Near-Death Experiences, a New Take on Life, Part 5: Can God and Evil Be Reconciled?
“I went down a tunnel, I saw a light.” It has become such a standard part of near-death-experience accounts that it’s almost a cliché. Near-death experiencers report moving through a (usually dark) tunnel and emerging at a different place, where they may encounter a being of light, deceased relatives, heavenly landscapes, a review of their lives—usually some combination, or all, of those elements.
The tunnel experience is common though not universal. Some NDErs seem to go directly to the other world, without passing through a tunnel. Tunnels seem to be considerably less common in Hindu NDEs. Japanese NDErs report moving along rivers instead of tunnels.
At least in Western NDEs, though, tunnels are more common in cases where NDErs are actually clinically dead. All this suggests that the tunnel is a metaphorical representation of the transition from one world to the other. What is, however, universal is that the world encountered in the NDE is very different from the earthly one—and in the vast majority of cases, a lot better. To such an extent that NDErs—no matter what their earthly responsibilities and attachments—usually want to stay in the transcendent world, and regret—sometimes quite painfully—having to return to the earthly one.
The being of light, as I discussed earlier in this series, is without exception experienced as a source of great, unconditional love. In NDEs that include this element, it is, of course, one of the things that make the experience so overwhelmingly positive, and one of the reasons, if not the main one, that the NDEr usually longs to stay in that world and doesn’t want to come back to this one.
Which raises a problem: why the contrast between the two worlds? In one, light, love, peace, and joy reign. In the other—this one—those elements are certainly present, but so is a lot of misery and evil. Since the being of light can only be described as a deity, not infrequently identified by NDErs with God, what is this deity’s relation to the world where so much is wrong?
Some NDErs report having had telepathic interactions with the deity in which such questions were raised. One of them is Eben Alexander, the neurosurgeon whose remarkable NDE became the source of his book Proof of Heaven. Alexander writes there that he received an answer:
[The being of light] told me that there is not one universe but many—in fact, more than I could conceive—but that love lay at the center of them all. Evil was present in all the other universes as well, but only in the tiniest trace amounts. Evil was necessary because without it free will was impossible, and without free will there could be no growth—no forward movement, no chance for us to become what God longed for us to be. Horrible and all-powerful as evil sometimes seemed to be in a world like ours, in the larger picture love was overwhelmingly dominant, and it would ultimately be triumphant.
It sounds nice. Is it enough to put the question to rest?
For one thing, it is not clear from Alexander’s passage if “the tiniest trace amounts” are what exist only in “the other universes” or in our universe as well. The latter possibility, though, seems more warranted by the wording and more logical. If so, phenomena like the atrocities now occurring in Syria, or even larger-scale atrocities like Auschwitz or Treblinka, are hard to square with the phrase “the tiniest trace amounts.”
For another, while there is no doubt that free will is essential to the possibility of meaning for imperfect beings like us, free will, “growth,” and “forward movement” do not apply to more innocent beings. For instance, last December when there was a rare blizzard here in Israel with freezing temperatures, stray cats suffered terribly (in some cases dying). True, we humans here in Israel could do more to solve the stray-cat problem; but we could never solve it completely. In this and all too many other cases, free will is not relevant to the issue of innocent suffering.
In the end—as far as I can make out with my limited understanding—we’re still left with two worlds: one filled with light and joy, where the being of light reigns; and one where, though it is certainly possible to sense and intuit that other world’s existence, he seems too often to abandon his creatures.
The incomprehensible cruelty of this world we currently inhabit is a datum; and the existence of a deity—all the more so in this era of NDEs—is also a datum. Will it ever be possible to reconcile these two seemingly incompatible data? Will ongoing NDE accounts eventually offer light at the end of the tunnel, as explanations keep coming our way? Even if not, the one datum gives strength in coping with the other.