Would you like to live on after death? Most of us would, if we thought it was going to be good. But, realistically, have we any hope?
Some people just believe in life after death because they hope it is true. Others have some sort of experience that gives them faith.
But other want to see evidence that convinces them.
On this page I examine spiritual experiences of various kinds that might show there is life after death. Memories of past lives. Near death experiences where people get a glimpse or foretaste of heaven. Encounters with God or with Jesus.
See what you think.
Who wants to live forever?
There are many reasons why people hope for life after death. Life may have been so good that they hate the thought that it will all come to an end. Many long to see loved ones again, or to see the face of God.
For some, like black slaves on American plantations, the next life offered hope that was denied them in this one.
Those who have suffered injustice may be comforted to think their oppressors will face God’s justice in the next world.
People around the world ….
Most cultures and religions have some sort of belief in an afterlife, that this life isn’t all there is.
The ancient Egyptians had a complex set of beliefs about the afterlife which changed over time. Entering the afterlife could require working for the gods. A light, sin-free heart. Being able to recite certain spells and passwords. Or funerary arrangements that might include food, jewellery and mummification. Being the king certainly helped!
Ancient European societies, such as Greek, Roman and Norse, had a pantheon of gods. There were various destinations for the departed depending on how they had lived.
Eastern religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism) generally aim to help believers to be reincarnated into a new life on earth on a higher plane. If they had good karma – having lived a life with kindness, compassion and wisdom, and avoiding harmful actions – their next life would be better. This cycle of death and rebirth continues until the soul is able to achieve nirvana – being freed from craving and/or being united with the supreme being.
The Abrahamic religions (Baha’i, Christianity, Islam, Judaism) believe in an afterlife and judgment based on each person’s choices in this life. Those judged to be worthy (whether by faith or good deeds) receive the reward of eternal life, either in heaven or on a resurrected earth. There are different beliefs about the fate of those judged not worthy.
Many modern, spiritualist, parapsychology and “new age” beliefs often include a beautiful heaven of joyful reunions with loved ones. God or gods do not always play a major part in these beliefs.
Studies show that three quarters of Americans believe in life after death.
And psychologists Justin Barrett and Emily Reed Burkett have shown that people all over the world, including young children not taught religious beliefs, instinctively believe that some part of their mind, soul or spirit lives on after death.
But the big question is: can we believe it, and what should we believe about it?
There are several ways we might try to find an answer.
Do religious beliefs show there’s life after death?
This question is resolved for a person who believes in a religion. They believe in the afterlife because their religion teaches it, and their belief is as well-based (or not) as their faith is.
If Baha’u’llah, or the Buddha, or Jesus, or Mohammed, or whoever, knew and told the truth, then they don’t need any more evidence.
For example, the Salvation Army
The christian group, the Salvation Army, offers Ten reasons to believe in life after death, which can be summarised as:
- Beauty and balance point to a better life coming, one which will address the injustices of this life. “The human heart hungers for more than this life offers.”
- Near death experiences (NDEs) show that, as many people approach death, they sense that there is a better life to come.
- Belief in some form of life after death is almost universal.
- The eternal God, the God of the Jewish scriptures and the Old Testament, and the God of Jesus, offers an “eternal homecoming of all who chose to be at peace with him”. The resurrection of Jesus is an historical event that offers us hope of our resurrection into a new life.
- “Belief in life after death is a source of personal security, optimism, and spiritual betterment”.
The evidence for God
There are many reasons to believe in God. These have been argued over for millennia, and include:
- It is difficult to explain how the universe came into existence, and is physically so well “designed” for life, unless God did it.
- There are many aspects of human life that make sense if there is a God, but cannot be properly explained if not. For example, our consciousness, our ability to reason, our apparent ability to make choices and our belief that some things are really right and wrong –
- The life and teachings of Jesus show he was a good and wise man. It is easy (for me, at any rate) to believe he was revealing God to us.
- Many people feel they have experienced God active in their lives to heal, guide, comfort and give hope. These experiences are convincing to those who are blessed with them, and are an indication for the rest of us. (More on this below.)
Of course each of these arguments has responses. And there are arguments against God’s existence – principally the question of why a good God would allow so much evil in the world.
But for many, including me, one or more of these reasons is convincing and cumulatively they are very strong. Once we believe in God, then the possibility of life after death seems that much more possible. And those who believe Jesus was resurrected to new life have a strong reason to believe in an attractive afterlife.
Does personal experience show there’s life after death?
Near death experiences (NDEs)
NDEs are sometimes reported when people survive cardiac arrest. While unconscious and apparently “brain dead”, they have an experience of leaving their body and travelling to a beautiful place, only to return again when they are revived. They may see relatives who have died, spiritual beings, or a bright light which some interpret as God. I have examined NDEs in greater depth in Near death experiences (NDEs).
About 10-15% of people revived after cardiac arrest report NDE experiences, which they generally feel are intense, overwhelming and real. So it is not surprising that those who have these experiences tend to come back to their normal life as changed people. Their behaviour will often change in positive ways (they become more peaceful, accepting or loving) and priorities may be different (they may be less materialistic and more altruistic).
And they sometimes interpret their experiences as being a foretaste of life after death.
Is an NDE an experience of heaven?
This interpretation is hotly debated. True believers point to cases where the patient apparently saw and heard things in the operating theatre that they could never have seen naturally. While in a deep coma or “brain dead”, brain function and memory should be so impaired that such recall should be impossible naturally. And they point out that people from all over the word, from different cultures and religions, even children, have very similar experiences.
Sceptics, on the other hand, say NDEs occur when the brain is still able to function. They say there are neurological causes that can explain the experiences. When the brain is under stress and experiencing oxygen depletion, there is a spike in emergency activity. This can lead to the release of neurochemicals, REM intrusion (a waking form of dreaming) or the stimulation of the temporoparietal junction of the brain. Any of these can cause hallucinations.
For reasons given in Near death experiences (NDEs), I believe something unusual and beyond our current scientific explanations is happening in NDEs. But I don’t believe we can infer that a real heaven is being visited. Nevertheless, many people see NDEs as evidence of life after death.
Buddhists and Hindus (and others) believe in reincarnation, the idea that the “non-physical essence of a living being starts a new life in a different physical form or body after biological death”. Believers in those religions believe in that form of life after death because that is what their religion teaches. However there is less evidence offered for this than, say, the historical evidence christians offer for the resurrection of Jesus.
Modern westerners have examined the evidence for reincarnation in the last century. A lot of evidence has been collected from people who “remember” living as a different person in the past. There are main two different types of evidence.
Adults remember past lives, often under hypnosis
You can find sensational stories about people remembering their lives as famous people who lived long ago. These stories are often told while under hypnosis. They cannot easily be verified or disproved, especially as they are not commonly investigated by competent psychologists.
However some well known cases, such as the 1952/53 case where as American woman said she remembered living as an Irish girl, Bridey Murphy, have been investigated. It seems likely that the “remembered” life was not that of a real person but a fictional person who was unconsciously invented based on some real life people the woman knew. Some say hypnosis can lead to such unconscious invention.
Serious researchers tend not to place too much credence in these stories because they generally haven’t been investigated scientifically. Often they involve famous people. But when several people claim to have been the same famous person, it becomes difficult to think there can be any truth in these stories.
Children remember past lives
Two psychiatrists from the University of Virginia, Ian Stevenson and Jim Tucker, have researched thousands of accounts of children who remember being someone else in a previous life. These accounts have been investigated in a scientific manner and documented in peer-reviewed journals. They have much more credibility than the accounts of people under hypnosis.
The accounts generally have most of the following features:
- Children between the ages of 2 and 6 have memories spontaneously. The memories fade after about age 6.
- The previous life they remember is generally a person who died 1-2 years before the child was born.
- The person whose life they remember was rarely famous, but rather ordinary and from a region nearby to the child.
- The children often recall features and events of their previous lives that the child couldn’t be expected to know. This provides a degree of verification.
- Many of the remembered people died young, and about 70% died violent or unexpected deaths.
- Many of the children show behaviours (e.g. in their play or their fears) that fit the past life they remember.
- About 1 in 5 children have birthmarks or unusual deformities that closely match marks or injuries in the person they say they once were.
- The children generally have above-average IQs and do not have more mental or emotional disorders than average.
- These “memories” are more likely to occur in religious cultures that believe in reincarnation, but there are many cases reported among American children too.
Evaluating these accounts
You won’t be surprised to know that these accounts have been both embraced and scorned.
Some critics cannot accept anything non-natural or paranormal, and many of their assessments are obviously biased and of little value. But some more serious academic critics say that Stevenson, who pioneered this work, used methods that are questionable. They say he asked leading questions, he filled in gaps with his own ideas, he didn’t understand the local culture (in the Indian subcontinent), his documentation and presentation weren’t rigorous, and so on. But I’m not sure that the same criticisms can be made of the later work of Jim Tucker.
And the idea of reincarnation has a lot of a priori difficulties.
- What is the mechanism for transferring a “soul” to a new person?
- Most of us don’t have memories of past lives. So how can I be the same person as someone who lived before if I have nothing in common with them – a different body and a mind with no memory of it?
- Where do the new people come from in a rising population?
A match in DNA could be an interesting piece of evidence.
On the other hand, supporters argue that Stevenson’s and Tucker’s work was very rigorous. They were always trying to test the accounts for more natural explanations. They offer the accounts as evidence without insisting on an explanation. Supporters say there are too many reports, and to many verified “memories”, to be able to dismiss them all.
Are these reports evidence of an afterlife?
Stevenson himself didn’t make strong claims that these accounts were evidence for reincarnation. For in fact other explanations are possible:
- Some stories could be contrived for some form of gain (financial or status).
- Some psychologists say that the reports can be explained in terms of known psychology, the child’s family and the culture where the child lived.
- It isn’t clear to me that naturally-acquired knowledge can be ruled out for many cases.
- If something paranormal has occurred, it doesn’t have to be a past life. Some other psychic way of knowing these things might be possible and more likely than reincarnation.
- A spiritual explanation is always possible. God, an angel or an evil spirit could give children these “memories”, for whatever reason.
Each person will decide for themselves, based on whatever evidence they accept and whatever worldview they bring to the question. Apparently about 20% of Americans and Europeans surveyed believe in reincarnation.
My feeling is that there is enough unusual about these accounts and their verification to suggest that outright rejection is not justified. Something strange seems to be happening in some cases at least, and this is worthy of further investigation.
But the inherent difficulties in the idea of reincarnation make other explanations seem at least slightly less unlikely to me.
Spiritualism is the belief that when people die that pass into a spirit world where they can communicate with us, and us with them. This communication typically occurs through the help of a medium or a spirit guide. Many spiritualists believe in God, but others believe that spiritualism is based on science and not the supernatural.
The evidence for spiritualism is said to be the experiences of people contacting the spirits of friends and relatives who have died. Many investigators have conducted experiments, most commonly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but there are some academic investigators today.
Testing of the reliability of mediums and spirit guides is typically done by asking for information via the medium and comparing answers with known facts. Some investigators claim high levels of accuracy. But others haven’t been tested and may avoid it.
Sceptics point to the many cases where fraud has been found or admitted. Stage magicians from Houdini to Randi say they can detect the fraud and perform the same “tricks” themselves. It is said that skilled mediums are adept at asking subtle questions and making exploratory comments that can quickly be adjusted as they obtain more feedback.
Christianity is generally opposed to spiritualism, believing that it is either fraud or the result of contacting demonic spirits rather than the spirits of departed people.
It seems to me that the evidence for spiritualism isn’t strong. There have been too many frauds and the “evidences” are too easily reproduced by natural means.
I don’t think it offers realistic evidence for life after death.
Direct experience of God?
Some people report experiences of God that they found convincing, revelatory, life-changing. I have grouped thse into several themes.
Visionary experiences: seeing God, or seeing Jesus?
Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and even sceptics say a vision of Jesus changed their lives and led them to believe in him, or strengthened their belief. What are we to make of such reports? Is there any reason to believe them?
Phillip Wiebe has investigated about 30 of these reports from people in his state in Canada. The reports were obtained by interviewing the person, and so we can know the stories are not just urban myths. These people really believe they saw a vision of Jesus. And in many cases, they were healed or changed in ways that had a lasting positive impact.
Wiebe concludes that there is no simple natural explanation (hallucination, dream, imagining, etc) that can adequately explain how these visions occurred. He concludes that they could be real. And of course, that would be a step towards believing in God and an afterlife.
There are also many stories of non-christians, especially Muslims, who respect Jesus as a prophet, seeing a vision of Jesus. In many cases these visions led to a huge change in their lives. Sometimes they were healed.
There is no way to show that all these apparent visions were real, or that the stories are accurate. But if some of them are true, this is also evidence of a God who cares enough to reveal himself to some people, and who also promises a blessed afterlife.
Experiencing God in worship
Some people feel that singing to God or meditating on him leads them into an experience of God that they find powerful and life-changing. There is no way to prove they are in contact with God, but these experiences lead some people to believe in God and trust him for the afterlife.
It has been estimated that hundreds of millions of people believe they have experienced or observed a miraculous healing after prayer to the christian God. Most of these accounts haven’t been reported in any detail, and certainly not verified by medical investigation.
But a few can and have been investigated, and while some don’t meet the test, there are other cases where good documentation shows that a highly unusual recovery occurred after someone received prayer for healing.
This to me is very good evidence that the God of Jesus exists and is sometimes willing to heal. And so we can believe that he will also take his “children” home to be with him in the next life.
It is well known that some people, both believers and non-believers, have a deep and moving experience that they feel puts them in touch with God or the universe, gives them a sense of peace and joy that is almost overwhelming, and opens up new understandings and perspectives to them.
Psychologists have studied these “mystical experiences” and found that they are not evidence of any abnormal psychology, and they almost always result in physical and mental benefits to the recipient.
Many feel they have been in touch with the God of the universe who is full of love and compassion. This can lead to a belief that God will remain with them in a life after death.
Help from God
Some people’s faith in God and in life after death is based on the practical help they believe they have received from God. God helps some people get their messed-up lives together, and gives others direction and hope.
These experiences of God are not often spectacular or even notable for us reading about them, but they can be meaningful and life-changing for those who receive them. Again, these people will be inclined to believe that the God who helped them will stay with them through death and into a new life.
Evidence for life after death?
Most of us would like there to be life after death, especially a better life. The evidence for it is varied and not totally consistent.
Christian resurrection, Muslim heaven and hell, reincarnation, and near death experiences, all provide some level of reason to believe, but the different accounts they give seem to be mutually exclusive.
Personally, I see no reason yet to abandon my hope that the resurrection of Jesus is a sign that I too will be resurrected into a new life. Follow up this thought in Was Jesus raised from the dead?
- Humans ‘predisposed’ to believe in gods and the afterlife. Report in Science Daily of research by Justin Barrett and Emily Reed Burdett (2011).
- Ten reasons to believe in life after death. Salvation Army (2020), taken from Our Daily Bread Ministries.
- Resurrection in Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica
- Afterlife. Wikipedia.
- The Science of Near-Death Experiences. Gideon Lichfield. The Atlantic (2015).
- Brain Wars. Mario Beauregard. HarperOne (2012).
- Past Life Memories Research. PSI Encyclopedia.
- Wikipedia on Reincarnation and Ian Stevenson.
- Ian Stevenson’s Case for the Afterlife: Are We ‘Skeptics’ Really Just Cynics? Jesse Bering, Scientific American, 2013.
- The Science of Reincarnation. Sean Lyons, University of Virginia.
- Wikipedia on Spiritualism.
Main graphic: Willgard on Pixabay. Heaven’s gates: Image by Jeroným Pelikovský from Pixabay
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