The 20th century has witnessed a proliferation of accounts of experiences with a super brilliant "living light," usually associated with feelings of ecstatic joy. At the turn of this century, Canadian psychiatrist Richard Maurice Bucke published an intriguing work entitled Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind. Dr. Bucke argued that experiences of "Illumination," far from being a symptom of mental instability, were in fact a feature of highly evolved human minds. Bucke himself had had such an experience, which he described as follows:

All at once, without warning of any kind, [Dr. Bucke] found himself wrapped around, as it were, by a flame-colored cloud. For an instant he thought of fire -- some sudden conflagration in the great city. The next instant he knew that the light was within himself. Directly after this came a sense of exultation, of immense joyousness, accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination almost impossible to describe. Into his brain streamed one momentary lightning flash of the Brahmic splendour which has ever since lightened his life. Upon his heart fell one drop of the Brahmic Bliss, leaving thenceforward for always an aftertaste of heaven.1

Bucke went on to interview 50 or so others that he had run across who had had similar experiences. One was the case of "C.M.C.," who had this to say about her experience:

...It was the gladness and rapture of love, so intensified that it became an ocean of living, palpitating light, the brightness of which outshone the brightness of the sun. Its glow, warmth and tenderness fill(ed) the universe...2

The experience of "C.M.C." was typical of those whom Dr. Bucke had interviewed. The prominent psychiatrist went on to surmise that this is a feature of a late stage of human evolution. This latter claim might be doubtful; one look at the ancient texts described in the pages to follow show that such experiences were reported often in the past. However, the breadth and clarity of people's profound spiritual experiences in this century, both within and outside of traditional religious bounds, set off Bucke's work as a pioneering effort.

Shortly after Bucke's work, psychologist William James published his now classic Varieties of Religious Experience. In this work, James acknowledged the pioneering effort of Dr. Bucke. He went on to describe the many and various kinds of religious experience. James confirmed the modern day persistence of the type of encounter that Bucke had focused on. As an example, James drew upon the autobiography of a man called "J. Trevor":

...suddenly, without warning, I felt as if I were in Heaven -- an inward state of peace and joy and assurance indescribably intense, accompanied with a sense of being bathed in a warm glow of light...

...When [experiences such as this] came, I was living the fullest, strongest, sanest, deepest life... I was aware that I was immersed in the infinite ocean of God.3

Remarkably similar to these accounts, but in ever increasing numbers in recent years, are those found in near-death experiences. In 1975, psychiatrist Raymond A. Moody, Jr., published his ground-breaking account of these occurrences in Life after Life: The Investigation of a Phenomenon -- Survival of bodily Death. In this work, Dr. Moody accumulated some 150 interviews of people who had been pronounced clinically dead, but had been resuscitated, and lived to tell what happened to them on "the other side." While the accounts do vary somewhat, the similarities are most remarkable. Typical is the experience of a patient who was hospitalized for a severe kidney condition, and had lapsed into coma:

During this period when I was unconscious, I felt as though I were lifted right up, just as though I didn't have a physical body at all. A brilliant white light appeared to me. The light was so bright that I could not see through it, but going into its presence was so calming and wonderful. There is just no experience on earth like it....4

A proliferation of personal accounts of this kind of experience, as well as scientific studies of the phenomenon, followed Dr. Moody's book. Among the more noteworthy in the latter category include Dr. Kenneth Ring's Life at Death: A Scientific Investigation of the Near-Death Experience (NY: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1980). After having interviewed over 100 people who had had the experience under investigation, Dr. Ring was able to confirm most of Moody's findings. Life at Death was able to factor out such considerations as religious background as a determining factor in what people experienced. In fact, Ring concluded, reports of near-death experiences remain remarkably similar regardless of the person's upbringing.

A decade later came Dr. Melvin Morse's Closer to the Light. Morse, a Seattle area pediatrician, examined some near death experiences of children in order to see if there were any significant differences between these reports and their adult counterparts. Children were good subjects because they had not had time to absorb many adult conceptions about death. Typical of these is the story of "Bill," who at the age of nine had accidentally inhaled gasoline, and was suffocating:

All of a sudden I couldn't move. I found myself floating into a dark tunnel. I saw light and the closer I floated to it, the more I liked it. When I got to the portal opening to the light and was just ready to step through, I felt a combination of relief, joy, and pleasure. I just wanted to be inside the light.5

Morse also concluded that reports of near-death experiences are for the most part stable and consistent, whether recounted by children or adults.

Personal accounts of the near-death phenomenon continue to enjoy wide circulation. Not the least of these was Betty J. Eadie's 1994 bestseller, Embraced by the Light. This author tells of her own near-death experience, which turns out to be considerably more detailed than other reports. The core experience immediately following "death," however, is still quite typical. In hospital for surgery, Eadie found herself becoming weaker and weaker. After hearing a "soft buzzing sound," she felt herself leave her physical body. A deep darkness surrounded her, and she felt herself moving forward through it. A "pinpoint of light" appeared in the distance. Getting closer, this light -- "far more brilliant than the sun" -- had the figure of a man in it. Next,

I saw that the light immediately around him was golden...
I felt his light blending into mine, literally, and I felt my light being drawn to his... And as our lights merged, I felt as if I had stepped into his countenance, and I felt an utter explosion of love.6

Eadie identified this light with Jesus, and went on to describe a moving account of her life "after death," as well as events in her life following recovery.

Another bestseller that year in the same category was Dannion Brinkley's Saved by the Light. Having been struck by lightning, Brinkley experienced a classic near-death episode. He left his physical body, and looked at himself being slid into the ambulance. The medical technician pronounced him "gone," and he saw the eye of a tunnel approaching toward him. The tunnel eventually engulfed him completely, and he heard the "beautiful sound of seven chimes ringing in rhythmic succession." Then,

I looked ahead into the darkness. There was a light up there, and I began to move toward it as quickly as possible.... Ahead the light became brighter and brighter until it overtook the darkness and left me standing in a paradise of brilliant light. This was the brightest light I had ever seen.... It was as though I were seeing a mother, lover and best friend. As the Being of Light came closer, these feelings of love intensified until they became almost too pleasurable to withstand....7

Brinkley goes on to describe how he gained some remarkable psychic abilities after his "return," including the ability to foretell certain future events. Remarkably, he goes on to tell us that he had a second near-death experience during an operation that was supposed to mend a heart weakened by the lightning strike.

In 1995, Brinkley followed up with a new book, entitled At Peace in the Light. He reports that he continued to have psychic episodes, such as foretelling major world events. Very interesting in relation to his own near-death experience is Brinkley's account of a gentleman named Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. Wilson is reported to have had a mystical experience, without having been "near-death" at all. Brinkley relates Wilson's story as follows:

Suddenly, my room blazed with an indescribably white light.... I was seized with an ecstasy beyond description. Every joy I had known was pale by comparison. The light, the ecstasy -- I was conscious of nothing else for a time.8

The similarities between all of these reports are quite compelling. Indeed, while this is far from being an everyday occurrence, descriptions of this kind have been made throughout history and across cultural boundaries. This book will show in detail that these kinds of experiences are a core component of human spirituality, and can be found extensively in every major religious tradition in the world.

Several attempts, however brief, already have been made to compare these modern era experiences with the historical encounter with Divine light and ecstasy in mystical religious writings. In Life After Life, Raymond Moody himself found some significant parallels. Moody noted the vision of blinding light witnessed by St. Paul on the road to Damascus. Moody also makes reference to The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which offers counsel concerning the many things that we might encounter after death, including an encounter with a "clear, pure light." Finally, Moody recounts the experiences of Emanuel Swedenborg, an 18th century Swedish scientist. Swedenborg claimed that the soul survives bodily death, and described the "'Light of the Lord' which permeates the hereafter, a light of ineffable brightness," which Swedenborg himself had glimpsed.9

In a follow-up work entitled Reflections on Life after Life, Moody found more parallels. For example, the Venerable Bede, an 8th century English monk, told the story of a man who had a near-death experience. After several interesting encounters, the "dead" man came across a clear, bright light. So bright was this light that it seemed "greater than the brightness of daylight, or the sun's rays at noon."10 Moody also made reference to Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich, which describes the death scene of Ilyich in terms of being in a dark, cavelike space; of having a flashback of his past life; and at last, of entering into a brilliant light.11

In 1978, Frederick H. Holck, Professor of Religious Studies at Cleveland State University, wrote a journal article that draws some interesting parallels between near-death and mystical religious experiences. Holck adds to Moody's reading of The Tibetan Book of the Dead that "non-physical existence is to the knowing one blissful consciousness in its purest form." In the same vein, in Zoroastrianism, a dead person is said to experience as much joy in three days as one would normally experience in a lifetime. Holck also pointed out that Plato's myth of Er makes reference to a brilliant, pure light. Moreover, such references are not restricted to near-death experiences: Hinduism's Bhagavata Purana tells a story of a couple who, praying for Divine help, fell unconscious, and "a light suddenly flashed." In the Jewish extra-canonical tradition, we read of a "radiant light," an "immeasurable light in heaven" in the Apocalypse of Abraham, the Book of the Secrets of Enoch, and the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs. In Buddhism's Saddharma-smrityupasthana Sutra, we find that when someone approaches death, "he sees a bright light, and being unaccustomed to it at the time of his death he is perplexed and confused."12

In a particularly superb study, Carol Zaleski has found similar parallels in the medieval Christian tradition. When it comes to visions of Divine light, both Gregory the Great's Dialogues and Dante's Paradiso tell us about an "illuminated unifying vision." While reserving judgement on the validity of near-death accounts, Zaleski acknowledges that the medieval accounts that she has examined bear "striking resemblance" to the modern near-death encounter with a Divine Light.13

The parallels drawn to date between modern day and more classic encounters with the light Divine and its unsurpassed joy are quite valid. However, most authors begin by drawing broad similarities between the near-death experience in general and comparing that with religious writings. This book will narrow the focus, to see what happens when we compare the actual encounter with Divine light and ecstasy in near-death experiences, and similar reports in the mystical teachings of the world's major religious traditions. The volume, depth and breadth of the similarities is compelling to say the least.

The most exciting result of this comparison is the commonality of language that is used to describe the Divine encounter. Even across cultures, throughout time, and with the imperfections of translation we find strikingly similar words being used to tell us what such an experience is like. For those of us who can't accept the precepts of atheistic materialism, it would seem that the onus is on the latter to explain how these experiences can be so consistent. While descriptions of God, "the gods," or Ultimate Truth vary wildly from tradition to tradition, we now have a "thread that binds" not only the major religions of the world, but also non-religious spiritual experiences.

The human spiritual encounter with light and ecstasy is also deeply meaningful. It has given lasting new meaning to countless people worldwide, and throughout history. Recognizing this as a fundamental aspect of human spirituality will help bind humanity together, rather than set groups apart. For the individual, the realization of this kind of spiritual knowledge will bring about a depth of feeling that would otherwise be beyond our wildest imagination.


Divine Encounters

site design
site last modified on 05/28/06
"Divine Encounters"
copyright © Brian A. Bain
all other content copyright © 1999-2012