Death is one of the biggest mysteries of life. What happens to us when we die? Is there an afterlife? Reincarnation? Heaven or hell?
Ancient and religious perspectives on what happens after death have always had many factors in common, like spiritual beings, demonic beings, judgment, and heavenly and hellish regions. Now, with the growing number of near-death experiences (NDEs), these factors are being corroborated by people today of all cultures and faiths – even by aethists. Compelling NDE accounts reveal that there is an existence after death and that these experiences are also a type of out-of-body experience.
Mystics throughout time, and still today, have used out-of-body experiences to visit the place we go to at death whilst still alive. One example is Dante who was able to explore the regions beyond the physical world, and return to give a detailed account of the afterlife in his epic work The Divine Comedy. This means that it is possible for each of us to know what life is for, and to prepare now for our journey beyond death.
Have you not wondered what you take with you at death? What you have within yourself, right now, which is not of time? What do you think you have within you which is spiritual? What can you really say that you know about life and death? Is it all just a belief?
Or are you prepared to find something real, which is not of the body? Can you live beyond the body? Can you acquire the spirit within you; can you reach the eternal within you?
~ Belsebuub in Gazing into the Eternal
Ancient and Religious Perspectives on Death and the Afterlife
To face death is to face an immensity, something very fundamental to existence. Everyone faces it; no one escapes it. There are very few who understand it.
~ Belsebuub in Gazing into the Eternal
‘Death’ and ‘preparation for death’ have formed a large part of most spiritual beliefs and practices throughout human history. This can be traced back as early on as the Iron and Bronze ages (3300 BC – 776 BC), where certain cultures held strong beliefs in a spirit world where the dead end up, as well as the possibility of life after death, with various myths and legends abounding about the trials a soul undergoes at death. Some of these cultures, such as the Eastern Melanesians, also believed that this underworld could be visited by the living via dreams and near-death experiences.
The ancient Egyptians considered death a necessary process that an individual must go through in order to enter a realm of bliss once their physical existence was over. In fact, they prepared for this sacred event their entire lives, because entering that divine realm at death was completely dependent on the way they lived their lives, contingent on the judgment each individual goes through where the merits of their heart are weighed on a scale against a feather to determine their purity.
From as early as 16oo BC, The Egyptian Book of the Dead, a compilation of funerary chapters, was placed in the tombs of the deceased with the aim of guiding them on their journey in the afterlife. Examining the passages, vignettes, and drawings from The Book of the Dead, one can see the process of death described in immense detail: upon death the human soul enters the underworld, where after passing some tests it reaches the Hall of Two Truths to undergo judgment by the god Anubis and the forty-two judges to determine its purity. The soul whose good deeds outweighed the bad was to proceed to its final destination of bliss and eternal happiness. If the scales were not in favor of the deceased however, the soul would be handed over through the Jaws of Typhon, the Crocodile, to enter the Abyss.
Similarly, The Tibetan Book of the Dead is still ritually used at funerals, serving as a guide to the deceased and containing an intricate description of the different stages of the experience of death. The Tibetan Book of the Dead explains the intermediate state of humans between death and reincarnation, where the deceased will find the bright light of wisdom, which shows a straightforward path to move upward and leave the cycle of reincarnation.
Zoroaster, who lived in the region now called Iran around 1000 BCE, teaches that the dead will be swallowed by terror and purified to live in a perfected material world at the end of time. The Pahlavi text Dadestani Denig (“Religious Decisions”) from about 900 CE, describes the particular judgment of the soul three days after death, with each soul sent to heaven, hell, or a neutral place (hamistagan) to await Judgment Day.
In Greece & Rome, Plato, in his Myth of Er, describes souls being judged immediately after death and sent either to the heavens for a reward or underground for punishment. After their respective judgments have been enjoyed or suffered, the souls are reincarnated. The Greek god Hades is known in Greek mythology as the king of the underworld, a bleak place in-between the place of torment and the place of rest, where most souls live after death. Some heroes of the Greek legends were allowed to visit the underworld while still alive. The Romans had a similar belief system about the afterlife, with Hades becoming known as Pluto. The Trojan prince Aeneas, who founds the nation that would later become Rome, visits the underworld according to the epic poem Aeneid.
One fascinating account from classical antiquity takes place in Greece, where Plutarch narrates the tale of Arisdeu, a dishonest and poorly-liked individual who falls into a coma after accidently falling and hitting his head on a rock. During his comma he experiences life outside his body, meets a spiritual guide, and visits other dimensions of consciousness. His experience ended when he felt a sudden pull towards his body, waking up physically at the very moment he was about to be buried. This experience was a life-altering milestone for Arisdeu, who had since transformed himself into a well-respected citizen.
We see evidence of the belief of the after-life and the presence of near-death experiences in Taoist China as well, where Yu Pao, inspired by his brother’s near-death experience, assembled the Record of Researches after Spirits (Shen-shen chi), a compilation of stories of out-of-body experiences.
In the Norse religion, The Prose Edda describes “Hel” as an unpleasant abode for those unworthy of Valhalla, which is reserved for chosen warriors who die in battle.
In Judaism, writing that would later be incorporated into the Hebrew Bible names sheol as the afterlife, a gloomy place where all are destined to go after death. The Book of Numbers identifies sheol as literally underground (Numbers 16:31-33). The Book of Enoch describes sheol as divided into four compartments for four types of the dead: the faithful saints who await resurrection in paradise, the merely virtuous who await their reward, the wicked who await punishment, and the wicked who have already been punished and will not be resurrected on Judgment Day.
For Kabbalists, the Zohar describes Gehenna not as a place of punishment for the wicked but as a place of spiritual purification for the souls of almost all mortals.
In Christianity, Jesus and the New Testament writers of the Bible mention notions of an afterlife and resurrection that involve ideas like heaven and hell. The author of Luke recounts the story of Lazarus and the rich man, which shows people in Hades awaiting the resurrection either in comfort or torment. The author of the Book of Revelation writes about God and the angels versus Satan and demons in an epic battle at the end of times when all souls are judged.
The Upanishads describe reincarnation, or Samsara. The Bhagavad Gita, a treasured book from the Mahabharata talks extensively about the afterlife. Here, Lord Krishna says that just as a man discards his old clothes and wears new ones; similarly the soul discards the old body and takes on a new one. One view in Hinduism is that the body is but a shell, the soul inside is immutable and indestructible and takes on different lives in a cycle of birth and death. The end of this cycle is Mukti or salvation.
Ancient and religious perspectives on death and the afterlife, with their many similarities, are also correlating increasingly with reports of near-death experiences (NDEs) today. Modern technological improvements have enabled cases of NDEs to be reported on a wider scale. According to the Near-Death Experience Research Foundation (NDERF), 774 NDEs occur daily in the US alone!
Near-death experiences occur when a person dies (often suddenly, for example due to cardiac arrest, an accident, etc.) yet their consciousness carries on existing outside their body. Upon their revival they are able to share an account of the experience they had while being clinically dead.
Individuals who have clinically died and were revived come back with relatively consistent accounts of what they’ve experienced upon the death of their body. Although no two near-death experiences are the same, typical accounts include the sensation of separating from the body, a perception of one’s own body and surroundings, a feeling of traveling through a tunnel towards the light, meeting deceased relatives and spiritual beings, traveling into divine realms, going through a life-review, and heightened perceptions of feelings of serenity, joy, and love. In the case of such positive experiences, most report not wanting to reincorporate back into their bodies, but rather having a longing to stay in those blissful states and realms. Needless to say, such experiences have life-altering implications, often resulting in a strengthened appreciation of spirituality and love, as well as a loss of the fear of death.
Exploring the Esoteric Side of NDEs
It’s really crucial to look beyond this life. Looking beyond it, one faces and sees eternity. Seeing things that physical eyes can never see. Seeing beings, light, and darkness, in different ways that cannot be seen here.
~ Belsebuub in Gazing into the Eternal
Testimonials of NDEs are abundant, and are interesting and important to reflect on. They give us clues into the process of death and can illuminate the fabric of life… Continued in PART 2