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Wren-Lewis, John - A Terrible Beauty: Reflections on Love and the Near-Death Experience



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience

A Terrible Beauty:  Reflections on Love and the Near-Death Experience
by John Wren-Lewis 
This article  first appeared in IONS Review No. 54, December 2000-February 2001,

All changed, changed utterly;
A terrible beauty is born.
~ W.B. Yeats, Easter 1916

The most important experience of my life was in 1983 when I came "to the brink" in a near-death experience (NDE). I found a meaning I'd never dreamed of in Shakespeare's statement that love "looks on tempests and is never shaken." I discovered, in the moment of time-stop, that human consciousness is grounded in the same fundamental energy that moves the sun and other stars and tempests too—an energy for which "love" is the only word we have, though its common sentimental associations are hopelessly misleading.

As a result I have been following the portrayal of near-death experiences in the popular media as well as in professional research. I found that movies on the subject of near-death experiences, which have tried to reenact scenes of people floating up out of their bodies and moving down tunnels into heavenly light, typically fall far short of capturing the life-changing feeling. Moreover, it's not just lack of feeling in those feeble reenactment movies that sells the reality of NDEs short. The feeling they do convey actually does violence to what I believe to be the most significant feature of the experience: They suggest going away from this world and this life to find the heavenly light and love in some other realm, whereas the life changes that have impressed even hard-nosed skeptics into taking NDEs seriously happen because experiencers find their eyes have been opened to light and love right here in the world to which they return on resuscitation. One exception is Peter Weir's 1993 film Fearless, that starts from this fact, which then is the main focus of the story.

Fearless is the first film I've seen that has managed to convey the actual feeling of a dimension beyond the life of space and time. There is a vivid reenactment of a jetliner crash from passengers' eye view. Yet far from aggravating the fear of flying, the final effect is the absolute reverse. Director Weir has pulled off the incredible achievement of enabling viewers actually to feel for themselves how at such moments human consciousness can transcend fear, and indeed mortality itself, by moving out of time. (So effective is it, I even wonder if the film wouldn't be positively reassuring as in-flight entertainment on a bumpy run.)

The film reveals facts about near-death experiences that are very little known outside the (still fairly small) circle of people around the world doing professional research in the field. For starters, it's still not at all widely realized that all the classic experiences that make the headlines when people are resuscitated from the brink of clinical death—disappearance of fear and pain, feelings of blissful peace, slowing down or total stoppage of time, even the famous tunnel and encounter with celestial beings and heavenly light—can also occur to people who, like the film's hero Max (superbly acted by Jeff Bridges), narrowly avoid death without being sick or damaged in any way.

In fact, one of the very serious studies in this whole area was made back in the 1890s by a Swiss Alpine climber named Albert Heim, who fell off a cliff to what seemed certain death, only to land on soft snow with very minor injuries. As he went down, time seemed to become infinitely extended, fear vanished, and he experienced wonderful colors and music, plus a panoramic review of his life right from childhood, with a sense that even his nastiest acts were now somehow accepted without being in any way whitewashed. He was moved to write a scientific paper about it when he found many other mountaineers had similar experiences, but this received little if any attention outside Switzerland, and wasn't translated into English until Russell Noyes, professor at the University of Iowa, did so in the 1970s, after Raymond Moody had begun to draw attention to NDEs experienced in clinical situations.

Even then very little attention was paid to this kind of near-death experience, without the actual dying, because journalists—and for that matter most professional researchers—were concerned mainly with finding possible evidence of a soul that could survive the body's death, which meant concentrating attention on people who might actually have been dead for a short time, as in the movie Flatliners.

Australian sociologist Alan Kellahear played a major role in drawing attention to the similarity between clinical NDEs and the experiences of people in crisis situations like shipwrecks and air disasters. In Fearless, this is one of the major plot lines. The movie's climax is the revelation that Max's strange post-crash behavior—an apparently total loss of fear, disappearance of a long-standing allergy, an aversion to any form of lying even for "good causes," estrangement from his wife and son while feeling great love for another crash survivor who's deranged at the loss of her baby—is due to his having experienced in the crash the same "moment of death" that recurs weeks later when he comes close to clinical death through the return of his allergy.

The moral ambiguity of Max's post-crash behavior, which is the film's main plot line, brings out another feature of NDEs that doesn't get much discussed. Here again, researchers in the 1970s and early 1980s had an agenda that led them to bypass important facts. They were anxious to establish that NDEs weren't just hallucinations produced by disturbed brains, so they were at pains to demonstrate, by means of interviews and psychological tests, that experiencers showed no signs of mental sickness, but were actually living healthier, more creative lives than before. The resulting impression was one of all sweetness and light, until in 1988 Idaho housewife-researcher Phyllis Atwater blew the whistle in her book Coming Back to Life, by showing that healthier and more creative living often involved upsetting conventional domestic and social applecarts.

Yes, experiencers do indeed come back with new spiritual drive and urge toward a better world, but that often means preferring poverty to dull jobs that would keep families in the style to which they're accustomed, helping strangers rather than going to neighborhood cocktail parties, and looking at scenery for hours instead of taking Junior to Little League.

Fearless explores this issue with enormous sensitivity, showing how Max's changed behavior—sometimes generous beyond all expectation, but sometimes apparently foolhardy or even cruel—springs from his inability to countenance the compromises with fearful self-protection that are involved in even the "happiest" marriages and the most "regular guy" lifestyles.

In that timeless moment of the crash, he has experienced the wonder of infinite aliveness that gets continually blocked out in so-called normal life by fearful evasion of any facts we've been taught to find unpleasant. As a consequence, he rescues several other passengers from the wreck in a way that they and observers consider heroic, though to him it really is, as he insists, nothing special. We see also how his rescue of other passengers was indeed no heroic defiance of fear, but something he could do quite naturally because time has slowed down for him, enabling him to see, for example, how to avoid falling debris. For me, this echoed the story of a friend of mine who performed a similar rescue of a mate from a blazing tank in World War II, and is equally anxious to repudiate any idea that he was heroic. Such experiences are by no means uncommon, even outside NDE literature.

However, there's an added twist in Weir's presentation of the rescue scene which I wonder if I am perhaps the only viewer to appreciate. As the plane breaks up all around, Max picks up a baby and then calls out to the passengers who are still relatively unhurt, "Follow me to the light!" This apparently straightforward directive about how they can get safely out of the wreckage takes on highly symbolic significance when, in the final climactic flashback to the scene, the long body of the plane through which Max leads them becomes identified with the tunnel of an actual NDE encounter. Since Max clearly wasn't asking the others to follow him to the light of heaven, but taking them back to life on Earth, Weir seems to be anticipating my own hypothesis (which I've never seen advanced by anyone else, and haven't yet published outside Australia) that the tunnel-to-the-light phenomenon in NDEs is a discovery of "heavenliness" as the true nature of this world when it's perceived without the veil of fear. And since it's timeless heavenliness, the question of whether it continues after physical death is entirely secondary.

Weir keeps giving hints of Max's "heavenly" experience of the world all through the film, for example in the way he finds the buildings of the San Francisco Bay Area fascinating when others don't even notice them, and is truly at a loss to understand how his fellow survivor who is with him fails to see what he sees. Another example is his description of being free from society's entanglements because death brings freedom and he feels he's already dead. Some notable statements to this effect have been made by real-life near-death experiencers. One that comes most immediately to mind is the great pioneer of humanistic and transpersonal psychology Abraham Maslow, who described the blissful calm he experienced in the two years he lived on after his near-fatal heart attack in 1968 as "my posthumous life."

But here again Weir introduces a twist that resonates with my own experience in a way I've not seen mentioned anywhere else in NDE literature. Max tells the girl survivor as they walk down the city streets that they're invisible to the crowds "because we're ghosts." I dreamed exactly that not long after my own NDE. It was such a remarkable dream that I published a paper about it in an American psychological journal, but I can't imagine it was read by anyone involved in making Fearless.

The most interesting thing of all about the film as a whole for me, however, is the way it explores what I have come to see as the $64,000 question: Why is it that something like a close brush with death is normally needed for the heavenliness of the world to be experienced? (And even that works in only a minority of cases!) The film's answer, if I understand it right, seems to be that the natural biological fear-response seems to have gotten out of hand in the human species, to the point where it governs the whole organization of social life down to the minutest detail, blocking out aliveness in the process. For the fortunate minority, coming close to death unravels the knot, but then we have the problem of finding out how to organize practical affairs with fear as life's servant rather than its master, something about which even the world's greatest mystics and religious teachers have left us only very partial blueprints.

NDEs are often spoken of as rebirths; mine felt more like a resurrection, because I was reconstructed with all my past experience, but with the fear-response now operating "to one side," as it were, so that for most of the time I can heed it rationally but not be run by it.

Max's inability to cope with society's fear-organized conventions does indeed cause fear to overwhelm him, making his allergy return and really take him to the dying point. He is saved and comes back out of that tunnel saying, "I'm alive!"


The source of the experience

Wren-Lewis, Professor John

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