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In a comment on my recent article, “If God is Love, Why all the Pain and Suffering?” a reader named Mike wrote:
All good and fine but where is the proof there is life after we die? You contend that there is suffering in this material world but our spirit will go on to another world after this one. Where is the proof? Not enough to just believe blindly (like communism or some other ism).
Great question! Let’s talk about it.
First, as you have gathered from my earlier article, I believe that the afterlife is not in this physical world after some future Last Judgment, as some people think. Instead, I believe it is in a spiritual world that is entirely distinct from the physical world.
Obviously, for that to be true there would have to be a spiritual world. So let’s broaden the question:
Where is the proof that the spiritual world exists?
Now, I assume that by “proof” you mean conclusive evidence by which one person could demonstrate to another person that the spiritual world definitely exists. Is that a reasonable assumption?
If so, then the answer is:
There is no proof that the spiritual world exists.
In fact, God has specifically designed the universe and the human mind so that it is impossible for one person to prove to another person that the spiritual world exists. This is to protect the very same freedom that I talked about in the “Pain and Suffering” article.
But here’s the real kicker:
There is also no proof that the material world exists.
Do you have a brain?
No, I’m not insulting you. This is a serious question!
How do you know that you have a brain? Have you actually seen your brain? Have you heard, smelled, tasted, or touched your brain? If not, how do you know it exists?
Most likely, you “know” that you have a brain because you were told so by your parents and teachers, who were told by scientists and doctors who have actually seen people’s brains. You trust that those people know what they’re talking about. Besides, everyone except a few insulting jerks agrees that you have a brain!
In other words, even though you have probably never seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched your brain, you believe that you have one because people you trust have told you so, and everyone you know believes that you have a brain.
In other words, most likely all of your proof that you have a brain is that other people have told you so.
Is that really proof? No. It’s a reasonable belief based on what you’ve been taught, and on what you have learned about the human body and how it works.
I also happen to believe that you have a brain. But the fact of the matter is that you could not prove to me that you have a brain.
Does the material world exist?
It’s not just that you wouldn’t want to cut open your head to show me that you do, indeed, have a brain inside your skull.
The problem is much bigger than that.
You see, it’s impossible for you to prove to me that the material world exists in the first place.
I know what you’re thinking: “That’s stupid. Everyone knows that the material world exists!”
Well . . . before Copernicus and Galileo, everyone knew that the sun orbits the earth—and we know how that turned out!
“Everyone knows” is not valid proof. And “That’s stupid” is not a valid argument.
Think about it. The only thing you know for absolutely sure is this:
Your consciousness exists.
Your thoughts and feelings are the only things that you experience directly. This is the famous starting point of the philosophy of René Descartes: “Cogito ergo sum,” “I think, therefore I am.”
Everything else besides your own consciousness you experience indirectly—apparently through your physical senses and the nerve pathways from them to your brain. But the only place you actually sense anything is in your conscious awareness.
How do you know for sure that anything else besides your own consciousness exists?
The fact is, you really don’t know for sure. It could be that everything you experience every day, including your own body and brain, is being manufactured by your consciousness so that it seems to you exactly as if you are living and moving in an external, material world full of people, buildings, animals, and trees, when in fact none of those things actually exist out there.
Your conscious awareness may be the only thing that exists!
But what if I think that my consciousness is the only thing that exists? Huh?!?
There is no way you can prove to me that anything else but my own consciousness exists. In the same way, there is no way I can prove to you that anything but your own consciousness exists.
How can I prove to you that I’m not a figment of your imagination? The fact is, I cannot. Even if I punched you to prove that I exist, that could just be your own mind manufacturing both me and the experience of being punched.
The stubborn fact is that you can’t even prove to yourself that anything besides your own thoughts and feelings exists.
There is more proof of spirit than there is of matter
Now, thoughts and feelings are non-material things.
Yes, I know. Most scientists believe that thoughts and feelings are impulses in the brain.
But remember, there is no way to prove that the brain exists. The brain is a physical organ made of physical matter. We have no direct experience of it. Therefore we have no undeniable proof that it exists.
The only thing we know for sure is that our consciousness exists. And our consciousness consists of thoughts and feelings, loves and motives, intelligence and rationality.
These things are all non-material.
Love is not a physical entity. It is something that we experience in our mind. The same is true of everything else that makes up our mind—thoughts, feelings, ideas, emotions, motives. And these thoughts, feelings, ideas, emotions, and motives are not material . . . they are spiritual.
Another way of saying this is that everything we have direct experience of is spiritual in nature.
So the plain fact of the matter is that the only thing we have any solid proof of is that the things that are usually called “spiritual” actually do exist. We have this proof because we experience these things directly for ourselves.
For everything else, including the existence of our physical brain and of the entire material world, we only have secondary evidence.
In other words, there is no conclusive proof that the material world exists. But each of us does have direct experience of the existence of non-material, or spiritual, things.
The existence of the material world is an assumption
Now, just to put your mind and your brain at rest, I do happen to believe that the material world actually exists objectively out there.
However, I recognize that this is an unprovable assumption, which can be treated as an axiom. It is something that we just assume to be true because it seems so obvious. We then use that unprovable assumption or axiom as a foundation for a whole superstructure of other ideas and conclusions.
I also happen to think that the objective reality of the material world is a very useful assumption. If we all agree that the material world exists, and that other people are not just figments of our own imagination, then we can go on about the business of living our lives in human society.
However, we must always remember that the existence of the material world is an assumption. We truly cannot prove to anyone else, or even to ourselves, that it actually exists.
So let’s forget about proof, and talk about evidence. How we can have some reasonable confidence that the spiritual world exists, and that the afterlife is a real possibility?
How do we know things?
There are two basic ways of knowing something:
- We can experience it directly for ourselves.
- We can have it taught to us by other people.
The second category involves not only verbal teaching and demonstration by parents, teachers, ministers, and so on, but also reading books, watching videos, reading stuff on the Internet, and getting information via all of the other media that we use to communicate information to one another.
When we experience something for ourselves, we can have a great deal of confidence that it is true.
When we are taught something by other people, either directly or indirectly, our confidence in the truth of it depends on how much we trust the people who are providing the information. If a particular piece of information comes from someone with a PhD in the field and a high-powered academic teaching position, we’re likely to trust it a lot. But if it comes from some wild-haired person shouting in the street, we’re likely to file it in our brain under “crazy stuff.”
How can we know that the spiritual world exists?
Similarly, there are two basic ways we could know that the spiritual world exists:
- We could experience it for ourselves.
- We could be taught about its existence by other people who have experienced it.
Obviously, if we experience the spiritual world for ourselves, we’re likely to have a great deal of confidence that it exists.
For readers who have had near-death experiences, my whole argument above about the existence or non-existence of the spiritual world probably seems rather unnecessary, if not just a bit silly. They know that the spiritual world exists because they have experienced it for themselves.
Yes, I know. Many skeptics and materialistic scientists believe that near-death experiences are just hallucinations generated by an oxygen-deprived brain. But those who have had a near-death experience can simply say, “You have not experienced it. I have. I know that it is real.”
So for millions of people alive today, the existence of the spiritual world, and by extension, of an afterlife, is a simple fact because they have been there.
Yes, but how can the rest of us know?
That’s all well and good . . . if you’ve had a near-death experience. But what about the rest of us, who have not experienced the spiritual world for ourselves?
Of course, my view is that we all are experiencing a piece of the spiritual world every day in our own minds and hearts. As I said above, all of our thoughts and feelings, ideas and loves, are spiritual. So in our minds and hearts, we are living in the spiritual world every day.
However, as long as we are still living on this earth, we are not fully conscious in the spiritual world. And if our spiritual senses (the sensory organs of our spiritual body) have not been activated through a near-death experience or some other type of spiritual experience, then we have to fall back on the second way of learning about something: being taught by others.
And in fact, there is no lack of eyewitness testimony to the spiritual world and the afterlife. From ancient texts such as the Bible and the Tibetan Book of the Dead right up through the present wealth of literature on near-death experiences, we have the experience and the testimony of thousands of people, over thousands of years, on the existence and reality of the spiritual world.
Not all of those people agree with one another on exactly what the spiritual world is like. But that’s not surprising. Even scientists studying the material world don’t all agree with one another on the nature of the material world.
What all of those people spread over the thousands of years of human civilization do agree on is that the spiritual world is real.
Evidence for the afterlife
For anyone who wishes to learn about it, there is plenty of good information out there. I’m sure you can find as much as you want with a few Internet searches. But let me recommend a couple of credible sources, one new and one old. Just click on the cover image or title link to go to the book’s page on Amazon.
For those who believe in science and want the testimony of a scientist—a neurosurgeon, no less—you can’t do better than this recently published book:
Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife
By Dr. Eben Alexander
(Yeah, I wouldn’t have used “proof” in the title!)
And here is the most extensive eyewitness account of the spiritual world ever published:
Heaven and Hell
By Emanuel Swedenborg
Heaven and Hell was originally published in Latin in 1758. I recommend the edition linked above for the most readable and accurate modern translation.
You might also enjoy reading “A Sister’s Eulogy for Steve Jobs.” It lovingly recounts his final days and his last words. For much of his life, Steve Jobs questioned the existence of an afterlife. And yet at his death, to the amazement of those present, he saw something not visible to the rest of the people in the room. His final words were, “OH WOW. OH WOW. OH WOW.”
Of course, if you truly do not want to believe that there is a spiritual world or an afterlife, all the books and accounts in the world won’t convince you. But if you truly do want to believe that there is an afterlife, there is plenty of evidence available.
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