The Afterlife Unveiled: What ‘The Dead’ Tell Us About Their World, by Stafford Betty

Afterlife Unveiled cvr

In his 2011 book The Afterlife Unveiled, Stafford Betty, Professor of Religion at California State University at Bakersfield, takes a number of texts which deal with mediumistic communications and extracts descriptions of what the afterlife looks like and what apparently happens to us once we are there.  He notes that mediumship is a major source of such reports because most religious writings are reticent when discussing conditions in the hereafter.  His focus is on the dead speaking and he excludes evidence gleaned from near-death experiences and death-bed visions.

Betty devotes a chapter each to seven mediums and their ostensible spirit communicators, presented in chronological order.  They are Rev. William Stainton Moses and’ Imperator’ and colleagues, in Spirit Teachings (1883) and More Spirit Teachings (1892); Leslie Stringfellow, recorded by his mother Alice in The Afterlife of Leslie Stringfellow (while the original book was published in 1926 and a new edition in 2005, Leslie died in 1886, and communications took place over the next 15 years); Judge David Hatch via Elsa Barker, in Letters from the Afterlife, aka Letters from a Living Dead Man (1914); Society for Psychical Research co-founder Frederic Myers through Geraldine Cummins in The Road to Immortality (1932); Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson via Anthony Borgia in Life in the World Unseen (1934); Anglican nun Frances Banks through Helen Greaves in Testimony of Light (1977); and finally Lutheran minister Alvin D. Mattson through Margaret Flavell in Witness from Beyond (1975) and Evidence from Beyond (1999).

Though given various names by the communicators, there is an emphasis on a series of levels souls ascend as they grow spiritually, never able to reach the next until ready for it.  Those who have led bad lives may not want to move up, and some lower planes are horrible – but the emphasis on free will means individuals themselves must make headway; it cannot be done on their behalf.  So some are in a kind of hell, true, but of their own making, and there is always hope they will see their errors and so escape.  Nobody is irredeemably damned to eternal torments.  This is still a theological afterlife, with God in it, though one in which He does not sit in judgement but leaves us to make our own way upwards to some form of union with the divine.  Religious affiliation on earth is not a guarantor of progress (and presumably some may be a hindrance, if adherence leads to immoral acts).  Existence is a continual journey of learning, whether we want to or not; we grow spiritually by study and positive deeds in the afterlife.  We are not on our own because spirit ‘social workers’ assist unevolved souls and care for children who passed over before their time and now grow up in the spirit world.  We meet again those with whom we have a deep connection, and may even join in a Group Soul in order to speed up the collective spiritual growth, according to Myers.

In his conclusions, Betty itemises several dozen points summarising what the seven texts say, finding a great deal of congruence between them.  This is the book’s most valuable section, pulling together the accounts.  One aspect upon which there are conflicting opinions is reincarnation.  Betty concedes the lack of unanimity gave him pause, wondering if the communications could originate in each medium’s subconscious, but he decided that, overall, the evidence stood up to this one thorny issue.  He concludes that reincarnation could be an option to allow the individual to develop faster than would be the case by remaining in the afterlife, by undertaking a greater challenge, but is a voluntary arrangement rather than a requirement.  Alternatively, it seems the afterlife is largely segregated ethnically (though perhaps this is changing in line with the increasing multiculturalism to be found on earth), so perhaps reincarnation occurs more in realms populated by peoples who subscribe to it: thus those in the Hindu realm are more likely to reincarnate than are those in the Christian realm.  Reincarnation viewed as a learning experience does beg the question why experiences garnered while incarnated and between incarnations are not available to recall from one state to the next.  It is an odd kind of learning experience if one cannot remember it.  The theory also implies that on average adherents to belief systems which include reincarnation are spiritually more evolved than those which do not, not a differential much in evidence.

Good news is that the afterlife is a place of culture where it is possible to be a spectator at a new play by Shakespeare, or hear a new piece of music written by Mozart.  Less good is that artistic works are sanitised, with nothing unpleasant permitted in this safe space. It is a place for the development of mind.  Endlessly singing God’s praises may not on the menu, but it still sounds a trifle dull, however wonderful watching the latest drama from the Bard would be (does he keep up to date or are his plays always based on his own times, and what sorts can he write if he has to omit the violent bits?).  On the other hand, this new life after life is difficult to put into words, as can be seen from the way music plays a key role, and a sensory melding of sensation amounting to synaesthesia.  We only have in front of us what can be articulated, and much is perforce left out.  Perhaps it only appears dull to us, who know no better, and new riches more than compensate for the loss of some earthly habits and interests better left behind.

Betty stresses that people who have passed on do not have all the answers; there is no reason why they should suddenly achieve omniscience simply because they are dead, though they can see further than those still on earth.  Further, he concedes that an amanuensis may unwittingly influence the transmission process, so what is written is not the pure communication intended by the individual from whom it originates.  However, he is sure that the scripts are genuinely originating in discarnate entities rather than other mechanisms such as clairvoyance or telepathy.  He feels the descriptions must have some validity in referring to a real state because they are coherent in a way they would not be if they were randomly concocted.  Surprisingly he does not take into account the obvious possibility that those interested in survival might read what others have written, thereby achieving a consistency when they take down their own messages.  The mediums he scrutinises were not operating in a vacuum but were part of a tradition, therefore independence between their productions cannot be assumed.

So does all this matter? Can’t we just wait until we get there and find out for ourselves?  Betty takes issue with Christian theologians who seem embarrassed by discussions of life after death.  In particular he believes the attitude that discussion of it is a distraction from a concern with matters in the here and now to be misguided.  He argues that life here cannot be separated from life there – how we live directly influences what happens afterwards, and they must be treated holistically.  Certainly an approach which stresses a moral life cannot be a bad one, even if the continuation of consciousness it is predicated on proves to be an illusion, but one feels that spirits do not help as much as they might.  Spirit scientists are well ahead of those on earth in their research, we are told, and elements of these advances are often fed to living scientists – ‘Benson’ goes so far as to claim ‘the earth world has the spirit world to thank for all the major scientific discoveries that have been made throughout the centuries’ – but for some reason it is always done discreetly, without those on earth realising an intervention has been made.  Presenting a major scientific discovery explicitly via a medium would do more to change sceptics’ minds than all the channelled communications extolling Summerland put together, yet it never happens.

A vast literature on mediumship exists and Betty does not say what guided his selection, apart from personal conviction.  There can be no independent criteria by which to judge other than an appeal to plausibility, and that will vary according to one’s sympathies.  Ultimately the amount of credence readers give these accounts is determined by how disposed they are to consider mediums conduits of valid information.  People who are committed to the idea of an afterlife already may be encouraged to expand their conception of what the life to come is actually like away from a rigid one based on a particular religious stance, but it is unlikely that sceptics will be persuaded of the genuineness of alleged mediumistic sources when other interpretations are on offer.

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