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Have You Seen “The Light?”

Robert Baker

Skeptical Briefs Volume 5.2, June 1995

If you haven't seen “the light” yet then you at least have read about it, heard about it on radio, or have watched the illuminated discussing it on talk shows. “The light” refers, of course, to the internal, subjective, brain-generated experience of an overpowering white or yellow light that accompanies someone having a typical "near-death experience,” or NDE. If you don’t know about “the light” then either you've been blind and deaf from birth or you are one of the sequestered jurors in the O.J. Simpson case. All other sentient beings have been exposed interminably to account after account of having died, encountered “the light,” and returned to earth to tell about it. So many people from all walks of life have done this that we no longer have to worry about unemployment. Dying has now become one of the most popular and remunerative ways of earning a living. Writing and talking about one’s NDE is now a major industry.

In no way, however, should this be surprising. Over the centuries, man’s impermanence has dominated his thinking and has, inevitably, been uppermost on his everyday mind. Corliss Lamont long ago reminded us in his book The Illusion of Immortality (Philosophical Library, 1950) that more books have been written on death, dying, and what-comes-after than on any other single subject. In his book Lamont noted that more than 5,000 titles are included in the bibliography on the subject of immortality compiled in 1862 by Ezra Abbot and printed as an appendix to W. R. Algor’s 1871 Critical History of the Doctrine of a Future Life (H. J. Widdleton, London). Since that time, Lamont reported in 1950, the writings on immortality have increased rapidly, stimulated by two major wars, several minor ones, and the vogue of spiritualism. Lamont said that he himself had a bibliography on file of more than 2,200 books and articles-most in English and most written after Abbot’s impressive compilation. If one adds to all of the publications that have occurred in the 45 years since 1950 we have an impressive pile of paper indeed. If “the light” titles continue to proliferate at their present rate, however, this file may well be exceeded, since they are moving and growing at, obviously, the speed of light.

Almost every bookstore in the country now has a special death-and-dying display or a separate “light” section prominently featured to placate the eager consumers. “Light” titles currently crowd the nonfiction bestseller lists. One of the best-known and an almost permanent resident on the list is Betty J. Eadie’s Embraced by the Light (Bantam, 1994), which stresses the existence of spiritual, physical, and universal laws, including the supreme law of love. Betty saw the light, met Jesus, and was given a message for mankind. Another current contender in the sales derby is Dannion Brinkley’s Saved by the Light (Villard Books, HarperCollins, 1994). Its subtitle is: A True Story of a Man Who Died Twice and the Profound Revelation He Received. Brinkley, who was struck by lightning, saw a lot of light before he was propelled to a spiritual realm inhabited by 13 angels made of light who filled him with knowledge of the future, including, Brinkley says, the coming of the Gulf War and the break-up of the Soviet Union. Some of the wonderful side benefits of the “light” experience, in case you didn’t know, include ESP and the power of prophecy. In Melvin Morse’s Transformed by the Light (Villard Books, 1992), for example, Morse argues that the NDE stimulates one’s ESP abilities and increases the number of verifiable psychic experiences three-fold.

To fully appreciate the history of the “light” books one has to go back to Raymond Moody’s Life After Life (Mockingbird Books, 1975) and his follow- up work Reflections on Life After Life (Bantam Books, 1977). If Moody was not the originator of the "light” experience as one of the most universal characteristics of the NDE he certainly deserves credit for its popularization. His own “light” book The Light Beyond (Bantam) appeared in 1988 and has been followed more recently by Reunions (Villard Books, 1993), in which Moody shows us how to talk with our dead relatives. Not to be left out, our old friend, Brad Steiger, hops aboard the gravy train with his 1994 offering One With the Light: Authentic NDEs (Signet Books). Another fascinating entry in the race is P. M. H. Atwater’s Beyond the Light: What Isn't Being Said About the ND Experiences (Birch Lane Press Books, Carol Pub. Group, 1994). Atwater herself is an ND survivor as well as an NDE researcher. She has found there are many different types of NDEs: some are good and some are bad, and there are strong similarities between NDEs and hallucinations. Since Atwater had three NDEs in 1977, she is undoubtedly an expert.

As Atwater reveals, not all NDEs lead to heaven. In Angia Fenimore’s Beyond the Darkness: My Near Death Journey to the Edge Of Hell (Bantam Books, 1995) the author tells of going in the other direction. On January 8, 1991 Fenimore committed suicide and expected to move toward the light. Instead, she moved into a realm of darkness and a world made up of terrifying visions and profound psychic disorientation, where all of her worst nightmares were real. She also met Satan and found him unattractive. Miraculously, however, after a nice chat with God and an illuminated Christ, she was restored to life. She is now a child-of-God and after receiving professional help was inspired to write her book. She warns us all, however, that “God can’t force us to choose the light.”

Of all the “light” books currently available perhaps the best one is Kevin D. Randle’s To Touch the Light (Pinnacle Books, Windsor Pub. Corp., 1994). Although this is the same Randle who, along with D. R. Schmitt, turns up alien bodies in crashed UFOs in the Southwest, e.g., The Truth About the UFO Crash At Roswell (Avon Books, 1994), he is yet wise enough about the light business to take all of the supernaturalism with a grain of skepticism. In fact, Randle quotes Paul Kurtz’s insight that a profound personality change is in no way proof of an afterlife. Failure to fear death after an NDE only proves that the person having the experience was, indeed, profoundly affected. Such experiences do, most assuredly, provide a measure of comfort and hope, and there is nothing wrong with this unless one thereby neglects his or her material world and the here-and-now in preparation for another world to come.

While most books of this sort are marked by humility and simplicity, this is not the case for Sidney Saylor Farr’s What Tom Sawyer Learned from Dying (Hampton Roads Pub. Corp., 1993). Farr supposedly learned much more from dying than he ever learned from living and he is now a source of wisdom on everything. Today Farr is an authority on the earth’s past, present, and future; the secrets of medicine and healing; humankind’s ultimate destiny; politics, science, psychology, and more.

If you are, however, seriously interested in the NDEs and the psychological experience of seeing the light, you should, of course, read Dr. Susan Blacknore’s excellent Dying to Live (Prometheus Books, 1993). If you have not yet seen the light, don’t worry. The question is irrelevant for both the living and the dying. Curiously enough, the message from all of those who have encountered the light and returned is the same. All of the beings of light are in firm agreement, and they tell the dying: Stay on Earth and resist the transcendental temptation; focus on life not death; use your human powers of love and compassion in work to make this material world-the world of the here and now and the world we all inhabit-a better world, the best world it can possibly be. This is the one thing on which all of us-the believer and the skeptic-can unanimously agree. This is the true light we all should see.

Robert Baker

Robert A. Baker is professor of psychology emeritus, University of Kentucky, Lexington.