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The Search for Heaven: A historian investigates the case for the afterlife, by Jean-Pierre Isbouts.

Cover of The Search for Heaven
Publication Details: 
Pantheon, ISBN: 9781647130008.
Publish date: 
November, 2019

Reviewed by Robert A. Charman

Prof. Jean-Pierre Isbouts is an American biblical scholar whose books on the world of the old and new testaments are published by National Geographic and have been widely praised. He has also written two books on Leonardo Da Vinci and histories of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The subtitle states that Isbouts is investigating the case for the afterlife this time, hence I had expected that in advance of a conclusion he would present an impartial assessment of the case for an afterlife as presented by its proponents (e.g., Kelly, et al., 2007) against the counter arguments of disbelievers (e.g., Bering, 2008; Martin & Augustine; see also Charman, 2011). I was therefore very surprised to read in the Introduction that he is already certain that we are spiritual beings who will enter a heavenly afterlife and that “heaven is meant for all of us” (original italics). Death, he tells us, is not the end but a new beginning in a spiritual world “without pain or suffering, without violence and hate, without prejudice and social divisions where everyone is equal under the warm embrace of a supremely intelligent agency” and his purpose for writing this book is to present this message and remove all fear of death.

I was even more surprised when I saw that Sue Dunderdale Jones, an ‘Internationally renowned British psychic’ based in Yorkshire, first in a list of contributors. In 2018 she was listed as co-author with Isbouts of The Secret of Eternity, which is actually the same book as The Search for Heaven. The difference being that The Secret of Eternity is the European version and The Search for Heaven the U.S. version (with an updated Introduction). For some reason Sue (as I will refer to her) is also no longer listed as a co-author. Nevertheless, it concludes by Sue saying that she wants “to share the tremendous joy that awaits us in the spirit world with the whole world” and the final line reads “That is why we wrote this book.”

Returning to the review, as a firm conclusion as to the existence of an afterlife in heaven has already been reached an investigation in the accepted sense of the word is obviously not possible. A more apt title would be Heaven Exists: A historian presents the case for the afterlife.

In the Introduction Isbouts asks the reader when they last thought about dying, saying that the answer is likely to be that we will say that we do not remember because it not something we wish to think about as it terrifies us and we are far too busy living our lives surrounded by our material possessions to think about it. Consequently, when someone we know does die, because we are utterly unprepared we are frightened and devastated by the unfairness of it. Isbouts thinks that the reason for this is that we no longer believe that we are spiritual beings because “we are victims of what modern scholars call materialistic monism” (original italics). This, he says, is the prevailing Western ideology in which science tells us that we are nothing but organic machines based upon the element carbon and neuroscience tell us that we are merely the creation of our brains and will die when the brain dies.

Isbouts once believed this as well, but has now come to the opposite conclusion because as an historian and biblical scholar he has found that previous generations over many centuries who lived in a precarious world of war, famine, disease, death in childbirth, and life expectancies in the mid twenties had, paradoxically, a much more positive attitude to life than we do because they were much more in tune with their spiritual self and certainty of an afterlife. He says that the question that kept him awake at night was that if modern science is correct “Why is it that in every other period in history people have believed something entirely different?” whereas the present scientific and social zeitgeist in the West is that such a world does not exist?

He concludes that this is because as modern science is based upon the findings of empirical observation and measurement its concepts are limited by what our senses and our instruments can detect. If we cannot detect it then whatever that ‘it’ might be it does not exist. In this case the ‘it’ in question is our spiritual self that takes us into a heavenly afterlife at the moment of bodily death. That this heavenly afterlife is our natural home-to-be has already been experienced by those who have had blissful Near-Death Experiences (NDEs), that is, according to Isbouts. Some people like Sue can actually see guardian angels and other spiritual inhabitants of heaven who are all around us. He tells us that increasing evidence for the existence of an afterlife is pouring in from new findings in astrophysics, quantum physics and other scientific discoveries. In conclusion, he says “there is a whole mountain of new data from all kinds of research, but no one has ever attempted to put all this evidence together in order to build a practical model of the afterlife” and this putting together is one of his purposes.

Ancient civilisations identified places in nature where they felt that spiritual energy flowed in abundance. Isbouts and his wife Cathie have visited many such sites including Delphi, but were unprepared for the intense spiritual experience of visiting Bali and its ancient Balinese culture of animism with shrines and temples everywhere to the worship of spirits that inhabit everything, whether living as in animals, birds, fish, butterflies, flowers, trees and plants, or as rocks, mountains, lakes and rivers. These spirits have to be treated with reverent respect or they will become malicious bula kala or lower demons that draw their power from the soil, so the ground must also be blessed with flowers to keep you safe. The gods live on high which is why Balinese temples are built around open spaces so that they can come down to enjoy the tributes put out for them. The shared belief in animism, together with living on a beautiful island, has, says Isbouts, created a rich Balinese culture of social and spiritual cohesion. Belief in spirits and demons was common in all ancient civilisations. Jesus, for example, regularly threw unclean spirits out of the afflicted. Now living in an age of reductive monism we dismiss spirits and demons as groundless superstition superseded by rational science so we have, says Isbouts, lost our ability to sense the spiritual world behind the material world: “What if this is all really a matter of semantics? What if we called them something else? What if, instead of spirits, we referred to it as energy?”

Isbouts points out that energy is invisible and we are aware of it only because it powers change throughout the universe in ways such as chemical and nuclear reactions, heat exchange and so on that we can detect. E=mc2 shows that apparently solid, inert matter and energy are two sides of the same coin. Life is sustained by the energy of biochemical reactions. Dark Energy is an unknown, undetectable, form of energy that together with undetectable Dark Matter comprise some 95% of the universe. We know they both exist by inference from astrophysical equations. The universe of matter and electromagnetic radiation, of which we are part, constitutes only about 5% of the universal whole. From all this Isbouts concludes that as there is so much that we do not know about the real nature of the universe we cannot dismiss the possibility that there is energy in the form of a universal spiritual energy that actually guides the evolutionary unfolding of the physical universe.

In the chapterThe Energy Within Us we are told that we live in a world of radiant electromagnetic (EM) energies that sustain life, especially in the light spectrum,  and are surrounded and permeated by a vast range of frequencies as used in radio, television, radar, X ray and MRI units and so on. Besides the known EM energies Isbouts tells us that our bodies are sustained by undetectable subtle energies, known as chi, ki or prana  that flow round the body powered by the seven circulating chakra energy systems, from the first one at the base of the spine in an ascending series to the seventh at the top of the head. These subtle energies extend beyond the body in the form of a layered colour aura that some psychics such as Sue and many biofield energy therapists say they can see and use as an indication of the health of their client. This leads on to a discussion of the spiritual benefits of yoga and meditation.

In the third chapter, On the threshold of Life and Death, Isbouts reviews what NDE investigators such as Drs Raymond Moody, Bruce Greyson, Kenneth Ring, Jeffrey Long, Sam Parnia and Pim van Lommel have discovered about the typical heavenly features that near-death experiencers have reported. Their blissful experiences, he says, present the most dramatic evidence of a heavenly afterlife because they have been there. But to me, this is telling only half the story. His account makes no mention of hellish NDEs (e.g., see Bush, 2012). Such dreadful near-death experiences are probably greatly under reported as they are likely to be interpreted by the horrified experiencer as a final judgment that they are unworthy of being admitted to heaven, leaving them terrified of death. If heavenly NDEs are taken as direct experience of heaven then it follows that hellish NDEs provide direct evidence of hell.

Less familiar, perhaps, as providing apparent evidence of heaven are hypnotherapist Michael Newton’s books in which he records dozens of accounts of a heavenly, NDE like, afterlife as described by his clients during their regressive hypnotherapy sessions. These heavenly interludes between successive reincarnations are enjoyed by everyone. Isbouts concludes that “When taken together, this astounding body of near-death and regressive hypnotherapeutic experiences is perhaps our most compelling evidence of the survival of our consciousness after death.”

He says that the reason science still says that we do not know the nature of consciousness is because people tend to insist on trying to define consciousness as some form of a material something that is generated by the brain dies and with the brain. This is why philosophers call it ‘The Hard Problem of Consciousness’ whereas it is actually no problem at all because the overwhelming evidence from NDEs and regression hypnotherapy experiences demonstrates that consciousness is a spiritual substance that does not die. He goes even further to say that human consciousness is not even of human origin. Quantum physics with its talk of the collapse of the wave function of all possibilities before appearing either as a particle such as a photon or a wave in physical reality allegedly shows that there is a spiritual reality underlying the wave function collapse that we experience as consciousness ...

The fifth chapter, The Psychic Experience, opens with an extended section on Sue Dunderdale Jones. Isbouts met Sue after she had been introduced to Cathie by a friend and had then proceeded to tell Cathie the specific issues that were on her husband’s mind, causing him chronic insomnia before she had even met him. At their first meeting she told him that she could see his two main spirit guides, one on either side, with other spirits in the background, all eager to help him in his life’s plan. They were his two guardian angels and everyone has them. She told him that even as a two year old she had out-of-body experiences (OBEs) in which she saw where toys had fallen and was frustrated that her mother could not find them. When put to bed but not feeling tired she would fly out of the bedroom window, seeing what people were doing. As a teenager she had premonitions that always came true. Sue then, as she puts it ‘shut down’ for several years as she just wanted to be ‘normal’ like everyone else. Sue seems to have two sides to her personality, academic and psychic.

Her psychic abilities are presented in detail on her extensive website that modestly makes no mention of her academic attainments, but they seemed to have successfully run alongside her archaeological groundwork as she describes in the book. While working on her osteo-archaeological MSc thesis she says that she had a transformative spiritual experience. The moment she came home with a mixed group of human bones for identification that had been dug up in Somerset bizarre things started to happen. The Internet stopped working, her car would not start, and neither IT technicians nor the mechanics could find anything wrong. Then she found out that two previous archaeologists who had been studying these bones had died of heart attacks. Frightened by this she wondered if the bones were cursed. She asked her spirits for answers and with sudden insight she saw that they were the bones of young children who had been hacked to death and sometimes beheaded. They had been victims of a massacre by the Romans and the intense horror of these experiences which she sensed was still present in the energy fields of their bones. After she had prayed over the bones and asked the spirits to give them rest  everything returned to normal, and with her psychic insight now informing her analysis of what had happened to the children she finished her thesis.

On another occasion, as the porter was giving her an unopened box of animal bones, she knew instinctively what they were. To his amazement “I cried out ‘Oh my God, these are the bones of that fox they dug up at the ancient hill fort.” From that moment onwards she realised that psychic visions would emerge spontaneously. When, for example, she is sitting with people who are dying she sees the room suddenly light up at the moment of death and then she sees the angels coming to accompany them into the afterlife. Following this section on Sue there is a brief review of research into ESP and a discussion of famous psychics such as Edgar Cayce and Emanuel Swedenborg.

In the sixth chapter, A Journey through Heaven, Isbouts discusses the vastness of the universe as discovered by the Hubble telescope in which time and place lose their meaning as an analogy for heaven in which our limited, earthbound material concepts of time, place and death become just as meaningless. Each of us in spirit are still recognizable as ourselves which is why during NDEs people meet relatives and friends but, as ever, what we will do there remains rather vague. Many spirits are energies that operate on a higher level of knowledge than ourselves and can use this knowledge when assigned  as guardian angels to guide us in this life. The life force of the spiritual universe is love and each of us has our own set of spiritual destinies, sometimes through successive reincarnations, to a final state of love. Our actions in this life do have consequences and we all undergo life reviews. Those who have done evil in this life have to account for themselves (to whom?) and may need to undergo penitence through reincarnation.

Chapter 7 The Spiritual Universe and our Religious Beliefs is the only chapter in which Isbouts writes as an historian in a review of the changing religious ideas about the afterlife over the centuries as expressed in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But these contradictory speculations are useless as evidence for an afterlife. He closes with a chapter entitled Living Without Fear of Death, restating that NDEs etc. provide convincing evidence of an afterlife in which we must be prepared to account for ourselves (again to whom?) to be worthy of “the love and mercy that awaits us.” This is followed by an extensive list of references for further reading.

What can we draw from these conclusions? As heaven has no objectively detectable existence it remains a concept, and the case for it rests partly on how a set of similar, emotionally intense, blissful experiences, whether as NDEs or as apparently regressive hypnotherapy experiences, is interpreted. What these experiences have in common is that they occur during an altered state of consciousness – the dissociative absence of any stabilising sensory input when the mind, in effect, is subjectively freewheeling in imaginary mental space. Isbouts and Sue uncritically interpret these experiences as providing direct evidence of a loving afterlife heaven for everyone, but hellish NDEs must possess the same ontological status implying an afterlife of hell. An alternative interpretation is that both sets of experiences lie at opposite ends of an experiential spectrum open to a wide range of explanations, as are regressive memories.

As far as their idea of evidence of heaven is concerned, the only relevant chapter in the book is chapter 3, On the threshold of Life and Death, on blissful NDEs and regressive hypnotic ‘memories’. The  chapters that discuss  psychic phenomena in this life such as OBEs (Isbouts describes his own in which two spirits took him soaring over the Alpes-Maritime and then swooping across the blue surface of the Mediterranean where he, somehow, felt the spray on his face). ESP as in telepathy, clairvoyance and precognition and seeing spirits, guardian angels, auras and the like, may be interesting but as experiential evidence of heaven they are irrelevant. As for our pair of so-called guardian angels, I am in complete disagreement. History and the daily news demonstrate a depressingly consistent record of abysmal failure by the guardian angels to keep us safe.

The alternative hypothesis for all types of mental experiences is that they are products of a high level of neural processing that creates an emergent new phenomenon of mental, or qualial, processing as in our sense of self, memory, emotions and agency, even although we do not, as yet, know how. Brain imaging shows that no mental experiencing ever occurs without its neural correlation, and it seems reasonable to infer from the discovery by Borjigin et al. (2015a, 2015b) of a brief period of coherent brainwave activity in dying rat brains that normally correlate with consciousness, that this correlation will eventually be shown to be true of NDEs occurring in extreme circumstances (Charman, 2017). Those who, like Sue, see forms around people, may well be unusual visualisers that subconsciously project mental imagery around people that seems completely real to them and is interpreted as such. As for ESP phenomena including verified OBEs, they, like all mental faculties, may be  emergent properties of mind in this life. In the end we all interpret ourselves and the complex world around us in a way that makes best sense to us. Chance or destiny? One life or many? If you share Isbout and Sue’s beliefs and their reasons for them, then this is the book for you.

Bering, J. (2008). The end? Why so many of us think our minds continue after we die. Scientific
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Borjigin, J., et al. (2013a). Surge of neurophysiological coherence and connectivity in the dying
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Borjigin, J., Wang, M.M., & Mashour, G.A. (2013b). Reply to Greyson: Experimental evidence lays a
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Bush, N. E. (2012). Dancing past the Dark. Cleveland, TN: Parson’s Porch Books.
Charman, R. A. (2011). Is death the end of ‘person permanence’? Paranormal Review, 60. 15-19.
Charman, R. A. (2017). Do dying rat brains offer a possible explanation for the occurrence of
   near-death experiences? Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 81, 240-247.
Martin, M., & Augustine, K. (Eds.) (2015). The Myth of an Afterlife. Lanham, MD: Rowman &
Kelly, E. F., et al. (2007). Irreducible Mind. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.


Robert A. Charman can be reached at email: