At a church in New York City, Morgan Freeman interviewed David Bennett, a once boastful and ego-driven commercial diver who says that, in 1983, he drowned off the coast of San Diego; crossed over to the other side, where he was surrounded by “fractals of light”; and ultimately was given a second chance at life.
Bennett shared with Freeman how his near-death experience changed nearly every aspect of his life.
“I became a more positive person,” said Bennett, “I possess more compassion, I’m more selfless than before — in many ways, death taught me how to live.”
In the premiere episode of National Geographic Channel’s The Story of God with Morgan Freeman, the actor, through his production company Revelations Entertainment, explores the religious complexities of death, resurrection and what Freeman calls “one of humanity’s biggest curiosities — what happens when we die.” In the series, Freeman traveled to locations all over the world, including Rome, Cairo, Jerusalem and Mexico City, seeking to uncover the world’s divine mysteries, myths and beliefs surrounding the topics of death, resurrection and the afterlife.
“We all desire to know what happens after we die,” said Freeman. “It’s the mystery that eludes us all and yet, once we know the truth, most of us never get to tell anybody. That’s what makes David’s story, and others like him, so fascinating.”
Halfway around the world, from a boat in the Ganges River in the holy city of Varanasi, India, Freeman and Swami Varishthananda, a monk and doctor who lives in Varanasi, watched from afar as Hindu families gathered around their departed loved ones, preparing their bodies for cremation. As they observed the events unfold at Marnikarnika, one of Varanasi’s holiest cremation ghats, Varishthananda explained, “The families are facilitating the soul’s journey farther. And in a way, this process is a matter of joy. Grief is there, having lost a near one. But that person, wherever he or she is, has moved on to a better way of getting on with his or her life.”
Prior to arriving at the ghat, the family of the deceased have already spent hours with their loved one’s body. They’ve washed it, dressed it, adorned it in the departed’s favorite jewelry and covered it in a shroud, the color of which depends on the person’s marital status, sex and whether or not he or she is considered a holy person. Once the body is prepared, male members of the family carry the body on a bamboo bier to one of the cremation ghats. As the men weave through the narrow streets en route to the holy river, their loved one resting on their shoulders, the men chant, “Ram nam satya hai,” which means “the name of the God of Truth.”
Hindus believe in reincarnation, which, according to Varishthananda, brings followers much hope.
“Reincarnation makes us more responsible for our lives,” he told Freeman, “because we are makers of our own destiny. It continuously gives up hope that we can always do better.”
“Reincarnation makes us more responsible for our lives.”
And doing better is the goal because, contrary to what many Westerners assume, the spiritual pursuit of Hindus is to experience freedom from reincarnation, which is called liberation.
Upon accomplishing liberation, or moksha, Varishthananda explained, “We become one with the only existence, which is the eternal existence. In common parlance we call him God: the only existence which is eternal.”
But why do so many Hindus travel to Varanasi to die? “Because cremation in Varanasi, and at Marnikarnika ghat specifically, is considered to be the ultimate cremation because it leads to liberation and no more rebirth,” said Varishthananda.
Like Hindus, Christians also seek spiritual freedom, a journey toward a divine liberty that believers of all kinds — Catholic, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Baptist and so on — find in the story of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection.
In Jerusalem, Freeman and archaeologist Jodi Magness explored the mysteries of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection.
As they walked “the way of the cross” — the Via Dolorosa — Magness explained that, “at the time when Jesus lived and died, Jews worshiped their own God, the God of Israel.”
Atonement for the sins of the Jews happened through animal sacrifices that were performed at the temple.
“But Jesus is the son of God,” Magness explained to Freeman, “and he became the ultimate sacrifice to atone for the sins of humans.”
At least, that’s true according to Christians. Magness said that eventually one of the chief doctrines of Christianity became this: that whosoever puts their trust in Jesus will be saved. But eventually, Jesus’ death became something that didn’t just save Christians, it also became a promise for followers that they will experience eternal life in heaven.
“The death of Jesus,” said Magness, “was transformed for Christians into the ultimate victory over death.” In other words, resurrection wasn’t just for Jesus, resurrection would become an idea for all who followed Jesus, too.
Life after death was a very new concept among Jews at the time of Jesus. In fact, the Hebrew Bible is practically silent on the topics of the afterlife, resurrection and heaven and hell. One possible reason, according to Magness, is that because Jews emerged out of Egypt — a culture obsessed with death, resurrection, immortality and the like — the fathers of Judaism purposefully avoided the concept.
While Jews may not have embraced the concept of resurrection or afterlife, it wasn’t a new idea, either. In fact, according to Salima Ikram, professor of Egyptology at American University in Cairo, “The ideas that people now have about rebirth and resurrection all started here in Saqqara, Egypt, 5,000 years ago if not earlier.”
About an hour southwest of Cairo, Ikram introduced Freeman to Unas, a pharaoh who reigned for 15 to 30 years during the mid-24th century B.C. and one of the first apologists for the belief of life after death.
Inside Unas’ tomb, Ikram and Freeman crawled through the tiniest of spaces into the one-time chamber of Unas’ sarcophagus. Here, drawn on the walls of his coffin chamber are Unas’ death spells; or, as Ikram said, “These are religious spells that Unas had inscribed so whenever he wanted to go from this world to the next, he could recite all of these things and they gave him directions.” Unas’ hieroglyphics present a variety of sayings — like prayerful rhymes — about Unas’ life, eternity and immortality.
One of Unas’ spells roughly translates as: “Rise up oh Unas! You will know the magic and you can be triumphant over the demons.”
As Freeman learned, Unas’ words eventually made it into the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which was an early guide about what to do when you die. His were some of the earliest human wonderings about the next life.
“People have been wondering about these things since the beginning,” Freeman said later. “Death is scary, which is why so many of us want to believe it’s not the end.”