Chapter 1: Introduction
Children take the continuity of life for granted. It is the fact of death that has to be taught. Self-preservation is one of humankind's most powerful instincts, transcending the grave itself, for the desire for immortality, an afterlife, is nothing else than one form of the search for self-preservation.
In the inner-self, humans visualize themselves as observers of all that can be seen or can be imagined. Consciousness is experienced as a ever-flowing stream which, in spite of its temporary breaks in sleep, still seems to be continuous and without a conscious beginning or end. One goes to sleep many times, but always to wake once more. Humans have gotten into the habit of being alive. To think of oneself as non-being is difficult. People can accept the mortality of others, but not of themselves.
One of the earliest recorded expressions of desire for a future life was written thousands of years ago by an Egyptian scribe for whom the expectation of personal immortality was connected with the belief that his body would avoid the horrors of disintegration if it were to be mummified. This prayer of a hopeful soul contains a cry of immediately recognizable human longing. To the god Osiris, the king and judge of the dead, he prays,
Grant thou that I may enter into the land of everlastingness, according to what was done for thee, whose body never saw corruption…Let not my body become worms, but deliver me as thou didst thyself.…Let life come from the body's death and let not decay…make an end of me…I shall have my being; I shall live; I shall live! (from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, translated by E. A.W. Budge, 1901)
The belief in an afterlife coincides with the innate conviction that present life has significance and purpose. And because humans believe their earthly existence has meaning and they therefore have a reason for being, it seems imperative that at least some part of them must somehow continue in a future life. While an afterlife may be difficult to prove in a material sense, various world religions promise to provide a spiritual link between a person's actions in this life and his or her continued existence in a future life.
Conceptions of the world beyond death vary considerably among the world religions, but in every religious expression known to history or anthropology, the question of the afterlife in store for the individual believer has been of prime importance. This chapter will offer summaries of the beliefs of the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Islamic, and Jewish faiths concerning the fate of the soul after death.
Belief in an afterlife, like belief in a Supreme Being, creates in those who affirm such faith a way of regarding themselves in relation to the future life. These individuals need not view the possibility of an afterlife in the abstract. Those whose faith has trained them to believe completely in an afterlife can easily imagine what the future life will be. For them, life after death is a definable concept, a genuine and real result of how they have lived their present life. To religious individuals, faith in an afterlife becomes increasingly part of their existence, a source of courage and strength as the years go by. And once physical death overtakes them, for the great majority of these individuals, the most significant feature of an afterlife will be their union with the Divine.
For those individuals who hold Christian, Islamic, or Jewish religious beliefs, the soul is generally conceived as coming into existence with the birth of the body, and it would perish when the body perished if it were not for the supernatural intervention of God, who confers upon the soul an immortality that it could not otherwise attain. Those whose view of the afterlife includes the possibility of reincarnation, past lives, and future incarnations have no doubt that the soul is immortal by its very nature. In their view, the existence of the soul did not begin when the body was born, so there is no reason to believe that it will cease to exist when the body dies. According to various doctrines of reincarnation, there are immutable spiritual laws which will determine whether the soul will be born again into another physical body or will be merged in eternal unity with the Absolute.
While many people consider the belief in reincarnation to be held primarily by the adherents of Hinduism and some Buddhist sects, the concept of past lives is by no means confined to these Eastern religions. This chapter will examine many Western philosophers, clerics, medical doctors, and scholars who have expressed an individual acceptance of a prior and continued existence in an earthly body, in addition to certain Christian, Islamic, and Jewish sects that have also suggested that reincarnation may be one of the forms of survival after death.
Down through the centuries, the physical act of passage from one world to another at the moment of death has remained a mystery for the living. From time to time, one who had been resuscitated and brought back to life returned with an account of having stood at the edge of some vast unknown and uncharted world and having witnessed the activity of ethereal beings within. In recent decades, there have been an increasing number of well-documented accounts of people who have been resuscitated from clinical death and returned with reports of passing through a darkened tunnel to emerge into a place of light, and therein, meeting beings of light. Such near-death experiences (NDEs) demonstrate the inherent desire for a conscious life beyond the grave and for an endless continuation of spiritual opportunities. This longing for an unobstructed life, for life in the fullest sense that the individual can conceive, is an essential element in the earnest desire for immortality.
A belief in an afterlife may be essentially humanity's belief in itself. Within the vast majority of human beings exists a fundamental longing for the continuance of conscious and rational life. In centuries past, a desire for a future life was confined to affirmations of faith in the teachings or the scriptures of one's religious belief. Today, the hopes of the common person, the saint, and the mystic that an afterlife is truly a reality have been joined by many scientists, who are proving that the scientific desire to know and to keep on knowing is but another form of the same demand for a continuation of a conscious and rational life.