(The following is an excerpt from my new book God and Therapy: What we Believe when No One is Watching)


The First Three Minutes of the Afterlife

You have just woken up, so the operation must be over. Your impulse is to call for the nurse, but something stops you. Whatever this place is you’re in, it’s not the recovery room. It may not even be the hospital. But you do remember, the last thing you remember, is your doctor giving you an injection with a sedative in it. Even though your chances of survival were over ninety percent, he looked worried. For a long time your heartbeat had been irregular, some kind of arrhythmia that could never be adequately accounted for. There would be pain afterwards, the doctor said, but there isn’t pain, there isn’t much of anything. You feel very strange, very different, you can’t say how. Not sleepy, not really awake, your thoughts are coming in slow motion. Why can’t you see anything, not even the shape of your hands in front of your face? It’s not dark, not light, just kind of vaporous.

Suddenly getting nervous, you call out your own name, just to hear a familiar sound, to reassure yourself you are the same person waking up as the one that was just operated on. Very gently you caress the top of your chest, where the scars must be, but what you feel like doesn’t feel like a chest. It feels like… well, that must be the effects of the operation. He said it would take a while before you felt like your old self. It would help if you could feel more sensation in your legs and feet, you know you can’t walk, but if you could just move your legs a little bit.

When you just rubbed your hands together, did you feel anything? Did you feel hands? Why are you so afraid to call out, to find out where you are? You are not home. Are you above ground, above the earth, floating in space? Here was no white light, nor crossing over to the other side, so you are not having an out of body experience. You are not weightless, but you cannot feel a single object. Quietly, gradually, somewhat weirdly, it begins to sink in. You realize you have just died. And on cue, you can now sense that someone or something is coming towards you. Instantly, it pops into your mind — is it a spirit guide? You are not ready for that. You hope it is an old friend or favorite relative. You are aware your heart is beating rapidly. Whatever it is, is almost upon you. Aren’t you supposed to be reunited with lost loved ones? But is it true? What in God’s name is coming to get you? You are beginning to panic…

I’ll stop here, the point of no return. Beyond lies the realm of unimaginable supernatural transcendence. It is enough that it is at least conceivable that our consciousness, in some recognizably human, intact form might survive our physical death. For how long — no one can say. It is worth noting that while theologians are almost exclusively preoccupied with the fate of the soul in either heaven or hell, popular accounts of the afterlife are concerned with the far more practical issue of transition. It sounds wonderful, if it is true, that a spotlessly clean, idyllic place called heaven, where we are forever comforted, enlightened, transported, at one with infinite cosmic goodness, awaits us. But just how do we get there? Is it painful to physically die? Is the sensation of having our earthly consciousness suddenly snuffed out as horrible as it seems? Exactly what is that first moment like, for there must be a first moment, when we realized we have died?

My thought experiment is meant to dramatize all those psychological issues that are carefully bypassed in both the theological and popular depictions of the afterlife. If consciousness is to be our starting point, we cannot forget that our initial awareness of death begins with the sick and dying person, the corpse he or she becomes, and the funeral service that follows. No one who has seen a coffin lowered into the ground — of someone with whom they have had any meaningful contact — will easily forget it. We see why fantasies of the afterlife tend to begin well above the corpse in the coffin, above the earth in which it is buried, in the most cloud-filled, spaciously conceivable surroundings. We see why someone, whose consciousness had inexplicably survived their death, would most likely be frightened at their unprecedented transformation. He or she could not help but immediately wonder if they maintained the same physical connection, guaranteed by gravity, to the earth. It is likely they would be desperate for markers of this former existence. Like the infant first exploring how their body interacts with the endlessly novel surrounding world; their new afterlife adult consciousness would want to find out what it means to have died. What kind of body do they have? Do their five senses still work? Can they feel pain? Speak? Walk? Are there objects with which to interact? Other people? Are they instead, like ghosts, immaterial presences that cannot effect anything material, as often depicted?

It is therefore hard to imagine if their afterlife consciousness is anything like their human predecessor, that within minutes they would not become increasingly anxious and panicky. The novelty of their radical metamorphosis would soon overwhelm them. The realization that they have just lost, by dying, everything they ever loved or valued or been comforted by would be gut-wrenching. The recognition that their only hope would be that somehow, miraculously, they are perhaps going to be inducted into an unimaginably different world, would be terrifyingly daunting to accept.

Such, I believe, is the only logical, psychologically plausible starting place from which the human imagination can realistically begin to contemplate their possible feelings about the afterlife. Not surprisingly, what I have suggested has been thoroughly — except in horror stories — denied and repressed. In its stead, we have the familiar anthropomorphizing of the afterlife. Although we may readily embrace Steven Spielberg’s ET as an extraterrestrial playmate, no one, I think, would want to discover that the one and only God bore the appearance and shape of an alien, howsoever adorable.

All of which makes it difficult if not impossible for the ordinary person to determine what they really believe when the question concerns the metaphysical fate of their consciousness or soul. Knowing that science cannot help them here, the temptation will be enormous to be told by some authority what to think and to feel about one of the most perplexing conundrums of their existence. This may be why, in over thirty years of dealing with thousands of patients, I have been repeatedly struck at the poverty of genuine creative thought when it comes to fundamental religious beliefs. Otherwise resourceful, smart, wise, thoughtful, even truly brilliant people can turn mute when the question of the afterlife is raised. This can only be because few of us, unless indoctrinated as children or concerned with life-threatening existential crises, are willing to think about such things. Is it because they lack courage? No, I think, they lack hope. They lack hope because they lack belief, belief that they could survive what they fear will be an unbearable existential exploration. And they lack belief because, crucially, they lack anything that might count as plausible evidence.

Back in the nineteenth century, Nietzsche famously (and it is now apparent very mistakenly) said that God is dead. But he also said very prophetically that people — in a time far more pious than our own — simply do not live as if they really believed in heaven and hell. If they did, they would spend by far the greater part of their waking hours straining heroically to get into heaven. An overriding, religious purpose would dominate their lives. No longer would they be overwhelmed by the world in which they live. What used to be mere flickering transcendental yearnings would slowly coalesce and begin to cast an unbreakable spell.

With the help of another thought experiment, we can imagine such a world in which belief would be supreme. If we can imagine that a God could come down to the earth in the form of a man — a belief that had many predecessors prior to the life of Christ — we can imagine a God desiring to give a wake-up call to a woefully skeptical, secular and sinning world,a last chance, say, before raining down the apocalypse. We might then have…

Afterlife Anonymous
You are in a room, a place where those who suffer from incurable skepticism can gather if they choose for healing for one day a year. Whoever comes is guaranteed the same confidentiality that he or she would receive if they attended a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. Although it looks ordinary, the room is not. What at first is a dais in front with a long grey table and a curiously empty row of wooden chairs begins to change as soon as the meeting begins. No one can explain how, but all agree that gradually faces, hands bodies materialize into distinct human beings who once had lived but now are dead. None of them can be recognized from the recorded pages of history. But all have lived lives, all at one time or another had been skeptics. All have returned from the afterlife to give testimony to their wayward, earthly brothers and sisters. Only two such meeting places of Afterlife Anonymous exist on earth. According to your choice, you can hear testimony from those who presently live in heaven, or those who are in hell. There to inspire and not terrorize their guests, they all speak plainly, all do their best to be reassuring. Each tells an individual tale of cynicism, despair and bottoming out. Those who were lucky enough to redeem themselves, tell how they managed to find the light. Their portrayal of heaven is described over and over again as indescribably joyful. Rather than details, they strive to relay the most common fundamentally human feelings. They do not deny the divine but they are careful to exclude mention of God the Father, which must be experienced to be believed. Although they do not sound so different than ordinary people who claim to be in daily communion with their God, their testimony, which is seen and heard first hand, carries incomparably more weight. As does their less fortunate brethren who did not make it to heaven, but who, in their own grim way, are as eager to tell their stories of loss. The loss is not of missed opportunities on earth, but of what might have happened in the afterlife. It is not a horror story of burning oil, taunting devils, and medieval torturing. It is the psychic anguish for recognizing once and for all the price that is to be paid or willfully destroying everything that had been precious about their soul…

Anyone who can picture the above will see the difference between someone who says he or she really believes in another world — but hardly acts that way — and someone who unquestionably does. If a place such as Afterlife Anonymous really was available, we can imagine the impact. At the very least, there would be an unprecedented explosion of spiritual rebirth. Pursuit of the transcendental world to come would far outstrip pursuit of the materialistic. Science would proceed apace, but the new physics would be more about the paranormal than the number of extra dimensions, the mathematical harmonies of string theory and the mystery of the multiverse. Endless experimentation would ensue to determine the exact nature of the hidden laws of Afterlife Anonymous. Furious scientific and philosophical debates would erupt as to what exactly does the experience prove. That we have definitive proof at last that there is a supreme being who designed the universe? That we are being toyed with, perhaps, by a malicious extraterrestrial who comes from a planet thousands or millions of years more advanced than ours? All would agree, however, that an authentic, supernatural event had occurred. In spite of which, assuming that we had not genetically changed, much of the world would go on as before. Although there would be wannabe saints galore, there would be plenty of sinners. Those who rebelled for the sake of rebelling. Those who cracked under the tension of waiting to learn the eventual fate of their soul. Those who were willing to pay whatever price in order to gratify their darkest impulses.

If these two thought experiments sound oddly fanciful, it is because they deliberately clash with contemporary fantasies of the afterlife. In order to see clearly what people believe, or want to believe about what happens when they die, we do not have to go any further than the classic cinematic portrayals of close encounters of the third kind.

Gerald Alper

Author, God and Therapy

What we believe when no one is watching

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