Rebecca Hamilton is a former pro-abortion activist and leader. As the Oklahoma Director of NARAL, she helped establish the first abortion clinic in Oklahoma, and she continued her activism after being elected to the Oklahoma House of Representatives. After experiencing a profound conversion to Christ, voters returned her to office as a pro-life Democrat and she spent twelve years defending life and families in the Oklahoma Legislature. Rebecca left her political career in 2014, and along with the National Catholic Register, she writes at Patheos on her blog Public Catholic.
Is there life after death?
Birth and death are the goal posts of every human life. That makes “Is there life after death?” an important question.
We come in. We go out. What happens in between, we know. What happened before, we ignore. It’s enough for most of our existence that we are here. But, sometimes, in the deep of night, we lie in bed and ask questions.
What, we ask with trepidation, hope, dismissal and not a little anxiety, happens after?
Do we live? Do we just rot and go back to dust? Are we — in any way that is personal and experiential — transcendent?
The way we view death determines how we view life, human dignity and ourselves. Our ideas about what happens when we die determines how we live the lives we have. We are moving inexorably toward a stopping place that we fear, dread and, sometimes, wish for. What we believe happens after we cross that stopping place shapes our understanding of everything we are and everything we do.
It has become rather obvious that, for some people at least, the moment when the heart stops and brain activity ceases is not the end of thinking, feeling, observing, reacting and memory-making.
Far too many people have given credible testimony to organized experiences of continued awareness, observing, thinking, feeling and reacting, even after they’ve come to a full physiological stop, for this to be the subject of hallucinations and wishful hoping. Something real has happened. They have experienced it, and many times, they retain explicit and detailed memories of it that provide verifiable details of events they had no way of knowing about if they had not been aware.
The hints of a possible afterlife are a conundrum for the when-you’re-dead-you’re-dead crowd. The reasons are obvious. If people wake up from a cessation of heart beats and brain function with reports of lucid, well-formed, often verifiable experiences, including not-verifiable but consistent conversations with people who have died previously and beings from another realm, it does tend to raise a few questions about their theories.
None of this says anything definitive about whether or not we survive death in the long term. But it certainly does hint at the existence of a Supreme Being. In fact, some of these experiences do quite a bit more than hint. They report encounters which fit into the interpretation that there is a Supreme Being and that there is both a blissful hereafter—and a hell.
But those aspects of these experiences are unprovable without actually dying and staying dead. You have to leave to go somewhere else, wherever that somewhere else might be. If it turns out that your consciousness dies in an hour or so, and you really do just rot, you won’t know, and neither will those you leave behind.
A group of doctors have evidently done a limited study of human bodies immediately after death. It seems they found at least one cadaver whose brain exhibited brain function for 10 minutes after official death had occurred.
A whole range of philosophical suppositions could be built on top this. But what I’ve read sounds as if this “study” is too limited to even begin that process. All I’ve seen so far are clickbait headlines followed by mushy, nothing-much articles.
For now, all I can say is that if you consider these questions based on what we know, then you can affirm that some people have functioning brains after their heart stops beating and their brain waves go flat, and that some of these people see those who have died before them, experience a life review, and view a heavenly light. Conversely, others of these people find themselves in hellish places that are populated by malicious beings.
Of course, lots of other people are resuscitated and remember nothing. That may be because nothing happened. Or, it may be because they don’t remember it. We don’t have any idea which is true.
There is another side of what I can tell you, and that is from my own personal experience. Some of it, I’m not going to write about. In fact, I will never write about it. But this is what I will say in public.
I’ve had a number of experiences with a divine being here in this life. I didn’t have to die to have them.
The first one was when I was driving to Enid, Oklahoma, to make a speech and I said the words “Forgive me,” aloud in the only kind of simplistic prayer I was capable of at that time.
I felt God. Right then. I felt everything lift off me in a real physical sensation. I felt love of a type that was and is beyond my powers to describe. I was immersed in and saturated with this joyous love. I felt an actual physical sensation of what I now know was the Holy Spirit, pouring into me, like water, pouring into a jug.
I did not expect any of this; had no preformed explanation for it. The whole experience knocked me flat.
I felt all this, and I knew absolutely that it was real. I didn’t understand most of what was happening, but I knew it was real, and I knew it was God and I knew it was the most wonderful feeling of ecstatic love I had ever felt. It was beyond anything I ever imagined.
This feeling never left me. It stayed with me. For the first few years, I was totally aware of this Other, this Being of Love, Who was with me, day and night. He guided me, loved me, taught me, and gently changed what I wanted to do. God loved me from death to life.
There have been other times since then when I’ve felt the presence of God, including a few times when I’ve heard Him directly. But the clear, calming presence of His Presence manifested itself most powerfully after I was diagnosed with cancer. He was there. And He helped me.
I had another health problem turn up recently. I’m not ready to write about it yet. But it was serious. He was and has been right there with me through all of it.
I am surprised and astonished to be able to say this, but I evidently have no fear of death. As the Psalmist says, “He leads me beside the still waters … and He comforts me … and I fear no evil.”
Death is the albatross that follows all of us throughout our days. But it doesn’t need to be.
You don’t need near death experiences and scientific proof to know that you are an immortal being. All you need is to “cease striving and know that” He is God.
God is both economical and generous with His graces. He gives us freely what we need for the moment we are in. All we have to do is ask. The grace He gives us to light our way when we chase ourselves down the dark alleys of thinking about our existential realities is the grace of faith.
Put simply, He will give you dying grace when you are dying. He will give you courage in the face of illness when you are ill. But He will not give you dying grace to calm your late-night vapors about what is going to happen decades in the future.
The grace we need for those moments is the grace to trust Him, to know that “He is able to keep that which we’ve entrusted to Him against that day,” and go to sleep.
If we want it and ask Him for it, He will also give us the grace to follow Him, even when it’s not convenient or popular or smart. Following Jesus often seems like the stupid thing to do, as the world counts stupidity. It means not taking advantage, not making idols out of celebrities, politicians and billionaires. It means having no God before Him, and that includes ourselves.
It takes grace to do this. It does not come naturally, especially not for I-can-do-it-myself Americans with our vast sense of freedom and self-assertion.
But the grace of walking the Way is ours, just like dying grace will be ours, when we need it, and ask for it.
The Christian life is ours to live. It is a life of grace, forgiveness, freedom and love. The Christian life is life, and that life is eternal.
I do not have scientific proof of life after death. But I do have the assurance of the Catholic Church, and the authority of God, “who can neither deceive nor be deceived.” And I have my personal experience of God, loving me from death to life. I have the experience of Him calling me all through my lost years, of Him sticking with me and continuing to love me, even when I’m a mess of sin, resentment, anger, shame and grief.
I have the abundant grace that He has poured down on me throughout these past months of illness, and the unending grace of knowing that He loved me first, before I loved Him.
We are not orphans. We are not mindless matter that has accidentally organized itself into thinking beings and that will inevitably degrade back into mindless matter. We are not alone and bereft, isolated forever in these capsules of dying flesh.
We are children of the living God, made in His Likeness and Image. We are transcendent beings, living for a while in finite time. We are immortal souls, living for this time in mortal bodies.
My pastor is fond of saying that when we die, someone will say to us, “You belong to me.”
The question is, who will say that?
We choose who it will be, now in this life, by who we follow. When we die, someone will be there, waiting for us, and they will say to us You belong to me. That someone will be the one we have already been following as we walked through this life.
You will live forever. If you want to live your forever with Jesus, all you have to do is choose Him now, and follow.