Heaven and hell: Fact or fantasy?
'Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today'
- John Lennon 'Imagine'
In measured detail, the Bible and the Quran describe two places that are likely to become our everlasting home when we die.
John Milton, Dante Alighieri and William Blake have also significantly contributed to our belief in this bipolar existence. But any discourse on this subject is incomplete without reviewing the exhaustive work by the 17th century scientist and theologian, Emanuel Swedenborg, Heaven and its Wonders and Hell From Things Heard and Seen.
Swedenborg, a seer of enviable repute, wrote that the spiritual world mirrors the natural world, and that many gravitate to hell or heaven depending on their thought waves and energy; thereby preventing the coexistence of morally different people.
Throughout the ages, theories on heaven and hell bear distinct similarities. Cultural differences have not changed the equation. Recalcitrant, rebellious and evil persons are said to be shoved into a burning pit called hell; and those who have lived a worthy, prayerful life are ushered to a blissful, warm and accommodating environ called heaven.
Whether interpreted as literal abodes or allegories, heaven and hell have shaped our consciousness and spurred countless debates.
I needed to understand more and sought objectivity through Dr Andrew Newberg. Our interaction was nothing short of enlightening and provoked an even deeper interest in this spiritual phenomenon.
Undoubtedly, it was from the halls of faith to the laboratory of neuroscience that my quest to unravel the complexities of the religious experience took a sharp turn.
Newberg is a most distinguished neuroscientist, a pioneer in the field of neurotheology that explores the brain and its relationship to spiritual encounters and experiences.
It is a genre that has galvanised interest in recent years, although he concedes that "there is so much more to explore".
As a professor of emergency medicine and radiology, and director of research at Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at the Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital in Virginia, United States, Newberg has authored many seminal books.
"Our beliefs alter how our brain operates in the same way that our brain can determine how we view the world," he said.
It is this symbiotic relationship that Newberg is working tirelessly to understand by refining his methodologies and adopting more integrative modalities.
He spoke of the biochemical reaction of the brain during spiritual experiences. "I am interested solely in what is happening in the brain during intense prayers, meditation, trance states, and mystical experiences," stated Newberg.
"Brain scans, in themselves, do not prove the veracity of the experience. Of course, there's something going on but the experience is a heavily subjective and personal one."
The consummate scientist, he refused to form a conclusive opinion on the origins of these spiritual experiences. "What we know is that in the case of visions, there are marked changes in the visual cortex."
Newberg also noted that the frontal lobe plays a major role in the mystical experience. He referred to this area of the brain as its executive function that gives us a sense of identity and control.
During mystical experiences, though, there is a decrease of blood flow to the area that cause passivity and a loss of identity, the individual allows himself to be taken over by some agency. Newberg refused to identify this agency.
"We cannot say if it's an entity or spirit or some other area of the brain now at work." Here, he deferred to research being undertaken Dr Sam Parnia on Near Death Experiences, that suggests that the mind or consciousness can function apart from the brain.
While Newberg does not negate the existence of gods, a god, or outside agencies, he reiterated that his research strictly focuses on the impact of the brain during these other-worldly experiences.
However, he noted that if the brain is the alpha and omega of the God experience, life after death is unimaginable.
Conversely, he entertained the idea that if everything stems from an enigma called consciousness and the brain is only a mechanism for us to function on a biological level, it is conceivable that there could be "survival" in some form after death. But there is little evidence to definitively support this belief.
Accountability for actions
What is indisputable is that there is accountability for our actions if nature is an indicator. Nature has a way of correcting itself in order to maintain homoeostasis or balance.
This balance or harmony is what is called 'Tao or the Way' by the ancients. This law is reflected in our natural habitat and physical body. When we transgress or ignore the noble path, nature corrects us through pain and suffering.
This is nature's correction that is oftentimes painful, but necessary. Is this hellish experience that the scriptures speak about? But when we attain balance and inner harmony, is this Heaven?
In John 17: 20-21, it is written that Jesus said, "Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you".
Was the Christian messiah referring to heaven as a subjective, personal experience? Did he mean that heaven and hell are experiential states that differ from person to person?
Is the religious experience highly personal, and cannot be measured, as Newberg argued? If true, then heaven and hell are not places of abode, but mental states that we experience daily.
- Dr Glenville Ashby is a social critic and president of Global Interfaith Council