I was not raised in a religious environment, so to me the idea of an afterlife is still very counterintuitive. Yet I have reached a point where I’ve given up arguing about it. Ever since I coined the term near-death experience (or NDE) in 1975, the standard argument against this phenomenon has been that it’s caused merely by oxygen deprivation in the brains of people having cardiac arrest or other health emergencies. The naysayers have to hang on to some explanation because the alternative is too scary.
I would argue that no, NDEs are not caused by oxygen deprivation to the brain for several reasons, most practically because bystanders who are not ill or injured themselves will sometimes have this same experience during a death process—a phenomenon I call shared death experience. Some people say that as their loved ones die, they, too, get out of their body and accompany them partway to this light on the other side. I have plenty of physician friends who have also empathically co-lived the near-death experiences of their patients in these astonishing ways.
That’s why I say that yes, there is an afterlife—though I wouldn’t try to convince anybody else of this. I am a skeptic in the genuine sense of that word. Ancient Greek philosophy has always been my thing, and as the ancient Greeks taught, the skeptical ideal is to vigorously inquire but to withhold a conclusion. When it comes to the afterlife, I can’t draw a logical conclusion, so I would not try to persuade anybody else to believe what I’ve arrived at.
David Hume, one of the eighteenth-century philosophers who explored the notion of causation, was a formative influence on the origin of what we call the scientific mind. What Hume said is that by the mere light of reason, it seems difficult to prove the immortality of the soul. What he was getting at is that we can’t solve the afterlife question with the mind or the logic we have now. But while Hume was implying that this is impossible, I say it’s fairly easy to do. We can, in fact, expand our minds and add to our logical principles in such a way that we open to a whole new manner of investigating the subject.
The Process of Near-Death Experiences
Everybody can verify this for themselves following a process where they learn to think very rigorously about the afterlife—a process like the one I outline in my book Making Sense of Nonsense (Llewellyn, 2020), which is a condensation of a course I taught. By working the exercises and going through the entire process, people will open their minds in startling new ways, making it possible to think logically about NDEs. In fact, the process reformats your mind such that if you subsequently have a near-death experience, you will be able to come back to tell the rest of us about it.
As one woman put it, “I have never been so alive as when I heard that doctor say I was dead.” People say when NDEs happen that they’re out of their body. They realize that nobody still on the earth plane can see or hear them. They go through a passageway into a bright light. They see their deceased relatives and friends there. And then they say time stands still. Everything else kind of disappears, and they are surrounded by—for want of a better term—a hologram, in which there is no time, but they see everything they have ever done all at once. They are often in the company of a being of complete compassion and love, a being who sees all this along with them and yet loves them unconditionally.
Whatever people were chasing before their near-death experience, afterward they realize that what life is really all about is learning to love.
People say they not only see everything they have ever done, but they also simultaneously experience it from the point of view of the other people with whom they’ve interacted—so they feel those other people’s feelings. For example, if you see yourself doing something mean to somebody else, which we all have done, you feel the other person’s hurt feelings yourself. Likewise, if you see yourself doing a kindhearted thing for somebody, you feel their good feelings. This is what we call the life review. Then those who come back into their bodies return.
That basically is a travel narrative, and yet the experience isn’t exactly within time and space as we know it. The language available to us is not adequate to properly describe it, but that is exactly what we would expect. It makes sense to me that if you go to some other dimension of existence and try to put your experience into words, what comes out is nonsense.
My friend and colleague Eben Alexander, M.D., the Harvard neurosurgeon who wrote about his NDE in his best-selling book Proof of Heaven (Simon & Schuster, 2012), explains it this way. He says here, in this dimension, we have the axes of time and space. But during an NDE, the axes—insofar as it’s possible to explain them—are number one, love, and number two, information or knowledge. This is more or less the same conclusion I’ve come up with, as well.
A Perspective Shift Outside of Time and Space
It’s interesting—what I found in my psychiatry residency is that everyone is chasing something. Some people chase money. Some people chase power. Some people chase fame. Some may chase all three of these things. I was so amazed that all of my patients were chasing something that I went to my supervisor and said, “John, what’s wrong with me? All these people are chasing something. But not me.”
“Raymond,” he said, “How old were you when you got your second doctoral degree?” I told him that I was 31—and then I realized that what I was chasing was knowledge. But whatever people were chasing before their NDE, afterward they realize that what life is really all about is learning to love. They say they have no more fear of death because they have already been on the other side and they found that it is more real than this world. They come back with a commitment to learn to love others, even though the NDE doesn’t really make that any easier to do.
As the late psychiatrist George Ritchie, M.D., once told me, the NDE can, in a way, make your humanity even more of a burden. I’ve since heard a similar sentiment from several other people. Even after you see this vision of sheer light and the essential quest for love, it doesn’t make it easier to live that way because, let’s face it, it’s very difficult to get through the average day without wanting to choke at least one person—and that doesn’t go away once you’ve had a powerful experience like this. But what does happen is that you set off on a new path.
I have decided that the late writer and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel was right when he said that God made humans because he loves stories. After all, what is your personal identity if not your story? The meaning of each of our stories, what we understand during our life review, is that we’re here to learn to love—and that’s a lifelong process.
This article appeared in Unity Magazine®.