There are millions of stories now of near-death experiences from around the world; each a snippet, a teaser, of what appears to exist on the other side of death. No other human drama carries quite the power this phenomenon does to unmask traditions of a “grim reaper,” and reveal instead an aliveness that continues after our bodies take their last breath and our brains cease to function.
This aliveness we call an “afterlife,” because in most cases, what near-death experiencers describe sounds like or certainly seems to be sparkling luminations of higher, finer aspects to what we know: cities, gardens, forests, landscapes, roads, rivers, busy people quite alive and doing things, schools, hospitals, opportunities of varied types to reassess earthly existence, to forgive, learn, and then advance toward a goal we can only term “spiritual.”
Because the stories that come from experiencers are so compelling, I’d like to share a few from my research base. Surely after hearing them, you will be more than impressed that an afterlife must indeed exist and that life goes on after we die. Once I have shared these accounts, though, I intend to introduce others that will stretch what we think we know about life after death. The concept of “afterlife” may not be as previously stated or broadly believed.
Arthur E. Yensen died in 1932, at least as near as we can tell he did, from severe injuries in an automobile accident. The vividness of what happened next remained fresh in his memory, not only after he revived, but throughout what later became a long and productive life. As Yensen put it: “Gradually the earth scene faded away, and through it loomed a bright, new, beautiful world – beautiful beyond imagination! For half a minute I could see both worlds at once. Finally, when the earth was all gone, I stood in a glory that could only be heaven.
“In the background were two beautiful, round-topped mountains, similar to Fujiyama in Japan,” Yensen continued. “The tops were snowcapped, and the slopes were adorned with foliage of indescribable beauty. The mountains appeared to be about fifteen miles away, yet I could see individual flowers growing on their slopes. I estimated my vision to be about one hundred times better than on earth. To the left was a shimmering lake containing a different kind of water – clear, golden, radiant, and alluring. It seemed to be alive. The whole landscape was carpeted with grass so vivid, clear, and green, that it defies description. To the right was a grove of large luxuriant trees, composed of the same clear material that seemed to make up everything.”
Yensen described the people there as young-looking and lively, yet possessing a weightless grace in their movements. Their bodies were somewhat translucent, so was the grass and trees; their clothing minimal. One man told him: “Everything over here is pure. The elements don’t mix or break down as they do on earth. Everything is kept in place by an all-pervading Master Vibration, which prevents aging. That’s why things don’t get dirty, or wear out, and why everything looks so bright and new.” Yensen learned how heaven could be eternal from this man (Atwater, 1994, 53-55).
Muriel E. Kelly, weakened by rheumatic fever and a serious heart murmur, became very ill and passed into another world. “I found myself standing on a cobble-stone road with people around me dressed in bright robes – red, blue, pink. Everything was so bright and sunny. Birds were singing. Baby angels were smiling and flying around. I saw all different sizes of angels. The music was hauntingly beautiful.”
Hearing her name called, Muriel turned to see Jesus beside her, dressed in a white-and-red robe. “He knelt down,” she said, “and gave me a hug and I hugged him back. He told me we were going somewhere to talk.” During the course of their time together, Jesus led her to an apartment building with many doors, and told her which door to knock on. A voice inside beckoned her to enter. It was her mother, who had died when Muriel was nine, leaving behind five children. Their reunion was love filled. “I asked Mama where Daddy was, and Cecil, Willie, John, and Paul. Mother told me they weren’t there ‘cause it wasn’t their time. I had no idea what she meant, so she took me to an area where we sat on a cloud and looked over the whole world. My mother located my dad and brothers riding in a car. We could see right through it. Dad was driving, and we heard my brothers and Dad crying, saying, ‘I wish Muriel was still here. We miss her.’” Muriel began to cry for her earthly family and wished to be back with them. She got her wish (Atwater, 1999 and 2003, 106-107).
Cecil L. Hamilton told of swimming with his brother. “He had a problem. I tried to get him out of the water, but in his panic he pulled me under several times. We both drowned. He died, but I came back.” While Hamilton was in the grips of death, he suddenly found himself stepping into a light-filled world. “I noticed everything – sky, buildings, glass – emitted its own light. And everything was much more colourful ….a river meandered around. On the other side was a city, and a road running through it to another city, and another city, and another and another. Right in front of me but across the river were three men. They projected themselves to me. They didn’t walk or fly; they projected over. I didn’t recognise them, yet I knew one was Lynn Bibb.” Hamilton explained, “I was named after him. He died a matter of weeks before I was born.”
Hamilton continued with his story: “I knew these three men were looking out for me, like a welcoming committee to escort me over the river to the first city. I had the feeling that if I went with them, there would be no coming back, so I hesitated. The first city was like first grade. People stayed there until they were ready to go to the next city – your eternal progression, from city to city. Behind me and to the left was a strong light source, very brilliant and filled with love. I knew it was a person. I called it God for lack of a better term. I could not see it; I felt what seemed like a male presence.”
God and Hamilton engaged in a long conversation, the young man asking Him about the universe and reasons for everything. Then God questioned if Hamilton wanted to return to the physical world. “I do want to return,” he said. God asked why. “I said I would help my mother whom my father had left with four children and one on the way. God kind of chuckled and asked for the real reason. I said I would leave the earth a little better than I found it. ‘Then you may return with some of the knowledge of the things you have learned, but the rest will be veiled for a time. Live in such a way that you will not feel bad when you return here again.’ I woke up face down in the mud of the river bottom and was ‘lifted’ to the top” (Atwater, 1991 and 2003, 45-47).
Each of these three accounts describes a particular arrangement of structures, shapes, people, and behaviours that are familiar to us – adding heft to the belief that the afterlife either reflects our earthly life or is an extension of it. The testimonies that follow, however, deviate from what I have just relayed. The focus with them is more fluid with an absence of structured form. I’ll begin with the near-death experience of Ray Kinman that he had as a teenager from an accidental overdose.
“Now this is very difficult to describe,” cautioned Kinman. “Time ceased to exist. Past and future were completely nonexistent. I was traveling in an intense, burning ‘now.’ ‘Now’ was everything. I ceased to be a noun (person, place, or thing) and became a verb (an action). I was Ray-ing, instead of Ray. I was given a huge message. The Being told me, ‘This is Who You Really Are,’ as the Universe opened up to me. I could not tell the difference between myself and the infinite galaxies. I became all-powerful and all-knowing – yet I was still Ray. Then the Being introduced me to another Being of the most Incredible Beauty and Love that anyone could comprehend. It was a Greater Being of intense Light. It was God. The first Being guided me to this Light and let it enfold and swallow me up. I became one with Love times a million, billion, trillion forever and ever. We were made of the same stuff! Every Being that had ever existed in all of Creation was now part of this Greater Whole Being called God. I was one with all of them, and yet I was still Ray – all-powerful, little old me!
“‘This is Who You Really Are,’ thundered the Light. It looked like a galaxy except the points of light were not stars, they were Beings. Every Being there was singing this incredibly beautiful music and praising God. After some indefinite length of Now-ness, I was told that I must go back. I was given another message that was very important. I was told I may return anytime I wished to. Coming back to my body felt like I was stuffed into a vessel of pain and exhaustion.” Kinman was very clear that this was not like any drug experience. This was truth – he was shown the way things really are (Atwater, 2007, 35-36).
Tannis Prouten had a severe anxiety attack that seemed to claim her life. As she explains: “I felt like ducking as the ceiling was only an inch from me, then I was outside, moving through very dark, very vast space.” She saw small, round, glowing spheres around her that she came to realise were lost souls. Before she could react, “Very rapidly I was enveloped within this most divine, living, golden-white light, my HOME. The joy, bliss, humility, awe were beyond human capability to bear. The LIGHT was an infinite, loving, accepting BEING without form. IT had personality. IT communicated with me telepathically. IT was pure TRUTH.”
As the intensity of her experience increased, she came to realise: “I was the LIGHT and the LIGHT was me. I was still a unique, separate, point of consciousness with the same sense of humour and awareness that I had always had, but the paradox is that I was MORE. I had become homogeneous with the LIGHT. I was all love, wisdom, truth, peace, joy, for all eternity. Human words fail to express this experience. Not only was the message of my true nature conveyed to me telepathically, but I experienced the SPIRIT of the message – I felt IT with every speck of my being. There was absolutely no possibility of hiding, distorting information, or lying in communicating with the LIGHT. I fell madly in love with the SPIRIT OF TRUTH! There was no concept of space or time in the GREATER REALITY. All takes place or exists in the ETERNAL NOW. That is my last conscious memory of the experience” (Atwater, 2007, 26-28).
Neath-Death Experiences that challenge accepted notions
Many near-death episodes are like these last two, seeming to counter the idea of biblical, religious, medieval, or even mythological traditions of an afterlife that features core imagery basic to the spread of culture and consensus throughout the human family. We have a long history of such commonalties especially in regards to death, the greatest of all mysteries, and what happens to us after we die. Findings in the field of near-death studies, though, are beginning to challenge not only traditional but non-traditional beliefs as well. Maybe there’s more to learn from our shared histories than what we thought.
Scenarios are reported that openly defy the idea of an afterlife as an end point or a dwelling place or a platform for progressive states of learning. Here are some examples of these exceptions and the questions they invite:
How can a future sibling exist concurrent with a present one?
Merla Ianello recalls that as a child she saw a guest in her home who was three or four years old choke to death trying to eat a plastic-wrapped frozen juice treat called an Ice Pop. She insisted on naming them “Death Pops” after that, and one day she asked her mother who the child was. Her mother, staring in disbelief, said, “It was you.” Merla remembers her mother’s screams and how upset her father was, yet couldn’t identify with the distressed child because to her that child must have been really naughty to have caused such a fuss. Even though it took her years to admit that the child was her, one feature of the episode was never in doubt – the presence of her little brother Michael in the kitchen with the rest of the family. She talked a lot about Michael, much to the chagrin of her mother. You see, Michael wasn’t conceived until the following year. No mention had ever been made of a future child nor did the mother even want one. How then could he appear physically and fully present, even holding an Ice Pop, long before he was born? (Atwater, 1999 and 2003, 142-144.)
Does the belief of an “afterlife” apply when incarnations are back-to-back?
Rand Jameson Shields was hit on the head by a man diving into a swimming pool. Dazed, he ventured out into deep water and drowned. “The ceiling of the sky above me rolled back to reveal an infinite light universe, the earth below me dissolved away, and I intuitively understood my soul’s purpose and the nature of the spiritual universe.” A woman grabbed for him and he was resuscitated, yet during the following year his soul was pulled away from his body eighty times. “I was made to physically ‘re-experience’ sixty-eight events from previous lives. Thirty-four of these experiences were of my most recent life, including the entire period my soul spent between my last death and my birth in this life.” Years later he was able to visit one of the towns involved and uncovered “114 precise pieces of evidence verifying that every one of my thirty-four unique childhood re-experiences occurred to this man who died twenty-eight months prior to my birth, to the day. I have not found one piece of evidence that contradicted any of my past-life memories” (Atwater, 1999 and 2003, 140-141).
What are we to think about continuous lives, one occurring soon after the other, rather than an individual taking up residence in some heavenly realm after dying? Or, the full manifestation of a future sibling, even participating in a family event, long before the child was born? Exceptional cases such as these are actually rather commonplace – like missing twins reappearing, aborted fetuses coming back as older or grown children, animals as much a part of “the other worlds” as they are in this one. And, here’s another “wrinkle,” there are group events that further stretch the time-honoured definitions of an afterlife.
How can four separate experiences be the same – and – simultaneous?
My very first encounters with the near-death phenomenon happened at St. Alphonsus Hospital in Boise, Idaho. The woman I was visiting had suffered a heart attack yet revived. She was white with fear when I arrived and told me that while clinically dead she had floated out of her body and into a dark tunnel which led toward a bright light. Once in the light, she saw a landscape of barren, rolling hills filled to overflowing with nude, zombie-like people standing elbow to elbow doing nothing but staring straight at her. This so horrified her that she started screaming and snapped back into her body. She continued to scream until sedated. As I listened to her, two other people entered the room, an elderly man and woman, both using canes. Each had suffered heart failure at the same time in the same hospital, were considered clinically dead, but were resuscitated. None knew each other before being rushed to the hospital, nor did they have the same doctor. They found out about each other thanks to nurses who heard their strange stories – the same as the woman I was visiting – which also matched that of one more person. I was unable to see this man as he was still sedated after screaming uncontrollably. None of these people had the same religion, background or lifestyle. None had mutual friends or common interests. All had lived long lives of varying degrees of hardship and success; two were still married to their original spouse and had several grown children. The others were divorced. The only common denominator I could find after asking a lot of questions to them or to people who knew them, was that their strange encounter at death strengthened the pain they already felt from deeply-held guilts and fears about how they had lived and what they had done in their lives (Atwater, 1988, 14-16).
Why would 20 people have the same experience at the same time in the same place?
Arvin S. Gibson shared with me a case of his where a 20-person fire-fighting crew called “Hotshots” all succumbed from lack of oxygen while trapped by a sudden burst of flames near a mountain top. One by one each of the men and women fell to the earth, suffocated. Each of the twenty saw each other leave their bodies and float upwards. One, by the name of Jake, looked down at a fellow crew member who had been born with a defective foot. As the man came out of his body, Jake said, “Look, Jose, your foot is straight.” A light brighter than sun shining on a snowy field appeared. Jake was met by his deceased great-grandfather, who acted as a guide throughout a long and extensive near-death scenario. Jake pleaded to stay, as he did not want to revive in a horribly burned body. He was then told that neither he nor any of his crew who chose to return would suffer ill effects from the fire. “This was done so that God’s power over the elements would be made manifest,” Jake affirmed. After rescue, each crew member confirmed the mutual event. Some claimed to have talked to each other while out-of-body. Separately, each of these claims was verified. All involved had met deceased relatives as part of their scenario, and had to choose whether or not they would return to earth (Atwater, 2000, 165-166).
‘Seeing’ Beyond the Veil of Death
It is easy to assume that the four people who had matching hellish experiences met in dying what they had repressed during their lives – negative emotions that were still “eating away at them.” Such an assumption would be in keeping with the voluminous writings of Emanuel