By Olayinka Longe
With the unfortunate events of last week, the nation is thrown into painful mourning, forcing everyone to dwell on a subject that no one wants to talk about. The very thought of death brings so much uneasiness, because it is an experience so final that all railing against it achieves nothing. And it is because the question of what happens after death still carries the all-pervading fear and dread of death in nearly all cultures that we are all constrained to ask the following questions: What is death? Why do we, or anything for that matter, die? What happens after death?
One irrefutable fact of our common human experience is that nothing on this earth lives forever! Literarily everything in our universe dies at some time. Some things live for an interminably long time (stars, galaxies, California Red wood trees and more) whilst some have a brief span of existence (unicellular organisms, insects, animals and man); but in the end, death occurs i.e. a cessation of existence in its present form. In humans, this is when consciousness, that essence that is unique and individual, ceases to manifest itself in its surroundings and is therefore dead!
Another irrefutable fact is that after death, the physical form of the entity disintegrates. This also occurs in the larger cosmos, with the death of stars and planetary systems. Everything in our material world has a beginning and nothing comes into existence fully developed.
Humans, animals, plants, the stars, planetary bodies, galaxies, and all matter follow this path.
The various religions believe that after death, the human being, depending on how he has lived on earth, goes to heaven if good or to hell if bad. Heaven is supposed to be a place of unending bliss, while hell a place of eternal suffering. The popular common belief is that when a person dies, he or she goes to rest until the last day, or day of judgment, when the Creator will finally judge and pick those who deserve perpetual bliss in heaven; less the ones condemned to hell fire. Before this final day, all the dead are supposed to be asleep, and resting, whilst waiting for the trumpet blasts of the judgment that would awaken them. Hence the popular saying at the death of a person, “Rest in peace”- RIP.
Taking a close look at these views from the scriptures and the popular beliefs, it can be discerned that they are fundamentally contradictory. If one is asleep or resting i.e. completely inactive,
one cannot experience what is going on in one’s surroundings. So, those resting in perfect peace cannot know the supposed bliss, which is in heaven, as they will be unconscious; nor will they feel the torment of hell. It can therefore be concluded that despite our hinging many of our claims about what happens after death on the scriptures, there is uncertainty about what happens after death.
Thanatology, the science that studies death and dying, has examined all aspects of death, including biological (the cessation of physiological processes), psychological (cognitive, emotional, and behavioural responses), and social (historical, cultural, and legal issues). But Thanatologists still have not come any nearer to knowing what happens after death. The Nobel Prize would have since been bestowed on anyone with such knowledge. But there are interesting bits of information about Near Death Experiences (NDE), which call for some scrutiny. Google NDE on the Internet and a plethora of sites will pop, all reporting the experiences of people who claim to have died, glimpsed the afterlife and returned to give their account of their experiences. The stories come from all parts of the world and from all classes of people: the learned, unlearned, rich, poor, old and young and even amongst little children of all races and cultures. The NDE accounts are very compelling and a common experience in nearly all of them is the playback of the most incisive experiences of the lives of the subjects, clearly showing them when they had done good or bad.
There are also accounts of a strict sifting of the inhabitants in these planes, such that those who were evil, or dark, while on earth were separated from the souls striving for the good whilst on earth. So, we all have the duty to sow in love and kindness and the reward will be light and beauty for us in the hereafter, not a sleeping in peace! You therefore find today that what most of those who have gone through NDEs have in common is the urge to improve themselves. They regard every moment as a grace and are keen to utilise every chance to live well and to the benefit of their fellow men. They try to sow love, where this means seeking what is of real benefit to the other, not merely what pleases them. They may well then be the first to now say:
`Store your treasure where it cannot be corrupted`.
But science, which has assumed the ascendancy and become the dominant driving force of all mankind’s knowledge on earth today, stands uncomprehendingly before death. It demands proof and stipulates that this proof must be in conformity with what science dictates; otherwise it is no proof. But it would be a grave error to think that science, and the scientific method, have always brought good things to mankind. As powerfully compelling and dominant as the scientific method is, it is not the only way to gain knowledge, even though science derides and denies any other form of knowledge. Science cannot follow what happens after death because here is a threshold that apparently deals with unfamiliar ponderables, which are outside the material. In encountering such a barrier, science and its disciples refuse, haughtily (in my opinion), to recognise any conclusions arrived at without using its own methods of proof completely. This is the height of presumption, arrogance and conceit and an assumption of superiority in its methods and knowledge, which is not demonstrated by true humanity.
That is why any experience that falls outside the parameters demanded by science is simply decreed as non-existent by it. This disposition continues to limit what science can offer mankind on earth, because it does not recognise the transcendental. Because it cannot measure or weigh the non-material, it rejects its existence. Thankfully, there are a growing number of notable scientists who are coming to the realisation that they must jettison many of their old concepts and approach matters such as death with childlike humility and be open to learning. This openness will bring unfathomed vistas in the knowledge of humanity as to their whence, whither and why.
Death is a fact of life and a natural occurrence, which is simply the laying aside of the physical cloak whilst the real person, the personality or entity, goes on living. This core, spirit or soul is not physical and cannot be seen or measured by science. When it leaves the outer physical cloak (the physical body), we say death has occurred. That is also when the form can no longer be maintained and it then disintegrates and returns to its basic components. This core is what goes on living and our knowledge of it is expressed in our language, when we speak of ourselves. Check out the language ' my body, my hand,'! Who or what is it that is claiming possession? When I say “I have a car”, I am not saying I am the car. So when we say ‘my body’, we are clearly stating that we own the body and that we are not the body.
But in the currently confused state of human existence here on earth, these words depict so many things from the deliberately vague to the simply fantastic. Very often the word ‘spirit’ elicits fear and repulsion, such that many do not even want to concern themselves with the truth about it. Spirits are thought of as ghosts, spooky or dark and unwanted things. Meanwhile, all the knowledge brought by prophets and messengers of the Almighty essentially contain pointers to the fact that we are different from our physical bodies; and that we should live well so as to return to our real home in heaven.
But we have literally forgotten ourselves, believing that the things of this world are the only things that matter. We look at those who have died as unfortunate and try to ignore the fact that every day and every moment, our own death draws inescapably closer. Death is the path to real life and it is a path we shall all on day take. If we live a life of truth, brotherliness, humility and faithfulness the laws of our Creator, we give ourselves key to eternal life. As we pray for the Grace of the Lord to be on the recently departed, and as we condole with the bereaved, let us all remember that death may strike for any of us at any moment – and without warning.
Dr. Longe, a medical doctor with wide exposure, lives in Lagos