The Afterlife

On 6 August 2016, Jeni Stepien married Paul Maenner in Swissvale, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh. The man who escorted the bride down the aisle was not exactly a relative: he had received her father’s heart in a transplant a decade before. In some sense, her father was there next to her as she married. At least part of him continued to live, even as the rest of him had expired years before. Such is the case with all organ donors.

But, even so, donating an organ does not confer true immortality for the whole self. The transplanted organ also dies when the recipient ceases to live. Possibly, many of us wonder whether there is some part of us that goes on, perhaps not for eternity but for a long time after we die physically. Is there life after death?

There are some individuals who continue to exist in our memories, and, in some way, that is akin to immortality. These are, of course, people who have made their marks on history and will probably be remembered as long as there are people to remember them. This is, at least, one kind of immortality. But what of the rest of us unremarkable individuals? Can there be life after physical death?

Not too long ago, I had a simple medical test during which I was given a total knockout anesthetic by injection. It didn’t take long before I was out. I suddenly awoke sometime later, after the procedure was completed, and I realized that I had been completely unconscious for an undetermined amount of time. I felt weird and disoriented, although completely aware of my surroundings in the present. There was no memory of anything that had happened to me; I had not dreamed, and I was not even aware of the length of elapsed time. All had been a void, and then, suddenly, like night and day, I was totally conscious. It was as if I had been dead for all that time.

I wondered: Is this what death is like? Do we lose consciousness, and then all becomes blank for all subsequent time? Is death the total annihilation of the self?

As a Christian, I had always been taught that life exists after death. That message was presented to me by those who were either clergy or very dedicated believers. It was reassuring to believe them, and I wanted to believe. But, as far as I could tell, there was no scientific evidence that life existed after physical death. It all came down to faith and the credibility of those delivering the message. The rational side of me wanted something more.

I have written before about faith, but faith related to scientific knowledge [3]. In that essay, I argued that very little of the scientific knowledge we accept as true comes from our own experiences. Scientific facts beyond our own experiences are believable only because of the faith that we have in others who have the scientific credentials to be considered reasonably trustworthy in the stories they tell. The evidence they present is only their interpretation of what they have observed or measured, and we need to accept, even know, that they are trustworthy in all of these. The study of life after death was not a topic for any of the experts in whom I trusted. Yes, there were those who did study the topic, but there were many other skeptics, too. I didn’t know whom to trust enough to believe.

One of those skeptics is Michael Shermer, who writes a monthly column in Scientific American called, appropriately, “Skeptic.” For years, Shermer wrote against almost every paranormal belief that I held, and his taunting style induced in me a strong emotional response of anger, sadness, and doubt. How could he be so sure of himself? I found that I could not summarily dismiss his positions because, after all, I held my beliefs mainly because others had told me about them, and they did not seem to be as questioning as I was. I had believed those others because of the faith I had in them, and because I wanted, above all, to believe.

But, one month, Michael Shermer published an extraordinary column. As he wrote [5],

Often I am asked if I have ever encountered something that I could not explain… My answer is: yes, now I have.

The event took place on June 25, 2014. On the day I married Jennifer Graf, from Köln, Germany. She had been raised by her mom; her grandfather, Walter, was the closest father figure she had growing up, but he died when she was 16.

Shermer goes on to explain that among Jennifer’s heirlooms shipped to his home before the wedding was her grandfather’s 1978 Phillips 070 transistor radio, which he tried to get to work “after decades of muteness”:

I put in new batteries and opened it up to see if there were any loose connections to solder. I even tried “percussive maintenance,” said to work on such devices—smacking it sharply against a hard surface. Silence. We gave up and put it at the back of a desk drawer in our bedroom.

Then, Shermer goes on, following the ceremony at their home on the day of their wedding,

Jennifer was feeling amiss and lonely. She wished her grandfather were there to give her away. … so we excused ourselves to the back of the house where we could hear music playing in the bedroom. We don’t have a music system there, so we searched for laptops and iPhones. …

After further searching, “Jennifer shot me a look I haven’t seen since the supernatural thriller The Exorcist startled audiences”:

She opened the desk drawer and pulled out her grandfather’s transistor radio, out of which a romantic love song wafted. We sat in stunned silence for minutes. “My grandfather is here with us,” Jennifer said, tearfully. “I’m not alone.”

Shortly thereafter, Shermer and Jennifer learned that his daughter had heard music coming from their room as the ceremony was beginning—even though they had heard no music as they got ready there just minutes earlier. Shermer continues,

Later that night we fell asleep to the sound of classical music emanating from Walter’s radio. Fittingly, it stopped working the next day and has remained silent ever since.

He later wrote, “I have to admit, it rocked me back on my heels and shook my skepticism to its core as well.”

That column had an enormous effect on me. If the great skeptic, whom I had equated with the devil himself, could have such an experience, then perhaps there might be some reason to believe in the afterlife and other paranormal phenomena. Just as Doubting Thomas stands in the Bible as a surrogate for all of us who question, so Michael Shermer became my litmus test. Since that one column, Shermer has not tried to debunk paranormal beliefs with the same bold intensity as he had before the incident that he described. His columns have taken on a gentler, less confrontational tone.

Some time afterward, I read a column by Larry Althouse called “Bible Speaks,” published in Lancaster Farming. In this column, Althouse described a childhood incident related to him by his mother [1]:

As she told it, she was awakened from sleep in her bedroom. Upon opening her eyes, she was surprised to see her grandmother at the foot of her bed. Her grandmother said nothing, but smiled in a way that was a kind of blessing.

My mother went back to sleep. In the morning, her mother came to her room to tell her that her grandmother, who lived on the other side of the city, had died that night.

There were no witnesses, no tape recorders or cameras to verify what my mother had experienced. She could not explain how this could happen, but she knew her grandmother had come to say goodbye.

I told this story in one of my sermons of the 1970s in my pastorate in Mohnton, Pa., and was surprised how many of my congregation told me they had similar experiences and wanted help in understanding them.

What made this incident so striking to me was the similarity to another that appeared in an article in IEEE Pulse’s precursor, IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Magazine. This particular issue was devoted to the life and contributions of that great physicist Otto Schmitt. I knew Otto while he was still living but did not know this exact story until I read about it in that article [2]:

As a young boy, Otto also fell under the influence of his paternal grandmother, who lived with the family until her death in 1920, when Otto was almost seven. Indeed, she may have affected him more in death than in life. As Otto prepared himself for a day of first grade on the morning of 1 February 1920, his father informed him that he should not go school because “Grossmutter” was gravely ill. Otto retired to his room while some other family members maintained a vigil at the bedside of the elderly woman. Alone in his bedroom, Otto received a visit from Grossmutter, who offered him a final farewell filled with love and reassurance. Later that day, Otto’s father broke the news of Grossmutter’s death, but Otto replied that he had already learned of her passing from the visit she had made to his bedroom. His father explained, in turn, that Grossmutter had never left her bed that day. Later in life, Otto Schmitt would often credit this experience for his persistent belief in an afterlife and his lifelong willingness to consider the authenticity of other paranormal phenomena.

In these three accounts, we have the skeptic, so shaken by his seemingly paranormal experience that he changed his tone; a clergyman whose mother had an extraordinary experience and who found similar experiences to be not uncommon; and a great scientist, one whom I admired immensely, who swore he had a postmortal visit from his grandmother. If, to be convinced, I need to have confidence in those with relevant experiences and who speak to my needs, these three have passed the test. So: there you have the evidence of my reassurance about the existence of life after death. I don’t know what form it takes or what properties it has, but I have faith in those who say they know.

I realize that this is not a topic normally included in a publication devoted to science and engineering, but it is part of our wonderings about ourselves and others and about the meanings that we hold dear to ourselves and to those important to us. There are yearnings for reassurance about things greater than ourselves even among agnostics and skeptics [4]. One can draw one’s own conclusions about such things, but, when evidence is presented, the least we can do is consider it.

References

  1. L. Althouse, “May the resurrection be with you,” Lancaster Farming, vol. 61, no. 25, pp. A8. Mar. 2016.
  2. J. M. Harkness, “Otto Schmitt: An idea man,” IEEE Eng. Med. Biol. Mag, vol. 23, no. 6, pp. 20–41. Nov./Dec. 2004.
  3. A. T. Johnson, “Faith in science,” IEEE Pulse, vol. 5, no. 1, pp. 68. Jan./Feb. 2014.
  4. S. Schrobsdorff, “My life as a ‘none’ and other tales from the ranks of the unaffiliated and the agnostic,” Time, vol. 188, no. 12, pp. 63. Sept. 2016.
  5. M. Shermer, “Infrequencies,” Sci. Amer, vol. 311, no. 4, pp. 97. Oct. 2014.