Heaven or a Place on Earth?
What awaits us after death? From a Presbyterian minister tried for heresy to survivors of near-death experiences, those who think they know are steadfast in their beliefs.
By Scott Hamilton
Last winter my friend Ted Jenner died in Auckland hospital’s Intensive Care Unit. The ICU has its own, scrupulously secular rituals designed to make death easier. There are tubes filled with opiates, there are curtains that can be pulled to make death a more private experience, and there are stereos fitted to beds, so that patients can die listening to their favourite music. Ted was a jazz fan, and while his breaths drew more shallow and slow he could hear Miles Davis blowing calmly and seemingly endlessly through tracks like “Blue in Green”.
Ted was a classicist, fluent in ancient Greek and in Latin, and he had spent years translating and interpreting the “gold leaves” created by members of the Mediterranean Orphic cult. Members of the cult buried their dead with strips of gold, on which verses were scratched. Many of these “leaves” had instructions on what to expect in an underworld where the dead would supposedly find themselves. There were ritual utterances, which the dead devotee could recite to win the favour of rulers of the underworld. There were clues about how to find a never-ceasing spring, where the dead could slake their thirst and restore their earthly memories. There were clues about how to become one of the rulers of the underworld.
For the last few years I’ve lived next door to Waikumete, one of the largest cemeteries in the southern hemisphere. Waikumete covers 108 hectares, and yet is almost full. Its 70,000 residents are half-hidden by long grass and wild flowers in the spring. In the autumn, deciduous species like maples and oaks bombard cracked and tottering 19th-century graves.
The West Auckland suburb of Glen Eden grew up around this necropolis. A train station was created, to bring carriages of coffins from afar. Stonemasons and carpenters opened businesses in response to the needs of the bereaved. Glen Eden was initially known as Waikumete, but by 1918 many residents felt a name change was needed. They feared that their suburb wouldn’t attract new inhabitants so long as it was associated with death. In 1921 the name was changed to Glen Eden.
At the same time that Glen Eden’s inhabitants were trying to distance their suburb from death, a young German philosopher named Martin Heidegger was coining the phrase “being-towards-death” to describe a part of the human condition many of his contemporaries tried to ignore. Heidegger felt that, in Western societies, most humans try to hide from the fact of death, by diverting themselves with the pleasures and irritations of the here and now — with cinema and drinking and gossip and ambition. We act as though we are immortal, and we dislike anything that reminds us of our mortality.
I often walk in Waikumete Cemetery. With their last messages to this world and references to an afterlife, the cemetery’s stones can seem like vast versions of the gold leaves of the Orphic cult. But whereas Orphic leaves gave very concrete advice, explaining the topography and obstacles that awaited the dead and giving clues for navigation, the texts on Waikumete’s stones tend to be vague. “Asleep, awaiting the resurrection”, reads one. “May his soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life” boasts another.
This reticence in mainstream society to seriously discuss death and the afterlife is common. In the second half of the 1960s, though, one man briefly turned the afterlife into a subject of earnest and sometimes angry public debate. Lloyd Geering was a Presbyterian minister and a professor of theology at the church’s Knox College in Dunedin. In a series of articles and sermons, Geering denied that Christ had been resurrected after his death, and denied the existence of eternal life, whether in heaven or hell, for humans. Geering’s sayings upset many in his church, and in 1967 he was tried for heresy — or, more specifically, for “doctrinal error” and “disturbing the peace and unity of the church”.
Geering’s trial lasted only two days before the committee assembled to judge him dismissed the charges against him. But in the months and weeks up to the trial, Geering’s views on the resurrection and on the possibility of life after death were debated intensely in the media and in public. In an interview given many years later, Geering recalls walking into a pub in 1967, and finding drinkers there discussing not rugby or racing but the finer points of theology.
The truncated trial was broadcast live on television, and given front-page coverage by many newspapers. In 1968 Geering published a book called God in the New World, in which he laid out his views in a longer and more systematic way. The text was a bestseller.
Both Geering and his family faced abuse. Placard-wielding protesters and anonymous phone callers condemned him as a traitor to Christianity, and warned him that he was headed for hell after he died. Geering has done a good job, so far, of staying out of hell — he turned 104 this year. He has published a dozen more books, arguing that God is a human creation and that ideas about an afterlife prevent us from living well in this world.
Part of Geering’s opposition to the notion of an afterlife seems to have come from a lack of enthusiasm for the heaven in which most Christians believe. He has talked about how boring life in heaven would be. “The traditional pictures of heaven are more like hell to me,” he said during one interview with the New Zealand Herald in 2006. “What would you do? I mean, when you finish your harp lessons, what would you do?”
In the 1960s and 70s many New Zealand Christians got their vision of heaven from Billy Graham, the American televangelist who attracted huge crowds when he toured here. Graham’s vision of heaven seemed to rely on his audiences’ desire for wealth and commodities. In one notorious sermon, Graham said that angels will act as servants in heaven, and that “we’ll drive down yellow streets in our gold yellow convertible”.
Graham’s rather crass vision of the afterlife has irked some conservative as well as liberal Christians. In a 2007 statement about heaven, Pope Benedict XVI dismissed ideas that it would involve personal enrichment, and said instead that heaven would be like “plunging into an ocean of infinite love” in a moment in “which time no longer exists”.
In the 1960s, Geering and his foes turned to ancient texts to try to win their arguments about an afterlife. Geering looked very carefully at the gospels, and noted that they offered inconsistent pictures of Christ’s resurrection, or else did not mention the event at all. His critics worked hard to show the essential unity and coherence of the scriptures.
Today, though, debates about the afterlife are more likely to involve scientists, rather than humanities scholars. Instead of poring over old texts, these scientists examine brain scans and pulse oximeters. They are interested in the near-death experience (NDE), a phenomenon which has been reported for centuries, but which has become much more common as medical technology has advanced, and allowed more humans to return from death-like states to the realm of the living.
Dr Bruce Greyson is perhaps the best-known scholar of NDEs, which he has been studying for 45 years, moving from scepticism towards an open-minded attitude toward them. Greyson has interviewed survivors of NDEs who experienced visions while their hearts had stopped beating. Some of these visions are culturally specific: a Christian, for example, might report an encounter with Jesus, while a Hindu might claim to have seen Shiva or Vishnu. But other features of NDEs seem universal. Many NDE survivors report floating out of their bodies, looking down on the medical teams trying to resuscitate them, and then travelling down a tunnel of light. Greyson and other NDE researchers try to find ways to corroborate the claims of NDE survivors.
One of the most perplexing cases of NDE featured a truck driver from Connecticut called Al Sullivan. In 1988 Sullivan was rushed to hospital for emergency surgery after suffering a massive heart attack. His heart had stopped; his eyes were taped over for the operation. Sullivan survived, and later told Greyson that he had drifted out of his body and seen something curious. Sullivan said that the chief surgeon was flapping his arms about, as though he were about to fly. He found the image amusing. Greyson investigated, and found that the surgeon who operated on Sullivan had a unique mannerism, which was designed to help him avoid contact with any potentially contaminated surfaces in the operating theatre. Whenever he wanted a tool, the surgeon would put his palms on his chest, and point with his elbows in the direction of what he needed. Greyson got the surgeon to display his method, and found that he did indeed look like he was flapping two wings. How could Sullivan have witnessed the surgeon’s ritual, when his heart was flatlining and his eyes were taped shut?
Another NDE researcher, Dr Sam Parnia, has designed an experiment which he hopes might provide firm proof for the reality a common feature of the NDE experience. Parnia has convinced several hospitals to place symbols in hidden corners of the ceilings of their resuscitation and emergency operation rooms. If a patient really is flying out of his or her body, then he or she might be able to glimpse and report back on these carefully placed symbols. No one has reported seeing Parnia’s symbols so far.
Scott Hamilton is North & South’s history columnist.
This story appeared in the August 2022 issue of North & South.