Is There Life After Death? A Definitive Answer

by Donna Waddell

This presentation was delivered to the congregation of Mountain Light UUC on 2010 November 14 and was kindly provided by the speaker.

The title is sort of tongue in cheek. I really wanted to title this "Is there life after death? Considering the possibility." But, that isn't as attention grabbing.

First a caveat, I must disclose to you that I do believe in life after death. More accurately, I believe in consciousness after death. Sometimes I wish that weren't the case. At times I feel so exhausted that it feels that my limit is simply to make it to the end of this life experience and not have anything else with which to cope. But, the reality is that no matter what I want to believe I seem to persist in this belief in life after death.

I deliberately engaged in extensive reading on this subject about two years into my recovery from alcoholism. I realized that most of my non-productive behavior was fear-based. So, I engaged in some fear facing and one of these excursions involved facing my fear of death. I did make a distinction between fear of the process of dying and fear of being dead. It was the latter that was the source of my fear. I've been in the attendance of many people making the final transition between this physical world and the "after life" -- whatever it may consist of -- so that I wasn't afraid of the experience of dying. I was afraid of being dead.

The first book I read was Dr. Raymond Moody's (1975) Life After Life. I chose this seminal work because it was the first serious academic attempt to answer the question and Jean had a copy. The sub-title is "The investigation of a phenomenon -- survival of bodily death." As you probably know his research ended up being that of not death per se, but near death experiences. Well, close enough for gov'ment work.

His findings were consistent with the research conducted by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and they were (in her words):

All of these patients have experienced a floating out of their physical bodies, associated with a great sense of peace and wholeness. Most were aware of another person who helped them in their transition to another plain of existence. Most were greeted by loved ones who had died before them, or by a religious figure which was significant in their life and which coincided, naturally, with their own religious beliefs.

The research method employed was phenomenology, a form of qualitative research which is quite rigorous and the findings can be quite robust. The fact that Moody's research has been replicated by so many with consistent findings makes the results even more credible. In the forward Moody says, "I am not asking that anyone accept and believe the contents of this volume on my authority alone. Indeed, as a logician who disavows that road to belief which proceeds through invalid appeals to authority, I specifically ask that no one do so. All I ask is for anyone who disbelieves what he reads here to poke around a bit for himself. I have issued this challenge repeatedly for some time. Of those who have accepted it, there have been many who, skeptical at first, have come to share my bafflement over these events."

The 3 categories of people Moody interviewed are those who were resuscitated from being clinically dead, those who had a close brush with death in an accident or severe illness, and people to whom dying people reported their experiences as they died.

The next book I want to discuss is Hello from Heaven by Bill & Judy Guggenheim (1995). This book focuses on after death communication. This book is also the result of research. While Moody interviewed 150 people, the Guggenheim's interviewed more than 2000. After death communication occurs when a deceased family member or friend, without the use of psychics, mediums, or devices, contacts a person directly and spontaneously. This book includes the accounts from 353 people who have had after death communication.

"How does one become a butterfly?" she asked pensively. "You must want to fly so much that you are willing to give up being a caterpillar." -- Trina Paulus from Hope for the Flowers.

Considering the possibility of life after death means opening our minds and hearts, thus eliminating fear of death. As a caterpillar once limited to the ground, we may undergo an inner transformation and become like a butterfly free to soar. This new freedom generates peace and joy.

"Death is simply a shedding of the physical body like the butterfly shedding its cocoon. It is a transition to a higher state of consciousness where you continue to perceive, to understand, to laugh, and to be able to grow." Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.

Characteristics of NDE:

  • A sensation of floating out of one's body. Often followed by an out-of-body experience where all that goes on around the "vacated" body is both seen and heard accurately.
  • Passing through a dark tunnel. Or black hole or encountering some kind of darkness. This is often accompanied by a feeling or sensation of movement or acceleration. "Wind" may be heard or felt.
  • Ascending toward a light at the end of the darkness. A light of incredible brilliance, with the possibility of seeing people, animals, plants, lush outdoors, and even cities within the light.
  • Greeted by friendly voices, people or beings who may be strangers, loved ones, or religious figures. Conversation can ensue, information or a message may be given.
  • Seeing a panoramic review of the life just lived, from birth to death or in reverse order, sometimes becoming a reliving of the life rather than a dispassionate viewing. The person's life can be reviewed in its entirety or in segments. This is usually accompanied by a feeling or need to assess loss or gains during the life to determine what was learned or not learned. Other beings can take part in this judgment like process or offer advice.
  • A reluctance to return to the earthplane, but invariably realizing either their job on earth is not finished or a mission must yet be accomplished before they can return to stay.
  • Warped sense of time and space. Discovering time and space do not exist, losing the need to recognize measurements of life either as valid or necessary.
  • Disappointment at being revived. Often feeling a need to shrink or somehow squeeze to fit back in to the physical body. There can be unpleasantness, even anger or tears at the realization they are now back in their bodies and no longer on "The Other Side."
Characteristics from Raymond Moody's book: Life After Life, 1975

Do you believe in life after death?

Too often I find that the subject of death is addressed with goofy speculation, close-minded stubbornness, or outright fear and avoidance. So let's bypass the "Death for Dummies" approach and take a deeper intellectual look at death to better understand the important role it plays in our lives… and especially what it can teach us about how to live.

As far as our human bodies are concerned, death eventually captures all of us. As far as I can tell, no human being has yet managed to live forever. We may be able to delay death, perhaps even for a very long time, but eventually our physical existence will end at some point. Forever is too long for us to last as physical beings. No backup system is foolproof, especially when its opponent is the infinity of time.

On average more than 150,000 people die every day on this planet. That's 2 people per second. Over a million corpses a week. And this is "normal" for planet earth. Does this fact help you get some perspective on the scope of various tragedies? If 3000 people get wiped out in a single stroke, that's still only 2% of one day's total… hardly significant from a cosmic point of view.

And here's the worst part. You don't even know when you'll die. My guess is that you don't have an item labeled "die" on your to do list or in your tickler file.

So how comfortable do you feel with the idea that today might be your last day alive?

For 150,000 people today, that's about to become the reality, so if you happen to be among them, you'll have plenty of company. I wonder how many of those people feel prepared for what awaits them.

What do we really know about what happens after death?

What can we reasonably say does NOT happen after death?

Obviously what's "reasonable" will differ a bit from person to person based on their context and beliefs, but I think most of us can agree on some fairly basic observations.

First, you can't take it with you. All your physical stuff stays here. Whenever someone dies, we notice that their stuff remains in the physical world. It doesn't suddenly vanish.

Another thing we notice is that our physical bodies stay here. That includes our heart, lungs, brain, hemp tattoos, etc.

Also, it's fair to say that because the physical stuff stays here, then any knowledge and skill you've developed which are rooted in the physical world will become obsolete when you die. Your knowledge of HTML probably won't be of much use in the afterlife.

If we manage to retain anything of ourselves after death, it seems reasonable to say that it won't include any of our physical stuff or our physical bodies. And much of our knowledge will be obsolete as well.

If we can take anything with us after death then, it would have to be something non-physical in nature. And the non-physical part of us is our consciousness. You can call it other names if you wish -- soul, spirit, etc. The exact term you use doesn't really matter. I'll use the term consciousness.

So we have a couple of alternatives that seem reasonable to me:

  1. After we die we retain some part of our consciousness, but all the physical parts of our existence are lost.
  2. After we die we cease to exist. Our consciousness gets wiped out along with the physical. Dead and gone forever.

That is, either we continue to exist in some non-physical state of consciousness, or we don't. Now which one of these general options is most likely true and correct?

Certainly we can unearth pieces of evidence that may favor one side or the other. We can look externally and examine things like near-death experiences and those who claim to channel dead people and so on. We can look to ancient texts and other people (living or dead) for guidance. Or we can look within ourselves and attempt to intuit the truth.

Personally I've done plenty of both looking within and looking without, and so far it hasn't really given me a satisfying answer. I found enough evidence to partially convince me that option 1 is more likely correct than option 2, but there are still a number of holes that leave me with doubt. Given what I know about beliefs, I always have to wonder to what degree I may be finding what I expect to find at any given time.

This uncertainty about death presents a serious problem though. In order to live my life in a manner I feel is intelligent; I'd really prefer a clear answer here. If I know that option 1 is correct, I'm going to live my life very differently than if I know option 2 is correct. I can't do both at the same time because they seem incompatible. I'd set different goals on one side vs. the other.

Living in a state of uncertainty doesn't quite work either. Uncertainty in this particular area gives me a poor basis for making intelligent lifelong decisions. It's fine that I'm uncertain about what the weather will be like next week. But uncertainty about death itself makes long-term planning nearly impossible unless I lower my consciousness, watch a lot of TV, and subscribe to the social context without thinking for myself. Think about it -- if you knew with absolute and total certainty what will happen to you after death, would it change how you're living your life today?

Remaining uncertain in this area is a sub optimal choice -- it's better to decide one way or the other and be wrong than it is to remain uncertain and do nothing. Too much doubt in this area will produce the worst outcome of all. In order to intelligently decide how to live, we need to have a reasonable understanding of where we're headed. We can still live OK without this certainty, but we couldn't really say that we're living intelligently, since we'd have no basis for knowing if our decisions would ultimately turn out to be smart or foolish in the long run.

This line of thinking helped me realize that I needed to achieve certainty on whether I was going to live in accordance with option 1 or option 2. Only then would I really have the freedom and direction needed to live intelligently.

But looking at all the evidence wasn't quite enough to convince me to intelligently choose one side or the other. It leaned me towards option 1 but not enough to give me total certainty. I could at least see that the approach of looking for evidence wasn't going to work. It would continue to produce more data but not more certainty.

That's when I decided to come at this problem from a different perspective. Instead of worrying about which option was correct, I decided to more immersively explore both sides -- to treat each of these options as its own belief system in order to experience them directly. I realized that I would never have enough data to make a firm decision from the outside looking in. So I chose to consider the inside looking out.

One perspective I took was the perspective of being already dead. Under option 2 I would completely cease to exist, so that was an easy perspective to consider. It was in fact no perspective at all. I wouldn't be around to regret or praise anything I did. So if option 2 ultimately turned out to be true and correct, then in the long run it would make very little difference how I lived, at least in the sense of getting anywhere in the future. About the only meaningful conclusion I could draw from this (un)perspective was that a life lived under option 2 should be lived with a strong focus on the present moment.

Then I considered the perspective of option 1. That one had a lot more branches to explore, but essentially they fell into two types. First, there's the possibility that I can no longer really do anything with my consciousness after death. Perhaps I enter some sort of eternal state of existence from which there's no escape. Maybe it's a heaven or a hell of sorts. No more doing… just being. So if I found my consciousness frozen in such a manner, where I was still self-aware but unable to really do anything other than ponder my celestial navel, there is a reasonable leap of logic I can make there. And that is that if this happens, I think the most likely state in which my consciousness would freeze would be related to the general state it's in when I die. So my death would sort of be a continuation of my life, but there would be no further development of my consciousness. I don't really need to consider the situation where my consciousness is frozen in some random state that's out of my control, since that doesn't give me any more information about how to live and basically reverts to the same conclusions as option 2.

The other branch of option 1 is that perhaps I will have some ability to continue to take action after I die. So there's some type of postmortem doing in addition to just being. But what would I do? If it wouldn't be anything physical, then the only real doing would have to involve something for my consciousness to experience. And this implies that I'd be able to continue developing and growing as a conscious being even after death. Perhaps there will be a new phase of existence similar to a human life but without any of the physical elements. Then I could continue what I'm doing now. There was a lot more to consider in exploring these options, but let's fast-forward to the part where the results of that thinking all get smooshed together.

I've already mentioned that option 2 doesn't provide much direction except to suggest it's best to live fully in the present moment because there won't be any future beyond death. The first branch of option 1 (where I end up frozen in a certain state of being without the ability to do anything) suggests that I should develop my consciousness during my physical lifetime as much as possible, such that when I die, I'm at least frozen in a good and peaceful state if my postmortem condition is based on how I develop my consciousness as a human. It also suggests that I should take full advantage of my physical existence in order to develop my own tools of consciousness, since perhaps I'll still be able to use them after death. The second branch of option 1 (where I can continue to develop my consciousness after death and maybe even interact with other conscious beings) suggests that any growth I experience in my consciousness here on earth may have a chance of continuing after I die. And since I'm going to spend a lot more time dead than living as a human, it seems logical to hold as my highest priority the development of my consciousness and the consciousness of others. And in fact, that might very well be the entire purpose of human existence from the point of view of non-physical conscious entities.

So ultimately, even if I couldn't determine the truth to life after death from the outside looking in, that actually doesn't seem to matter as much as I thought it would. Option 2 provides so little info about how to live, but option 1 provides quite a bit. So I can actually live congruently even without knowing the complete truth in advance because even if it turns out I'm wrong, I'm still pursuing an intelligent course of action.

I think the main reason I found it so difficult to understand the possibilities beyond death is that I was coming at it from the wrong perspective. I was trying to understand certainty from the perspective of doubt and skepticism. And that turned out to be a mistake because doubt cannot create certainty -- it can only perpetuate doubt. So I had to change my perspective to experience these options from the inside looking out. I considered the perspective of option 1 looking at option 2 and vice versa. So I put myself into a state of certainty looking at another state of certainty.

I should also address the perspective of the humans left behind on earth after you die. I spent a lot of time considering that viewpoint as well, but ultimately it doesn't change anything. In fact, it only adds more fuel to the fire. The path of developing your consciousness is precisely the path of service. Raising your own consciousness will put you in the position of being able to help others. If you work to raise your own consciousness, you will simultaneously raise the consciousness of others. And if you strive to serve others, you will simultaneously raise your own level of consciousness.

Ultimately, I realized that the simple truth here was that of free will. Once I understood the perspectives of both options 1 and 2, I had all the information I needed to make a choice. But it wasn't really a choice between which option was provably correct from an external point of view. None of the options were externally provable because consciousness is not subject to the scientific method. Consciousness works on an entirely different level. So at this level, the real "truth" was to apply my own free will to decide what I wanted to be true for me… what I wanted to make a part of my own consciousness. Did I want to choose to live in accordance with option 1 or option 2? There was no externally right or wrong answer. It was simply a matter of choice.

So I chose option 1, the branch that suggests that conscious action and growth continue even after death. And part of the reason I chose this to be my own truth was that I realized that it's the most intelligent choice I can make no matter what the reality of death turns out to be. Even if we all go to oblivion when we die, it's still the most intelligent choice to live with the belief that we are immortal conscious beings. That belief will actually yield a more intelligently lived life, one that is dedicated to the greatest good of all. It will promote and enhance the survival of all humans. Where the scientific method fails, choice must fill in the gap. And that choice can be either certainty or doubt. But in order to understand this great choice, we must experience both the certainty and the doubt to know what we're really choosing. It is entirely up to us to choose a life of greatness or to choose a life of nothingness. I think this is what Helen Keller meant by the quote, "Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing." It is our personal choice that makes it so. Choose doubt and get nothing. Choose certainty and greatness results.

To sum it all up for you, here's why holding the development of our own consciousness as our highest priority in life makes sense:

  1. Developing our consciousness will give us the tools to understand life and death much better, which will help us decide how to live as intelligently as possible.
  2. Developing our consciousness will help us escape pain and create tremendous pleasure for us, so if we ultimately go to oblivion, at least we'll fully enjoy our lives along the way. It will also help us transcend the fear of death.
  3. If we die and find ourselves frozen in a certain state of consciousness, it probably won't be so bad because we'll have developed our consciousness as much as possible while we lived. We'll have done the best we can to prepare for this possibility.
  4. If we die and find that we're able to continue developing our consciousness after death, then our human existence will have given us a great head start.
  5. Developing our consciousness will ultimately cause us to live in such a manner that raises the awareness of other people around us, helping to transform the world into a better place for everyone. So this is in fact the best way to live if we wish to be of service to all of humanity.

For these and other reasons, I believe the most intelligent thing we can do with our human lives is to pursue the development of our own consciousness. Now perhaps we can't take our consciousness with us either, but at the very least, it's the only thing that even has the potential to continue with us after death.

This is the manner in which I live right now. It has produced some very powerful side effects. First, there's no fear of death. I feel prepared to die at any time, whether it will be tomorrow or next year or 100 years from now. I'm totally at peace with the realization that my human existence could come to an end at any given moment, possibly without warning.

Secondly, I feel I'm living fully in the present. I'm enjoying this life tremendously, but more as a spiritual experience than a physical one. I expect that if I died today and looked back on my human life, I'd feel really good about how I used the time I had. I would feel I'd done my best.

Thirdly, I feel my life is firmly rooted in what is permanent, not what is temporary. I see everything physical as merely temporary. By itself physical stuff doesn't hold much meaning for me. When I look around the physical world, I see animated dust filled with consciousness. The dust is boring and lifeless, but the consciousness is rich and exciting and alive. I see money and other physical stuff as temporary tools to be used for the long-term development of consciousness. Even my physical body is just a temporary tool, mainly for communicating.

My highest priorities as a human being are rooted in what I feel is permanent. If I'm able to continue on after I die, my to do list would essentially remain the same. I would only need to change the form of the most important items but not the intention behind them. Whether I'm dead or alive, my purpose remains the same: to grow and to help others grow in consciousness. Only the manner in which that purpose manifests would change. To me the service of the highest good is to devote my life to the service of consciousness itself, regardless of whether I exist as a physical or an etheric being.

To me this is the highest degree of personal productivity -- to adopt a context for living that even makes sense from the perspective of beyond the grave, to live here on earth as a timeless being instead of a mortal one. How many of your current goals and dreams seem shallow and lifeless when viewed from this perspective? Do you live for what is permanent or for what is ephemeral? Is your human existence devoted to the servicing of dust or the realization of destiny?