Four ways a view of eternity changes everything

A person walks through Yonge and Dundas Square in Toronto, Friday, Sept, 25, 2015. (Marta Iwanek/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT

A person walks through Yonge and Dundas Square in Toronto, Friday, Sept, 25, 2015. (Marta Iwanek/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT

In my new book, “The Souls Upward Yearning,” I provide evidence for the immortality of the human soul.

I leverage data from a variety of sources including psychology, sociology, physics, philosophy, and medical studies of near death experiences (NDEs). This last area has captured public attention with popular books that subsequently became movies like “Heaven is For Real.

One excellent book that has yet to make it to the big screen is Dr. Eben Alexander’s, “Proof of Heaven.” Not only did Dr. Alexander undergo a remarkable near death experience, he is also a world class neurosurgeon, who has taught at Harvard Medical School, Duke University Medical Center, and the University of Virginia Medical Center, making him a uniquely qualified expert to give a highly informative and illuminating account of his NDE.

Why is it important to recognize that our personal identity (self-awareness, memories, knowledge of relationships, etc.) will persist after the death of our body? How will this knowledge impact our lives in the here and now? Are there any specific ways that belief in eternity will increase our happiness, purpose, and sense of wellbeing? Here are four that are immediately apparent to me.

First, our view of dignity, destiny, happiness, fulfillment, and meaning in life depends in great part on whether we consider ourselves to be transcendent and eternal – or merely material and temporal. If we are truly transcendent and eternal beings – seeking perfect truth, love, goodness, beauty, and home, we will never be able to be fulfilled by merely material and ego-comparative satisfactions. We will always want more – and if we deprive ourselves of spiritual and eternal pursuits we will likely be bewildered by persistent meaninglessness, emptiness, and malaise. This phenomenon is shown in a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry which found that decline in religious belief leads to increased suicide attempts, impulsive aggressiveness, meaninglessness, despondency, substance abuse, and familial tensions (Kanita Dervic et. al 2004, Vol. 161).

Secondly, if we are truly destined for eternal communion with others and a loving transcendent Being (as is often indicated by near death experiences) and we live for this world alone, we will have underestimated our true dignity, purpose, and destiny – causing us to underlive our lives and underserve our potential for truth, love, and goodness. If this limited perspective is untrue, why would we want to give ourselves a spiritual lobotomy? Why would we want to abandon hope in a future of eternal love? Why would we want to underestimate our dignity and purpose in life?

A spiritual perspective is so important for setting the direction of our lives, we cannot afford to be unaware of the rationale for it. At the very least, we will want to study the best contemporary evidence for our transcendent and eternal nature – and make a sober judgment about who we really are.

Thirdly, personal misfortune and suffering are inescapable aspects of human life. Financial setbacks, the illness or death of a loved one, divorce, or even the seemingly unending series of minor misfortunes, can bring us to the brink of despair.

Because we’re so invested in our own life and the lives of those around us, nothing can completely ease the pain of personal tragedy, but if life truly proceeds into eternity, it can contextualize our pain within a much greater reality – an eternity of truth, love, goodness, and beauty brought to perfection. J.R.R. Tolkien noted, if our transcendent and eternal destiny is real, then even death is no longer a catastrophe, but a “eucatastrophe. The prefix “eu” is Greek for “good” – so death, instead of being a meaningless end, is really a good beginning.

Furthermore, could pain, weakness, deprivation, and grief have some ultimate purpose to bring us toward this transcendental and eternal end? We cannot answer this question unless we know whether our transcendent and eternal end will in fact be our destiny. Once again, we cannot afford to be unaware of the contemporary evidence for our spiritual nature.     

Fourthly, the way we view ourselves is the way we view others. If we see ourselves as a mere clump of atoms and molecules – a merely material and temporal reality – we will likely view others in the same way.

Conversely, if we see ourselves as a spiritual mystery – a unique manifestation of truth, love, goodness, and beauty – an unrepeatable and incomprehensible mystery, we will likely view others in this way. Are human beings mere problems or unique transcendent mysteries? If we maintain a merely materialistic viewpoint, it is easy to view others as problems – whereas, if we view ourselves as transcendent mysteries, we will be inclined to give others the respect and love they deserve.

At this point some of you are probably thinking, “Yes, this would all be wonderful if only it were true.” But is there any probative evidence from medical studies, neuroscience, and the philosophy of mind for this view? A detailed response to this question cannot be given in this short article, however, let me offer a summary response.

The short answer is that neither brain science nor psychology has come anywhere near disproving the existence of an immaterial soul. On the contrary, anomalies to a strictly materialistic worldview are increasing.

I’ve already provided some anecdotal evidence for survival of consciousness after bodily death from near death experiences. In addition to this there have been peer-reviewed medical studies conducted by teams of doctors and other specialists. Several of these involve hundreds or even thousands of cases (e.g., the 2001 Netherlands based study led by Dr. Pim van Lommel and the 2014 multinational AWARE study directed by Dr. Sam Parnia at the University of Southampton).

Yet near death experience is just one of a number of areas that I cover in “The Soul’s Upward Yearning.” The book provides a comprehensive chronicling of evidence for the soul while intentionally not drawing from religious sources. If one examines this evidence with an open mind, one will uncover mysteries of the human person that are inexplicable within a materialistic framework. Only by looking beyond matter and energy – and even beyond the quantum world -- can we begin to understand our capacity for self-consciousness, the transcendental awareness of truth, beauty, goodness, love, and home, and freewill.

In closing, believing that you will live forever is not wishful thinking. On the contrary, it is reasonable and responsible – and therefore the most comprehensive and meaningful truth we can embrace. Short of this, we risk underliving our lives and underestimating our dignity and destiny.

Robert J. Spitzer, S.J., Ph.D., is the former president of Gonzaga University; the founder of the Magis Institute, which educates the public about the relationship between physics, philosophy, reason, and faith; and author of “Finding True Happiness” and his latest book, "The Soul's Upward Yearning: Clues to Our Transcendent Nature from Experience and Reason."