on 8 January 2011
Seraphim Rose (born Eugene Rose) was an American who converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. He authored a number of books on Orthodox faith, some of them controversial even among Orthodox believers. "The soul after death" is his most popular book, and has been translated to several foreign languages. The book, while being very "hard line" and "fundamentalist", nevertheless raises some relevant questions concerning near-death experiences (NDEs).
Near-death experiences, if you accept them as real, "prove" that humans have a soul, that the soul can leave the physical body, and that there are higher, spiritual realms to which the soul travels after the death of the body. Yet, traditional religion seems uneasy about NDEs. The near-death experiences seem to disprove the dogmas of all (or at least many) religions. There is no apparent hell, no wrathful or judgmental deity, and each believer seem to meet the deity, prophet or teacher of his own particular creed. Thus, Christians meet Christ, Buddhists encounter the Buddha, etc. Even atheists have positive NDEs, and might encounter their dead relatives or simply "see the light". Some people have met Elvis Presley! This strongly subjective element, combined with a kind of all-loving embrace, is compatible with modern New Age thinking, but not with traditional Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, etc. (There are spiritual seekers who believe that NDEs can be both positive and negative, but Rose is mostly concerned with the popular picture of this phenomenon, heavily dependent on Raymond Moody's book "Life after life". In this discourse, NDEs are virtually always positive. Indeed, the suggestion that they could in fact be negative is met with strong resistance in some quarters. See the critical reviews of P.M.H. Atwater's "Beyond the Light" for one example.)
Small wonder, then, that some Christians reject all NDEs or accept only the most "Biblical" ones. The Tibetan Buddhist Sogyal Rinpoche also offers some criticisms in his best selling "The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying", explaining the discrepancy between modern NDEs and traditional Tibetan accounts as caused by the soul haphazardly visiting various levels of spiritual reality before returning to the body, not knowing the full picture.
Seraphim Rose's rejection of near-death experiences is even more radical. Essentially, he claims that the experiences are demonic or Satanic in character. They are caused by fallen spirits inhabiting a sphere between the material world and Heaven. These spirits or demons attempt to seduce the soul with various illusions, and if the soul accepts them at face value, it will eventually end up in Hell, together with the demons themselves. Rose also points out the trivial but often overlooked fact, that the people having these experiences aren't really dead. How, then, can we know for sure that they depict the afterlife correctly? NDEs are similar in character to OBEs (Out-of-Body Experiences), but OBEs can be induced even while the person is alive and well.
The most obvious counter-argument from a New Age believer, would be that the NDEs lead to positive changes in the individuals who have them, making them more spiritual, loving and caring after their "return" to the physical body.
On one level, Seraphim Rose is just a dogmatic defending turf. And yet, he does raise some important questions, at least for those who *do* believe in the reality of these phenomena. If NDEs are real, then we should logically accept Christian revelations about the afterlife as well. They are just as supernatural. But as Rose points out, traditional Christian visions of the afterlife are very different from modern NDEs. They confirm traditional Christian truths, and might even be "negative", in the sense of giving the soul glimpses of Hell or Purgatory. Also, most such visions only come to saints or monks, who have prepared themselves spiritually for years before receiving them. (One of Rose's main sources is the book "Eternal Mysteries Beyond the Grave", also available from Amazon.com.)
If all after-life experiences are in some sense "true", New Age believers cannot really deny the Christian accounts, but how can they be reconciled with the syncretistic and positive visions? If they do deny the Christian visions, how do they know that these particular accounts (but none other) are false? Essentially, Rose demands from the modern believers in NDEs some kind of objective criterion by which these experiences or visions can be judged. Otherwise, we are left with an impenetrable morass of purely subjective experiences. Naturally, Rose's objective criterion is the Bible as interpreted by the Orthodox Church, including supernatural experiences by recognized saints.
Rose also challenges the idea that NDEs are always positive and life-transforming. He quotes reports about NDEs in which the famous Being of Light acted in an humorous or frivolous manner when showing the soul its past sins. He also dwells at length on Robert Monroe's "Journeys out of the body", a book on OBEs, emphasizing the negative and Satanic streaks in the supreme being encountered by Monroe during his astral travels. Monroe accepted the entity as God. Rose thinks otherwise. The "being" encountered by Monroe didn't behave as a benign god, something admitted even by Monroe himself. One fact not mentioned by Rose, is that NDEs are interpreted negatively in Africa, where people tend to see them as the result of witchcraft, despite the phenomenon as such being identical to the NDEs experienced by Westerners. Obviously, this means that Africans aren't spiritually transformed by the experiences.
Rose may be a dogmatic and doctrinaire thinker, but he has nevertheless presented the more eclectic believers in purely benign near-death experiences with a competent challenge. On the other hand, spiritual seekers who do acknowledge the existence of negative supernatural occurences, won't be as shaken by this book. Rather, they will explain the Christian visions of Hell or Purgatory as true, while nevertheless denying the Orthodox interpretation of them. Theosophists, for instance, believe that Hell is only temporary, that souls eventually reincarnate, etc.
Finally, some comments on the controversies surrounding another aspect of this book. "The soul after death" is controversial even among Orthodox believers due to its teaching about "toll-houses", a kind of intermediary stations which the soul must pass on its journey to Heaven. The "toll-houses" are manned by demons who will claim the souls of sinners, and take them straight to Hell. The critics of this concept call it Gnostic and heretical, and it's clearly inspired by ancient Egyptian religion. However, I suspect that the real reason for the uneasiness surrounding the "toll-houses" isn't the purported Gnosticism, but rather the fact that the teaching sounds bizarre to a modern audience. It's easy even for a modern believer to accept that the soul might be immortal, but the idea of "toll-houses" in the air manned by demons is simply too weird. Rose at one point makes a retreat, claiming that the "toll-houses" should be interpreted in a "spiritual" way, presumably allegorically, but that's not how his opponents view them. Besides, Rose *does* literally believe in the Book of Genesis and even a story about a monk who was taken to the Garden of Eden and took back some fruit to show and feed his fellow monks! (This is from Rose's creationist book "Genesis, Creation and Early Man".) Somehow, I suspect that main line Orthodox Christians looked upon Rose as an acute embarrassment...
Be that as it may, everyone who for one reason or another believes in near-death experiences, should read and somehow come to terms with "The soul after death". Who knows, maybe the fate of your immortal soul might depend on it? ;-)
(This review was revised on 27 March, 2012)