The Great Debate: Is Death a Dead End? The Case for the Prosecution

Of course, when you’re in that in-between zone – what the Tibetans call a “bardo” – after your life is over but before you’ve died, you have plenty of time to think – to ruminate and to wonder what will happen to you when you finally cross that threshold and enter the house of death. 

Oh, perhaps before I follow that train of thought, I guess I should clarify what I meant when I wrote that line about my life being over.  Obviously, either I’m still here or a ghost is writing this.  What I meant was that the really active part of my life has finished – no more rapturous love affairs, exciting adventures, extensive travels, doing research, writing books, and so forth – all the activities that I enjoyed so much during my life until recent years.  Yes, I still have my quieter pleasures, as I have written, but mostly I am just waiting – waiting to die.  And can’t help speculating what will happen once I do.

 Lately, I have been reading a little philosophy, not about life and death matters, but in doing so, it has occurred to me that so many of the world’s great thinkers are professed atheists and are convinced that when we die, that’s it.  Poof! Death brings annihilation to our individual personalities and to all consciousness.  We enter into a sleep from which we never awaken.

 Let’s consider this roster of the world’s greatest minds who hold this view. There’s Friedrich Nietzsche, of course, who became the most influential philosopher of the 19thcentury, albeit only after he had gone mad in 1889 while embracing a horse that was being beaten on the streets of Turin.  And then there was Heidegger, commonly regarded as the greatest philosopher of the 20thcentury despite his unapologetic embrace of and involvement with Nazism.  But let’s not get distracted.

Another unabashed atheist who immediately comes to mind (at least mine) of whom you have doubtless heard is a fellow named Sigmund Freud, unquestionably one of the most influential thinkers of the 20thcentury.  And then I immediately think of the psychoanalytically-inclined anthropologist, Ernest Becker, whose Pulitzer prize-winning book, The Denial of Death, I used to assign in one of my classes. Becker, incidentally, died before reaching the age of 50 and prepared for death by reading Chekhov, which I used to read to my mother before she died, but never mind.  I seem to be digressing again, which may be my own way of denying death. Finally, we shouldn’t overlook one of the most widely quoted philosophers of our own time, Woody Allen, who can be seen toting around Becker’s book in his glorious smash hit, Annie Hall.  And in another one of his top-rated films, Hannah and Her Sisters, his mordant character makes us laugh by reminding us that the universe is totally meaningless, which, leads him to consider becoming a Hare Krishna.  Whatever works.

But let’s continue our list of the world’s most influential avowed atheists.  No such list would be complete without mentioning the most revered and beloved scientist of our own time, the recently deceased Stephen Hawking whose incontestable genius was often compared to Einstein’s.  And how about another intellectual luminary, Steven Weinberg, one of the leading theoretical physicists of the present day and a Nobel Laureate to boot?

And then these days there are any number of literary heavyweights who find themselves in the atheists’ camp.  Just to take two whose books I have recently read, there’s Phillip Roth whose almost vicious attacks on religion are well known as is his disdain for anyone who believes in the poppycock of an afterlife.  And then just last night, I came across this passage from the English writer, Julian Barnes, when reading his almost unbearably affecting memoir concerning the death of his wife: “When we killed – or exiled – God, we also killed ourselves.  Did we notice that sufficiently at the time?  No God, no afterlife, no us.  We were right to kill Him, of course, this long-standing imaginary friend of ours, And we weren’t going to get an afterlife anyway.”

 To conclude our roster of prominent religious debunkers, of course we can’t overlook that contemporary clutch of infamous atheists – a quartet that includes Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris – no intellectual slouches, these guys.

Well, when you consider the collective brain power and enormous influence of these men – and of course they are all men (make of that what you will), the idea that death is not a dead end seems patently ludicrous – a childish fantasy for people who can’t deal with the obvious fact that death brings only extinction. We like to imagine what most religions teach – that we will continue to exist even after death, but in light of all reason, this is pure balderdash.

Still, as we know, most people don’t believe this is balderdash. Surveys consistently show that the vast majority of people, certainly in the United States, believe in some form of life after death.  Also arrayed against the view of the intellectual giants I’ve mentioned is the testimony of literally thousands of near-death experiencers who have at least entered into the first stages of death, which so far as I know, none of the formidable thinkers cited above ever did before their deaths; that is, none of them is known to have had an NDE.    I can only wonder if they had, whether they would have remained so sure of their position. In my research on NDEs, I can say that I have encountered more than a few former atheists who changed their mind after having had an NDE. 

However that may be, almost all near-death experiencers become undeniably convinced that some form of postmortem existence awaits us all.  Let me take just a few moments to offer some illustrative examples from those persons who have come the closest to crossing the bourne from which Shakespeare taught—wrongly, as it turns out – no traveler returns. 

 I was standing in a mist and I knew immediately that I had died.  And I was so happy that I had died but I was still alive. And I can’t tell you how I felt.  It was, “Oh, God, I’m dead, but I’m here.  I’m me."  And I started pouring out these enormous feelings of gratitude because I still existed and yet I knew perfectly well that I had died. 

I know there is life after death.  Nobody can shake my belief.  I have no doubt – it’s peaceful and nothing to be feared.  I don’t know what’s beyond what I experienced, but it’s plenty for me. I only know that death is not to be feared, only dying.

Upon entering that Light…the atmosphere, the energy, it’s total pure energy, it’s total knowledge, it’s total love – everything about it is definitely the afterlife if you will… As a result of that [experience] I have little apprehension about dying my natural death…because if death is anything like what I experienced, it’s gotta be the most wonderful thing to look forward to, absolutely the most wonderful thing.

It gave me an answer to what I think everyone must wonder about at one time or another in this life.  Yes, there is an afterlife!   More beautiful than anything you can begin to imagine.  Once you know it, there is nothing that can equal it.  You just know! 

What is striking about these quotes – and the literature on NDEs is replete with them – is not merely their unanimity of opinion, but the tone of absolute certitude that pervades them.  Those who have left their bodies behind, even for a moment, know without a scintilla of doubt that they will continue to exist, as themselves, in another world of indescribable radiant beauty.

So where does that leave us?  We have two diametrically opposed points of view to consider – that of the renowned and world famous intellectual atheists I’ve cited and that of the thousands of unknown ordinary persons who have had NDEs.  Take yer choice.

For atheists, however, the road stops here, and there is nothing further to add.  But the testimony of NDErs tells us that there is something more that awaits us after death, even if they can’t tell us what.  The question is, is there a way to know, and, secondly, does it make sense to try to conceive of it while we are, like me, waiting to die?

The distinguished psychiatrist Carl Jung, who himself had a profound NDE when he was nearly seventy years old, was an ardent proponent of precisely this kind of imaginative exercise.  In his captivating memoir, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, written toward the end of his life, he exhorts his readers as follows: “A man should be able to say he has done his best to form a conception of life after death, or to create some image of it – even if he must confess his failure.  Not to have done so is a vital loss.” 

At the risk of disagreeing with the great man, I demur.  In fact, I think it is a friggin’ waste of time.  I give several reasons for taking this position in my book, Lessons from the Light, but the one I would emphasize here is two-fold.  First, of all, it is impossible to know what, if anything, is going to happen to us, and second, near-death experiencers themselves tend to shy away from these speculations, often implying that the world beyond death completely defies representation in ordinary language.  After all, if such a task could daunt even a sublime poet like Dante, what could we expect from mere mortals when they try to describe their encounter with the ineffable?  

But there is a third reason as well.  Thinking about the afterlife, assuming it exists, which honesty compels us to admit we can’t know for certain in any case, keeps us from paying attention to our lives here, which is the only thing we can be certain of.  Didn’t Ram Dass remind us, in the title of his seminal book of wisdom, Be Here Now?

When the time comes for us to die, either we’ll find out or we won’t.  Why waste time thinking about it now?  I’m with Omar Khayyam on this one.  The hell with it.  I’m going to the movies with my girlfriend.  Afterward, we’ll have our bread, cheese and wine, though probably in our case we’ll substitute some chocolate confection for the wine.  I’m alive now and, while I’m waiting to die, by jingo, I’m going to enjoy myself as long as I can.

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Dr. Ring is Professor Emeritus of psychology at the University of Connecticut where he researched near-death experiences. He designed scientifically structured studies of 102 near-death survivors that further developed Dr. Raymond Moody's early NDE findings. He is well-known for his ground-breaking research of investigating NDEs among blind persons in his book Mindsight. Ken Ring is the co-founder and past president of the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS) and is the founding editor of the Journal of Near-Death Studies. He has published several near-death experience related books, including Life at Death (1980), Heading Toward Omega (1984), The Omega Project: Near-Death Experiences, UFO Encounters, and Mind at Large (1992), and his most well-known and celebrated NDE book, Lessons from the Light (2000).

Learn more about Kenneth Ring

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