By Prof. Stafford Betty
Guest writer for Wake Up World.
In this article we will examine three things: (1) the varieties of nonreligious, or secular information about the afterworld, (2) how we evolve in that world, and (3) the consequences for us, living in physical bodies, of a confident belief in the reality of that world.
How We Know What We Know
I am assuming that most of you, like me, cannot trust an ancient scripture to tell you about the world to come. For one thing, there is considerable discord among religions. For another, they probably strike you as mythical or imaginary, not based on the evidence we have at our disposal today. Just as the physical sciences have evolved, so have the psychical.
Nowadays we get our information, at a minimum, from a study of eight very different kinds of experience: deathbed visions, near-death experiences (NDEs), apparitions or ghosts, poltergeist phenomena, spirit communication through mediums, spirit attachment and possession, reincarnation memories by small children, spirit communication through instruments (instrumental transcommunication, or ITC), and terminal lucidity of dying people with deeply damaged brains. Each of these sources is independent of the others and helps make the case for survival over extinction, in the same way that a bundle of sticks is much harder to break than just one by itself.
To take one example, many dying people report seeing apparitions, usually of deceased loved ones, at their bedside. No one else can see them, but the nearly-deceased speak of them almost matter-of-factly. They have weak but measurable vital signs and are clearly conscious of the world around them. At the same time they are also apparently conscious of the world they are about to enter. They seem to have one foot in this world and one foot in the next. By contrast, near-death experiencers have no vital signs and usually report being out of their body. If their experience is deep, they will leave this world and go into another before returning. They are clinically dead, but deathbed visionaries are clinically alive. These are a different kind of phenomena, but they each in their own way point to the reality of an afterworld.
The best dozen cases of these two types of experience are powerfully suggestive of an afterlife. The odds in favour of each type of evidence is strengthened by the reinforcing power of the other. The same is true of each of the other six types of evidence. In my book When Did You Ever Become Less by Dying?, I bring together the strongest cases of each of the eight types. I know from much experience interacting with hundreds of readers (including my university students) that anyone reading the book with an open mind will be convinced beyond reasonable doubt that the afterlife is real. Imagine how powerful a single case is, then recall there are hundreds of other similar cases in this particular genre. Then recall there are seven other genres! The scoffer is mathematically skewered.
The Nature of the Afterworld
In my book Heaven and Hell Unveiled, I laid out for the reader, in 19 chapters, the probable nature of the afterworld based on all this evidence. Elsewhere I’ve summarised it in 50 generalisations (the “nifty fifty”). Here I will address only one of its aspects that I find especially attractive. This is the progressive nature of the afterworld and the part that free will plays. The afterworld is not predominantly a place for rest, but for action and, hopefully, growth.
Many souls see with great clarity how much growth lies ahead of them. Etta Thomas is a case in point. The Englishman Rev. Drayton Thomas communicated with the dead for over twenty years through the highly gifted medium Mrs Gladys Osborne Leonard. The main communicators were his father, John, a Methodist minister, and his sister, Etta. John died in 1903, Etta in 1920. Both proved to be particularly gifted subjects. Etta sees herself as a work in progress. She is grateful for the changes wrought in her and expects more:
…the four years since I passed over have gone very quickly and very happily. I grow more conscious of the wonderful things around me, things of which I was not wholly conscious at first. For instance, my range of sight and hearing, as well as understanding, is constantly increasing.
Other spirits look ahead to a future that almost takes one’s breath away. The spirit of Frances Banks, an Englishwoman and meditator who died 50 years ago, described herself as embedded in a family of souls that was evolving toward “the eternal Centre of Light and Creative Energy which men call God.” Later she added, “I feel as though I am starting on a Path of Light which leads… into Realms of unimaginable beauty and wonder and of which I have, as yet, but the faintest glimmer of comprehension.”
Another spirit, a young man who died in an accident trying to save a child from being run over, described, “great Beings of Light who do the Will of the Divine Creator and who carry and transmit Power and Beauty and Light. But they too are in the process of progress.” He later adds that he has no idea how many “successive galleries of holiness each soul must climb before it can be satisfied, and see Him [God] as He is.”
This spirit, named Aphraar, meets a woman he knew on earth who dedicated herself to the care of children in London’s slums, and who wrote poetry on the side. “Thank God, I can and do still write,” she exclaims. She recites a poem a page long full of spiritual fervour. In it she tells us why she must be satisfied with her present station in a lower heaven:
Oh! the vision would o’erpower us,
If it suddenly were given
So we wait in preparation,
In the vestibule of Heaven.
Aphraar then asks her if “there are still other preparatory stages before you reach the final home”:
Oh, yes! There are others, how many I have no idea. The question which sometimes occurs to me is: Shall we ever reach the last? Is there a final? Since God is infinite, is it possible for us to arrive at any limit? Think how far we were from holiness when we commenced our pilgrimage on earth, and what a trifling distance we have yet travelled, then you will understand that there must yet be innumerable such stages before we can hope to stand in the undimmed splendour of His presence. With the new powers and greater knowledge which my new life has given me, unfolding a wider conception of His purity and my own unworthiness, I sometimes think it will be almost necessary for the remembrance of our earth life to pass away before we can bear to look upon His face.
Drayton Thomas’s father shares this woman’s vision. God’s purpose, he says, is to give each soul endless opportunities to perfect itself:
…one cannot attain a stage at which one can say, “There is nothing more to will, I must go on exactly as I am.” Because when we master what we think is the absolute crowning point of knowledge in any subject, we immediately find that it has opened out a world of new knowledge again. You see it all around you. The possibilities over here are infinitely greater! On earth there are always many standing still: I do not expect them to see what I mean. But others will understand, those to whom light upon one point means a rising up to glimpse another field of exploration. There is no point of perfection which we can reach where there is nothing more to learn; there will always be this glorious sense of adventure in understanding and trying to understand, following up and achieving. I do not lose my zest for more knowledge and enlightenment, it increases.
In this and many other instances we see an endlessly expansive future for any soul desiring to know more, love more, and be more. We get glimpses of indescribable joy; and the degree of joy is proportionate to the development of noble character – a soul delighting in truth, goodness, and beauty.
I don’t want to give the impression we are all destined for a happy ending. Far from it. Character (not belief) dictates our place in the afterworld when we pass, and it is from that starting point that we must begin to grow if we are so inclined.
What about characterless people who gamble away their paychecks in casinos or commit adultery with their best friend’s spouse or never get around to visiting their dying parents in a rest home? What about ordinary selfish people who might remind us of ourselves? A spirit describing himself as a politician who “got the most out of people and gave the least possible in return” told Drayton Thomas about his first surroundings. He likened them to some of the dull, uninteresting towns in the Midlands or north of England with their stretches of barren fields around small rows of jerry-built houses.
My companions were uninteresting and unintelligent people. Many of these had been wealthy on earth, but it is not that which counts on coming over here.
This man eventually aspires to a better state:
On reaching the next sphere my surroundings were a degree better, for there were opportunities for more intellectual and spiritual development. There I found halls and schools where study was encouraged, and helpers came who did not coerce, but who told us of the more beautiful regions above. Yet, although they can tell of those realms, and can arouse the wish to reach them, one has to work out the stupidities and follies and the errors of evil done, whether consciously or unconsciously, during life on earth. And this is accomplished by hard work for others, while forgetting self entirely; building houses and making the less beautiful objects required there, aiding those newly arrived, and, generally, in effacing self while recollecting one’s truest needs.
We should bear in mind, however, that many spirits are no more interested in spiritual advancement than they were on Earth. “There are sluggards and dull people here, as with you,” another spirit, reminds us. “Most souls are nearly as blind as they were on earth.” But there are plenty of teachers, “who stand ready to help anyone who wishes their help in making real and deep studies in the mysteries of life.”
What about deathbed “conversions”? Spirits tell us they are meaningless. That’s because they have no impact on character. The spirit of David Patterson-Hatch, a judge living in early 20th century Los Angeles, has a warning for those planning on such a manoeuvre to gain them admittance into heaven: “Beware of deathbed repentance and its after-harvest of morbid memories. It is better to go into eternity with one’s karmic burdens bravely carried upon the back, rather than to slink through the back door of hell in the stockinged-feet of a sorry cowardice.” Another spirit, using the name Silver Birch, echoes Hatch: “There is no cheap reprieve, there are no easy pardons. Divine justice rules the whole universe. A spiritual dwarf cannot pretend to be a spiritual giant. There is no death-bed repentance.”
We learn the following from these and many other spirit accounts: First, we are the judges of ourselves, and our memory of everything we did is extremely acute and cannot be evaded. Second, although some of the world’s major religions are correct in telling us we’ll be judged, they are wrong on the details – seriously wrong. Nowhere is there mention of a God sitting on a throne with sceptre in hand. Nowhere does it seem that some external being of any kind does the judging. God may well be the ultimate judge, but if so, then, as Drayton Thomas’s aunt tells it, he does it “through our higher selves.” Third, judgment serves a single purpose: the reconstruction of the soul. The process will often be painful, however the goal is never punishment, but change. Fourth, the idea of eternal hell is universally rejected. At every level, from angelic to demonic, the will is always free, and therefore change possible. No one is condemned to remain in ‘hell’ everlastingly, though one may choose to do so.
Consequences of Believing in an Afterworld Like the One Described Here
Belief in an afterlife has had a profound impact on civilisation throughout human history up to our own day. It has inspired many, if not most, of the great works of art: the Pyramids, the Parthenon, Chartres Cathedral, Bach’s Mass in B Minor, the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible; the list goes on and on. Too often it reaches us today in a form that is primitive and even dangerous. That we continue to be influenced by these worn-out theologies of eternal damnation for some, and divinely favoured fates for others, is unworthy of us, especially since we now have teachers and guides telling us what really happens. If only we would listen to them, this is what our world would look like:
It would instil in us a belief that life is “going somewhere” or “adding up to something.” It would build confidence in a Source of immense proportions at the helm of a soul-building process that would give our lives meaning they wouldn’t otherwise have.
It would lead to a confident expectation that life wouldn’t end at death, that those cut off early in life would not be denied their share, and that ancestors and their descendants would be reunited.
It would help remove the anguish of those mourning the death of a child, for they would know their loved one was in good hands.
It would remove the dullness of afterlife conceptions that comes from thinking of it as static, even boring, with nothing more left to achieve; or vague, with nothing concrete and colourful and beautiful to recommend it. The heavens would be reconceived as a challenging, stimulating, dynamic environment.
It would lift the melancholy that fear of personal extinction brings to many people, especially the elderly.
It would lead to the conviction that good actions meet with a happy destiny and selfish or criminal actions with the opposite. This “law of karma” has through the centuries provided the glue that helps societies stay more or less law-abiding.
It would discourage those near death from taking heroic measures to extend their lives a few more weeks – a costly choice that grows out of the fear this is the only life there is, and that, according to most authorities, the world cannot afford.
Consumption of the world’s resources would be reduced as people came to see this isn’t their only chance at happiness.
Racism and sexism would become less enticing once society came to better understand that souls have no colour or sex.
A greater emphasis on the soul would discourage the present fixation on the body and create more psychological space for deeper reflection and more wholesome pursuits.
Our world would become more interesting once we recognise it is visited by spirits we cannot see; it would verticalise our world.
Fundamentalist religion would lose much of its appeal as the more spacious, inclusive realisations based on insights given us by our spirit friends gained traction. Just as there is one science and not many, in the same way there would be one ‘religion’, although with many faces growing out of the world’s various cultures. There would still be wars, but they wouldn’t as easily get mixed up with religion.
Human beings, at their best, are more than unthinking consumers. They wonder about the meaning of life; they are philosophers; they are moral agents. The conclusions they reach have far-reaching consequences, as the above bullet points make clear. These conclusions are endlessly debatable. Looking at both sides of a Big Question like the one proposed here – do we survive death? – introduces them to their own creative depths, teaches them how to reason and defend a point, and gives them a taste, perhaps their first, of the joy of living in the mind. In a word, it humanises them.
As I see it, the case for survival has been proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Its truth does not hinge on wishful thinking, as materialists like to claim. It hinges on evidence. It doesn’t depend on any particular religion’s teaching, as some religious people like to claim. It depends on evidence. It doesn’t require that one ignore the evidence of science. It requires that one look at all of science, including the new science of consciousness.
This exclusive article first appeared in New Dawn Special issue V11N6 and is reproduced here by permission of the publisher. Ancient Wisdom, New Thinking – check us out at newdawnmagazine.com.
About the Author
Stafford Betty earned his Ph.D. from Fordham University, where he specialised in Asian religious thought and Sanskrit. Today he is a professor of world religions at California State University, Bakersfield, and has evolved as one of the United States’s most acclaimed experts on the afterlife. In 2011 he published The Afterlife Unveiled, his most popular book. A more recent publication, Heaven and Hell Unveiled (2014), is an in-depth description of spirit life, with an emphasis on how spirits progress from lower to higher planes. His tenth book, When Did You Ever Become Less by Dying? Afterlife: The Evidence, appeared in 2016. He has published three novels, most recently The Severed Breast (2016), a historical saga about Thomas the Apostle’s failed attempt to convert India to Christianity.