The gift of life is a wonderful thing but it comes with the cruel knowledge that one day it will end. The only true certainty in our lives is that one day we will die.
Those of a more pragmatic nature suggest that the brief time we spend on Earth is the beginning and the end of our existence, while others find comfort in their faith that life is eternal.
For centuries theologians and philosophers have debated the meaning and nature of our existence. In recent years however, it is advances in medical science that may have provided a solution to this ancient enigma.
More and more people are now resuscitated and brought back to life from the brink of death.
What was once a barely reported phenomenon is now publicized and examined scientifically by the medical practitioners that witness it.
Known as a near death experience or NDE, there are many common threads that run through the experiences of people who have seen heaven, not least the completely life changing transformation that many of them undergo.
Although there is evidence from as far back as biblical times of people who claimed to have died and traveled to heaven before returning to their bodies, the subject was largely taboo until recently.
It has only been in the last forty years that research into near death experiences has been conducted in earnest.
This is largely due to the work of psychologist and philosopher Raymond Moody. While he was an undergraduate, a psychiatrist Dr George Ritchie, recounted his own NDE to Moody and sparked in him a lifelong interest in the afterlife.
After hearing his story Moody began to document the experience of others who had been resuscitated after a clinical death.
As his body of work increased, he realized that near death experiences shared many common elements.
Originally published in 1975, Moody’s works opened the floodgates, with thousands across the world coming forward to recount their own journeys to heaven and back.
The Common Experiences
Forty years on and the near death experiences of thousands of people have been analysed and published. Astonishingly, they appear to share many common characteristics.
Race, creed or culture appear to have little influence over the experiences, with many, including those who don’t believe in God or the afterlife, experiencing the same profound series of events.
While not everyone who undergoes an NDE experiences every common element, it is usual to experience at least half of the following.
1) A sense of leaving one’s body after a traumatic and life threatening event. Many people can recall leaving their body and hovering above it as the emergency services or medics attempt to resuscitate them.
Accompanying this out of body experience is a feeling of disinterest. The body is viewed as an empty vessel and the person who has died has no interest or desire to return to it.
People who are resuscitated later can often recall the words and actions of people moving around them including doctors and nurses.
2) Almost immediately, people realize that they are in fact dead. There is no fear attached to this realization and people describe a feeling of well being and comfort.
3) Rapid movement along a tunnel soon begins. The tunnel is described in many different ways, but most commonly as a metal chute.
As the person travels along this tunnel at great speed they are sometimes aware that there are others travelling with them. Sometimes, the movement is accompanied by a whooshing noise, at other times by music.
4) At the end of the tunnel a bright light appears and becomes bigger and bigger as the person approaches. The light is beyond description for many people.
Many describe a compelling need to move towards the light and suggest that all that is good and loving is held within.
For people with strong religious convictions, the light is often described as a deity or person of significance within their faith.
5) At some point the person who has died encounters loved ones and friends who have passed before them. These people often appear as they did in their youth and at the peak of their physicality.
Some meet people who are not known to them. Often these people turn out to be relatives who have passed on before.
6) Senses appear to be heightened, the mind thinks clearly, beautiful colors beyond the normal spectrum can be seen and ethereal music can be heard.
During these experiences people who have been blind or deaf since birth have recorded seeing and hearing for the first time.
7) There is no sense of time as we know it with some people feeling that they have been in their disembodied state for days, when in fact they have been technically dead for just a few minutes.
8) There is often a life review, when people relive the impact their actions good and bad have had on others.
Sometimes this is accompanied by unknown beings who are often interpreted as sacred figures assisting in the judgement of a life.
9) For nearly everybody who experiences an NDE, a barrier is reached and a decision made. For some this barrier is a door or a gate, for others it is a bridge or a stream.
Beyond the barrier the person can see what is commonly described as heaven, a stunning garden, a beautiful meadow or a city of crystal towers. Almost everybody wants to cross the barrier.
Some are told that they must turn back as it is not their time, they have lessons to learn in life. Others are offered a choice.
Often this choice rests upon the impact their death will have on others. Reluctantly many choose to return.
10) The person who has reluctantly returned to their body describes re-entering it through their head. Their spirit or soul is described as being attached to their body by an unbroken silver thread.
11) With resuscitation comes anger and bewilderment, with many wanting to return to the peace and tranquility they have experienced.
For most people though this is replaced by a sense of thankfulness. Often people feel that their life has a purpose and that purpose is to learn and to love others. They often live their lives transformed.
12) Most people who experience an NDE are confident that their experience was real, more real than anything they have experienced in their lives before. They firmly believe that it was not a fantasy or a dream.
The Skeptics View
For many people, the idea that our bodies are host to a soul or spirit that lives on after our death is an anathema.
But with so many people now reporting the same experience as they near death and then undergo resuscitation, science has attempted to provide an explanation.
The experience of those near death is not identical for everybody and scientists point to this as evidence that the NDE is a subjective experience upon which we impose our own reality.
The feelings of well being and happiness are part of an illusory event created by the mind as it copes with the trauma of death.
There are clearly common elements to every NDE but these are merely our own attempts to make sense of what we are experiencing as our brains die.
In simple terms science suggests that one of the first effects of a lack of oxygen to the brain is in fact increased brain activity.
This activity gives rise to a brief period of heightened consciousness. It is during this period of heightened consciousness that the near death experience described by many is experienced.
If the process was to continue, life and consciousness would stop. Death, for the NDE skeptic is the end.
The Experience of Children
There are of course, a group of people in society who would find it difficult to impose their own narrative upon a near death experience.
Very young children rarely have a concept of death, yet many sadly pass away each year. So do those who are fortunate enough to be resuscitated, share any of the same experiences as adults.
The answer is a resounding yes.
Often recorded in picture form, their paintings and drawings provide a tantalizing glimpse of heaven.
As more and more children record their experiences, it is clear that the process of dying as a child is similar to that of an adult.
Beginning with an out of body experience and travelling along a tunnel to light, what should be a terrifying experience is not.
Children describe feelings of warmth, comfort and overwhelming love. Some describe being comforted and reassured by angels, others meet relatives of whom they had no previous knowledge.
Children as young as two have returned with messages for their parents from family who have passed over long ago.
All describe scenes of stunning beauty and are left with the lifetime conviction that they have visited heaven.
A Neurosurgeon’s Experience
In 2008 an American man Eben Alexander underwent an NDE that was to convince even hardened skeptics that there may indeed be life after death.
The difference between Alexander’s experience and others is that he was and still is an experienced neurosurgeon.
Before his experience he held the traditional scientific viewpoint that consciousness ended with death, after he was to take a completely different view.
Falling into a coma after contracting E Coli, Alexander was not expected to live.
At various points in the week that followed, medical tests revealed that there was no brain activity. Kept alive by a life support machine which his family refused to switch off, there was little hope for his recovery.
Remarkably though, the neurosurgeon did survive and the story he was to tell about his long period of unconsciousness was to stun those around him and provoke a debate that is still raging today.
During the time he was in a coma Alexander claims that he experienced many of the common features of an NDE. In particular he suggests that he experienced a heightened state of consciousness and awareness.
This should have been impossible as in Alexander’s case the part of the brain that deals with thought and emotion had shut down completely, a fact that was scientifically recorded.
Taken on a journey through heaven by an angelic being, Alexander awoke from his coma believing that God and the soul are real and death is not the end of life but merely the transition to another realm of existence.
Alexander now believes that science and the near death experience can be reconciled.
He spends his life writing and lecturing upon the subject hoping to convince other scientists that life and consciousness are not confined to the physical world.
Visions of Hell
For most people the near death experience is a positive experience. For some though it is truly terrifying. These people are usually those who have attempted suicide or by their own admission led a bad life.
The beginning of the process is identical to those who have a positive experience, but rather than traveling toward a loving light, they are plunged into a hellish darkness where they are tortured and tormented.
If the NDE is an illusion and the brain’s way of coping with imminent death why is it such a dreadful experience for a minority?
People who experience a negative NDE often have no religious convictions, yet after their resuscitation many turn to religion or transform their lives completely believing that they have received a last chance to atone for their mistakes.
The debate about what happens to us after our deaths will probably continue as long as human life exists.
Most scientists firmly believe that there is nothing beyond the physical world and when the brain dies consciousness ceases.
They explain the phenomenon of the near death experience as a period of heightened consciousness that peaks just before death.
Those with faith require no proof that life continues after death, their religion assures them that there is an afterlife.
For many of us who waver between the two opinions, the testimony of those people who have seen heaven during a near death experience, provides a sense of reassurance and hope.
Hope, not just that our own lives will continue on eternally, but hope that one day we will meet once more, those that we have loved and lost.