What Is Afterlife?
While in this life, people ask the questions:
- Is death the end, or is there something of people that survives after death?
- What kind of existence will one have after one dies?
- Will it be good or bad?
- Is there anything one can do to make it good?
While the answers to these questions depend to some extent on one’s culture, every culture has believed in life after death. It’s abundance in religious scripture can be seen in the following passages:
The dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it (Ecclesiastes 12:7).
You prefer this life, although the life to come is better and more enduring (Qur’an 87:16–17).
You do not die when the body dies…. As a man abandons his worn-out clothes and acquires new ones, so when the body is worn out will a new one be acquired by the Self, who lives within (Bhagavadgita 2:20–22).
So it is with the resurrection from the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory…. It is sown in a physical body, it is raised in a spiritual body (1 Corinthians 15:42–44).
Contemporary belief in the afterlife is also supported by near-death experiences and the not infrequent experiences of spiritual communication with loved ones on the other side. Traditional societies took it for granted that there is natural intercourse between the two worlds, as in this dance sung by the Cree people:
The Sky blesses me, the Earth blesses me;
Up in the Skies I cause to dance the Spirits;
On the Earth, the people I cause to dance.
It is thought that this spiritual connection underlies the creative accomplishments of artists and scientists, who may credit their inspirations to a mysterious connection with a greater reality. In the words of Carl Jung, “A creative person has little power over his own life. He is not free. He is captive and driven by his daemon.”
The afterlife speaks of an existence, which stretches on to eternity, compared to the short span of life on earth. Does how people live in this life affect that future? If so, then belief in the afterlife can profoundly affect people’s attitude to this life. First, there is no need to fear death, since people will survive it. Second, people would want to take care of how they live on earth so as to avoid committing mistakes that could jeopardize their future eternal life.
Most believers have a optimistic view of the afterlife, believing that they will enjoy a pleasurable existence with friends and loved ones in a place called heaven. Although many believe in a place of punishment called hell, they do not believe they will live there. They believe that they will live in heaven because the power of their belief, or the promises of their religion, that they will go to heaven. Yet is that wishful thinking? Traditional beliefs in heaven and hell hold that that people have no choice but to reap in the next life the fruits that they sowed during life on earth. As Jesus taught in the parable of the sheep and the goats, this lies chiefly in how much they loved others and cared for the less fortunate.
Immortality of the Soul
From the standpoint of philosophy, there seems to be no logical ground for believing that there is life after physical death, yet the very nature of human consciousness seems to contradict the possibility of its annihilation—at least this is the way nearly all cultural traditions have perceived it. Hence, philosophers have sought to ascertain whether the universality of the belief in the afterlife is a remnant of primitive worldviews and the expression of wishful thinking, or the expression of the intuitive awareness of a higher reality.
Christianity and other religions that believe in a personal God, also believe in the absolute value of the human person as a partner—no matter how finite and inadequate—to that personal God. This naturally implies the belief in human immortality, whether for all humans or only for those who choose the right path of life.
For Eastern religions that hold to an impersonal Ultimate Reality, confidence in existence beyond physical death is based upon their perspective that the mental world is more “real” than the illusory material world. Hence, death of the body is only an illusory end; personal existence continues as its essence transmigrates or is reincarnated into a new form.
Soul and Body
The form immortality takes is of debate. Does the individual soul maintain a separate consciousness, or does it merge with the cosmic soul? If it maintains a separate identity and consciousness, then is the soul clothed in some sort of spiritual body? All folk beliefs in the afterlife describe spirits as embodied beings. However Christian and philosophical doctrines are more equivocal, due to the influence of Plato and Descartes.
For Plato, the essence of reality lies in the bodiless human soul. When the body dies, the soul lives on eternally in the world of ideas. This vision of the eternal soul implies that it has no body or shape of any kind and is limited to a point of consciousness. Descartes similarly drew an absolute distinction between the physical world, which has extension in time and space, and the world of the mind, which is without any extension. This philosophical position creates problems for most conceptions of the afterlife, and other problems as well, for instance how to conceive of the link between thinking and action. For Aristotle, mind and body are two sides of the same entity. He therefore believed that the soul dies with the body. This is the position of modern materialists. Thomas Aquinas sought to reconcile Aristotle with the Christian doctrine of immortality and stated that the soul temporarily survived death before being reunited with the physical body at the resurrection. Philosophically, this solution has been considered rather artificial and involving a deus ex machina.
Spiritualists and mystics have repeatedly advocated a third position, the survival of the soul in some sort of immaterial body. The eighteenth-century Swedish scientist and spiritualist Emmanuel Swedenborg has offered one of the most complete explanations from that perspective.
Main article: Reincarnation
Reincarnation is the philosophical or religious concept that an aspect of a living being starts a new life in a different physical body or form after each biological death. It is also called rebirth or transmigration, and is a part of the Saṃsāra doctrine of cyclic existence. It is a central tenet of all major Indian religions, namely Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism. The idea of reincarnation is found in many ancient cultures, and a belief in rebirth/metempsychosis was held by Greek historic figures, such as Pythagoras, Socrates, and Plato. It is also a common belief of various ancient and modern religions such as Spiritism, Theosophy, and Eckankar and is found as well in many tribal societies around the world, in places such as Australia, East Asia, Siberia, and South America.
Although the majority of denominations within the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam do not believe that individuals reincarnate, particular groups within these religions do refer to reincarnation; these groups include the mainstream historical and contemporary followers of Kabbalah, the Cathars, Alawites, the Druze, and the Rosicrucians. The historical relations between these sects and the beliefs about reincarnation that were characteristic of Neoplatonism, Orphism, Hermeticism, Manicheanism, and Gnosticism of the Roman era as well as the Indian religions have been the subject of recent scholarly research.Unity Church and its founder Charles Fillmore teach reincarnation.
Rosicrucians speak of a life review period occurring immediately after death and before entering the afterlife’s planes of existence (before the silver cord is broken), followed by a judgment, more akin to a final review or end report over one’s life.
Resurrection of the Dead
One strand of belief in the afterlife is the resurrection of the dead at the end of the world. In this literal view, bodies will rise from their graves and return to life to populate a new redeemed world. This belief is found in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, standing alongside conceptions of the afterlife as a state that the soul enters immediately upon physical death. Belief in the resurrection of the dead stems from scripture passages such as Ezekiel 37, which depicts the Jewish dead rising from their graves to repopulate the land of Israel. By the time of Jesus, resurrection was the dominant Jewish view of the afterlife.
The first generation of Jesus’ followers was Jews holding to this view; they believed that he was the first human being to be resurrected—not resuscitated. In other words, Jesus was living as a human in a new way from the way that he had previously, not merely made alive in the same body. They also believed that they would be resurrected when they died in the same way as Jesus (1 Thessalonians 4:14–17). This belief continues among some Protestants, who believe that people who die rest in a state of sleep (Rest in Peace) until the end of the world when they would resurrect. Islam also holds to this view: the dead wait until their bodily resurrection at Last Judgment, when the righteous will enter the pleasures of Paradise, and the wicked will be consigned to the eternal fires of hell.
Nevertheless, there is another widespread view in these religions that contradicts the doctrine of bodily resurrection: namely that at death the soul separates from the body and quickly attains its station in the afterlife. The Hebrew Bible affirms that Job and other righteous men went to Sheol when they died. In the New Testament parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus spoke to an audience that was clearly at home with the idea that at death the soul of a certain poor man was “carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom,” while the rich man who had died and was buried was dwelling in torment in Hades (Luke 16:19–31). Saint Paul likewise spoke in anticipation of the day when his body, an “earthly tent,” would be destroyed and he would be “further clothed” in a glorious new body (2 Corinthians 5:1–5).
For believers in an immortal soul, the resurrection of the dead that occurs in the end-times is not a bodily resurrection, but rather a jubilant uplifting of the spirit. New life in Christ is a spiritual state of grace, in contrast to the state of sin and death: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life” (Romans 6:23). The first letter of Peter alludes to a belief that when Jesus was three days in the tomb, he descended to Hades and preached to the spirits there and saved many (1 Peter 3:19–20). According to the author of Hebrews, Jesus brought new life not only to earthly believers, but also to the saints in heaven who waited to be further perfected in Christ: “All these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:39–40).
Evidence of Survival after Death
In both Western and Eastern religions, the spirit is an energy or force that transcends the mortal shell, and returns to either the heavens or the cycle of life, directly or indirectly depending on the tradition. The evidence of personal survival after death as a spirit is widespread in traditional and contemporary sources.
Accounts of Scripture
From the Hebrew patriarchs who believed that the soul at death was “gathered to the fathers,” the Bible provides support to belief in an afterlife. The Old Testament concept of Sheol, in parallel with the Hellenistic Hades, was the underworld where everyone at death, great or small, dwelt together (Isaiah 14:9–18). An apparition of the recently deceased Samuel briefly appeared to Saul when summoned by the medium of Endor (1 Samuel 28:3–15). The New Testament describes heaven as a place where the saints have gathered, surrounded by angels (Hebrews 12:22–24).
According to the Qur’an, the dead, especially those martyrs for the cause of God, are indeed alive:
Do not say, “They are dead!” about anyone who is killed for God’s sake. Rather they are living, even though you do not notice it (Qur’an 2.154).
The Hindu Vedas describe heaven as a place of joy and wholeness:
Where men of goodwill and good deeds rejoice,
Their bodies now made free from all disease,
Their limbs made whole from lameness or defect—
In that heaven may we behold our parents and our sons! (Atharva Veda 6.120.3).
Ojoyoshu (Essentials of Salvation) a book written by the Buddhist monk Genshin (942–1017), depicts in gruesome detail how sinners are placed into various hells according to their sins, while only pure souls are able to reach “Pure Land.”
Likewise, scriptural accounts of hell are widespread in all traditions. Buddhist and Hindu depictions are particularly graphic:
Some of the sinful are cut with saws, like firewood, and others, thrown flat on the ground, are chopped into pieces with axes. Some, their bodies half buried in a pit, are pierced in the head with arrows. Others, fixed in the middle of a press, are squeezed like sugarcane. Some are surrounded close with blazing charcoal, enwrapped with torches, and smelted like a lump of ore. Some are plunged into heated butter, and others into heated oil, and like a cake thrown into the frying pan they are turned about. Some are thrown in the path of huge maddened elephants, and some with hands and feet bound are placed head downwards. Some are thrown into wells; some are hurled from heights; others, plunged into pits full of worms, are eaten away by them… (Garuda Purana 3.49–51).
There men were dismembering one another, cutting off each of their limbs, saying, “This to you, this to me!” When asked about it, they replied, “In this way they have treated us in the other world, and in the same way we now treat them in return” (Satapatha Brahmana 11.6.3).
Out-of Body Experiences
An Out-of-body Experience (OBE) is an experience that typically involves a sensation of floating outside of one’s body and, in some cases, seeing one’s physical body from a place outside one’s body. People often report having these experiences after suffering from trauma such as a motor vehicle accident. They are able to recall the accident as if observing from a location outside the vehicle. Whether the OBE reflects reality remains controversial. Some of those who recall the experience report having visited places and people they have never been to or seen before, only to find that they in fact do exist when they attempt to retrace their travels.
Saint Paul testifies to an OBE, which may have been his own:
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body, I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into Paradise—whether in the body or out of the body, I do not know, God knows—and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter (2 Corinthians 12:2–4).
The interpretation of OBEs is controversial. Those who take them as evidence that consciousness can exist independently of the physical body often invoke the concept of astral projection. This is a technique to induce out-of-body experiences via visualization or deep meditation. Practitioners maintain that their consciousness or soul has transferred into an astral body, which moves free of the physical body in a parallel world known as the “astral plane.” Although death is not involved, OBEs indirectly support belief in an afterlife by shaking the materialist perspective that the mind cannot exist independent of the physical body and brain.
Near-Death Experiences (NDE) provide strong evidence for an afterlife because they occur in patients who nearly die, or who are clinically dead and then resuscitated. Many take NDEs as experiences of the first stages of passing into the spirit world; however others believe they can be explained by hallucinations produced by the brain as it dies. The experience has become more common in recent times, especially since the development of cardiac resuscitation techniques. Popular interest in near-death experiences was sparked by Raymond Moody’s 1975 book Life after Life. According to a Gallup poll, approximately eight million Americans claim to have had a near-death experience.
Typically the experience follows a distinct progression, although many NDEs do not contain all these elements:
- A sense of being dead.
- A sensation of floating above one’s body and seeing the surrounding area (an OBE).
- Pleasant feelings, calmness, a sense of overwhelming love and peace.
- A sensation of moving upwards through a tunnel or narrow passageway.
- Meeting deceased relatives or spirits.
- Encountering a being of light, or a light.
- Being given a life review.
- Reaching a border or boundary.
- A feeling of being returned to the body, often accompanied by a reluctance.
Some people have also experienced extremely distressing NDEs. A “core” near-death experience reflects—as intensity increases according to the Rasch scale—peace, joy, and harmony, followed by insight and mystical or religious experiences.
The most intense NDEs involve an awareness of things occurring in a different place or time, and some of these observations are said to have been evidential. They may include elements that can best be explained by an out-of-body consciousness. In one account, a woman accurately described a surgical instrument she had not seen previously, as well as a conversation that occurred while she was under general anesthesia. In another account, a man recovering from a heart attack apparently recognized the nurse who had removed his dentures while he was unconscious because he asked her to return them. In some cases it can be demonstrated that the experience continued in the absence of any EEG activity, posing a challenge to the materialist’s belief that consciousness is situated entirely within the brain.
A majority of individuals who experience an NDE see it as a verification of the existence of an afterlife. This includes those with agnostic/atheist inclinations before the experience. Former atheists have adopted a more spiritual view after their NDEs. The experience often leads to long-lasting changes in one’s outlook on life and the way one treats others.
Some people who have had an NDE report encounters with deceased persons. One person, who was clinically dead for more than 20 minutes, reported spiritual encounters in his life after his NDE. The deceased persons he communicated with were often unknown to him, but were connected to people he met at a later point. While skeptics attempt to discredit such reports, they remain a mystery, with no apparent medical or physical explanation.
Electronic Voice Phenomena and Photographic Evidence
Electronic voice phenomenon (EVP) is a term used to refer to sounds that are captured on recorded media or other electronic devices and are said by paranormal investigators to be voices of paranormal origin. Examples of purported EVP are typically short, usually the length of a word or short phrase, although longer segments have also been reported.
Explanations proposed by those who say that they are paranormal in origin include that they are the voices of deceased human beings, psychic projections from EVP researchers, or communications from intelligent non-human entities. Explanations proposed by skeptics who deny any paranormal origin include that they are the result of cross modulation or interference from external RF sources, or that they are random noise that is mistakenly perceived as voices due to the human propensity to find familiar patterns amongst random stimuli.
Current enthusiasts of EVP include those dedicated to the pursuit of paranormal investigation and ghost hunting who populate hundreds of Internet message boards, and regional and national groups. Enthusiasts, equipped with electronic gear such as EMF meters, video cameras, and audio recorders, scour reportedly haunted venues, trying to uncover visual and audio evidence of hauntings.
Among researchers and hobbyists experimenting with EVP are those seeking to develop technologies to contact people in the spirit world. Under the rubric of Instrumental Transcommunication (ITC), these can involve images and even two-way communication. The most fabled of these attempts so far was the Spiricom experiments conducted in 1979 by George Meek and Bill O’Neil, with the collaboration of Dr. George Mueller from the spirit world. Yet at the current nascent stage of this work, participation of a human being is required, with the technology only augmenting the human’s natural psychic abilities.
Orb is a term for typically circular anomalies appearing in photographs and video images. Orbs appear to be balls, diamonds, or smears of light with an apparent size in the image ranging from a golf ball to a basketball. Orbs sometimes appear to be in motion, leaving a trail behind them. Some people claim that orbs are paranormal in nature, manifestations of ghosts or spirits. Others maintain that orbs are artifacts caused by dust, pollen, insects, droplets of water, or foreign material on the camera lens. As it is not difficult to produce orbs artificially, it is difficult to rule out terrestrial causes; hence, orbs aren’t the best evidence of an afterlife. Paranormal enthusiasts point to exceptional photos of “ectoplasm” in which they discern faces, sometimes with discernible expressions and sometimes of recognizable persons.
Mediums and Channeled Testimonies from the Departed
Main article: Mediumship
It is a commonly reported human experience to suddenly sense the presence of a departed loved one. For those who do not wish to rationalize the experience as mere imagination or wishful memory, such moments affirm that they live on in an afterlife. Moreover, people in the process of dying will slip in and out of consciousness, and some have been known to report that they had been conversing with angels or long-dead relatives who were preparing them for the transition to the next world.
Such experiences are infrequent and fleeting, and not accessible to everyone. Therefore, throughout history, people have sought the assistance of specialists, those gifted with the ability to communicate with spirits on the other side. Shamans and witch doctors traditionally contacted spirits, and in ancient Greece the oracle of Delphi was often consulted for advice.
Nevertheless, the world’s religions generally discourage communication with the dead. The Bible condemns mediums and necromancers in the strongest terms: “Do not turn to mediums or wizards, do not seek them out to be defiled by them” (Leviticus 19:31). Yet the Bible also affirms the reality of mediumship in the account of King Saul who went to a medium to inquire of the spirit of the prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 28:3–19). The Bhagavad Gita calls people who inquire of spirits “people of ignorance” (17.4). The Qur’an speaks of the jinn (spiritual beings) as a mixed lot, some righteous and some deviated, of “sects differing” (Qur’an 72.1–15), and Muhammad rejected the messages conveyed by fortune-tellers as “a word of truth…mixed with more than a hundred lies” (Hadith of Bukhari). The common theme running through the religions’ rejection of mediumship is that the spirits one may contact are as confused and unreliable as the earthly people they once were; yet people who contact spirits often follow their advice believing that they offer superior knowledge. On the contrary, people should “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1) against the truth that comes only from God.
The weight of religious dogma discouraged investigation into the afterlife. Modern interest in contacting the dead began with the writings of the eighteenth-century scientist Emmanuel Swedenborg. Swedenborg had made a reputation as a scientist and inventor. Then at the age of 56 he entered into a spiritual phase in which he experienced dreams and visions. This culminated in a spiritual awakening, and he claimed that his eyes had been opened so that from then on he could talk freely with angels, demons, and other spirits in the afterlife. He then undertook a decades-long systematic investigation of the world he encountered in his visions. His books about the spirit world created controversy and accusations of heresy among conventional Christians, but nevertheless his ideas spread widely, profoundly influencing modern conceptions of the afterlife.
In the nineteenth century, Spiritualism grew into an influential movement. Mediums and séances became extremely popular throughout the United States and portions of Europe. Notable figures like Andrew Jackson Davis, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, and Arthur Conan Doyle gave credence to the movement, and séances were held in royal palaces, the White House, and the homes of highly respectable citizens. Some, like William Stanton Moses, gave séances during which would appear psychic lights, scents like musk and newly mown hay, musical sounds, and the materialization of luminous hands and pillars of light. Chico Xavier, a Brazilian medium, produced his first automatic writing in grade school, and went on to amass an enormous number of automatic writing scripts in various scientific and literary disciplines. Edgar Cayce gave an estimated 22,000 readings during his lifetime, all while in a trance state. Some of his readings discussed Atlantis, reincarnation, and predictions of the future. In recent times, mediums like John Edward and Colin Fry have hosted television programs claiming to help audience members contact deceased friends and family. Others use their psychic abilities to aid law enforcement in the capture of criminals.
Accounts of the Spirit World
Swedenborg’s Description of Heaven and Hell
In his book Heaven and Hell, Emmanuel Swedenborg emphasized the substantiality of existence in the afterlife. After death, a person is possessed of all his senses, and of every memory and affection. He reported that the angels in heaven (“angels,” or good spirits) are handsome in appearance and stature, reflecting their inner wisdom and love, while the denizens of hell appear as monsters. He taught that the quality of life on earth decides one’s destiny in the next life: “To the extent that a man wills goodness and truth and does them…to that extent he has heaven in himself.”
Swedenborg described heaven as constituted by two kingdoms, each with three levels. Within each level are heavenly societies marked off by religion, nationality, and other common factors that distinguished people on earth. He also said that there are many levels and realms in hell. He declared that God does not cast anyone into hell. After death, a spirit chooses to live in heaven or hell according to his or her own will. An evil spirit finds love of God uncomfortable to bear; he prefers to be among other spirits with whom he finds affinity. Thus he journeys to hell of his own accord.
Swedenborg pinpointed the dividing line between heaven and hell: those who direct the mind towards heaven’s precepts and live for the sake of others go to heaven; on the other hand, those who pay attention to the world and live self-centered lives go to hell. Piety and charity must go together. He criticized those who gave only lip-service to Christianity, who thought that by attending church and believing in Christ, they could automatically go to heaven while their minds were consumed with love of self. In a remarkable precursor to contemporary interfaith spirituality, he taught that heaven is filled with people of all faiths; and so is hell.
Accounts by Survivors of Near-Death Experiences
The typical near-death experience lasts only a few minutes: rising from the sick-bed, meeting friendly spirit-beings, traveling for a while on the earth plane to see the family one last time, and then a long journey upward. Normally at that point the person is pulled back into the body and the experience ends. But in the case of Betty Eadie, author of Embraced by the Light, her journey lasted for several hours; it included a meeting with Jesus and a journey through several locations in the spirit world. She marveled at its flowers, its halls of knowledge and invention, its music and colors so vivid and full of life. She also witnessed scenes of spirits being selected for reincarnation in new bodies.
Channeled Descriptions of Daily Life in the Spirit World
Only a few mediums and psychics have penned accounts of the spirit world purportedly dictated by entities that live there; these are most commonly transmitted via automatic writing.
A Pleasant Paradise
Life in the World Unseen is one such channeled work. Its narrator, who on earth was an Anglican minister and in the spirit world is called simply “the Monsignor,” describes in great detail the comings and goings of spirit life. Whether a description of spirit clothing, an account of the creation of flowers, or a description of inventors at work, no fine point is omitted from his work. He answers many questions that a curious person might have: What do people in the spirit world wear? What do they eat? Do they need to sleep? Can you take a swim? How do you travel about? Can you travel between realms?
Some chapters describe the Monsignor’s meetings with famous people. They do not trade on their names or titles, nor does their earthly position have any meaning to their social life in the spirit world. A member of the royalty becomes just another citizen. A great composer or scientist puts himself or herself at the disposal of all. The Monsignor remarks:
The great, who have gained their greatness through the various expressions of their genius, consider themselves but the lowly units of a vast whole, the immense organization of the spirit world. They are all striving—as we are too—for the same purpose, and that is spiritual progression and development. They are grateful for any help towards that end, and they are glad to give it whenever possible.
Interviews with Haydn and Tchaikovsky found them to be simple and unassuming, each living in a small house and happily composing new scores. Although the purpose of the visits was only to introduce a young newcomer, these great composers did not, as one might expect, regard the youth (who on earth would be nothing but a tourist) as a bothersome distraction, but rather showed him warm hospitality.
The Monsignor does not dwell in the highest spheres, nor can he easily enter and see their abundance of jewels and other sights of incomparable beauty. Now and then emissaries from above visit his realm, where they are received with deep respect. One of them gives him a mission to atone for the mistakes of his earthly life—chiefly that in his books and sermons he had perpetuated ignorance about the true nature of life in the hereafter.
The Monsignor lives in a place that bears striking resemblance to the English countryside. He lives within a realm that preserves its national character, though he avers that such distinctions disappear in the highest spheres, for, “this dividing of the nations extends only to a certain number of realms. Beyond that, nationality, as such, ceases to be.” One may therefore estimate his sphere to be among the middle realms of Paradise. It is a pleasant place where there is plenty of work to do—other souls to help, music to write and perform, inventions to create. Yet the reader may sense that after a time it might seem rather boring. Missing is marriage and family life. Everyone is single, living as friends with one another.
Descriptions of Hell
A Wanderer in the Spirit Lands is notable for its descriptions of hell. The protagonist, an Italian named Franchezzo, begins his story with awakening in the grave to a gut-wrenching realization of his vile and sinful life. An important theme in this book is the redeeming power of love, as Franchezzo gains the power to go forward only from the constant devotion of a pure-spirited woman whom he had left behind. She is his constant support and stay; the hope of eventually reuniting with her in the bright spheres motivates him to strive onward and endure any hardship in the course of doing penance for his many sins. She is the reason that he can advance so rapidly, while others around him backslide again and again and must labor for centuries before overcoming their lower natures.
Franchezzo joins a brotherhood whose mission is to rescue souls from hell, and he makes many journeys to the dark realms. In one, he met an Italian prince, his most illustrious ancestor, who had once ruled over the city of Rome with absolute power. In hell he was still enthroned, in a moldering castle, with servants and minions at his command. There he gloried in his schemes to control the earth and sought to ensnare Franchezzo in his plans. As long as Franchezzo kept his mind clear and focused, he could see through his scheming as nothing but evil. But whenever he lost focus, his life was in danger. At one point, Franchezzo was captured and thrown into a deep pit, and would have been imprisoned there if not for the help of a companion who threw him a life-line.
Franchezzo learned that even if a visitor has strong will, his safety will be compromised if he has any give and take with hellish elements, such as by partaking of its food and drink, or joining in its pastimes. Most damaging of all are the memories of the visitor’s own sins; when these are called to mind by the hell-being, they can weaken even the strongest resolve.
When Franchezzo met the Roman prince, he became aware of the many occasions in which this evil ancestor had influenced his own earthly life—chiefly towards pride, arrogance, and thirst for power. He relates how his ancestor had sought to mold him in his own arrogant image:
When I had felt most of ambition and a proud desire to rise and be again one with the great ones of the earth as had been my ancestors in the past, then had he been drawn up to me and had fed and fostered my pride and my haughty spirit, that was in a sense akin to his own. And he it was, he told me, who had prompted those acts of my life of which I felt now the most ashamed—acts that I would have given all my life to undo, after I had done them. And it was he, he said, who had from time to time sought to raise me in the world till I should be able to grasp power of some kind.
This is but one of many insights that A Wanderer in the Spirit Lands gives into the nature of the spiritual chains of sin that bind people and drag them downwards.
In several episodes, Franchezzo meets a tyrant and his victims in the same hell, bound together by chains of hate as strong as any love on earth. In one scene that plays out the consequences of oppression on earth, he sees a man is chained to a dungeon wall while a crowd of people throw knives and rocks and curses at the wretch; these people were his victims on earth. They continue to attack him interminably but are unable to kill him. The man had been a powerful judge acting in the name of the Spanish Inquisition. He coveted the beautiful wife of a local merchant; and finding a pretext to bind the merchant in prison, he seized the woman, who refused his advances and died. The wronged merchant nursed such a strong desire for revenge that once he entered the spirit world, he plotted the judge’s death—and secured it by inspiring an earthly man to do the deed. When the judge awoke in hell, he was chained to the dungeon wall as he had chained so many others, and the merchant stood as foremost among the crowd throwing rocks and knives at the judge. Meanwhile, far away in heaven, the merchant’s wife longed for him to give up his vengeful passion and join her. Yet until the softer feelings of love could weaken his thirst for revenge, this poor merchant remained in hell, tied to the villain who had destroyed his family. Thus he stayed for more than 300 years, until he was finally ready to listen to a message from his wife, which Franchezzo delivered. Then, turning from his passionate revenge, he could begin the journey out of hell.
Franchezzo confirms the common belief that each person is punished according to his crime: a murderer is continually murdered; an evil judge finds himself in jail; a taskmaster finds himself a slave. Yet what is surprising is that he finds their victims there also, even though one might think they deserve a better fate than to be bound in chains and living in hell.
Yet such is the power of resentment and hate in this book that it can overcome all the better desires of the heart. Other spiritual testimonies of this genre confirm this truth. In a Korean testimony of an attempt to meet Adolf Hitler, the visitor found him stripped naked and tied to a tree. A numberless throng of people shouting, “Kill him! Kill him!” pelted him with rocks and threw curses at him continually. They were victims of the Holocaust. Some were covered with blood; some had fallen to the ground. Yet they cared about nothing except the opportunity to take revenge on their enemy.
The Highest Realms of Heaven
The spirit world is thought to be constructed in realms of ascending degrees of beauty, purity, and light. Spirits of a lower level can only glimpse higher realms with great difficulty, and then only with the help of a guide. Among the extant testimonies, Life in the Spirit World and on Earth by Sang Hun Lee provides one such glimpse into the Kingdom of Heaven itself. Lee describes heaven as a world of love. The two notable features of Lee’s experience are: first, his experience of God, and second, the delights of heavenly conjugal love.
God’s essence is love; His feeling is peace and rapture and joy; His appearance is as light. More than that, Lee describes God calling him by name, in the intimate form used in addressing a close relative:
I hear his voice clearly with my own ears. Then a brilliant, glittering, radiating and reflecting light appears in front of, behind and above my head. Amid the light, a streak of light, unidentified, captures my heart…my feeling is like the peacefulness when a baby in its mother’s bosom meets the mother’s eyes while listening to her heartbeat. Even this description cannot fully capture my experience. Then, as God’s calling voice changes, the brightness of the beautiful light changes, and I go into an ecstatic state. My whole body seems to be melting. Then, suddenly, I am again standing by myself.
Swedenborg taught that the pinnacle of heavenly love is marriage, and heard tales of realms where couples enjoyed heavenly bliss. He knew in general that intercourse between husband and wife in the spirit world is similar to that on earth, though more interior and purer. He knew it had nothing to do with fornication or adultery, but must be chaste love for one spouse. He taught that most couples cannot attain it—love replete with trust, compassion, and forgiveness; love that is comfortable, harmonious, and in accord with public values. He knew it was guided and governed by spiritual love, conjoined with God’s love. But he never experienced it himself. When Lee arrived at his home in heaven, he and his wife celebrated a new marriage. There he saw husbands and wives making love out in the open air, with the grass and flowers swaying in rhythm, the birds singing accompaniment, and all nature rejoicing. God answered their love with rays of brilliant light pouring down upon the couple and with strains of beautiful music, embracing them and adding his love to theirs. On earth, people hide their love-making in the bedroom and would feel shame and embarrassment should anyone else happen to look in, but love in heaven is regarded as beautiful to behold.
Traditional religions depict a judgment scene where spirits are sorted into different ranks and assigned different abodes—heaven or hell. The main criterion of judgment seems to be a person’s deeds. Did he or she live more to benefit others, or did he use others to benefit himself? Scriptures describe a trial scene, with God as judge, Jesus or Muhammad as defense attorney, and sometimes the devil as prosecutor. God is bound to pass sentence based upon the evidence. In Christianity’s vision of judgment one obligation in particular is highlighted: how the individual has cared for the poor. Thus when Jesus sits on his throne and judges the people, he divides them into “sheep” and “goats” according to whether they gave drink to the thirsty, food to the hungry, and clothes to the naked (Matthew 25:31–56).
The Life Review
However, the judgment at death is not a matter of compulsion, but a verdict to which the spirit assents according to his or her conscience. Each individual has an opportunity to review his or her life with unsparing honesty. In some scriptures it is depicted as reading a ledger on which is recorded every deed and its consequences on everyone it affected.
That day mankind will issue forth in scattered groups to be shown their deeds.
And whoever has done good, an atom’s weight will see it then,
And whoever has done ill, an atom’s weight will see it then (Qur’an 99).
You will be greatly frightened, awed, and terrified, and will tremble; and you will attempt to tell lies, saying, “I have not committed any evil deed.” Then the Lord of Death will say, “I will consult the Mirror of karma.” He will look in the Mirror, wherein every good and evil act is vividly reflected. Lying will be of no avail (Tibetan Book of the Dead).
Modern spiritualists’ accounts of the life review liken it to a holographic movie of the person’s life projected outward from the mind. They cite the analogous phenomenon from NDEs, in which experiencers frequently describe the life review with terms like panoramic, 3-D, or holographic. In a life review, the experiencer’s perception includes not only their own perspective in increased vividness, as if they were reliving the episode itself, but also the perspectives and feelings of all the other parties they interact with at each point. Betty Eadie’s widely read account, in which she described the life review as her best conception of hell, also described it as extending to the ripples of one’s life and acts out to several degrees of separation. The viewer also sees the same events from several different perspectives; feeling the emotional experience of the other parties, including in one case virtually everyone in a room. These accounts commonly include recalling events that had long ago been forgotten, with “nothing…left out.”
Although the life-review may occur in an atmosphere of love and support, the awareness of one’s shortcomings and the hurt caused others brings its own condemnation. Each person judges himself by his own conscience, and feels that the consequences are just.
The self is the maker and non-maker, and itself makes happiness and misery, is its own friend and its own foe, decides its own condition good or evil, and is its own river Veyarana [in which hell-beings are tormented] (Madaghishloka).
Thus on arriving in the spirit world, after the spirit spends from a few days to a few months in an intermediate state, it eventually goes to the place appropriate to it by his or her own free will. Those who feel guilt-stricken because of the way they squandered their earthly life naturally gravitate to a dark realm. Those who on earth lived with integrity, in accordance with their conscience, naturally come to dwell in one of the heavenly realms.
Developing the Faculties for Life in the Spirit World
Another way to view one’s destination in the spirit world is in terms of fitness. Physical death is but a transition to a higher stage of existence. Like the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly, a person puts off their old body that carried them through earthly life and puts on a new body fit for life in a new and unfamiliar world.
The world beyond is as different from this world as this world is different from that of the child while still in the womb of its mother. When the soul attains the Presence of God, it will assume the form that best befits its immortality and is worthy of its celestial habitation (Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh 81).
As this Baha’i scripture states, the transition to the spirit world at death is much like the transition at birth from the womb to the world of air. In the womb, the fetus is nourished through the placenta and umbilical cord. Then at birth this apparatus is destroyed and the baby takes its first breath to begin its uncertain life in the world of air. Likewise, the physical body nourishes the soul until death, when it expires and the soul departs for life in the spirit world.
Hence there are three stages of life: in the water-world of the womb, in the air-world of earthly existence, and in the spirit world where one breathes an atmosphere of love. In the womb, the fetus should develop all the organs and faculties needed for its subsequent life; otherwise the child will be handicapped. Likewise, earthly life is the time to develop all the faculties needed for a good life in the spirit world.
The spirit world is pervaded by love. Souls in the spirit world breathe the air of love; therefore, unless they have cultivated on earth the capacity for love, they will find the spirit world suffocating. Fitness for functioning in the spirit world, therefore, depends on developing one’s ability to love while on earth.
The link between deed and retribution is not severed by death; rather people reap in the eternal world the fruits of their actions in this life. Just as importantly, a person’s qualities of character survive death: As a person in this life was hard-working or lazy, generous or miserly, courageous or timid, forgiving or begrudging, so will he or she continue to be in the afterlife. Because people sense this intuitively, on their death-bed even the most materialistic people recall the important things of life—family, and doing right by other people.
Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Matthew 18:18).
Belief in an afterlife is more than merely a comfort to the bereaved or an opiate to the oppressed in this life. Rather, it enhances the purpose and sharpens the meaning of earthly existence. If how a person lives during their brief sojourn on earth determines their ultimate destiny, it is wisdom to live in this world with an eye toward eternity—by following religious precepts, avoiding misdeeds, and seeking to clear up all accounts before the day of one’s death. People who prepare for the afterlife generally do not fear death. But for those who do not prepare, death comes fearfully.
A human being consists of both a physical body that is at home in the physical world, and a spirit body that connects with the spirit world; it is the latter that survives death and carries a person’s identity, consciousness, and personality into the afterlife. This means that while on earth, human beings live in two worlds. Although the heavens and spiritual realms are vast and extend throughout the universe, they include the earth. Hence, earthly people are in constant contact with spirits. Some are sensitive enough to sense their influence; others sense nothing, but that does not mean that spirits are not influencing them, even without their knowledge.
The premise that the visible world is pervaded by invisible forces or spirits that affect the lives of the living is the basis of Shamanism. Believing that illness and bad fortune may be caused by spirits, shamans use their psychic abilities to remove evil spirits and draw in the protection of good spirits. Despite repression by organized religions, Shamanism survives among indigenous peoples, and shamanic practice continues today in the tundras, jungles, deserts, and other rural areas, and also in cities, towns, suburbs, and shantytowns all over the world. Moreover, the Christian Bible reports that Jesus healed the sick and the mentally disturbed by performing exorcisms to cast out demons and evil spirits that were inhabiting the victim’s body. In addition to Christian exorcism, instructions for exorcism are found in the Vedas and in the Jewish Kabbalah. In the Sunnah, it is reported that Muhammad also cast out demons.
Negative Spiritual Influences
Unwanted spiritual influence can occur when:
- A spirit influences an earthly person: the victim may suffer an unexplained mental disturbance, called spiritual obsession (or in the most extreme cases, spirit possession). The obsessed may be led to behave abnormally without apparent reason and may not be able to explain his deeds or crimes. Or, the possessing spirit may cause the victim to suffer from chronic pains or physical illness for which there is no medical explanation.
- A spirit influences a second earthly person to harm the subject: in this case the victim is maligned, attacked, or persecuted without cause by someone else, whom the spirit uses to get at the victim. The agent of that attack usually does not know he or she is being influenced. Typically some small complaint is the hook upon which the obsessing spirit acts to magnify the emotions out of all proportion. If the spirit obsesses a spouse, it can wreck a marriage. Spirits who perished in a long-ago war can stir up war fever in a population. This type of spiritual influence is not often recognized.
- A living person or a spirit influences a spirit: mostly occurs when the spirit of a deceased person is not able to break his bonds with the living and hangs around, suffering as they suffer.
Obsession and spirit possession is discussed by spiritualists and exorcists, not only because it is the basis of their work, but also because the practices of mediumship and exorcism can make the practitioner vulnerable to unwanted spiritual influences. Nevertheless, spiritual influence may be far more widespread, having also been detected by hypnotherapists. People may become vulnerable to obsessing spirits when they go through a trauma such as surgery or the sudden death of a loved one, or by partaking of drugs or alcohol.
The obsessing spirits, having once lived on earth, persist with the same types of motives that they had during their earthly life, and continue to act on them whenever the opportunity arises. Hence they have the same kinds of motivation as criminals in any crime—envy, revenge, prejudice, sadism—plus some new ones due to their condition as a spirit:
- The lust for earthly pleasures that the spirit, without a body of its own, cannot experience. This leads him to obsess a living person to share his or her emotions, eventually leading her to do things so that the spirit can partake on his or her feelings.
- Prolonged grief for the deceased loved ones may keep strong bonds between the living and the dead, preventing the latter from leaving the world and going on with their missions.
- Spirits seek to assuage old resentments against enemies long dead by taking vengeance on their enemies’ living descendants—either by obsessing them directly or obsessing an agent to harm them.
Not all mental perturbations have spiritual origin. It is necessary to rule out any psychological or psychiatric causes prior to any spiritual treatment. “To hear voices” may be a case of obsession, but is usually a simple case of paranoia. Nevertheless, many apparently neurotic and psychotic phenomena have spiritual causes.
The solution to the problem of spiritual influence requires:
- Living according to the commandments of God so that one’s moral stature can act as a wall between oneself and the “inferior” would-be obsessors.
- Loving one other as Christ taught, forgiving and asking for forgiveness.
- Praying for God’s protection and guidance whenever one’s will is weakened.
- Recognizing the nature of the spirit’s resentment as reflected in one’s own weaknesses and predilections, and working to make amends for those things.
Positive Spiritual Influences
The workings of the spirit world can influence human society for good, for instance, in the inspiration given to artists and poets, scientists and inventors. In classical Greek thought, the term inspiration, literally “breathed upon,” refers to the spiritual origin of creativity in the arts. Homer wrote that a poet’s songs were placed within his heart by the gods (Odyssey 22.347-8). Plato taught that the poet breaks through to the world of divine apprehension and is compelled by that vision to create (Symposium 197a and Phaedrus 244). Other classical thinkers, from Aristotle to Ovid and Cicero believed likewise. In Christianity, inspiration is a gift of the Holy Spirit, but may be mediated by the personality and views of the artist. For church fathers like Saint Jerome, David was the perfect poet, for he best negotiated between the divine impulse and the human consciousness. Romantic writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Percy Bysshe Shelley saw inspiration in terms similar to the Greeks: the poet tuned himself to the (mystical) “winds.” Recognizing the necessity of inspiration from a higher source, poets and artists from antiquity to modern times have invoked the Muse to stimulate their creative work. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Æolian Harp compared poetry to channeling from the spirit world. William Butler Yeats would later experiment with and value automatic writing.
The same can be said of the spiritual influences that inspire scientists and inventors. A scientist may work on a problem for many years with no result, and then in one moment may unexpectedly receive the solution through a flash of inspiration or even in a dream. For example, the German organic chemist August Kekulé puzzled for years over the chemical structure of benzene, until he dreamed of snakes seizing their tails in their mouths to form rings. Einstein reported that after years of fruitless calculations, he suddenly had the solution to the general theory of relativity revealed in a dream “like a giant die making an indelible impress, a huge map of the universe outlined itself in one clear vision.” Numerous scientists have reported a similar creative process. While it may be due to some as-yet unexplained psychological mechanism, it fits the pattern of artistic creativity in which the role of spiritual inspiration has been traditionally acknowledged.
Various accounts of the spirit world describe halls of invention, where spirits work on new discoveries that will be communicated at the appropriate time to earthly people. Baha’is likewise affirm this type of benevolent spiritual influence:
The light which these souls [of departed saints] radiate is responsible for the progress of the world and the advancement of its peoples. They are like leaven which leavens the world of being, and constitute the animating force through which the arts and wonders of the world are made manifest… These souls and symbols of detachment have provided, and will continue to provide, the supreme moving impulse in the world of being (Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh 81).
How Spiritual Influence Benefits the Spirits
Intercourse between heaven and earth works both ways. Spirits can be mobilized to assist earthly people for a righteous cause; conversely spirits need help from earthly people to resolve their own difficulties. Many religions promote the idea that the living should make offerings to benefit the dead; the Latter-day Saints even promote baptism for the dead as a way to bring them closer to the perfection of the end-times.
Spirits are often motivated to influence earthly people because they need to complete unfinished tasks on earth. In Kabbalah such a spirit is called a dybbuk, the name for a spirit that is permitted to return from Gehenna (the Jewish name for purgatory or the middle spirit world), because it had not been able to fulfill its function in its lifetime and so should have another opportunity to do so. The spirit then seeks out and “attaches” itself to a living person who is going through things or in a similar “life position” to what the soul was in during its lifetime. There are good dybbuks and bad, with a good dybbuk’s “attachment” performing more the role of a spiritual guide to help the person through their current trials and tribulations that the soul was attracted to. These good influences are usually referred to as a sod ha’ibbur. This phenomenon is sometimes mistaken for reincarnation.
In the case of a negative dybbuk, the spirit is not there to help as much and causes the same mistakes and chaos that it originally experienced during its own lifetime. Nevertheless, if the earthly person perseveres and overcomes those difficulties, the spirit receives that benefit also.
Adapted from New World Encyclopedia