Oct 02, 2015 | By

Life After Death – An Eternal Mystery?

Of all the questions dividing science and religion, the question of whether there is life after death is one of the most important, as the answer defines our ultimate and eternal state.   The physical death of our body has always been fundamental and unavoidable. What comes next, if anything, for our conscious mind or soul, is a compelling mystery; one that humanity has grappled with since culture began.

“Life after death” is an oxymoron. Death is, after all, the ending of life. However, as conscious beings we seem to have multiple levels of experience – physical, mental, emotional and perhaps spiritual. It is natural to wonder whether these modes of experience are, in some way, independent of the body.   Perhaps conscious experience in the mental or spiritual domain continues after the body dies.


Evidence relative to this claim is problematic. We are alive and embodied in a physical world that we can see and touch. Death is the extinguishment of these conditions. After death we no longer inhabit the physical body that hosted us, and whatever existence we may have does not offer immediate and clear interaction with those who are still physically embodied. While living individuals, including many alive today, have claimed to experience or communicate with the non-physical, or post-physical, world, these experiences are relatively rare and, since they are subjective, difficult to verify.   On the other hand, even if one rejects all such evidence, it is impossible to prove that such a non-physical world does not exist. (see: http://swedenborgcenterconcord.org/are-miracles-real/)

Empirical science and its commitment to community verification has been very valuable in helping the human race discard many false stories and improve our understanding of and control over the physical world in which we live. Yet science is unable to deal with propositions that cannot be falsified – Karl Popper labeled them “unscientific” – and the possibility of life after death is one of them.

In spite of this, some devotees to the scientific paradigm extend empiricism to the epistemological level – claiming that if something is not physical it is not real. In the face of claims about life after death from religious believers or individuals recounting near death experience, physicalists decry them as illusions, hallucinations or superstitions. This is a facile response that seeks to deny the legitimacy of these claims and avoid the truth – that they cannot be falsified. It amounts to no more than adopting one unverifiable belief (only the physical is real) in place of another unverifiable belief (life after death is real).

Humans have a remarkable capacity to make sense of intractable questions such as this one. We are prolific storytellers — our ability to make sense of the world we live in and integrate it with who we are as individuals and cultures is grounded in the stories we devise and share. Some of these stories derive from direct experience – others may arise from imagination or creative exploration. As we know, the precise lines between observation, memory and imagination are blurred, and as stories are told and retold through time or across generations, accuracy yields to other personal or cultural values. Meaning and understanding changes – even as it does in the child’s “telephone” game, passing a phrase around a table in whispers from one person to the next. Applied to the historical evolution of mythology or “old wives’ tale”, the literal basis or imaginative origin for any given story may be lost in the mists of time – but the story nevertheless may have meaning and reflect truth in a different sense than the literal. Whether we are dealing with creation myths, life after death or Santa Claus, the stories we tell can have significant meaning and value.

This gives a broader context for considering the question of life after death. It seems that the truth in a logical or scientific sense, will never be known. Yet the question has great significance and meaning to each of us.

So, you might ask, how can we possibly approach this question rationally, if we cannot know the truth? Is there, or is there not, life after death? What are we supposed to believe?

You may not have a basis in your experience for affirming a belief in life after death. Moreover, you cannot force yourself to “believe” in something when you do not. However, the arguments above demonstrate that it is rational to suspend your disbelief, and irrational not to do so.

In the next post on this topic I will talk about different ways to consider the life after death question, once you have “suspended disbelief”. I hope you will join me.

2 Responses to “Life After Death – An Eternal Mystery?”

  1. George Gantz says:

    Jeff – Well stated. Swedenborg’s three laws of Divine Providence (as I noted in the article on Miracles): (1) Humans are given the capacity to act freely and make their own choices. (2) We cannot be compelled to think or believe in a certain way (in that case we would no longer be free). (3) The working of divine providence can never be directly manifest, as that would create compulsion and remove freedom of will.

    The trick (I think) is to suspend disbelief, and listen for the small still voice. I cannot say I have experienced “leakage” from the afterlife that “pierced the veil” with manifest clarity — but I’ve had many odd and intimate personal moments that allow me to give it high credence. It helps to have the testimony of Swedenborg as a guide!

    I agree as well there is virtue in following the Lord’s Commandments because it is right to do so. We often have to start that process out of obedience (as with children, for example). Eventually, as we are regenerated, the truths become internalized, and we do them because we love them and the Lord for giving them to us – the rewards are intrinsic. Yet our good works also bring extrinsic rewards – the thanks and good will of others, for example. If we do those works for the extrinsic rewards alone, then we have missed the point – there is no virtue and there is no goodness in those works as they are motivated by selfish ends. Yet extrinsic external rewards can also give us a nudge – a reminder that good works are good things. In that sense they are a blessing for which we can be grateful!

  2. Another pithy question matrix, and I should already be in bed.

    What are we to believe? I’m not really certain about that with respect to an afterlife. I do recall that, in the words of one of the Jesuits who tried to teach me, “the Pharisees believed in an afterlife, and the other guys didn’t and that was what made the latter sad, you see.”

    I’d rather not be either one, but isn’t it less venal, isn’t it more virtuous to obey God’s commandments because it’s right to do so, than because he is going to give you something?

    It’s my belief that God will not do anything to interfere with our free will, since only love freely given is worth receiving. God will not (normally) show himself to us, since that would overpower our will, taking away our freedom to choose. We would be unable to not love Him.

    To reveal to us that there is, beyond any doubt, an afterlife, might be similar. How easy that would make it for us! But without doubts, what virtue would there be in belief? None. In a world where disbelief is the norm, our virtue can be as large as our doubt, if we believe when it’s difficult to do so, and perhaps vice versa.

    But there is what I call ‘leakage.’ Credible anecdotes and personal experiences that let us “pierce the veil,” as spiritualists and other woo practitioners used to call it. Or strange coincidences, Jung’s ‘synchronicity.’ Virtually all of these things can be explained away rationally. And yet…and yet, they leave behind a sense of at least the possibility of another world beyond this one.

    And so to bed.

Join the Discussion

Why ask?