Early on my spiritual path I attended a worship service. After the service, one of the congregants gave me a little cartoon book that depicted an after-death experience. The cartoon showed a man cowering before a cosmic judge, pleading for mercy for his sinful life. The judge was not moved. “Off to hell with you for eternity,” he commanded.
The story was obviously designed to scare you into being a good person or following the precepts of the religion. I didn’t join that church.
Since that time, I have learned that fear and healing have nothing to do with one another. I have gained far more generous models of a God of mercy rather than one of retribution. I have learned that grace supersedes karma, and the sins we believe will hold us back, are forgiven. Jesus spent a great deal of his ministry freeing people from religious judgments. He was a teacher of release, not bondage.
The soul doesn’t go anywhere after death because it has never left somewhere. The body drops away, and we resume our identity as the shining spirit we were before we crammed ourselves into an Earth suit. Unlike the physical body, the soul is invulnerable and eternal. When we apply the limits of the body to the soul, we indulge in stifling anthropomorphism, the projection of human attributes onto God. The soul is not a blob of ectoplasm that floats out of the body and roams the universe like Casper the Friendly Ghost. The soul is an identity of extraordinarily expanded awareness. To recognize the soul, we have to see it through eyes other than the body’s. To see the soul, we must use soul vision.
To ask, “Where does your soul go after you die?” is akin to asking, “Where does a literary or cinematic character go when you turn the last page of the book, or watch the final scene of the movie?” The character ceases to be encased between the covers of the book or within the opening and closing credits, and re-emerges as the expansive idea that gave birth to the individual expression. What happened to Don Quixote, Ebenezer Scrooge, George Bailey, and Yoda when their respective books and movies were complete? Nothing happened to them at all. They continue to live in the minds and hearts of those who love and learn from them. To many people, those characters are more alive than the person working in the cubicle beside theirs. We love great literature and cinema because we meet souls with more color and depth than most people who walk the Earth. We need larger-than-life characters to remind us of how good it could get if we set our souls free rather than stuffing them into painful corsets of oppressive social definitions.
Your soul does not live in your body. The soul has a life entirely independent of the body. No matter how finely you dissect a physical organ or how many magnifications under a microscope you study it, you will not find your soul. Your soul exists in a dimension uncapturable by flesh, which is—no offense—just meat. What matters is what moves the meat, and for what purpose. Your soul animates your body, but is not contained by it. While the body sleeps, the soul awakens. When you are free from the endless daily distractions that grab the body’s attention like a glittery mobile dangling over a baby’s crib, the soul emerges fully present. This is why you have visionary or prophetic dreams. With the physical senses suspended, your soul sense comes to the fore and delivers wisdom and inspiration muddied by the bedazzled physical apparatus.
Your soul is fully intact and alive while your body walks the world and after it returns to dust. The three-dimensional world in which you seem to be an entity separate from your soul is a dream—Maya, as Buddhists and Hindus call it. During moments of illumination, you recognize the emptiness of the world. We have all had “aha!” experiences when for a flash we poked our head out of the sphere of false containment, and glimpsed a vaster reality. People who have near-death experiences, ingest psychotropic substances, dive deep in meditation, or have a religious epiphany, momentarily step into a reality far more substantial than what appears to be physically solid. When you leave this world, temporarily or permanently, you don’t go anywhere. You simply escape the spell of believing that you went somewhere. If you are God, and God is everywhere, then you are everywhere. The soul reemerges as the great “I am” after a short and generally frustrating foray into a twisted fairy tale. The happy ending emerges when we awaken from the dream. You will not sleep forever. Destiny has a grander idea for you.
Death as a Work of Fiction
You cannot die because God is life and all that God is, you are. You can no more separate yourself from life than you could separate heat from a fire, light from the sun, or a wave from the ocean. What is one cannot be divided. The body dies; that is irrefutable. But the real you is immortal. Instead of asking “Where does your soul go when you die?” we might more appropriately ask, “Who do you become after you lay your body aside?” The 23rd Psalm asks us to affirm, “Even though I walk through the valley of the
shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” The operative word here is “shadow.” Death seems real because for a moment a false idea has blocked the sun like a passing cloud. But the cloud cannot remove the sun; it can but for a moment obscure it. When the cloud passes, the sun remains. When the illusion of death passes, the reality of life remains.
The most sacred prayer in Judaism is, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” The operative word in that prayer is “One.” Jesus reaffirmed this truth: “If your eye be single, your whole body will be filled with light.” When we see ourselves clearly, we know ourselves to be the light, not the vessel that carries the light. Light, life, and love are all facets of the same self that cannot be marred or defeated by the slings and arrows of a cruel and confusing world. In God there is no fault or flaw, and because we are one with God, there is no fault or flaw in us, including the ultimate vulnerability, death.
Fear is not of God
While visiting a shrine in Japan, I observed a grandmother strolling the grounds with her five-year-old grandson. When the boy started to wander off the pathway, grandma became frustrated and bellowed, “If you don’t stay close to me, the King of Hell will come and take you!” I shuddered to hear this, as the woman was teaching the child to behave under fear, threat, and guilt. I work with many Japanese people who are petrified to do something wrong, lest they be riddled with guilt and shame. I am certain that someone in their family threatened them like the boy’s grandma did. It’s not just the Japanese who attempt to control through fear, or feel controlled. Many religions and cultures are masters of manipulation. They have figured out that if you can make a person afraid or guilty, you can control them. If religions deleted fear-based rules, there would not be much left of the religion. True religion is founded in love. The Dalai Lama said, “My religion is kindness.”
Controlling through threat of a horrid afterlife is very convenient because the afterlife is a mystery to those yet to enter it. It’s easy to project morbid stories onto the blank screen of the unknown. Yet more and more people who have experienced momentary death report that on the other side of the veil they found only splendor, release, and unspeakable peace. Most people who have had a near-death experience say they did not want to return to the world. Yet something drew them back because they had unfinished business. After glimpsing heaven, they no longer fear death because they know it does not exist.
Some people who die for a short time report scary purgatorial or hellish experiences. I do not believe these are accurate representations of the world to come. I believe that such people have taken their human fears or beliefs with them, which distort their vision of heaven. If they could rise above what they were taught by punitive clergy or family, I believe they would emerge into the same glorious light that most near-death- experiencers report.
You don’t have to wait until you die to go to hell. Many people live a hellish life while walking the world. Hell is not a post-mortem sentence. It is the experience we generate when we think and act outside of love. Scaring people into behaving according to our wishes only magnifies hell on earth, for the controller and the controlled. When you use fear to manipulate others, you reinforce your own fear. There is no hell in love (although we have twisted the idea of love to create hellish relationships that have nothing to do with love). Your defense against damnation is to realize that love exists right where you stand, in you and around you. The opposite of love is not hate; it is fear. When we remove fear from our experience, we instantly and naturally return to love, which is always here, waiting for us to claim and enjoy it.
Why Wait for Heaven?
You have also been told that you have to wait until you die to go to heaven. This is another ploy in the ego’s playbook of tricks based on chasms and delays. The ego’s favorite mask is “gap.” There is always something that has to happen first before you can be at peace. You have to lose twenty pounds, increase your income, build six-pack abs, find your soulmate, have a baby, get your book published, move to Sedona, or build your dream home. When you get to the other side of the gap, you will be in heaven. But, as you have noticed, as soon as you traverse one gap, another gap appears, promising that when you get to the other side, you will really be in heaven.
It is entirely possible to know our wholeness and find deep inner peace before we cross any more gaps. We can touch heaven before we lay the body aside. Diving into rewarding spiritual practices, immersing ourselves in activities that bring us joy, and being with people we love connect us with heaven now. One of A Course in Miracles’ most poignant questions is, “Why wait for heaven?” You don’t have to wait until you die to be happy. Do it now and beat the rush later.
There is no afterlife because there is only life. Nothing can come after something that always is. The forms through which life expresses, change, but the life that expresses through them is constant. All speculations about an afterlife are distractions from the life here now. Why would you be wondering about an afterlife if you were fully present in this life? While a great deal of attention has been given to near-death experiences, we would benefit more by studying near-life experiences.
Rumor has it that there are many people who have come close to living, and they are still here to tell about it. Quit worrying about where your soul goes after you die, and attend to where your soul is going while you live.
A Course in Miracles tells us that in no single instant is death real. You are alive while in a body, there is a momentary shift, and then you are alive without a body. You were here, and you are still here. When the spiritual master Ramana Maharshi lay on his deathbed, his disciples pleaded with him, “Master, don’t leave us!” He smiled and answered, “Where could I go?”
Your soul doesn’t leave you because you are your soul. Only the body leaves. When that happens, you are left with who you were before you became a body, and who you will always be. The introduction to A Course in Miracles neatly sums up the truth about you:
Nothing real can be threatened.
Nothing unreal exists.
Herein lies the peace of God.
Excerpted from Soul and Destiny: Why You are Here and What You are Here to Do ©2021 by Alan Cohen. Used by permission. All rights reserved. alancohen.com
Alan Cohen, M.A., holds degrees in psychology and human organizational development. He is the author of 30 popular inspirational books, including the best-selling A Course in Miracles Made Easy and the award-winning A Deep Breath of Life. He is a contributing writer for the #1 New York Times best-selling series Chicken Soup for the Soul, and he is featured in the book 101 Top Experts Who Help Us Improve Our Lives. His books have been translated into 32 foreign languages. Alan has taught at Montclair State College, Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, and en*theos Academy for Optimal Living. He is a featured presenter in the award-winning documentary Finding Joe, celebrating the teachings of Joseph Campbell. His work has been presented on CNN and Oprah.com and in USA Today, The Washington Post, and Huffington Post. His monthly column From the Heart is published in magazines internationally. Alan is the founder and Director of the Foundation for Holistic Life Coaching. He presents programs on themes of life mastery, spiritual development, and positive self-image psychology. For information on Alan Cohen’s books, seminars, life coach training, videos and audio recordings, visit: AlanCohen.com.