does. Following their incident, they are significantly more inclined then non-experiencers to be convinced there is life after death” (p.173).
The effect of this spiritual awakening on the experiencer is a more positive attitude towards life, a lack of fear of dying, and a sense of service towards others (Moody, 1977, 1980, 1988; Ring, 1980, 1985).
5. Models of Near-Death Experiences
The phenomenology of the near-death experience can be described by reporting the various stages of the experience, the characteristics or traits of the experience – which occur during various stages of the experience, by the constellations or related conscious experiences associated with near-death experiences, or by the experiential grouping of stages, traits, or constellations of the experiences. Experiencers may experience some or all of these stages, traits, consciousness, and types. The stages of near-death experiences relate to the experiencer’s sense of progression towards a destination. The traits are associated with a sense of consciousness or knowledge concerning the activities within the near-death experience. Noyes and Slymen (1978-79) and Sabom (1977) further categorize the stages and traits of near-death experiencers into constellations and group types to analyze further the phenomenology of the near-death experience. The statistical analysis of the data presented in the Ring (1980, 1985), Evergreen (Lindley, 1981), and Noyes and Slymen (1978-79) studies, and the research of Sabom (1977) demonstrate the consistency of these models of classification of near-death experiences.
Kenneth Ring (1980) has devised a model of the stages of near-death experiences recognized by near-death experiencers. The stages are:
Stages of the Near-Death Experience
- A sense of peace at the time of death.
- A sense of separation from the body.
- A sense of entering into darkness.
- Seeing a bright light.
- A sense of entering the light
Raymond Moody (1988), identifies nine distinguishing qualities, characteristics or traits that have been associated with near-death experiences and may be perceived within the stages of the near-death experiences identified by the Ring study. The Moody defined near-death experience traits are:
Distinguishing Qualities and Characteristics of the NDE
- A sense of being dead.
- A sense of peace and painlessness.
- A sense of separation from the physical body.
- The sense of passing through a tunnel.
- A sense of an encounter with recognizable ethereal entities, such as family, friends, angels or religious personages. These spirits may appear to be enveloped in light.
- A sense of rising rapidly into the heavens.
- A sense of an encounter with a Being of Light which emanates unconditional love. This being has been described as God or Allah.
- An experience of a panoramic, total life review and sense of self-judgment about one’s life while bathed in the unconditional love of the Being of Light.
- A sense of reluctance to return to the world of the living.
- A sense of a compression or absence of time and sensing no restrictions of space but a freedom to go where the experiencer chooses.
According to a study performed by Noyes and Slymen (1978-79), near-death experiences can be classified further into three consciousness constellations of the type of event: (1) mystical, (2) depersonalized, and (3) hyperalert. The mystical type includes a sense of harmony and unity, color or visions, and a feeling of great understanding. Depersonalization relates to the loss of emotion, detachment from the physical body, and an altered sense of the passage of time. The hyperalert constellation refers to the experiencer’s sense that his or her thoughts are sharply defined, vivid, and accelerated.
Sabom (1977) also has divided near-death experiencers into three experiential group types: (1) autoscopic, (2) transcendental, and (3) mixed experiences. The autoscopic experiencers include the individuals who have experienced the sense of leaving their bodies, having out-of-body experiences. The transcendental group include individuals who have a sense of entering into a “spiritual realm”. In the mixed experiences, the near-death experiencer may experience a mixture of autoscopic and transcendental experiences (Moody, 1988). Regardless of the methodology used to classify near-death experiences, the anecdotal nature of the near-death reports are similar and consistent between experiencers (Moody, 1977, 1988; Morse, 1990; Ring, 1980, 1985).
6. Transpersonal and Reductionist Theories Concerning Near-Death Experiences
Near-death researchers Moody (1975, 1977, 1988), Morse (1990), and Ring (1980, 1985) suggest that near-death experiences are related to a state of consciousness, separate from the physical body, which occurs at the time of death. Near-death researchers have collected hundreds of phenomenological descriptions of individual near-death experiences and have statistically correlated the occurrences of the stages and traits associated with these experience. The consistency of near-death experience reports provide support for the theories that these experiences are not a result of hallucinations or mental dysfunctions. Individuals, regardless, of age, race, religion, or national origin have reported similar experiences during a near-death episode. The chi-square method of statistical analysis has been used by near-death researchers to determine if the similarity of events reported during the near-death experience, by experiencer, are a result of chance or are to be expected elements of the near-death experience (Morse, 1990, Ring, 1980, 1985). The chi-square method is a non-parametric statistical test used to determine the statistical significance of the difference between the frequencies of reported outcomes with the expected frequencies of outcomes. In other words, did the events reported in near-death experiences happen by chance or can the events anticipated (Borg & Gall, 1989). The statistical significance of near-death research provides that the similarity in the reports of near-death experiencer do not happen as a result of chance but are consistent phenomena of the near-death experiencers (Morse, 1990; Ring, 1980, 1985, Rodabough, 1985; Sabom & Kreutziger, 1977).
Some theologians, medical practitioners, and psychologists do not believe near-death experiences are paranormal experiences. According to Moody (1988), some theological, medical, and psychological theorists attempt to explain near-death experiences as physical or mental phenomena that has more to do with brain and neurological-biological dysfunctions associated with the dying process.
Researchers such as Sagan (1979) and Siegel (1981) attempt to debunk the near-death experience by stating it is a result of a chemical reaction within the brain during the dying process. They postulate that as the eyes deteriorate following death they produce the bright light reported to be seen during the near-death experience. The tunnel effect and a sensation of being out-of-body is believed to be caused by the chemical reactions in the body during the death process (Moody, 1988, p.178). According to researcher Ronald Siegel (1981), “The descriptions given by dying persons are virtually identical to descriptions given by persons experiencing hallucinations, drug-induced or otherwise,” (p. 65). Carl Sagan (1979) states that some of the near-death experiences can be associated with “a wiring defect in the human neuroanatomy that under certain conditions always leads to the same illusion of astral projection/out-of-body experience,” (p. 47). According to Moody (1988) and Morse (1990), some researchers attempt to explain near-death experiences as the mind’s defense against the fear of dying, that the mind creates positive images of an afterlife in order to control the fear of dying.
Many near-death researchers regard three consistently repeated reports as providing credibility for the transpersonal theories that near-death experiences are the expression of an altered state of consciousness separate from the physical or mental realm of human existence having a profound impact on the experiencer’s life. These reports thus are crucial to cite in responding to the theorists who attempt to debunk the near-death experience as a transpersonal phenomenon. These three factors reported are:
Reports That Provide Credibility for the Transpersonal Theory of the NDE
- Consistent reports of out-of-body experiences of individuals who sense they separate from their physical body during the near-death experience and can observe their body and surroundings from a detached position.
- The consistent reports of near-death experiences of children are similar to those experiences reported by adults.
- The attitudinal and personality changes of the near-death experiencers following their experience (Moody, 1988; Morse, 1990; Ring, 1980, 1985).
The following discussion of out-of-body experiences, children’s near-death experiences, and the post-experience attitudinal and personality changes of near-death experiencers, suggest reasons why the reductionist or debunking theories are implausible.
7. Out-of-Body Experiences
During an out-of-body experience, experiencers report leaving their physical body and viewing their body and other activity from a detached, uninvolved perspective. Upon recovery from the near-death experience, many experiencers recall details of medical procedures being performed on them that they had no prior knowledge of the technique. Some experiencers report traveling to other locations, other than the place where the body may be lying “dead.” The out-of-body experiencer is then able to report things he or she may have seen during the out-of-body experience, and there is no other logical explanation for the source of this knowledge (Eadie, 1992; Moody, 1988; Morse, 1990; Ring, 1980, 1985; Ritchie, 1978; Zaleski, 1987). An example of this experience is a story told by a very near-sighted woman. During her out-of-body experience, she reports that she was first lying on an operating table with the anesthesia machine behind her head. She then became aware that she had detached from her body and was able to see, without difficulty, the equipment identification numbers on the anesthesia machine. These numbers were out of her normal visual range and behind her body’s head. She then floated up to the top of the room and noted how the top of the light fixtures were dirty. After her recovery from her near-death experience, she returned to the operating room and was able to ascertain that the numbers she had seen on the machine were correct and that the light fixtures were in need of cleaning (Ring, 1985, p. 42-43). This experience supports the belief that near-death experiences involve separation from the physical body and mind.
Studying the out-of-body phenomenon leads to doubt about the beliefs of those who attempt to debunk the theory that near-death experiences are transpersonal experiences transcending the physical and mental realm of human consciousness. The knowledge the experiencer gains during the out-of-body experience, in most cases, could not have been learned by any other method other than by a consciousness detached from the physical body (Moody, 1988; Morse, 1990; Ring, 1980, 1985). The ability of experiencers to report things and events they had no prior knowledge of provides for the plausibility that the out-of-body experience is a transpersonal event and not a psychological response to dying.
8. Children and Near-Death Experiences
Young children have reported having near-death experiences. Their reports are similar to adult near-death experiences even though they may not have had time to be enculturated with the same socio-religious beliefs regarding death as adults, or developed a fear of death through their psychological development. Children report having out-of-body experiences, passing through a tunnel, and encountering spiritual forms during their near-death experiences. Of interest are the reports of children who meet spiritual entities that are later identified as deceased relatives whom the child could not have known prior to his or her near-death experience (Moody, 1975, 1988, Morse, 1990).
The accounts of young children’s near-death experiences suggest the unlikeliness of the debunking theory that near-death experiences are the mind’s psychological defense towards dying. Children who have not had time to learn of their mortality do not usually fear dying. According to Frank (1982) and Anthony (1967) children, until between the age of five and seven, consider death to be reversible and generally do not have a fear of dying. They, therefore, do not have a need to create an afterlife experience, such as is experienced in a near-death experience, in order to overcome a fear of dying (Moody, 1988; Morse, 1990). Furthermore, following near-death experiences, children share similar after-effects of the experience as adult experiencers. They grow to have a sense of purpose and direction in their lives, and as they mature, do not develop a fear of dying (Morse, 1990).
9. Attitudinal and Personality Changes Following Near-Death Experiences
According to Wilson (1987), the real importance of the near-death experience is in the after-effects it has on the life of the experiencer. The usual psychological and spiritual after-effects of a near-death experience consist of changes in personality and values and an attitudinal change towards religion and death. There is a heightened sense of appreciation of life, especially of the world of nature and of other people. The near-death experiencer achieves a sense of understanding of what is important to him or her in life and strives to live in accordance with his or her understanding of what is meaningful. Consistently reported after-effects of near-death experiences are the lack of fear of death, an attitude of unconditional love and service towards others, and the desire to seek knowledge (Kalish, 1981, Moody, 1977, 1988; Peay, 1991; Ring, 1980).
According to Ring (1985), many near-death experiences act as a catalyst to a spiritual awakening for the experiencer:
“What is noteworthy … is the particular form this spiritual development takes in many NDErs – i.e., the real significance of the NDE here may not be simply that it promotes spiritual growth as much as the kind of spiritual growth it promotes” (p. 144).
This awakening appears to move the experiencer toward what Ring (1985) calls a “universalistically spiritual orientation” (p. 145). He defines universalistically spiritual orientation as consisting of:
Definition of Universalistic Spiritual Orientation
- A tendency to characterize oneself as spiritual rather than religious, per se.
- A feeling of being inwardly close to God.
- A de-emphasis of the formal aspects of religious life and worship.
- A conviction that there is life after death, regardless of religious belief.
- An openness to the doctrine of reincarnation (and a general sympathy towards eastern religions).
- A belief in the essential underlying unity of all religions.
- A desire for a universal religion embracing all humanity (p. 146).
The long-term positive effects the near-death experience has on the experiencer’s life gives evidence for supporting a plausible argument for the transpersonal nature of the near-death experience. This aspect of the near-death experience has not been addressed by reductionist theories in the literature reviewed. The profundity of the after-effects of a near-death experience on the experiencer’s life have not been able to be achieved through pharmacological or psychological methods. Most of the sensory nature of the near-death experience can be induced through drugs or hallucinations but the positive change in the individual’s personality and attitudes do not appear to be capable of replication (Moody, 1988; Morse, 1990; Ring, 1985). Ring (1980) reports these after-effects appear to remain with the individual for the remainder of his or her mortal life.
In the first part of this essay, I have reviewed some of the contemporary near-death research and some of the arguments against the plausibility of the reductionist theories and for the plausibility to transpersonal theories explaining near-death experiences. In the following part of this essay, religious beliefs concerning death, afterlife, and near-death experiences will be discussed. This discussion will provide commentary regarding the similarities between different religious beliefs and experiences concerning death, as well as between religious interpretations of near-death experiences.
10. Religious Beliefs Concerning Death, Afterlife, and Near-Death Experiences
Polls and studies support the assumption that the majority of people believe death is not the end of one’s existence but rather a transition from one life to another (Gallup & Castelli, 1989; Kellehear & Irwin, 1990; Klenow & Bolin, 1989). Different religions have provided belief structures supporting the religious and social needs of practitioners. Rituals and sacred writings support the various religious interpretations of what death is and what it will be like in the afterlife. However, even with the differences in religious beliefs, there are similarities between many different religious groups regarding afterlife beliefs. One similarity among religious groups is the belief in an afterlife following physical death. Another similarity is the presence of “the two polar images of life after death – the abode of the righteous, heaven or paradise, and the place for the wicked, or hell” (Grof & Grof, 1980, p. 13). These polar images are also recognized by many near-death experiencers.
According to Hick (1980), a belief in the immortality of the spirit has been present in most religions for centuries. The belief in a life after death is one of the oldest concepts of human history (DeSpelder & Strickland, 1983). Proving the immortality of the human soul has been the objective of many philosophers, theologians, and scientists. Freud (1961) stated:
“Our own death is indeed unimaginable, and whenever we make an attempt to imagine it we can perceive that we really survive as spectators.”
Hence the psychoanalytic school could venture on the assertion that, at bottom, no one believes in his own death. Or to put it in another way, in the unconscious everyone is convinced of his or her own immortality (p. 154). Many beliefs in life after death have concerned a non-physical transition into a serene spiritual world with encounters of other deceased people and possible religious figures. There may be a judgment or accounting of one’s life with a final disposition of the individual spirit following the period of judgment or personal assessment.
Near-death experiences and the reports of a consciousness of life after death have been provided by members of Buddhist, Hindu, Islam, Jewish, Christian, and Mormon religions, among others. Agnostics and atheists also have reported near-death experiences even with their predisposed lack of belief in anything greater than personal self and this life. The following are brief commentaries regarding the beliefs concerning death, afterlife, and near-death experiences within these religious and irreligious frameworks.
11. Agnostics and Atheists
Agnostics believe it is impossible to know whether there is a God or life after death. Atheists believe there is no God and no life after death and that death is the cessation of the existence of the individual.
Agnostics and atheists have reported having near-death experiences. These experiences are similar to the reports of individuals who have professed a spiritual belief prior to their near-death experience (Moody, 1977; Rawlings, 1978; Ring, 1985). Agnostics and atheists report achieving an altered state of consciousness in which they have experienced some or all of the traits Moody attributes to a near-death experience. Most agnostics and atheists interpret their near-death experiences as a glimpse of life after death (Rawlings,1978; Ring, 1985). Prior to the near-death experience, they did not believe in life after death. As a result of the experience, most agnostic and atheist experiencers eventually move toward a more spiritually guided life with a new found belief in life after death (Rawlings, 1978; Ring, 1985, p. 151). Maurice Rawlings (1978) reported he did not know of any agnostic or atheist individual from his research who, after experiencing a near-death experience, remained convinced of there being no God, no life after death, or nothing else beyond the material existence.
12. Buddhism and Hinduism
Buddhists believe that upon death, there is rebirth to another life. Death is accepted as inevitable and not feared. The believer’s actions in this life will determine his or her level of rebirth. Karma is the force created by the actions of the individual – the effects of actions. Good karma, which is achieved by compassionate actions in this life, leads to a higher existence in the next life. Nirvana is reached by achieving an understanding of the nature of reality. This must be discovered through the experiences of other dimensions of human consciousness (Klein, 1991, p. 103).
According to Buddhist cosmology, numerous, hierarchically arranged heavens exist along with eight hot and cold hells. The individual spirit exists in one of these realms, based upon the karma created in the previous life, until reborn into another life. This cycle continues until the enlightenment of nirvana is achieved (Klein, 1991).
According to Swami Adiswarananda (1991), in the Hindu religion, death comes as a break in the continued events of life and brings about a change in the form in which the spirit resides. Hindus believe the afterlife is a passage of time in a heaven or hell, dependent upon the karma built up in life. The judgment about one’s life is based upon the karma the individual created in his or her past lives. The rebirth of the spirit into the next life, through the transmigration of the soul, is determined by the developed karma and the individual’s last thoughts in the present life. An individual’s search for eternal happiness and immortality results in the rebirth of the spirit in different bodies until the spirit learns that happiness and immortality are not a result of the fulfillment of desires but are attained when all desires and needs are no longer important (Adiswarananda, 1991; Elb, 1906). According to some Hindus, the various religious faiths are “different paths to reach one and the same goal – union with God as ultimate Reality” (Johnson & McGee, 1991).
There are reports of Chinese Buddhists having near-death experiences (Kellehear, Heaven, Gao, 1990). Becker (1981) suggests that near-death experiences may have been responsible for part of the development of Pure Land Buddhism in China. A Hindu report of a near-death experience relates how the experiencer entered into heaven on the back of a cow (Ferris, 1991).
According to Mauro (1992):
“East Indians [Hindus] sometimes see heaven as a giant bureaucracy, and frequently report being sent back because of clerical errors,” whereas Japanese experiencers report seeing symbolic images, such as “long, dark rivers and beautiful flowers” (p. 57).
During the near-death experience, the Buddhist experiencers have reported seeing the personage of Buddha, and Hindu experiencers report seeing Krishna (Rawlings, 1978; Ring, 1980; Talbot, 1991). The difference in Buddhist and Hindu reports of near-death experiences is predominately associated with the afterlife setting and the personages the experiencer reports encountering.
Buddhist and Hindu near-death experiencers may report different interpretations of the specifics of their experiences; however, the experiences are consistent with other stages, traits, constellations, and group types reported by near-death experiencers in other cultures and religions. Some members of the Buddhist and Hindu religions interpret near-death experiences as providing afterlife visions similar to visions ascribed to some Eastern religious experiences associated with death and afterlife. Becker (1984) comments “that ancient Japanese Buddhist meditative and deathbed visions closely parallel modern American near-death and deathbed visions” (p. 51). The Tibetan Book of the Dead (1973) describes the Bardo, the three stages of the transitionary “disembodied state” following death. In the first stage, the departed have visions of the “Blinding Clear Light of Pure Reality.” In the second stage, the departed encounter a succession of “deities.” In the third stage the departed is judged based upon past deeds by the “Dharma Raja, King and Judge of the Dead” (Grof & Grof, 1980). These stages are similar in content to other reported near-death experiences from other religions and cultures. These similarities include a movement through levels – such as passing through a tunnel, visions of pure light, meeting incorporeal beings, powers of astral projections or out-of-body-experience, and a judgment about one’s life (Becker, 1985).
Death, in the Islamic faith, is the cessation of biological life and the resting of the spirit, in the grave, until the Judgment Day. Some Muslims believe “good souls” see visions of God, and the wicked see the hell awaiting them. From the time of death to the time of judgment, Muslims believe the spirit remains in a state of “dreamless sleep,” with the exception of possible visions of eternity (Galloway, 1991; Johnson & McGee, 1991).
Faith in an afterlife is based upon the belief in the oneness of God and the belief in a day of resurrection and judgment for all regardless of religious belief. At that time, the spirit will be judged based upon its deeds in life, and allowed either to enter into Paradise and be with God, be thrown into the Fire for a period of purgation, or condemned to everlasting punishment in the Fire. Most Muslims believe that non-Muslims can reach Paradise only after a period of purgation (Johnson & McGee, 1991; Smith, J. 1991).
Muslims have reported having near-death experiences (Flynn, 1986; Rawlings, 1978). Muslim near-death experiencers report seeing and meeting recognizable spirits (Flynn, 1986; Rawlings, 1978). This conforms with the Islamic tradition that the souls of the faithful, in paradise, welcome the “incoming souls” and with other reports of visions of people awaiting the newly deceased (Holck, 1980; Moody, 1975, 1977; Morse, 1990; Ring, 1985). In Muslim near-death experiences, the Being of Light is identified as Allah, whereas in other religions the light might be identified as God (Ring, 1985).
Some Muslims interpret the near-death experience as a possible glimpse into life after death due to the similarity of the experience with the religious visions of Muhammad and their expectations of life after death (Ring, 1985; Zaleski, 1987). An Islamic myth describes Muhammad’s “Night Journey” as his experience of passing through the realms of the afterlife where he encounters spirits who have died, has a vision of heaven and hell, and communes with Allah (Couliano, 1991; Grof & Grof, 1980, Zaleski, 1987).
The Jewish religion generally emphasizes the current life, and not life after death. Although Judaism recognizes that the life of the spirit does not end at the point of bodily death, it is the Jew’s responsibility to focus on a meaningful life and not speculate on life after death. According to Elb (1906), the Jewish Bible states that actions taken in the present life will reward the righteous and chastise the wicked. It does not specifically address the concept of an afterlife. Even though the Jewish Bible does not directly address immortality, traditional Jews believe immortality will bring the resurrection of the body and soul, followed by the judgment of the worth of their lives by God. The Reformed Jew believes resurrection involves only the soul. Jews believe they live and die only once (Ponn, 1991).
Since there is no discussion, in the Jewish Bible, of afterlife, there is no official Jewish religious opinion regarding life after death. However, according to Ponn (1991), many Jews believe human souls will be held accountable before God for what has been accomplished in the current life. After death, many Jews believe they will be reunited with family members in heaven. Their belief in God’s caring nature disavows a sadistic punishment in hell. Entrance into heaven is accomplished by righteous living and repentance. Heaven is considered a place where anxiety and pain is ended (Galloway, 1991; Johnson & McGee, 1991).
There have been a number of reported near-death experiences by members of the Jewish faith. Barbara Harris, a practicing Jew, reports having had several near-death experiences since 1975. Harris and Bascom’s (1990) book, Full Circle: The Near-Death Experience and Beyond, is a narrative of Harris’ near-death experiences. Jewish people who had a near-death experience relate similar observations and experiences as the experiences of other religious-spiritual believers. During the near-death experience, individuals report being in the presence of the Being of Light and judging their own lives (Harris & Bascom, 1990). This experience is similar to the Jewish belief that what is important in life is the attending to the responsibilities of living a meaningful, productive life. Many near-death experiencers report being met by family members. These reports are consistent with the Jewish belief that after death they will be reunited with family members in heaven (Galloway, 1991; Johnson & McGee, 1991; Moody, 1975, 1977, 1980; Ring, 1980, 1985).
Modern Christians are united in their belief that Jesus is the son of God and that there is an afterlife. Upon death, Christians believe they come before God and are judged. According to Smith (1991), “Following death, human life is fully translated into the supernatural domain” (p. 355). Fundamentalists and conservatives interpret the Holy Bible (1952) literally and believe there is a specific heaven and hell and only Christians are admitted to heaven. All others are condemned to hell. Other Christians interpret Biblical scripture more symbolically, taking into consideration the language and culture of the time when the Bible was written. Heaven and hell are viewed as a “condition,” such as happiness or peace, rather than a specific place. Regardless of whether the afterlife beliefs are interpreted conservatively or liberally, the Christian believes he or she dies only once and, after death, the spirit is judged and then exists in an afterlife for eternity (Galloway, 1991; Johnson & McGee, 1991). “It is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).
Near-death experiences appear to be familiar paranormal occurrences to Christians. Bechtel, Chen, Pierce, & Walker (1992) reported that 98% of the clergy they surveyed were familiar with near-death phenomena and that almost half of them have counseled parishioners who had a near-death experience. As with other religious interpretations of the near-death experience, Christians also report encounters with religious beings such as Jesus, Mary, or angels (Flynn, 1986, Moody, 1977, 1988; Morse, 1990, Ring, 1980, 1985). Experiencers report similar out-of-body experiences, meeting recognizable spiritual entities, movement toward a bright light, and a sense of being in the presence of an energy of “unconditional love” while the experiencer judges his or her life (Moody, 1975, Morse, 1990).
Some Christians refute the near-death experience as being a demonic deception. They believe the entire near-death experience is a trick of Satan to pull believers from the teachings of Christianity and lead them into sin (Harpur, 1992). Other Christians interpret the near-death experience as a glimpse of an after death state that may exist prior to the afterlife judgment by God. Near-death experiences and experiences similar to the altered state of the near-death experiences are recorded in the Holy Bible (1952). These experiences are not reported as being evil or sinful. The scripture writers have recorded visions of bright lights, life reviews, the presence of the unconditional love of God, and visions of heaven and hell from Biblical individuals who have been close to death (Morse, 1990; Rawlings, 1978). In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, 2 Corinthians 12:1-10, Paul records a “vision” he had. This vision resembles the content of a near-death experience. It involved Paul being “taken up to heaven for a visit” and “hear[ing] things so astounding that they are beyond man’s power to describe or put in words.” Near-death experiencers consistently report the difficulty of verbalizing what they experience. The effect of this experience, on Paul, was a personal confirmation and assurance of his work (Hunter, 1985; Living Bible, 1971).
According to Flynn (1986), to many experiencers:
“The near-death experience affirms the uniqueness and centrality and indispensability of Christ, but in a universalistic way that does not negate or diminish the value of other religious traditions…[It will] break through sectarian and other barriers and shine a laser beam of Light on the true essence and meaning of Christ for all people” (p. 80).
Ring (1985) supports Flynn’s comments, in his conclusions regarding the universalistically spiritual orientation of experiencers following near-death experiences. He found that following a near-death experience, the Christian experiencer “gravitated towards a religious world view that may incorporate and yet transcend the traditional Christian perspective” (p. 147).
Death in the Mormon religion is not considered to be the end of existence of the individual but the beginning of a new existence as the same person. Mormons believe they have always lived and will always live as the same individual, “never as someone else or in another life-form” (Eyre, 1991, p. 139). Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints are saddened by the death of a loved one but are comforted in the belief that upon death the spirit is united with God in a spirit world, continuing to progress in knowledge, and await the coming of other family members, the resurrection of the physical body, and the final judgment. A belief in an afterlife is an essential part of the faith of the members of the Church of the Latter-day Saints.
In Mormonism, only “sons of perdition” – former believers who betray the church – are destined for eternal punishment. All others are assured at least an entry into a lesser Paradise, called the “telestial kingdom,” where one spends eternity apart from God. The most faithful attain the “celestial kingdom,” where they commune directly with God and eventually may themselves become gods and populate new universes with their own spiritual offspring. The Mormon Church is the only church that has a “safety net.” Any spirit that has not heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ in life will, before Judgment Day, will be given a chance in Paradise to hear it, and if the spirit accepts the teachings, it will receive equal blessings from God (Staff, 1992, p. 74).
The judgment reported by Mormon near-death experiencers is essentially a self-judgment. This self-judgment is similar to the reported life reviews and self-judgment reported in near-death experiences. Experiencers report seeing a panoramic review of their entire life and then judge their own actions while awash in the “unconditional love” of the Being of Light. After the judgment, the spirit dwells with others most like it (Eyre, 1991). As with many other religious groups, Mormon near-death experiencers consistently report meeting with deceased family members, and being in the presence of a being of light which they call God. However, some Mormon near-death experiencers report two events that appears to be uncommon with non-Mormon experiencers. They report they are requested to do something in the world, when they return to life, by the personage(s) they encounter during their experience. They also report receiving religious and other types of instructions from the “other world” beings (Lundahl, 1982).
According to Lundahl (1982), members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints report a high number of near-death experiences per capita of their religion. The high number of reported near-death experiences is probably due to the social values of the Latter-day Saints which encourages individuals to share their near-death experiences much more openly than most other social groups (p.166). Mormons interpret near-death experiences to be part of their religious beliefs and a glimpse of life after death.
In this essay I have discussed the contemporary work on near-death experiences and some of the arguments against the plausibility of reductionist theories and for the plausibility of transpersonal theories of near-death experiences. I have also provided an overview of the human consciousness of life after death, religious beliefs concerning death and afterlife, and interpretations of near-death experiences by different religious groups. I believe the consistency between numerous reports of near-death experiences, regardless of religious beliefs, and the similarity of the near-death experiences to reported religious experiences, provide plausible arguments for the transpersonal theories of this experience.
Throughout history Buddhists and Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Mormons have all reported having near-death experiences. These experiences are similar to some of the visions or journeys into the afterlife described in some of the sacred texts of their religions. The descriptions of the near-death experiences by members of these religious groups are believed, by many, to be a glimpse into life after death, and appear to be consistent with each religious group’s interpretation of the afterlife. However, there are some religious leaders who do not believe the experiencer has been indisputably dead and returned to life when he or she reports having a near-death experience. These leaders interpret these experiences as being pre-death visions of a transitory state prior to the individual’s final death and judgment.
Due to the subjective nature of near-death experiences there can be no conclusive proof that these experiences provide visions of life after death: however, the reports of out-of-body experiences, the near-death experiences of children, and the notable changes in the near-death experiencer’s life following his or her experience support the possibility of the validity of this theory (Moody, 1988; Morse, 1990; Ring, 1985). Because of the transpersonal nature of near-death experiences, it is sometimes reported that it is difficult to describe the experience in words. Near-death experiencers report there are no appropriate words to accurately describe their near-death experiences. They therefore interpret the experience using words, phrases, and metaphors reflecting their religious-cultural backgrounds and experiences.
The near-death experiences of individuals of various beliefs are consistent with many religious beliefs concerning life after death and do not compromise the foundations of their religious traditions. The descriptions of the mystical, depersonalization, and hyperalert constellations of near-death experiences and the autoscopic and transcendental grouping of these experiences appear to closely relate to the levels of heightened sense of consciousness associated with some religious rituals. However, the shift from an organized religious practice to a universalistically spiritual orientation may have an effect on the religious practices of some experiencers. Many choose to practice their new sense of universal spirituality within their earlier religions; however, many near-death experiencers move toward a religion more congruent with their new found knowledge, or choose to practice their spirituality through irreligious rituals and practices.
According to Ring (1985) many near-death experiencers attempt to incorporate their new sense of spirituality into their lives. This removes some of the limits of religious parochialism. To many experiencers it becomes less important to be a member of a specific religious group than to practice a more spiritual life not based upon specific religious doctrine. However, some experiencers chose to remain or become active in an organized religion in order to practice their new spirituality. It is therefore important for there to be an openness by religious groups towards individuals who report near-death experiences and not condemnation of the phenomenon as religious heresy.
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