Do you believe in heaven? While the practice of organized religion has declined in the U.S., the vast majority (73%, according to Pew Research) still believe in heaven.
But what if you cannot summon faith in anything at all, much less the hereafter?
The Case for, and Against, Heaven
The more I research, the more I find compelling arguments both for and against afterlife. What I think it comes down to, is that each of us chooses how we view “reality”–with deep influences from our family and culture. Centuries past, humans ascribed supernatural powers to animals and elements, shared creation stories that solved mysteries of why and how we exist, and worshipped divine beings that seemed able to control the destinies of the natural world and individual lives.
Fast forward to the 20th and 21st centuries, conversely, wherein we’ve shifted from supernatural myths to a materialist, empiricist worldview–that is, only what can be seen and quantified, is real. Modern science dictates that everything that exists, even our consciousness, has its basis in the material realm. Religious faith is only those who don’t know better or who are loathe to accept that we have only the here and now.
People in my life fall clearly into one of those two camps: For example, my surviving son, who is a genius-level, well-educated programmer, proudly calls himself an atheist and views spiritual faith as a sort of opium for the masses. Meanwhile, my devoutly Catholic, Hispanic mother-in-law, who’s currently facing end-stage pancreatic cancer, has an almost unbelievable sense of peace about both the illness and her imminent death.
So, which one is right, my son or my mom?
My Faith, Before It Was Shattered
My own background shaped me to land somewhere between their two viewpoints: My parents shared a deep Christian-based faith in God, yet my scientist father taught me to query everything and swallow nothing.
And, as you know if you’ve dived into any of my stories here, I had an abiding faith in a higher power, through all the losses and lessons of my life, up until my son Jacob died by suicide … It was as if, just when I needed it most, I could not access even a shred of belief in anything at all.
Because this is the thing: When your loved one dies, your grief springs from three sources:
- You will miss them for the rest of your life,
- They will miss out on myriad, wonderful experiences, and
- If there is no afterlife, then they have absolutely ceased to exist.
The first two facts are unyielding, but what if we could find a way around #3?
Near-Death Experiences (NDEs) and Psychic Mediums
I plowed through many books on the possibility of heaven, such as the bestselling account of a near-death experience (NDE) by a Harvard neurosurgeon (Dr. Eben Alexander), Proof of Heaven, a book that’s given hope to millions while also being debunked as just a hallucination he had while emerging from a coma.
To Alexander, who was an atheist before his NDE, humans possess a spirit separate from the body and mind, and we cannot know for sure that only the here and now is real. He envisions what he calls a second scientific revolution, coming SOON, he tells The Crimson, in which quantum mechanics will cause “spirituality [to] explode into the mainstream of progressive, empirical thought. By 2028, no self-respecting, scientifically minded, well-read person on earth will doubt the reality of the afterlife and reincarnation based on the scientific evidence,’ he says.”
You could read for months and years: Stephen Weber, who survived a near-fatal motorcycle accident, Michael Newton and Raymond Moody, who survey hundreds of people experiencing NDEs, Anita Moorjani, who died from cancer and came back without a trace of it … If you crave faith in the hereafter, you can find endless accounts across cultures and time that share uncanny resemblances in how “heaven” looks and feels.
Even Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the renowned founder of the hospice movement who outlined the “five stages” of grief (I put the words in quotation marks because they do not happen serially), endorsed her belief in NDEs and afterlife her book On Life After Death.
If NDEs sound too remote for your experience, you can visit a psychic medium in an attempt to communicate with your own deceased loved one(s). Here too, I found the gamut from snake-oil sellers, who probably perform just based on cues from their clients and common sense, to seemingly genuine healers who convey details they had no human way of knowing. I’ve just finished reading a helpful exploration of the psychic medium field by grief specialist Claire Bidwell Smith, who visited both unknown and famous psychics and reached a conclusion similar to my own; which is …
Heaven Is Possible
Even those of us who embrace scientific proof have to admit that each era adds to our knowledge, and that laws of physics, quantum physics, and astrophysics that we now uphold were utterly unknown in centuries past.
So, I say, why not hold out for the possibility that there is more to space and time, energy and essence, than we currently can perceive? I realize I’m grossly oversimplifying questions of the hereafter that many people spend a lifetime examining, and I don’t claim to have answers for anyone but myself, in this moment.
For now, Jacob appears to be forever gone and beyond my grasp. But that doesn’t prevent me from watching, waiting, and listening, in case he finds a way to prove me wrong.
Cover image courtesy of davies-designs-studio-_UCVrH-ZIIg-unsplash.jpeg.