Saturday, September 15, 2012

I'll Follow You Into the Dark?

If Heaven and Hell decide
That they both are satisfied
Illuminate the no’s on their vacancy signs
If there’s no one beside you
When your soul embarks
Then I’ll follow you into the dark.
- I’ll Follow You Into the Dark, Death Cab for Cutie
I'll Follow You Into the Dark is a beautiful soft, soulful melody containing feelings of sorrow, comfort, and companionships. The singer has been burnt by his religious upbringing and considers the afterlife to be empty, non-existent. Recently I have become aware of a whole field of research being done to explore questions of the afterlife. The study of Near-Death Experiences (NDE) are expanding within a larger context of spirituality and neuroscience. These findings seem to indicate that  human consciousness is not dependent on a physical body. Essentially, studies indicate the real possibility of an afterlife. Bruce Greyson (2010) discusses these experiences and shows that people have experiences of being consciously aware even though their brain and/or heart has stopped functioning. Sometimes they are aware of their surroundings or have out of body experiences, neither of which can be explained by their ability to see, hear, or travel physically. They tend to experience clearer, faster, and more logical thinking than they had physically. They report meeting and talking to the deceased and accurately observe details and events that take place at locations other than their where their body is. Greyson records 30 cases of NDEs that reported seeing people dead whom were not previously known to be dead. In such cases neither the person having an NDE nor the surrounding community had been aware of the deceased. These cases are not new or modern and are not limited to one culture or continent.  There are many in the scientific community who question these findings. CherylFracasso and Harris Friedman (2011) cite objections and theories that posit that these sensations and experiences of NDEs can be attributed to natural opiates and endorphins in the brain, natural or administered drug called ketamine interacting with the brain, blood-oxygen levels, temporal lobe seizures, REM, tissue pressure on the ocular nerve, psychological depersonalization, personalities inclined to fantasy, expectation of an afterlife, stored memories of birth, and false data due to after-the-fact reporting.  While studies conducted are able to reproduce some aspect of the NDEs, they do not account for the varieties, complexity or verifiable observations involved. So far, no theory has yet accounted for the complexity of NDEs. And yet, there are limitations to and difficulties with the NDE research. Cheryl Fracasso (2012) points out that objective date about many aspects of NDEs cannot be measured or validated. Other challenges include the stigma that both individuals having NDEs and researches face. This affects the ability to conduct research by NDErs being reluctant to share their experiences and researchers being limited in conducting research.

Jesus, as identified by Colton
I find my own skepticism hard at work when evaluating these cases. My first exposure to an NDE happened when my book club decided to read Heaven is for Real, a case of a little boy, Colton, who dies, is revived, and lives to astound his parents with tales of Jesus, heaven, meetings with deceased relatives, and verifiable observations in the tangible world while clinically dead. I had many thoughts and questions while reading it - most centered on the truthfulness of his family in reporting these facts. Perhaps it is that such experiences, if true, would have astounding implications of the nature of our world, our existence, and the reality in which we live. I must admit that my hidden, deeper concerns actually arise from the challenges to my own faith and perspectives of God that such NDEs raise. 

Teri Daniel (2011) chooses to believe in a non-religious afterlife. He states, “If we come from oblivion and return to oblivion with a short time in between, then we aren’t actually coming or going anywhere on this journey. The whole journey would be pointless.” This exposes two human concerns: the desire for hope and meaning in this life. Daniel’s cry is consistent with Christian Apologetics Philosopher Dr. William Lane Craig who explores the logical meaninglessness of an atheistic and naturalistic reality. Perhaps it is this desire that creates a complex variety of physiological and physical factors that create the NDEs that we have yet to discover. But perhaps it is something more. Perhaps there is an afterlife.

I am certainly convinced myself of a distinctively Christian afterlife. However, it is important to note that NDEs do not necessarily validate Christianity specifically, but they certainly are consistent with Biblical descriptions and affirmations. Yet, I still find the need to be critically discerning when approaching these studies. This is the basis of scientific exploration and discovery. Findings should be analyzed and other theories encouraged and studied. Value can be found in guarding against idealistically hopeful subjective realities that have no basis. But subjective experiences found to have basis should not be instantly discredited simply because of their subjective nature. They can be evaluated logically with other evidences and reasoning.  After being exposed to these studies, I am excited to see what science continues to unfold. These insights invite further study, meditation and hope and raises an intriguing question: Will you, indeed, follow me into the dark….


                                                                                                           … or to something more?


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