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Is there Life after Death?

Written By Jon M. Sweeney

[This short article includes a review of two new books: Deepak Chopra’s Life after Death: The Burden of Proof (releasing in paperback September ’08) and On Life after Death, by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, with a foreword by Caroline Myss (this revised edition was published in March ’08)].

I come from a Christian background where sin, grace, and Jesus have always defined life after death. As a child I was taught that my sin was inherited at birth (this is called the doctrine of Original Sin), but Christ died and paid the penalty for my sins (this is called the doctrine of the Atonement). If I accepted his sacrifice, making Jesus the Lord of my life, I would go to heaven when it came time for me to die.

Of course, most Christians will tell you that it rarely feels that simple. This basic outline seems to leave too many questions vague or unanswered. That’s where the spiritual/mystical side of Christianity comes into play. Christian mystics have always gone beyond the doctrines and focused on union with God. They teach us that union with God in this life prepares us for union with God in the next. Still, there are so many questions with so many possible answers, that Christians (and everyone in other traditions, as well) will often go looking for answers to life after death questions in other places.

Deepak Chopra is an internationally bestselling author who writes about spirituality in nonsectarian terms. He isn’t usually read by clergy and theologians—the usual experts on matters of life and death—because he talks in ways that don’t quite fit with what one might hear in church. Chopra talks about God as a universal love that has the potential to flow everywhere and in every one, but only when it is unmasked by fear, judgment, anxiety, and guilt. Since those adjectives are some real hallmarks of Christian tradition, and we’re all trying to find true love in our lives, Chopra has a lot of closet Christian readers.

Chopra has recently written Life after Death: The Burden of Proof, in which he presents an Life After Death: The Burden of Proof by Deepak Chopraapproach to life after death that attempts to blend religion and science. He shows that the universe makes sense precisely because human beings live and die, although death has little finality. He uses the principles of quantum theory to support ancient Vedic (religion native to India, the foundation of Hinduism) beliefs about the "consciousness" of the universe. Chopra explains that the whole universe and every particle in it is conscious. This enormous web of all things both animate and inanimate—all with consciousness—is why we so often feel that life has tremendous meaning, even if we can’t articulate it very well.

Chopra also believes in the Vedic principle of the continuance of human consciousness after the death of the physical body (as in the doctrine of reincarnation), and explains it in Life after Death. Most interestingly, he does a good job of showing how the principles of quantum physics support this idea.

Where Deepak Chopra is a spiritual figure writing about science, Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross was a scientific figure often writing about issues of spirituality. Kübler-Ross died in 2004 and will always be renowned for her groundbreaking book, On Death and Dying (1969) in which she originated the now paradigmatic "five stages of grief" for anyone experiencing tremendous loss such as learning of a terminal illness.

More recently, she published On Life After Death, venturing to discuss the experiences of those who have what have come to be called near death experiences (NDE). She spent 25 years researching what occurs to the person at the moment of death, and interviewing thousands of people who have claimed to have NDE. Most appealingly, Kübler-Ross concludes that the NDE is basically the same for every person.

On Life after Death by Elisabeth Kubler-RossShe states this conclusion right at the outset, in the first essay of the book which was originally a lecture she gave in 1982. Just as she had earlier mapped out the five stages of grief, here she finds a model of sorts for near death experiences: an out-of-the-body occurrence that includes a feeling of wholeness and heightened awareness; seeing doctors, nurses and/or loved ones while clinically dead; a feeling of never being alone, especially as our bodies begin to die. Death is simply a transmission to the other side, in Kübler-Ross's findings.

The findings of a Dr. Kübler-Ross have a great impact on us, I believe, precisely because churches and religious authorities oftentimes want little to do with these areas of inquiry. Why wouldn’t pastors, priests, rabbis and theologians be lining up to listen to the cases of those people who were pronounced dead in a hospital, only to revive minutes later? Kübler-Ross claims to have studied more than 20,000 such cases—and her study was not detached; she actually sat at the bedsides of many, listening and comforting, all the while jotting down notes. Those same religious experts who tend to want nothing to do with this sort of research will also usually admit that tradition or scripture has taught them precious little when it comes to explaining what happens in life after death.

Chopra and Kübler-Ross conveyed a strong message of hope that there is more to life—much more—than what meets the eye. They separately conclude that the basic purpose of our lives is to learn to love and care for each other, and that in the afterwards, we will not be alone. We are like butterflies emerging from cocoons, and death from this body is really just an evolving into the next stage of life.

Copyright ©2008 Jon Sweeney