Life after Life?

Is this phenomenon to be taken at face value, the Biblical view of man notwithstanding?

Jack W, Provonsha, M.D., Ph.D., is professor of philosophy of religion and Christian ethics at Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California, and is a recognized authority on hallucinogenic drugs.

 

"WE SHALL try our best to do as you say," said Crito. "But how shall we bury you?

" "Any way you like," replied Socrates, "that is, if you can catch me and I don't slip through your fingers."

This piece of ancient Socratic dialogue captures the essence of a view of man that has characterized a partially Hellenized Christianity for centuries. Only recently have Biblical scholars and Christian theologians begun to shake off Plato's dualism and think their way into the Hebraic thought forms of the Bible.

There was, of course, a Hellenized Judaism before there was a Hellenized Christianity. Bruce Metzger notes the Platonic anthropology expressed in intertestamental apocryphal literature. In the Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-5 it is writ ten: "The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seem to have died, . . . but they are at peace. For though in the sight of men they are punished, their hope was full of immortality. Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, be cause God tested them and found them worthy of himself."

Professor Metzger comments on this passage, "It is obvious that here Platonic ideas of the inherent immortality of the soul have supplanted the Hebraic (and Christian) doctrine of the resurrection of the body, a doctrine found in Daniel 12:2 and throughout the New Testament." 1

Scholars from widely differing religious backgrounds have made similar observations. Anglican John A. T. Robinson, in his excellent monograph The Body, a Study in Pauline Theology, contrasts the essential difference between the Greek and Hebrew anthropologies:

"It follows from this that the third and perhaps most far-reaching of all the Greek antitheses, that between body and soul, is also foreign to the Hebrew. The Hellenic conception of man has been described as that of an angel in a slot machine, a soul (the invisible, spiritual, essential ego) incarcerated in a frame of matter, from which it trusts eventually to be liberated. . . . The He brew idea of personality,' on the other hand, wrote the late Dr. Wheeler Robinson in a sentence which has become famous, 'is an animated body, and not an incarnated soul' (The People and the Book, 362). Man does not have a body, he is a body. He is flesh-animated-by-soul, the whole conceived as a psycho-physical unity.. .. The soul does not survive a man it simply goes out, draining away with the blood." 2

According to Dominican Victor White, "The New Testament . . . simply takes over the Old Testament view of man and his soul, according to which man is an ensouled body rather than an embodied soul."

Paul Tillich writes of man as a multidimensional unity: "All dimensions distinguishable in experienced life, cross in him. In every dimension of life, all dimensions are potentially or actually present; he does not consist of levels of being, but he is a unity which unites all dimensions. This doctrine stands against the dualistic theory which sees man as composed of soul and body; of body and mind; or body, soul, and spirit, etc. Man is one, uniting within himself all dimensions of life—an insight which we partly owe to the recent developments of medicine, especially psychiatry." 3

The Old Testament awareness that "the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing" (Eccl. 9:5) and "his sons come to honour, and he knoweth it not" (Job 14:21) is entirely compatible with this holistic notion. So are the picture of man's creation as a form of clay, vivified by the breath of life, becoming a living soul, and the New Testament's emphasis on the resurrection of the body.

Of late the traditional Platonic view of man has been given a new hearing by several persons within the profession of medicine. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (On Death and Dying) has for some time been collecting anecdotal accounts from patients who have "died" and been resuscitated from "the other side." Their reports of the experience are in presumed support for the belief that there is a continuation of conscious, spiritual existence after the death of the body. The most recent published collection of such reports is a book by Raymond A. Moody, Jr., M.D., entitled Life After Life.4

Typical of the reports in Life After Life is that of a man whose vital signs were undetectable following a severe head injury, but his vital signs were later restored, and he returned to consciousness: "At the point of injury there was a momentary flash of pain, then all the pain vanished. I had the feeling of floating in a dark space. The day was bitterly cold, yet while I was in that blackness all I felt was warmth and the most extreme comfort I have ever experienced. ... I remember thinking, "I must be dead.'" 5

Said another, "There was a feeling of utter peace and quiet, no fear at all." 6 Frequently subjects described a feeling of being outside of their bodies, looking back at them from a distance. "All of a sudden, I felt as though I were away from my body, away from everybody, in space by myself." "I had a floating sensation as I felt myself get out of my body, and I looked back and I could see myself on the bed below and there was no fear. ... I felt that if I did not get back to my body, I would be dead." 7

Often there was apparent clear awareness of what was going on in the area, including the attempts to resuscitate the body. A number expressed "feelings of weightlessness," a "floating sensation." The time sense was often altered. "Things seem to go faster after you get out of your body." Encounters with forms of light, often described in personal terms, were frequent.8

Some expressed profound feelings of love. "I felt as though I were surrounded by an overwhelming love and compassion." 9 Occasionally past life was re called in "incredible detail." "My whole life kind of flashed in front of me." 10

After "coming back" many recalled the experience as broadening and deepening, and of becoming "more philosophical and concerned with ultimate philosophical issues." Said one, "It seems that the understanding I have of things is so much better." Another described a feeling of "being more in tune with people now. ... I can sense the need of other individual lives. ... I can almost read their faces, and tell that they need help, and what kind. .. . I've had the feeling of picking up people's thoughts and vibrations." 11 Moody states that "almost everyone has stressed the importance in this life of trying to cultivate love for others, a love of a unique and profound kind." Many were no longer afraid of death. "Death is such a release like an escape from prison." 12

What in all of this relates to the Biblical view of man? First, it must be noted that, to Moody's credit, he recognized that none of these persons were actually dead according to the newer brain-death definition, even though their vital signs may have been undetectable. He speaks of the state as "near-death." They could not have been resuscitated, of course, if their central nervous system had suffered death at the cellular level. But what is the explanation of the phenomenon? Is it to be taken at face value, the Biblical view of man notwithstanding? The following suggests a possible answer to that question.

Anyone familiar with psychedelic literature will immediately be impressed with the similarities between the illusions experienced in the hallucinogenic drug state and those described in Life After Life. Almost every aspect of Moody's subjects' experiences is matched by accounts in the drug literature. Note the following examples: Timothy Leary, while a lecturer at Harvard discovered the psychedelic experience on a visit to Cuernavaca, Mexico, where he ingested some mushrooms purchased from an old mountain crone. He recounts what followed: "I realized I had died, that I, Timothy Leary, the Timothy Leary game, was gone. I could look back and see my body on the bed. I relived my life, and re-experienced many events I had forgotten." 13

Aldous Huxley wrote after taking mescaline, "It was odd, of course, to feel that T was not the same as those arms and legs 'out there,' as this wholly objective trunk and neck and even head. It was odd; but one soon got used to it. And anyhow the body seemed perfectly well able to look after itself." 14

Persons under the influence of psychedelic drugs frequently report such feelings as: "My body is no longer my own," "I feel like I'm a bystander watching myself," "I feel as if I have no body." One individual described this depersonalization in colorful terms: "I feel like I'm blended with the uni verse." 15

"A 21-year-old woman was admitted to the hospital along with her lover. . . . She became frightened when she realized that she was unable to distinguish her body from the chair she was sitting on or from her lover's body. Her fear became more marked after she thought she would not get back into herself." 16

This altered attitude toward the "nonessential" body is so frequent a re action to some of these substances that they have successfully been used to allay the death anxiety of terminally ill patients. Sidney Cohen quotes one of his patients as saying after being given LSD, "My extinction is not of great con sequence at this moment, not even for me. It's just another turn in the swing of existence and non-existence.... I sup pose that I'm detached away from my self and my pain and my decaying." 17

Said another, "Ah, yes, I see what you have done. You have stripped away ME.

This is a touch of death a preparation for the big one when the No-Me will be permanent."Feelings of weightlessness were common for persons on hallucinogens. "My ideas of space were strange beyond description. I could see myself from head to foot as well as the sofa on which I was lying. About me was nothingness, absolutely empty space. I was floating on a solitary island on the ether. No part of my body was subject to the laws of gravitation." 19

Among other effects of the drugs was a radical modification of time sense. Sometimes a whole lifetime seemed to be compressed into a few minutes. Feelings of being able to communicate with out words was common. Some reported feelings of overwhelming love. Jane Dunlap, on LSD, writes, "As I watched, love which I had felt overpoweringly throughout the day multiplied until I seemed to be experiencing the sum total of love in the soul of every person who lives. ... It was unbelievable that so much love had lain hidden within my self or could exist in any human being." 20

After the drug experience she continued, "I feel that I am less critical and considerably more tolerant, sympathetic, forgiving, and understanding." 21

All of which is not to suggest that the drug experiences are identical in every detail with those of Moody's subjects. Nor is it to suggest that they were on drugs, which mostly they were not. The point is, altered psychochemistry can create illusory experiences that are similar in many respects. And there is one kind of chemical effect that Moody's subjects may have experienced.

It is known that carbon dioxide can produce central nervous effects similar to those of hallucinogens. L. J. Meduna reports that almost all of the effects of hallucinogens can be produced by carbon-dioxide narcosis. He says, "Summing up these experiences, we definitely can see that the form-constants in mescal vision . . . are present in the sensory alterations produced by CO2." 22 And, of course, CO2 buildup would be a major consequence of the impairment of circulation during the dying process.

Could it be, then, that the anecdotes collected by Moody in Life After Life, purporting to be descriptions of life beyond the grave, are but the effects of psychochemicals such as COa on still-living brain cells during the dying process? Could it be that what is being remembered after resuscitation is the dying process and not death itself—and this in a psychochemically disordered way?

The fact that such persons were comatose in no way lessens this possibility. Most medical people are aware that persons even in apparently deep coma are sometimes more aware of their surroundings than they are able to communicate.

One additional consideration is the observed fact that altered psychochemistry is often accompanied by heightened levels of suggestibility. The be lief-systems of persons taking hallucinogens thus may strongly condition the content of the experience through auto- and heterosuggestion. Would persons not sharing Moody's Platonic belief-system have the same experiences? They very well might not.

In any case, it seems highly possible from the investigation of altered brain chemistry that the answer to the question "Has evidence from the experiences of resuscitated dying persons demonstrated that the Biblical anthropology is inaccurate?" must be "The evidence to this point is far from conclusive." A more impressive case must be made than is presented in Life After Life before anyone's confidence in the scriptural view of man need feel threatened.

 


Notes:

1 Bruce M. Metzger, An Introduction to the Apocrypha (New York: Oxford University Press, 1957), p. 75.

2 John A. T. Robinson, The Body, a Study in Pauline Theology (Chicago: Alec R. Allenson, Inc., 1952), p. 14.

3 Paul Tillich, in an address delivered before the New York Society for Clinical Psychiatry, 1960.

4 Raymond A. Moody, Jr., M.D., Life After Life (New York: Bantam Books, Inc., 1976), pp. 28, 29.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid., p. 33.

7 Ibid., pp. 35, 38.

8 Ibid., pp. 45, 49, 58 ft.

9 Ibid., p. 63.

10 Ibid., pp. 65, 69.

11 Ibid., pp. 89, 90, 92.

12 Ibid., pp. 92, 97.

13 John Kohler, "The Dangerous Magic of LSD," Saturday Evening Post, Nov. 2, 1963, pp. 31, 32.

14 Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception (New York: Harper & Row, 1954), p. 52.

15 G. D. Klee, "Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD-25) and Ego Functions," Archives of General Psychiatry, May, 1963, p. 463.

16 William A. Frosch, et al., "Untoward Reactions to Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD) Resulting in Hospitalization," New England Journal of Medicine, Dec. 2, 1965, p. 1236. (Italics supplied.)

17 Sidney Cohen, "LSD and the Anguish of Dying," Harper's, Sept., 1965, p. 69.

18 Ibid., p. 72.

19 S. M. Unger, "Mescaline, LSD, Psilocybin and Personality Change," Psychiatry, May, 1963, p. 113.

20 Jane Dunlap, Exploring Inner Space (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1961), pp. 184, 185.

21 Ibid., p. 202.

22 L. J. Meduna, "The Effect of Carbon Dioxide Upon the Function of the Human Brain," L. J. Meduna, ed., Carbon
Dioxide Therapy, second edition (Springfield, 111.: Charles C. Thomas, 1958), p. 40.

Cullmann on the Immortality of the Soul

"If we were to ask an ordinary Christian today .. . what he conceived to be the New Testament teaching concerning the fate of man after death, with few exceptions we should get the answer: 'The immortality of the soul.' Yet this widely accepted idea is one of the greatest misunderstandings of Christianity. There is no point in attempting to hide this fact, or to veil it by reinterpreting the Christian faith. This is something that should be discussed quite candidly. The concept of death and resurrection is anchored in the Christ-event . . . , and hence is incompatible with the Greek belief in immortality." —Oscar Cullmann, Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead? p. 15.

"For Christian (and Jewish) thinking the death of the body is also destruction of God-created life. No distinction is made: even the life of our body is true life; death is the destruction of all life created by God. Therefore it is death and not the body which must be conquered by the Resurrection.

"Only he who apprehends with the first Christians the horror of death, who takes death seriously as death, can comprehend the Easter exultation of the primitive Christian community and understand that the whole thinking of the New Testament is governed by belief in the Resurrection. Belief in the immortality of the soul is not belief in a revolutionary event. Immortality, in fact, is only a negative assertion: the soul does not die, but simply lives on. Resurrection is a positive assertion: the whole man, who has really died, is recalled to life by a new act of creation by God." Ibid., pp. 26, 27.

"Christ is risen: that is, we stand in the new era in which death is conquered, in which corruptibility is no more. For if there is really one spiritual body (not an immortal soul, but a spiritual body) which has emerged from a fleshly body, then indeed the power of death is broken." —Ibid., p. 40.

"The condition of the dead in Christ is still imperfect, a state of 'nakedness,' as Paul says, of 'sleep,' of waiting for the resurrection of the whole creation, for the resurrection of the body."—Ibid., p. 56.

 

The Testimony of Six Well-known Authorities Regarding the State of Man in Death

Job

"But man dieth, and wasteth away: yea, man giveth up the ghost, and where is he? As the waters fail from the sea, and the flood decayeth and drieth up: so man lieth down, and riseth not: till the heavens be no more, they shall not awake, nor be raised out of their sleep. ... If a man die, shall he live again? all the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change come."— Job 14:10-14.

Psalmist

"Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help. His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish."—Psalm 146:3, 4.

Solomon

"For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing." —Ecclesiastes 9:5.

Daniel

"And at that time shall Michael stand up, . . . and at that time thy people shall be delivered, every one that shall be found written in the book. And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt." —Daniel 12:1, 2. 

Jesus

"After that he saith unto them, Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep. Then said his disciples, Lord, if he sleep, he shall do well. Howbeit Jesus spake of his death: but they thought that he had spoken of taking of rest in sleep. Then said Jesus unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead." —John 11:11- 14.

Paul

"But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. . . . For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first." —1 Thessalonians 4:13-16.

"Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality."—1 Corinthians 15:51-53.


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Jack W, Provonsha, M.D., Ph.D., is professor of philosophy of religion and Christian ethics at Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California, and is a recognized authority on hallucinogenic drugs.

July 1977

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