Thinking About Religion
Volume 6 (2006)

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The Life Review in Death and Dying

P. Eddy Wilson
Shaw University

Mitch Albom’s novel, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, describes the post-mortem experience of one man.  The novel might be entitled The People You Meet in Life Review.  The protagonist, Eddie, meets five individuals from his past. Each has a lesson to teach Eddie as they force Eddie to review the merits of his life.  Albom writes, “’There are five people you meet in heaven,’ the Blue Man suddenly said. ‘Each of us was in your life for a reason. You may not have known the reason at the time, and that is what heaven is for. For understanding your life on earth.’”[1]

The Blue Man leads us to believe that the encounters are just informative, but the process of review is an evaluative process.  Through his encounters Eddie is able to transcend his egocentric view of the events in his life. In his interviews Eddie confronts lingering, unresolved issues that have shaped his life.  By developing a sense of empathy with the people he encounters the hero is able to move beyond these problems. 

Albom’s novel appears to challenge traditional theistic accounts of death where death is followed by a formal judgment.   Upon closer inspection Albom’s fictional description can be reconciled with more traditional accounts of dying.  In this essay I compare these fictional rendezvous of Eddie with the life review stage in near death experiences (NDE’s).   Although the fictional encounters take place post-mortem, Albom’s story may be seen as a life review.  By comparing it to life reviews in NDE’s I hope to discover what this has to tell us about death and dying. Is the life review a terminal or a transitional experience?  Does it precede annihilation, punishment or transformation?  Answers to these questions must come later in the study.

I. Five People in Heaven and Life Reviews

Readers of Albom’s novel find themselves introduced to the life of a maintenance man named Eddie.  The novel opens with the protagonist doing maintenance work at an amusement park, Ruby Pier.  It is Eddie’s eighty-third birthday, and he is about to die.  A cart from a malfunctioning ride threatens to crush a little girl to death if someone does not intervene. Eddie sacrifices his life to push the girl to safety, but he does not know whether his attempt to rescue the girl was successful.  He must search for the answer.

For the remainder of the novel the author makes use of two sequences – the five successive visits with people from the past, and Eddie’s successive birthdays.  Listed in order the five people whom Eddie meets are (1) an entertainer at the amusement park called the Blue Man; (2) Eddie’s Army Captain; (3) Ruby, the woman whose name appeared on the amusement park marquee; (4)Marguerite, his wife; (5) and Tala, an Asian girl whom Eddie burned during his military campaign.  Each of the people encountered has a lesson to teach to Eddie.  To progress to the next level of heaven he must learn the lesson that each person will teach him.  These visitors report that they have gone through a similar rite of passage, and upon completion of his rite of passage Eddie will have to appear to five people too.  In what ways do these fictional encounters parallel the life review in typical NDE’s?

Two pioneers in the field of near death studies are Raymond Moody and Kenneth Ring.  To gather his data Moody conducted numerous one-on-one interviews with individuals who were resuscitated after they experienced clinical death.[2]  His interviews gave Moody the raw data for his flowing narrative description of a core experience.  Both Moody and Ring are careful to admit that individual reports of NDE’s are not bound to follow this outline sequentially.   Ring finds eleven distinct motifs in Moody’s core experience: (1) ineffability; (2) hearing the news (of one’s own death); (3) feelings of peace and quiet; (4) the noise; (5) the dark tunnel; (6) an out of the body feeling; (7) meeting others; (8) the being of light; (9) the review; (10) the border; and (11) coming back.[3]  The review occurs late in Moody’s core experience, but this core experience is an idealistic compilation of sundry reports.

Elsewhere I have discussed the phenomenon of meeting others in NDE’s.[4]  Those encounters may be distinguished from encounters with strictly celestial beings.  Not infrequently the celestial beings play some role in the life review.  When they are present for the life review they may act like an usher who conducts the individual to a theatre for a private showing.   The individual may sense that the celestial being is fully aware of all the contents of the review, but the protagonist of the life review is the subject of the NDE.  Moody offers the following description of the life review:

This review can only be described in terms of memory, since that is the closest familiar phenomenon to it, but it has characteristics which set it apart from any normal type of remembering.  First of all, it is extraordinarily rapid.  The memories, when they are described in temporal terms, are said to follow one another swiftly, in chronological order.  Others recall no awareness of temporal order at all.  . . . However it is expressed, all seem in agreement that the experience was over in an instant of earthly time.[5]

Two features of the life review of interest to us are the duration of time of the life review and the quality of the life review.  The events themselves are reviewed in rapid sequence.  One reporter believed that he needed fifteen minutes to review the entire series of events that comprised his life from infancy to adulthood.[6]   The review occurs with such rapidity that one might suspect there is a loss of quality, but that assumption is incorrect.  Reporters of NDE’s maintain that their reviews are vivid.  Their vividness is more pronounced than most memories that they retained prior to their clinical death.  This vividness allows the subject to evaluate the experience more precisely, and this is an important part of the propulsion toward cosmic justice.           

For our purposes we are comparing Albom’s fictional account with life reviews in NDE’s.  Life reviews are a standard feature in many religious accounts of death, and they most often occur in the larger context of a judgment of the dead. When the dead undergo judgment it is their deeds in life that are subject to judgment. In ancient Egyptian mythology the dead must meet a celestial prosecutor.  When the Egyptian dead appear before their prosecutor their deeds are piled in a heap for review and judgment.[7]  Likewise in the Christian religion the life review occurs upon death when one’s future existence is in question.  One Christian text, Hebrews  9:27:  says, “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.”[8]  How an after-life judgment is conducted depends upon the religious narrative, but the review of one’s deeds most often occurs in the context of these judgments.  In the Egyptian account the deeds are objectified for the purpose of weighing them on a scale of judgment.  Their weight or number allows them to be subjected to a quantitative analysis.  Perhaps the quantitative analysis of one’s earthly deeds may be a result of the religious naratization of the life review.  In contrast, the life review of Albom and of NDE’s suggests that one’s deeds are subject to qualitative review.

In his book, The Judgment of the Dead, S. G. F. Brandon says that the expectations of individuals about an after life directly impact the importance they placed upon the possibility that they would undergo a post-mortem judgment.[9]  Mesopotamian people who assumed that post-mortem existence would be a wretched state had little or no concern about the prospects of judgment.   Greater, more optimistic prospects of a happy post-mortem state seem to have inspired a greater concern about the outcome of the judgment.  Also, Brandon suggests that the judgment may serve as a defensive mechanism to determine the integrity of the person’s reputation in the face of accusations to the contrary.[10]  Albom assumes that the prospects of a positive post-mortem existence are high.  Most reporters of NDE’s likewise assume that post-mortem survival could be a positive experience.

II. Life Reviews and their implications for Moral Psychology

Today’s moral theorists who discuss the notion of justice focus principally upon the ability of humanity to intervene in the affairs of life to attain a sense of justice.  Justice arises when humanity acts decisively to achieve a state of justice.  In other words, in most instances justice for humanity is thought to be the outcome of human behavior that aims to implement a just plan or restore a sense of justice.  John Rawls’s book, A Theory of Justice, illustrates this focus upon the justice that is the outcome of human behavior. Justice is rarely discussed in terms of cosmic justice by modern moral theorists.

In contrast, the pre-Socratic philosophers who embraced a teleological world view spoke of a cosmic sense of justice.  For instance, Anaxagoras believed that the injustices of existence would be remedied by extinction.[11]  Empedocles believed that the injustices created by the cosmic force of hate would be corrected by the ever present forces of love.[12]  I assume that if there is a sense of justice to be discovered in the life review, it is a cosmic sense of justice and not one that emerges from the orchestrations of humanity.

Events in the life review are reviewed sequentially.  The subject may begin his or her review at the earliest moments of life or with some later event.  In diachronic time this review would require a lengthy process. However, during the NDE the same review seems to occur in an instant.  In his book, The Holographic Universe, Michael Talbot maintains that the subject may be processing bundles of information during the review.  He says, “NDEers often say that during the vision the information arrives in ‘chunks’ that register instantaneously in one’s thoughts.”[13] One subject reports that the review includes most major events from his life.   He says, “I could probably think of all those things and remember and picture each of them now, but it would probably take me at least fifteen minutes.  Yet, this had all come at once, automatically, and in less than a second.”[14]  Another reporter says, “Instantly my entire life was laid bare and open to this wonderful presence, ‘God’”.[15]

 In a life review the incidents are also recollected vividly.  Their emotional character is included in the recollection.  Even if one did not attend to his or her behavior when it was first experienced, in the review the subject is aware of the minutest details of the incident.  The life review seems to heighten awareness of the deeds one has done. Time and space are transcended in the life review.  This awareness may include a shared awareness of the reaction of others to one’s deeds. 

Not only are time and space transcended in the life review, but also there is the possibility that the egoistic perspective of the original experience can be transcended by the life review.  Some NDE reporters say that they felt no emotion about the deeds of their life.[16]  More often subjects of NDE’s recount that they experienced more vividly the emotions that they attached to their experiences.   When the emotions are experienced vividly they are not confined to the egoistic perspective of the subject of the deed.  In other words, a subject may experience both his or her own emotions and those of another as they relate to a single deed.  This newly established ability to empathize is highly important when we consider the moral implications of a life review.  The life review moves the individual from the dialectical position of being the sole subject of the experience to the objective position of being a detached observer or the dialectical position of an other.  This dialectical shift allows the individual to transcend his or her emotional valuation of the incident.  In an example below a sibling is given access to the perspective of his sister through the life review.  

In many instances the NDE subjects saw the review as an educational or transformational experience.  One of Moody’s interviewees says that the celestial being acted as a guide for his life review.  During the review the guide would point out instances when the subject had failed to display the proper emotions toward a sibling.  In those instances the guide called for a change in behavior as well as an evaluation of the previous behavior.  Moody’s interviewee says,

All through this, [the celestial being] kept stressing the importance of love.  The places where he showed it best involved my sister; I have always been very close to her.  He showed me some instances where I had been selfish to my sister, but then just as many times where I had really shown love to her and had shared with her.  He pointed out to me that I should try to do things for other people, to try my best.  There wasn’t any accusation in any of this, though.  When he came across times when I had been selfish, his attitude was only that I had been learning from them, too.[17]

The life review is not merely a biographical recollection, but it has an identifiable instrumental value.  Viewed psychologically the life review seems to function as a mechanism for conflict resolution. Viewed ethically the life review seems to function as a mechanism to achieve a sense of cosmic justice.  This is an inferential sense of justice.  No restitution of goods or services can be made as a result of the life review, but the life review can produce a reformation of character. This reform may be instrumentally valuable for further events or experiences.  In Albom’s novel one cannot go to the next level of existence until one has resolved the unresolved conflict from one’s past.  In NDE’s the unresolved conflicts may act as barriers to one’s entry into post-mortem existence.  The life review serves as a threshold to future experience only if the individuals can break out of their egoistic perspective.  Ring says,

After NDE’s, individuals tend to show greater appreciation for life and more concern and love for their fellow humans while their interest in personal status and material possession wanes.  Most NDE’s also state that they live afterward with a heightened sense of spiritual purpose and, in some cases, that they seek a deeper understanding of life’s essential meaning.  Furthermore, these self-reports tend to be corroborated by others in a position to observe the behavior of NDEs.[18]

What is the sense of spiritual purpose that Ring says these individuals acquire?  This sense of purpose cannot be confined to one religious tradition only.  Rather it is a directedness of spirit, that is, an internalization of a sense of cosmic teleology.  When an individual internalizes this sense of cosmic teleology, it serves as an organizing principle for his or her decisions and actions.

Consider how Eddie is enabled to come to terms with one unresolved conflict through his life review.  During the life review of Eddie a scene haunts him from his military career.  He and his fellow soldiers break away from a prisoner-of-war camp, and they conduct a campaign of terror on the countryside.  Eddie is given a flamethrower, and he is ordered to burn a barn.  After he torches the barn, he believes he sees someone inside.  He attempts to go inside but is stopped when a bullet pierces his leg.  His suspicions that someone was inside the barn were correct.  A little girl had been told by her mother to hide in the barn.

The fifth person Eddie meets is this severely burned girl, Tala.  Eddie must confront the harm he has caused the girl.  She suffers horrific disfigurement during her life due to the burns she received.  After Eddie acknowledges the harm done, the girl offers him the opportunity to resolve the conflict by washing away her scars.  Albom describes the encounter,

“You wash me’, she said again, holding out the stone.

Eddie dragged himself into the river.  He took the stone.  His fingers trembled. 

“I don’t know how . . .” he mumbled, barely audible.  “I never had children.”

She raised her charred hand and Eddie gripped it gently and slowly rubbed the stone along her forearm, until the scars began to loosen.  He rubbed harder; they peeled away.  He quickened his efforts until the singed flesh fell and the healthy flesh was visible.  Then he turned the stone over and rubbed her bony back and tiny shoulders and the nape of her neck and finally her cheeks and her forehead and the skin behind her ears.[19]

Retributive justice most often requires an exchange of goods or services.  In the example above there is no exchange of goods, and the offer of service could be understood only in a qualified sense. Nonetheless, a sense of cosmic justice is achieved when the unresolved conflict between Eddie and Tala is brought to a conclusion.

In previous meetings Eddie comes to a different perspective on his own behavior.  For instance, he comes to understand the anger of his father and wills his forgiveness.  This expansion of one’s understanding of his or her behavior is a central feature in NDE’s.  Recall that the life review enables the subject to move out of his or her egocentric perspective.  The individual comes to understand his or her behavior from the objective viewpoint of an ideal observer, from the perspective of another subject, or from the perspective of multiple subjects.

In those instances when an individual sees life from the viewpoint of another, he or she may acquire a sense of empathy with the other.  Shame and emotional distress may accompany this sense of empathy.  This sense of suffering can purify the individual in a way that outward punishments cannot.  So, the life review is instrumentally valuable for character transformation as a means to achieve a sense of cosmic justice.

III Life Reviews and their implications for a Phenomenology of Dying

Here I make the bold assertion that the life review as we have described it is consistent with one phenomenological understanding of the meaning of life and not another. The one phenomenological view I shall call the religious-teleological view of life, and the other phenomenological view I shall call the non-teleological view of life.   In a qualified sense these correspond to two “world pictures” discussed by Kurt Baier – the Christian world picture and the scientific world picture.[20]  For Baier the scientific world view denies that there is a heteronomous purpose for humanity.  Thus, the scientific view dignifies humanity as the autonomous creator of its own purposes.  In contrast, Baier maintains that the Christian world view assigns humanity an instrumental value only.  In his essay, “The Meaning of Life”, Baier writes,

The Christian world picture . . .  sees man as a creature, a divine artifact, something halfway between a robot (manufactured) and an animal (alive), a homunculus, or perhaps Frankenstein, made in God’s laboratory, with a purpose or task assigned him by his Maker.[21]

How do these two ways of understanding life relate to the life review?  To answer that question I turn to the thoughts of two philosophers who discuss the phenomenological perimeters of our lived experience – Martin Heidegger and Edmund Husserl.

 The phenomenologist Martin Heidegger regarded death as the possibility that was present in all possibilities.  He speaks of death as “the possibility of the impossibility of any existence at all.  Death, as possibility, gives Dasein nothing to be ‘actualized’, nothing which Dasein, as actual, could itself be.”[22]  I would suggest that for Heidegger the possibility of death is to be seen as the upward limit of a broadly undefined, finite set of possibilities.  In this view this upward limit defines the parameters of the set.  Heidegger says, “Death is Dasein’s overmost possibility.  Being toward this possibility discloses to Dasein its ownmost potentiality-for-Being, in which its very Being is the issue.”[23]  To regard death as the negation of possibility is to see it as a barrier to future possibilities, an upward limit on a potentially infinite set.  Heidegger’s view of death is consistent with the Baier’s scientific world picture, since it demands that we find meaning in finite existence only. 

Are we to infer from the life review that it is a limit to life?  I think not.  Whether we regard the life review as part of the dying process or as part of death, the life review does not conform to the pattern suggested by Heidegger.  Instead I would suggest that the life review resembles a different phenomenon, the phenomenon of a horizon of possibility.  The life review presents us with a vast expanse that is undefined and open to future possibilities.  In the life review past events from one’s life are flashed before one’s eyes in a second, and this review comprises a single event in the NDE sequence. 

In Ideas, Edmund Husserl speaks of the experience of perceiving an object such as a piece of paper. This perception is to be understood as embedded in a “field of intuition”, that is, an unbounded perception that constitutes a greater, unbounded whole.  Husserl says, “Every perception of a thing has such a zone of background intuitions (or background awareness, if ‘intuiting’ already includes the state of being turned towards), and this also is a ‘conscious experience’ or more briefly a ‘consciousness of’ all indeed that in point of fact lies in the co-perceived objective ‘background’[24]

We have noted already the elastic nature of time as it relates to the life review.  Events that required a lifetime to experience are reviewed in vividness and in rapid succession.  Yet, the life review is a temporal event.  If we call that an event on celestial-modified time (CMT), then events in existential-standard time (EST) must arise within CMT.  From a phenomenological perspective the life review does not present an upward limit to human existence.  Rather it seems to unveil a horizon of possibility that extends beyond it in the form of CMT.[25]

The fourth person Eddie meets is Marguerite, his wife.  He confesses to her that he was angry that she died.   When he declares that her death was an ultimate loss to both individuals, she challenges him.  “’Life has to end,’ she said. ‘Love doesn’t.’”[26]  Albom does not see death as an upward limit to a finite set of experiences, but he does see it as unfolding a horizon of future possibilities.    The review in NDE’s may be seen as the unveiling of a fringe experience, a phenomenological horizon.  Husserl says,

Every present moment of experience has about it a fringe of experiences, which also share the primordial now-form, and as such constitute the one primordial fringe of the pure Ego, its total primordial now-consciousness.

This fringe enters as a unity into the structure of the past modes as well.  Every Before, as a modified Now, in regard to each focal experience to which it stands in the relation of a Before, is the center of infinite extensions, including whatever belongs to the same modified Now, briefly its encircling stretch of ‘what has simultaneously been.’[27]

In NDE’s the subject is returned to life.  Some subjects report that they desired not to return to their life.  Why?  This reluctance to return to life suggests that these do not perceive death to be an ultimately limiting possibility.  Rather the subject perceives that he or she may go on to a different phase of existence.  One reporter says that he was instructed to return to his finite work.  To that he responded, “now that I’m back, I’m absolutely assured of the fact that I did not want to come back. . . . This [earth] is a wonderful place to live if you don’t know anywhere else.  I know somewhere else.”[28]


In this study of the life review in death and dying I present no argument for post-mortem survival.  Rather I examine the nature and function of the life review.  It is possible that a life review could occur in some context other than that of death and dying.  However, there seems to be an identifiable role that the life review plays in NDE’s.  From the view of moral psychology the life review is valuable for the achievement of a sense of cosmic justice.  From the view of phenomenology the life review opens new horizons of experience rather than defining their upward limit.  In both views the life review may be seen as a transformational experience rather than a terminal experience.


[1] Mitch Albom, The Five People You Meet in Heaven (New York: Hyperion, 2003), p. 35.  Hereafter cited as Albom.

[2] Raymond Moody, Life after Life (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole  Books, 1976).  Hereafter cited as Moody, Life after Life.

[3]Kenneth Ring, Heading Toward Omega, (New York: William Morrow, 1984), pp. 26, 36-38, 83.   Herafter cited as Ring.

[4] See my essay, “Personal Encounters in Near Death Experiences”, in Thinking About Religion 2002, Vol. 2,

[5]  Moody, Life after Life, p. 61-62.

[6] Ring, p. 71.

[7] S. G. F. Brandon, The Judgment of the Dead (London: Widen field and Nicholson, 1967), pp. 20-21.

[8] The Holy Bible, King James Version.

[9] Brandon, p. 52.

[10] Brandon, p. 47.

[11] See Drew Hyland, The Origin of Philosophy (Amherst, New York:  Humanity Books, 1998), p. 117.

[12] Ibid, p.246.

[13] Michael Talbot, The Holographic Universe (New York: Harper Collins, 1991), p.  252.

[14] Moody, Life after Life, p. 67.

[15] Ring, p. 67.

[16] Ring, pp. 60-61.

[17] Moody, Life after Life, p. 64.

[18] Ring, p. 141.

[19] Albom, p. 189-190.

[20] Kurt Baier, “The Meaning of Life” in The Meaning of Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981),  p. 104.  Hereafter cited as Baier.

[21] Baier, p. 104.  From the quote one may surmise that in Baier’s view either world picture results in a form of robbery.  The scientific world picture robs humanity of teleological goals, and the Christian world view robs humanity of dignity when it treats humanity as an object, a tool.

[22] Martin Heidegger, Bing and Time, (New York: Harper, 1964), p. 307.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Edmund Husserl, Ideas   (New York: Macmillan Press, 1962), p. 106.

[25] Michael Talbot maintains that NDE’s provide access to a different level of reality.  He says, “People who have NDEs are not suffering from hallucinations or delusional fantasies, but are actually making visits to an entirely different level of reality.”  (p. 242) This claim is consistent with Talbot’s view that the universe is best understood as a holographic universe.  Talbot identifies the mind as “the energy field that permeates both the brain and the physical body.”  He says, “if the mind is in the field, it suggests that our awareness, the thinking, feeling part of ourselves, may not even be confined to the physical body.” (p. 192) Given Talbot’s assumptions he has reason to make the strong ontological claim that in NDE’s individuals “make visits to an entirely different level of reality”.  The author makes no such assumptions here.

[26] Albom, p. 173.

[27] Albom, p. 219.

[28] Ring, p. 91.


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