The Case for Gnosticism, Part 4: What Happens After We Die?

05/30/2017 11:26 am ET Updated Oct 03, 2017

This blog is an elaboration of the ideas in my book God Reconsidered: Searching for Truth in the Battle Between Atheism and Religion

In Part 1, I explained that Gnosticism was one of the earliest versions of Christianity, which asserted that an individual could know God directly through an experience of divine insight called, in Greek, gnosis This awareness that the light of deity is within us took away the fear of death, much as initiation into the ancient Mystery Religions did (and as near-death experiences are reported to do today). This experience also opened the eyes of these mystics to a profound and disturbing truth: no benevolent God could have created this world because of so much suffering by the innocent. According to Gnostic mythology, it came about by a cosmic accident involving a flawed creator known as the Demiurge (the True God is beyond the material universe).

In Part 2, I argued that the truth about the purpose of life needs to start with the recognition that the material world is real: if we believe everything is an illusion, as some Eastern religions do, there are no bounds to wishful thinking and no way to have a rational debate. We would have to reject the evidence of an expanding universe and deny that World War II happened and that germs cause many diseases.

In Part 3, I laid out the case that neither traditional Western religions nor the philosophies of the East have adequate answers about why human beings were put on earth. Monotheists believe in an all-powerful, all-good, and all-knowing God who created us, yet is somehow not responsible for the fact that genetics, social environment, and accidents impinge on our free will to do the right thing. Eastern religions either deny that we even have individual souls or they claim that we will improve by being repeatedly reborn until we no longer need to return to pay for our “bad karma.” But returning to an extremely flawed world would not improve our prospects for spiritual progress.

Is There Evidence That The Human Personality Survives Death?

The Gnostic seers agreed that there was a realm they called the Pleroma, where at least some would be in the presence of the divine after death. They taught that people were of three types: the hylics (the most worldly), the psychics (those striving for betterment, “psyche” being Greek for the mind), and the pneumatics (the fully spiritual). Some teachers asserted that people were fated to remain in these categories, but that viewpoint was influenced by popular notions of being ruled by the stars or that God predestined those he created. Other Gnostic teachers preached that eventually all beings, even the Demiurge, would be redeemed.

As Richard Smoley’s recent book, How God Became God, shows, both the Old and New Testaments are not reliable guides to the afterlife or any other aspect of theology. They are full of major contradictions, with confusion compounded by poor translations, late traditions imposed on interpreting the texts that are clearly wrong, and the dogmas of modern Judaism and Christianity. Since the Gnostic teachers were in disagreement on all but the primary analysis that embodiment was not the doing of the True God, I have turned to modern science, logic, reports from mystics, and near-death experiences to gain insight on what happens when humans die.

As I document in my book, so-called skeptics about anything supernatural are so close-minded that they refuse to objectively review the evidence, relying on secular authorities to tell them what they are allowed to read, just as devout Catholics turn to their bishops for guidance. This irrational reaction could be due to their religious upbringing and cultivated by those whose respect they seek, but also fueled by the frauds and mistaken judgments that are all too common in the world of what is claimed as psychic phenomena.

What is generally overlooked in this debate is that the gatekeepers of scientific conventional wisdom are one or two generations behind the cutting-edge research, as Thomas Kuhn documented in his classic study The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. As the anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “The whole history of scientific advance is full of scientists investigating phenomena that the establishment did not believe were there.” The Gnostic-oriented psychologist Carl Jung said, “I shall not commit the fashionable stupidity of regarding everything I cannot explain as a fraud.”

Few are aware how often the critics of the paranormal leave out inconvenient facts, mischaracterize the evidence, and use unscientific explanations to dismiss such phenomena. In my extensive reading of the publications of the Skeptics Society and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, this happens so often that it cannot be simply attributed to an over-eagerness to believe supposed refutations about something they find unsettling. They must know they are lying and regard this as a minor sin in the righteous cause of defeating superstition.

The evidence that humans, at least, survive death is a case in point:

°Ghosts of the dead are reported in every culture and encounters often involve multiple witnesses. In some cases, they interact with the living, so they are not simply images projected at death. Skeptics would be surprised at the rational approach to analyzing 700 apparition cases published by Britain’s Society for Psychical Research in 1886 in two volumes totaling 1,400 pages.

°Death bed visions were studied by Karlis Osis, a physics professor, and Erlendur Haraldsson, a clinical psychologist, in What They Saw At the House of Death: A New Look at Evidence for Life After Death. In 5,000 cases (from the U.S. and India to cross-check for cultural influences), they found that patients given painkillers were not more likely to have these visions of being greeted by their ancestors as they passed into another dimension. Nor were they more likely to happen if individuals knew they were dying, had a history of using psychoactive drugs, or were under great additional stress from factors other than their medical situation. Brain malfunctions reduced the chance that the patient would have this experience. There was no evidence that either a lack of oxygen or the individual’s belief in an afterlife played a role in those who reported these visions. Sometimes the living standing around the dying person also saw the same vision.

°Psychic mediums who claimed to be able to receive messages from the dead were carefully studied by Gary E. Schwartz, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and medicine at the University of Arizona with 450 published scientific papers. The results were published as The Afterlife Experiments: Breakthrough Scientific Evidence of Life After Death. It detailed the steps taken to prevent fraud, provided statistics to show how unlikely the results were due to chance, and rebutted criticisms by debunkers such as James Randi (I had one experience with him which proved how intellectually dishonest he was). I carefully observed a group session with one of the mediums who was part of that experiment, James Van Praagh, and was surprised at how accurate he appeared to be, taking into account the skeptics’ claims about how he might get information in advance of meeting someone. I interviewed him afterwards and also tested one of the others, Laurie Campbell, who did a personal reading that turned out to be spookily accurate (and a couple of years later, she gave me another which was not accurate at all, so perhaps she does better with the dead; the late parapsychologist Scott Rogo said that psychic abilities are often unreliable, like a bad electrical connection).

Analyzing Near-Death Experiences

Although reports of people who appear to die and are revived go back thousands of years, the first popular book studying near-death experiences (NDEs) was Raymond Moody’s Life After Life in 1975. Supplemented by many later reports, the conclusion of specialists is that these most common elements recur in some culturally-influenced form:

°The individual finds her/his consciousness looking down on their body, usually surrounded by medical personnel trying to revive it.

°The “soul” goes through a dark tunnel towards a light, where the person is greeted by beings of light, often deceased family and friends or a figure from their religious tradition (atheists reported this as an abstract figure of light).

°Many reported having flashbacks of important moments in their lives during the experience.

°Most wanted to stay in this other dimension, but were forced to return, startling medical personnel who had declared them already dead.

Since God Reconsidered was published, a sequel to the landmark study, Evidence of the Afterlife by Jeffrey Long, M.D., and Paul Perry, came out, God and the Afterlife. Long summarizes the strength of the evidence for near-death experiences:

As a trained medical doctor, I know what should be possible when bodies break down near death. At a time when no memory should be possible, when people are either certifiably unconscious or even dead, those reporting NDEs consistently describe highly lucid and organized experiences. Many report details of what is happening to and around their bodies from a perspective outside of their bodies, details that are later verified by other witnesses. That should not be possible if these reports were merely the result of traumatized brains. In my last book, I surveyed over 1,300 testimonies of NDEs and demonstrated both why medically and logically these could not be merely explained away and why I concluded they were credible memories…I still marvel at how amazingly similar these experiences are regardless of the experiencers’ age, cultural beliefs, education, or geographical location. Skeptic arguments neither address the consistency of the accounts nor provide hard evidence to disprove their validity.

In the new book, they examine 420 accounts to see whether these individuals encountered a being they interpreted as God:

°45.5% said yes, 14.8% they were uncertain, and 39.8% said no, but no one claimed to have been made aware that there is no Supreme Being.

°Before their NDE, 64% said they either believed in God or thought he/she/it existed; 26.7% were uncertain or skeptical (9.3% did not report).

°Afterwards, 81.9% believed God existed or probably did; 11.5% remained skeptical or uncertain (6.7% did not report).

Since those who undergo NDEs are met by family and friends, it appears all who die immediately enter a dimension of those who are like them and appropriate to their consciousness. Mormons (who have a theology similar in some respects to Gnosticism) believe there are three heavenly realms that roughly correspond to what the Gnostic seers taught about the types of people. Their prophets have also said that there is some opportunity for spiritual progress after death.

There are few reports of any kind of hell (Long and Perry report that only 3.6% of NDEs studied were totally frightening). As I argue in Chapter 6, our free will is very limited, which raises questions about why God would have created us this way and how much we can be held accountable for our actions. As Harville Hendrix documented in Getting the Love You Want, people’s personalities, including their propensity for doing evil, are largely the result of genetics and social environment, which is why it takes so long for psychotherapists to untangle the influences and show patients how to change their thinking and behavior.

So consigning people to eternal fires for things that were not entirely their responsibility would not seem to be what a just God would do. Nor would it undo their deeds, whether intentionally bad or just irresponsible: it wouldn’t make up for the effects of abusing a child, torturing the innocent, doing sloppy work that leads to consumer harm, or accidentally bombing the wrong villages. But NDE reports indicate that some do go through anguish about their lives, death having given them a conscience because they are returning to a more direct connection to their divine origin. Certainly, there are no indications that those who do not adhere to a particular religion are barred forever from the divine presence.

Troubles With The Evidence For Past Life Memories

While it appears that all humans survive death in another realm, what happens after the transition to the Other Side is not clear, since religious traditions have contradictory teachings, including among the various strands of Gnosticism.

Some, such as the Manichaeans and the Cathars, believed in reincarnation, but they were not typical of early Gnostic Christians. Manichaeism was a third century movement that began in Persia and honored Jesus, Buddha, and Zarathustra as divine messengers. The Cathar heresy flourished in southern France in the 12th century before being virtually exterminated by the Catholic Church in the 13th. Both movements believed it was also best to be vegetarian, something most of today’s reincarnation enthusiasts reject (only 3.2% of Americans are, like me, vegetarian; nor would most modern Gnostics follow the ancient astrological theories their spiritual forebears did). Gnostics are free to believe whatever they want when it comes to such secondary issues; my interest in these blogs is to examine all the evidence to see whether it sheds any further light on the big questions.

The idea that we have all been born many times before did become popular among those disillusioned with monotheism in the West during the 20th century. In my chapters on Hinduism and Buddhism, I point out many of the problems with these very different ideas about rebirth. Since the Buddha did not teach that a soul transmigrates from one life to another (despite sometimes popular belief), I’ll concentrate on the mainstream Hindu concept.

Those who have read the academic research of the late Dr. Ian Stevenson or the anecdotes related under hypnosis by patients of Brian Weiss, M.D., cite them as convincing evidence that many people recall their prior incarnations. But is easy to believe in a worldview if you don’t bother to read the critical literature, just as fundamentalist Christians are sure the Bible is the inerrant word of God because the are not exposed to modern critical analysis of the texts. There are a number of books that try to take an objective approach to determining how well the claims for past life memories hold up, but by far the most rigorous and thorough is Rogo’s The Search for Yesterday (it was this book that prompted me to do an interview with him for Fate just before he was murdered in 1990, which I later realized I had been mysteriously prompted to do). I have yet to find anyone who has read it and still thought that past life “memories” should be taken at face value.

Of course, most of these stories have no checkable data, but those that do have often been shown to either be pure fantasies or a mixture of accurate and false information:

°They sometimes turn out to be memories of someone who is still alive.

°Others have been shown to be from two dead individuals.

°Two living people have sometimes claimed to be the reincarnations of one person at the same time.

°Researchers who study historical records about the time period individuals claim to recall found that their “past life memories” got many things wrong, apparently influenced by popular modern misunderstandings.

°The supposedly reincarnated say things about their new identity that those who knew the individual when he or she was alive refute.

°The individuals claim to be incarnations of gods.

Researchers also discovered that Stevenson would cull only the very best cases out of a vast number, then withhold details that contradicted the story he wanted to tell. He even successfully lobbied editors not to publish criticisms of his work. Others who worked with him found major factual errors in his accounts, bias in interpretation, interviews done after the subject’s “memories” had been contaminated by influence from others, cases in which witnesses were led to say what the interviewer wanted to hear, and incidents of fraud by those hoping to profit.

In the best of circumstances, memory can be tricky. Eyewitness accounts of recent events often significantly contradict each other, so that lawyers have a challenge in trying to convince juries which are the most credible. And some readers will recall a few decades ago when “repressed memories” were claimed of mass child molestation conspiracies or satanic cults which were sacrificing infants.

Indian scholars like Ruth Reyna in Reincarnation and Science and C.T.K. Chari of Madras Christian College who examined Stevenson’s cases have been very critical. In some cases, it was easy to trace alleged past life memories to forgotten childhood experiences.

Past Lives Recalled Under Hypnosis

But Stevenson at least recognized that using hypnosis to extract past life memories was fraught with special problems. “The subconscious parts of the mind are released from ordinary inhibitions and they may then present in dramatic form a new ‘personality,’” he wrote. “In fact, nearly all such hypnotically evoked ‘previous personalities’ are entirely imaginary, just as are the contents of most dreams.”

It has been repeatedly shown that the mind has astonishing abilities to store information and recall it under hypnosis, known as cryptomnesia or unconscious learning. In one highly-touted case of past life regression, the individual was able to sing a song in a language he did not know. It was later found that he had looked at a book with sheet music at a library and his mind had made a photographic image which, incredibly enough, enabled him to sing it (which shows how limited our conceptions of the mind’s capabilities are). In another case, an investigator claimed that his subject could speak ancient Egyptian, but even Stevenson was not persuaded.

Yet Weiss relies on hypnotic regression to help people to recall past lives. He argues their validity because some patients have recovered from physical and mental problems they associated with their prior existence. Perhaps he missed the class on psychosomatic illness, whose cure can be brought about by bogus faith healers and witch doctors.

It’s also suspicious that if you ask someone who is hypnotized about their past lives, they will often come up with a tale about living a normal life in reasonably good living conditions, sometimes even claiming to have been someone famous. They rarely imagine themselves as being part of the vast majority in world history who were on the verge of starvation before the 20th century, died in childhood, or suffered from deadly disease epidemics.

But what about birthmarks? Some claim that one on the neck indicates they were hanged or that something that looks like a cut was due to a knife attack in the prior life. But these are rare and they don’t seem to have much purpose in being carried over to the new life. Loyd Auerbach argues in Reincarnation, Channeling and Possession that these stories are designed to explain natural birthmarks.

It’s not surprising, then, that the cases most often cited as the best, like Bridey Murphy and Shanti Devi, are no longer considered credible by most who have studied them objectively. Rogo cited the supposed group reincarnation of some Cathars from France in the 13th century to Britain in the 20th, as recounted by Arthur Guirdham in a series of books, as one of the most impressive cases. But Ian Wilson, in All in the Mind, does an excellent job of taking it apart.

Paranormal Explanations

If someone accepts the existence of some paranormal phenomena, then many of these so-called past life memories can be better explained.

Despite the claims of reincarnation proponents, the supposed recall of past lives is almost entirely confined to Hindu cultures and rebirths generally are said to occur locally. Virtually no one outside of those areas spontaneously recalls prior incarnations.

A number of Indian religious leaders and specialists in reincarnation have criticized Stevenson’s examples as being just spirit possessions.

Some American scholars, like the late John Hick at Claremont Graduate University, in Death and Eternal Life, have felt that many of the contradictions in supposed memories of the dead could be explained if, when someone dies, a mental residue is left behind that is telepathically accessible. It would be easy to be confused by such a jumble from multiple sources. The late W.G. Roll, research director for the Psychical Research Foundation in Chapel Hill, N.C. came to a similar conclusion.

Rogo suggested that what he dubbed extra-cerebral memories could be due to communication from the dead, perhaps a way that the deceased have tried to pass on lessons to newborns to help them survive. Birthmarks could also be due to telepathic bonding in utero, he theorized. Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious could certainly be another mechanism for transmission of memories and ideas within and across cultures.

Some spirits continue to haunt the places they died, apparently tied to the place of death by a trauma they haven’t come to terms with, so perhaps their thoughts might be picked up by a child. Or they may want to just hang around their living family and friends and encourage their remembrance by sharing memories with someone whose evolving personality is easily influenced.

Finally, some of the cases attributed to rebirth could actually just be examples of multiple personality disorder.

Madame Blavatsky, who popularized the Hindu version of reincarnation in the West, came to believe at the end of her life that it happened only rarely due to some special attachment to this world. If she could be so open-minded, then New Age enthusiasts ought to consider other explanations for the phenomena attributed to past lives.

Logical Problems With Reincarnation

Every individual case of supposed past life recall cannot be refuted or usually even checked for accuracy, of course. Nor will most ardent believers fully appreciate the criticisms above and why alternative explanations make better sense. But there remain some serious logical problems to the concept of reincarnation that need to be explored.

First Causes

The fundamental attraction of reincarnation for many in the West is that it supposedly explains good and bad luck in this life: someone is born poor because they were rich in the prior life and mistreated the less fortunate, earning bad karma that needed to be paid for by switching places. But then the question should be, why were they rich in the prior life and why did they act abusively?

It’s a similar question as to why God is not responsible for the actions of the human beings he created. The claim that he gave each person free will is not credible: there is little evidence that we have much and yet he did not create everyone with equal benefits and challenges. We have a hard time imagining a First Cause that is not caused and is not responsible for the subsequent chain of events.

If we are uncreated, as the Gnostic-like Mormon theology claims, if the gods only provide spirit and then physical bodies to consciousness that already exists so that it can develop further, this would be a better explanation for inherent personality differences (but their theology also asserts that earth life is a good experience, which it clearly has not been for the vast majority of the 70 billion who have ever lived).

Population Increase

Reincarnationists also have a hard time accounting for population increase: where are all these spirits coming from, since today’s population is 7.1 billion, compared with one billion in 1804. India’s is now 1.3 billion, compared with less than 500,000 in 1960: as the country with the greatest concentration of Hindu gurus, it would seem the process of escaping rebirth by spiritual progress is working in reverse.

Some have suggested that the increase is because extinct animals are coming back as humans, which can’t be right for two reasons. The dinosaurs, to take one example, lived 250 to 65 million years ago, so why did Homo sapiens only emerge in Africa 200,000 years ago? And we have always been a very, very tiny part of the earth’s organisms, so not many animals could be reborn as humans anyway (I wrote a book on the evidence for the souls of higher animals, but most religions do not teach this idea).

The other theory is that spirits are reincarnating from other planets. Assuming there are such places, it is hard to understand why their karma would not compel them to be reborn in similar circumstances there (and like the First Cause problem, this is simply borrowing from one logical gap to plug another). Nor do alien memories seem to emerge under hypnosis very often.

A related issue is why there are so many variations in theories about how many years there are between incarnations. They vary from a few to thousands, so one has to ask why reincarnation should be considered a universal law if its timetable varies radically from culture to culture.

Why Karma Doesn’t Work

The idea that the circumstances that we find ourselves in are the result of karma is also attractive to many. The ancients turned to this to explain why people were so different, as well as why some children seemed to have the memories of the deceased.

But being reborn in the same region in similar circumstances, which is what is said to happen according to researchers in Hindu cultures, would not seem to provide a much better opportunity for spiritual progress. Indeed, if you ask Indians today whether they think the process has led to people becoming more spiritually advanced, they will laugh. I went to India in 2004 and it has an impressive modern economy, but for Hindus, the Vedic Age 1,500-500 B.C., the time when their scriptures were written, was when mortals were closer to the gods, who sometimes incarnated.

Karma also has an insidious aspect: blame the victim. That is how it has been used to justify discrimination against the 160 million Untouchables in India today, who do work like cleaning sewers and burying the dead, which magnetize bad karma. They ask how this is fair, since they cannot escape doing these tasks.

Shirley MacLaine, whose book Out on a Limb brought the discussion of past lives into the American mainstream, caused a furor when she said that perhaps those killed in the Holocaust were not victims, but were dying according to their karmic needs. By this logic, no one should develop treatment for cancer because they would be interfering with patients’ destiny. And let’s not rescue the victims of a flood because they lived in that area as dictated by their prior deeds (karma appears to be an impersonal substitute for the all-wise God, who assigns our fate with complete justice). The 230,000 who died in the great tsunami of 2004? They all just happened to all be on the same karmic clock.

But the real problem with karma is that it has the same fundamental flaw as monotheism, the assumption that there can be a planned fate. The universe is in constant movement, at random at the quantum level and governed by the laws of physics at the larger level, but not precisely duplicating prior movements. There are accidents built into this system that impact our daily lives, from earthquakes to the gravity that can cause an airplane to crash. Then there are millions of manmade errors every day, from someone who makes a mistake in repairing car brakes to a driver who looks down at a text, both resulting in a fatal crash.

In order for a God or karma to predict events so that a particular destiny could be fulfilled by an individual, every single element would have to be fully controlled, from genetics and environment down to every germ and every bullet. It is incomprehensible that a benevolent God would exercise that control in a way that there would be so much suffering. Furthermore, to be able to fulfill a single aspect of someone’s fate, she or he would have to be in a protective bubble. They couldn’t die from malaria or a gang’s bullet early in life if they were supposed to die in a car driven by a drunk driver, as karmic penance for having they killed someone when they drove drunk in their prior life. And each person’s bubble would conflict with everyone else, resulting in a cosmic traffic jam.

Sensing that this doesn’t make sense, some have argued that karma would only apply to a few things in life or that karmic debts could be fulfilled in the next life. Of course, that would make karma rather irrelevant and there would be no reason to believe the next life would provide any better circumstances for paying off the bad karma.

Finally, the notion that rebirth provides an opportunity for spiritual progress ignores the evidence that human beings are highly dysfunctional. We suffer from hundreds of mental disorders, don’t know how to eat right, and, if you look back through the millennia, most people have been necessarily preoccupied with survival, rather than wondering whether the religious dogmas of their culture were true. Ask yourself if you know anyone who is anywhere near perfection: if this system worked like it was supposed to, a lot more people would be nearing release from rebirth.

It’s no wonder that the Gnostic scholar Gilles Quispel stated that if any rebirth occurred, it would have to be due to attachment, not karma, which made no sense.

But the view that attachment to the material world can pull us back would mean almost all of us are doomed to because we like our sugar, alcohol, sex, smartphones, or TV programs.

Gnosticism recognizes that this life is a mistake: rebirth would only repeat the original error over and over.

Next topic: The Gnostic Jesus


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