What do we know about the life after this one? We don’t know much, and that brings up a profound question: why not?
One hindrance in responding meaningfully to what would seem to be a legitimate question about the afterlife is the difficulty the messenger of God would have in portraying a dimension for which we have no frame of reference.
In the same way, we ourselves might find it impossible to describe to a child in the womb of its mother the reality of this world. We could talk about trees and birds and swing sets, but the words would evoke no meaningful mental images, and nothing useful would have been imparted:
Thus far we can also conclude from our examination of the metaphorical nature of physical reality that concealment of the reality of the afterlife serves to teach us by testing and stretching us, something wise teachers are wont to do by withholding answers to problems in order to motivate students to acquire the essential tools for further advancement. For example, were a math teacher simply to write a math problem on a board and tell the students to memorize the answer, the students might recall that answer in the future—should they ever happen across that particular problem again. But how much more valuable it would be for the teacher to help the students acquire the knowledge necessary to solve the problem so that the student could independently solve an entire panoply of similar problems.
Baha’u’llah said explicitly that another purpose in concealing the reality of the afterlife is to protect us. He explains that were we adequately informed about the life to come, we would find it so appealing that we would not be able to restrain ourselves from attaining that next stage in our existence. We would become so distracted and so desirous of abandoning this life that we would no longer be able to concentrate on the spiritual development we need to acquire to prepare for the transition from this life to the next:
If any man be told that which hath been ordained for such a soul [one who is “sanctified from the vain imaginings of the peoples of the world”] in the worlds of God … his whole being will instantly blaze out in his great longing to attain that most exalted, that sanctified and resplendent station … – Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 156.
The Effects of “NDE” on Contemporary Attitudes about the Afterlife
In spite of religious reassurances about the next stage of existence, it is easy to fall prey to prevailing attitudes regarding death. In the foreword to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s seminal work Death: The Final Stage of Growth, Joseph and Laurie Braga observe:
… death is a subject that is evaded, ignored, and denied by our youth-worshipping, progress-oriented society. It is almost as if we have taken on death as just another disease to be conquered.
When in the 1970s a number of books began to be published that attempted to document the afterlife experiences of patients who had experienced “clinical” death, we might have thought that attitudes about death would have been dramatically affected—that the fear of death would have vanished and that we would all become immensely more dedicated to attending to the health of our immortal soul. After all, such studies seemed to confirm belief in the continuation of the soul and in an eternal afterlife. Furthermore, most of the earlier works seemed to portray the afterlife as a totally positive experience.
For example, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, perhaps the most widely acclaimed pioneer in the then-emerging field of death counseling, stated in one interview that there is no need to fear death since God does not judge us—our earthly performance has no bearing on how we are received:
Discussing the aspects of an afterlife as described by patients, Mrs. Kübler-Ross remarked that those involved in the research were puzzled that there seemed to be no fear or punishment connected with death. “It seemed that a Hitler and a Mother Theresa got the same treatment. Then, we realized that God is not judgmental. We are the ones who discriminate. – Ibid.
Views like those of Kübler-Ross might make us wonder if we are not being provided with the knowledge to which Baha’u’llah alludes when he wrote:
In the treasuries of the knowledge of God there lieth concealed a knowledge which, when applied, will largely, though not wholly, eliminate fear. This knowledge, however, should be taught from childhood, as it will greatly aid in its elimination. Whatever decreaseth fear increaseth courage. – The Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 32.
Perhaps the acquiescence with which early Baha’i martyrs sacrificed their lives when they refused to recant their faith resulted from the certitude they possessed about the continuation of their lives. Perhaps they had no fear because they were given a clear vision of the joyous reality that lay before them only minutes away. Certainly their resolve—choosing to pass through that portal—still required immense courage and staunch faith, but perhaps such a divine bestowal helped them endure the terror, humiliation, torture, and mutilation of themselves and of their own families.