The Mystery of Death

Posted on November 9, 2015 by Robert Ringer


In my recent article titled “Immortality versus Nothingness,” I speculated on what happens to us after death. As a compliment to that article, I’m going to focus here on the abstract of death itself, because the daily news is saturated with tales of death.


  • The south side of Chicago is now more dangerous than Syria or Iraq.
  • Police gun down an innocent six-year-old boy in Louisiana.
  • A Russian airliner crashes (perhaps as a result of a terrorist bomb) and kills 224 passengers and crew members.
  • Police officers are routinely murdered, execution style.
  • Mass shootings at schools and offices are now commonplace.
  • In the U.S., an average of ninety-four people a day commit suicide.
  • And from Robin Williams hanging himself to Fred Thompson’s recent passing from lymphoma, the nonstop parade of public figures checking out makes us all too aware of the Grim Reaper’s relentless appetite for death.

Unfortunately, death is in the news so much that it tends to make people blasé about the subject. An excess of anything will do that to the human mind. But, in truth, the subject of death strikes fear into most people’s hearts.

Which is easy to understand, because it’s quite natural to fear something terrible that you have no power to prevent. Death is the Great Inevitable that doesn’t differentiate between gender, race, nationality, or social status.

As a result, most people avoid thinking about death by focusing on material possessions, peer acceptance, pleasures of the senses, entertainment — anything that keeps their minds off the most fearful subject known to mankind. But given that we’re all programmed to die, perhaps we should at least stick our nose under the death tent and see if we can learn something about it.

The first question, quite obviously, is what, exactly, is death — and why must it even exist? In the broadest, nontechnical sense of the term, death is life’s shadowy counterpart. It is, in fact, an integral part of life — the end of life as we know it. I say as we know it, because we have no proof that death is not just another form of life. (See my discussion of immortality in the above-mentioned article.)

Questions about the nature of death abound. How does life end — and where does it go after it ends? In other words, what is the nature of death? Is it something concrete or abstract? Is it the end of just a transitional stage to another dimension — the end of just one aspect of life and perhaps the beginning of something new and better? Or does it lead to eternal darkness and a lack of consciousness, which I discussed in some detail my previous article?

Hundreds, if not thousands, of cases of people “dying,” then returning to life, suggest that death is, indeed, nothing more than a transitional stage of life, though it is impossible for the substance of these cases to be validated. With that caveat, what they all have in common is a wonderful feeling of peace and tranquility.

Maybe … maybe not. But it still doesn’t answer the question: What is death? If one believes in God, then death must have been given to man by God, since everything comes from God.

But death can be tricky, because it is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon. At the risk of sounding gory, if a person’s head is severed from his body — which happens pretty frequently today — I’m told there is evidence that the head remains conscious for at least several seconds following its severance.

Traditionally, we’ve thought of a person being officially dead when his heart stops beating. But today, a heart can be kept on ice — literally — during an operation, then started again and put back in a person’s chest. And, of course, in our world of modern medicine, a different heart can be installed in a person’s body, so the fact that his original heart no longer beats becomes irrelevant.

It’s probably more accurate to say that a person is dead when his brain no longer functions due to a lack of oxygen (anoxia), but it’s really just a matter of opinion. A nonfunctioning brain or a non-beating heart — either way, the person is “dead.”

I have no brilliant answer to the question of “What is death?” but I once heard an interesting analogy that I’ll share with you. The flame of a candle is composed of circulating substances with a measurable metabolism that keeps it “alive.” Yet it can be quickly extinguished by a puff of wind, just as a person’s life can be quickly extinguished by a bullet.

So is the flame of the candle dead when it’s blown out? It would seem so, but perhaps it continues to exist in some other form. After all, you can easily bring the flame back to life by relighting it. The question is, is the relit flame a new flame or is it the same flame as before? It’s impossible to know.

The theory is that there is a symmetry between living and dying that closely resembles the lighted and unlighted candles. This may be a bit far out, but certainly stimulating to think about and perhaps worth delving into more deeply.

On that note, I’ll borrow from the gist of what I said at the end of my article on immortality versus nothingness and apply it to death, to wit:

Since we won’t know what happens to us after death, it’s probably not a good investment of time to give it too much thought. Better to focus on the here and now — hoping that the here and now is not just an illusion of our consciousness — and try to be a better person every day than you were the day before.

What I am inclined to believe is that death is that point in time when a person’s mind/soul leaves his physical body and moves on. I hope I’m right about that. But, if so, it still leaves unanswered the question of where it moves on to? Let me ponder that one for a few more years, and I’ll get back to you if and when I can come up with a plausible answer.


Robert Ringer

Robert Ringer is an American icon whose unique insights into life have helped millions of readers worldwide. He is also the author of two New York Times #1 bestselling books, both of which have been listed by The New York Times among the 15 best-selling motivational books of all time.

52 responses to “The Mystery of Death”

  1. Burt Dubin says:

    Hi Robert, Earl Nightingale in his now classic speech, "The Strangest Secret" (which can be downloaded from Google,) said this: "The architect of the universe didn't build a stairway leading nowhere." Burt Dubin

    • 1voluntaryist says:

      The 'verse has always been, and always will be, abet in changing form. It was not "built" by an architect. It has no "stairway". And this poetry is not proof that death does not exist. Death is. Life is. One cannot exist without the other, i.e., to do away with either concept is to deny both. Life/death depend on each other for meaning.

  2. larry Mullins says:

    Hi Robert. I read your original book, "Winning Through Intimidation" about 40 years ago. I am surprised that you are writing here about death. Wow. Your advice is not to think about it. Not possible for me. Here is my answer: Larry Mullins

  3. Jean Nooney lll says:

    Death or "passing on" is just that — It is the transitioning from this dimension to another -We are eternal and are here to learn to love and forgive- Those who have moved on are more aware of us than we are of them – Learn to look for signs from them -they are there believe me — All of the dimensions exist in the same "place" much as various TV frequencies exist in the same "place" – Here in this dimension we are hard wired to use time and space to observe and organize "things" so therefore we refer to heaven as "up there" — that helps us but its really right here — Later

  4. Blank Reg says:

    At my father's memorial service in 2004, I invoked Heisenberg. I told everyone he was not "dead", but rather that he had merely transitioned from one place in particular to everywhere in general.

    My own "philosophy" is a mashup of Taoism and theories of Quantum Entanglement. The Universe is a single conscious form, looking at itself subjectively. The late Wayne Dyer also understood this. Intention is everything.

    • Phil says:

      I tend to agree with you on this. Much turns on terminology. The ancient Jews used the term Yahweh to reference a God that was unknowable to the human mind, but a very definite presence. Seems to me that much religious literature implies that we are a part of that presence in some way, and perhaps absorbed into it once life is over. As a Christian, it is quite believable to me that this presence, this power, was manifested in the person of Jesus. And maybe in other great spiritual leaders in other cultures as well.

  5. Smucko says:

    Mr. Ringer, you have been my favorite philosopher for about 40 years, but I think that you have literally done a grave disservice (all puns intended) to your readers with this post. You are right that in our supposedly 70% religious America, we have shockingly become more than just blasé, but have substantially cheapened life to the extent that no one cares about your departure except your family and friends. Power-grabbing politicians like to excuse their actions by saying "If it just saves one person's life, it is worth it", but they don't really believe it, and we don't really care.
    I was stunned to read your conclusion that "…it's probably not a good investment of time to give (the after-life) much thought, …focus on the here and now, … and try to be a better person". Huh? THIS from the Mr. Ringer that abhors the Anything Goes Society and believes in a Universal Power that we are each connected to? How do you square that? You sound more like Joe (God just wants you to be happy) Osteen than The Tortoise that I grew up with.
    Before your readers go down the road of Eat, Drink, Be Merry while being a Good Person, they should consider what is at stake, which is "where do they end up on the other side?". If you believe like Bill Clinton that you will probably just end up in the same place as 98% of the rest of us, what is the comfort in that? Do you think that you will just sit around a have a few beers while joking about the 2% that made it? Hope that you like warm beer.
    Before you give up on the After-life, I would suggest that your readers research for their own answer to the age-old question "What is the purpose of life"? How do you do that? I would start with the most consistent source that we have available to us — the Bible. But you have to pick it up with a DESIRE to learn the truth about God. After 40 years of sitting in a pew with my wife secretly thinking that religion is just a crutch to get thru the grave, I finally learned that you have to have an open mind and humble heart when you hear the gospel, or it just won't stick. It also helps to read scriptural-based accompanying books, since the Bible by itself can be daunting for the novice. My favorite is DILIGENTLY SEEKING GOD, by Gary Henry. (I don't have any affiliation with him, or gain any monetary gain from recommending his book. There are others just as good, but I like the plain English and very insightful.
    My plea for you is to not be cavalier about this. As this world enters a New Dark Age, it is YOUR soul and YOUR afterlife that we are talking about, and what is more important than that?

    • Gordon says:

      What an awesome "awakening" you seem to have had! I often wonder. even at 84 years of age – "what takes me so long" to get "real" about perhaps the most significant things of life! The answer I have found has been "in my face" ALL of my life: to come "Home" to the loving God of creation, Who HAS provided and DOES provide absolutely everything for ALL of mankind, from the past to the eternal future: (Do you see the stars, the sun, the moon, the flowers, the AWESOME earth – and on and on and on) ALL lovingly wrapped up in His gift of Jesus, who came to pay the price we could not pay to restore ALL who will come to Him with the fullness of Life in the "here and now", and the sure promise of an eternal home for the eternal being that we have been created to be! Jesus is as near as your heartbeat!! Just say "YES" to Him!! You WILL be amazed what He WILL do for you!! There is NO dark age in Him!!

    • Phil says:

      I am not sure that we read the same article . . . I did not sense a cavalier attitude at all. Seems to me that Jesus stressed that we be present in this life and live it to the fullest.

    • Smucko says:

      You are right. My post was more relevant to your July 14th IMMORTALITY VERSUS NOTHINGNESS, a posting that I somehow missed at the time. I just noticed that in that posting that you leave out The Wicked Lifer as having any chance for immortality in your question of who gets immortality and who ends up as nothing, and you ask the question "If everyone ends up in the same place after they die, regardless of the kind of life they led while in their human form here on earth, what's the purpose or point of life?
      My post above was aimed at saying to your Non-Believing Readers that They (not just you) shouldn't take the Bill Clinton cavalier attitude about the After-life, without first earnestly studying the Bible with an open mind and humble heart. I believe that if they do that with a sincere desire to seek out God, they will discover what is required of them in this life, and the rewards or punishment that results from their actions (not just their intent). HINT: It requires more than just being a Good Person, but what the Grading Curve allows is anyone's guess.
      I remain Still a Fan, and thanks for all of the years of thought-provoking perspectives and guidance!

  6. flyboy445 says:

    In Hindu religion, we believe that the soul leaves our body and becomes one with God. This is also described In the Bhagwad Gita. I do agree that people are afraid of death. But we don't fully comprehend the consequences of prolonging life. Issues such as food, clothing and shelter for all the people that live longer, pollution caused by a massive population etc.

  7. Jay says:

    I have worked as a video journalist in Los Angeles for 31 years responding quickly to crime scenes, crash scenes, fires, rescues etc… And, I have watched closely as hundreds of people have taken their last breaths on Earth.

    Here is what I can tell you first hand about the moment of death. Some people die with fear in their face. And, some people die with peaceful faces. Whichever of the two, the facial expression visibly freezes. I have been amazed at some of the faces that I have seen. I can also tell you that there is a sense of the soul leaving the body. It is momentary, and rises to about three feet and cannot be sensed after that.

    So, therefore, I feel confident enough to share with friends that the soul does move on or move up to wherever it goes….

    • Phil says:

      Thank you for sharing, this is fascinating. Was lucky enough to read Life after Life at age 14, which for some reason really helped to lessen my fear of death. Most of the time : )

    • Gordon says:

      Awesome observations, for sure!!! The element of "faith" is missing too often. ALL of "life" is lived in Faith – just think about it a bit!! Thanks for the thoughts you shared!!

    • Gordon says:

      Awesome!! This brings to mind the experience of my dear father in law, Lawrence. He was declared dead from a heart attack on the emergency room table. Code Blue, and all that stuff. He was a sincere believer in Jesus as his Lord and Savior, and had "walked" with Him for many years. In the process of all the emergency room chaos after his declared death – he was able to observe himself being resuscitated from above it all!! Then he felt that he had entered into a long tunnel – at the end of it, he saw an old fashioned school slate (old country school blackboard). He saw very clearly that the surfaces on both sides had been wiped totally clean. He was convinced that that represented a picture of his life – specifically that ALL of his sins and offenses had been "paid for" and removed by the Finished work of Jesus on the cross!! He was revived with the shocker to his heart, and lived a number of years very happily and thankful!y – and LOVED to share this story!!

    • Robby Bonter says:

      What does the soul look like? Because if you can see it you can take pictures of it. Have done that?

    • 1voluntaryist says:

      I have held two people in my arms during their death. I did not "feel" a soul leaving. I believe death is real, meaning it is the end of life, not life going to a different place, plane, dimension. It is my belief in death that has given my life meaning. If I did not believe I could die, then what value could life have? Life everlasting makes the loss of life impossible, which means I have forever to do everything, which means nothing is important now, or ever. I don't believe that. I believe I should live life to the fullest, now, because "now" is all I have, or ever will have. The past is gone, and the future will always be out of reach, an abstraction. "Now" is all that is real.

  8. David says:

    Read The Gospel of John with an open mind. It explains the choices that can be made, and the individual consequences of each choice. It is not a hard concept to grasp.

  9. Helen Roberts says:

    As I live and breathe, quite a column!!

  10. Paul Herring says:

    Thanks again for your timely thoughts, Robert.

    Death is not something we look forward to. I, for one, don't anyway. But as for any after-life or any "soul" leaving the body at death and living on elsewhere or in some other form, it simply isn't true. Not if a person believes in the Bible it isn't.

    There are numerous verses in it which clearly tell us that when a person dies he's just that, dead. The soul, as defined in the Bible, is the person not some shadowy element within. To illustrate: we sometimes refer to a kindly old lady as 'a dear old soul'. What do we mean? The person, or the supposed something dwelling within her?

    The churches have thrown in their lot with the earlier Greeks who believed that the 'soul' lived on after death. But that isn't what the Bible teaches. Ecclesiastes chapter 9 verses 5, 9 and 10 clearly show that when a person dies he's in an unconscious state – like a deep sleep – to all purposes a permanent one.

    However, the same book states that God will resurrect those who've died at Acts 24:15. All of this is factual and offers the only real understanding of what happens when a person dies and what, if any, their future prospects are.

    It is truly saddening when people don't read the Bible, instead preferring man-made alternatives and philosophical mumbo-jumbo when no one has come back from the dead to tell us what happened. For them such a loss too because the Bible tells us to get a hold on 'the real life' (1 Timothy 6:19) after God intervenes in mankind's affairs and finishes what he began in the Garden of Eden.

  11. Tim says:

    Despite all the hoping and wishing that there is some form of spiritual afterlife, there is not a shred of scientific evidence that death is anything but the final curtain.

    • Robert Ringer RJR says:

      The operative word in your comment is "scientific." Why the universe exists, why man exists, or why science even works the way it does cannot be explained scientifically.

      • 1voluntaryist says:

        To ask why science works is to ask why reality is. The very question presupposes something outside of reality, such as a "first cause". But if reality is, was, and always has been, then there is nothing outside of it. There is only being and nothingness. Being needs no explanation. It is.

  12. Snuffed Rubric says:

    "I realized the moment I fell into the fissure, that the book would not be destroyed as I had planned."

  13. Gary Waltrip says:

    I love these discussions. I love thinking about the possibilities. Many who have had near death experiences describe reuniting with deceased loved ones in a kind of garden paradise. Clearly, these folks have seen, or thought they saw, a place where departed souls go after death.

    • Phil says:

      And you know what? If that is my last conscious memory, that is fine with me! Though I suspect it is just the beginning of something truly amazing.

  14. JOSEPH says:

    My suggestion would be to read one of the most recent books about death by neurosurgeon Eben Alexander called, Proof of Heaven. He died for so many days and came out of his body and went up to heaven, then came back to not just tell the story but wrote an entire book about his experience. He went to heaven, met his guardian angel, and saw God. Yeah, it does sound far fetched, but my question is, would a very reputable neurosurgeon bring his life and career reputation into question? My conclusions is no, I don't think he would do that. Anyhow, if you want get the book and read it.

    • Mubina says:

      It is a fascinating story, but is it really true? It's a matter of belief. They found later that he had not really died. He was just in a coma, and you can dream when you are in a coma. Sorry to let you know this fact.

  15. Tim says:

    Seems a lot of well-meaning people are putting all their eggs in the "faith" basket.
    Perhaps the concept of oblivion is just too much for a large portion of the populace to contemplate.
    Whatever gets you through the night.

    • 1voluntaryist says:

      Yes, oblivion is scary, especially if one tries to imagine being dead. But then if you realize that you have already been non-existant forever, because time goes back as well as forward, then not being was your state, once. And it will be again. The time in between being infinitely small, but infinitely more important. It's really all that matters. The rest is nothingness. That coming nothingness gives the "in between" its value.

  16. Jim Hallett says:

    What I find interesting in all discussions of death, and particular for those with a Christian/Biblical perspective is that they believe in life after this earthly life, but never explain where that soul "was" before incarnating in this life. I believe life is a continuous stream of energy, so it is constantly changing form, and all of us have what beliefs/faith that sustain us (and I would NEVER try to change anyone else's perspective, but there is much that occurs on this earthly plane of time and space that simply does not make sense to the ordered human mind. Therefore, I think we have to surrender to the fact that we will NEVER understand the Big Picture from our limited perspective on Earth. My great nephew (18 months) just passed away last Thursday, and there is nothing about that that "makes sense." I do believe that all that occurs in the Universe comes from a place of order, even when a tragic event like this seems just a cruel bit of chaos that causes heartbreak. All we can do is love and to realize that love goes on forever, even if a loved one has departed this plane. In the short term, it was still a VERY DIFFICULT day on Sunday – and yesterday for the funeral – but I know that life goes on!

    • Paul Herrring says:

      Very sad news for you, Jim. Our deep condolences. Death at any time is painful, but infinitely more so when it's an infant. There is much we could say here from a Bible perspective but probably it's too painful for you and yours right now. Sorry for your loss again.

  17. Brenda says:

    Hey Jim, I'm so sorry for your loss. The loss of someone so young does make you wonder why. But, please don't ever ask why because that is the path to madness. Just accept that your great nephew was here on this earth for a very short time, and during that time he left the family with wonderful memories. Love goes on forever. Big Hugs to you during this difficult time.

    • Jim Hallett says:

      Thank you! I indeed do not ask, "Why?" because I know there is no answer on this plane that would satisfy my conscious mind. I understand the "answer" is part of a Bigger plan – one that I am unlikely to know while on this earth.

  18. Jay says:

    As long as you are being thought about by the living, you will remain alive forever…

  19. Rock says:

    Your comment ' Given that we’re all programmed to die, perhaps we should at least stick our nose under the death tent and see if we can learn something about it." made me laugh out loud because of the simple truth of it and because many people are afraid to take a look to try to learn something about death.
    Dr. Richard E. Eby also wrote a book about his death, visit to heaven and all that he saw and experienced after he fell and fractured his skull.
    Since we are all going to experience death at some time we should have a healthy curiosity about it.

  20. Paradox says:

    Death is just Nature's way of telling you to slow down…

    But seriously, if the soul is immortal after death then is it not immortal before birth? Consider reincarnation.

  21. Tim says:

    To everyone worrying about their inevitable demise.
    It may be worth reading "The Premature Burial" by Edgar Allan Poe.
    Enjoy your life, it is finite, accept this fact and make the best of your mortality.
    Your enemy is fear, not death.

    • Paul Herring says:

      Thanks for your interesting comments, Tim. Life as we know it in this present system is indeed finite. That said, as a keen student of the Bible I've commented a few times in this forum on similar subjects so here goes this time.

      The Bible refers to death as an enemy. Fear is too, but death more so. For example, it says at 1 Corinthians 15:20-28 that death is the "last enemy". In my limited understanding and experience of things if the Bible comments on any matter it's always factual. Christendom, so-called "Christianity", has done much harm to Biblical Christianity, but that doesn't take away the truthfulness of its counsel if applied.

      • Tim says:

        Hi Paul.
        I think that we'll just have to agree to disagree on this one.
        While I don't wish to offend you, as soon as you start quoting scripture line and verse and hold the view that "— if the Bible comments on any matter it's always factual" clearly we are starting out from diametrically opposed perspectives on life and faith.
        All the best with your Bible studies.

        • 1voluntaryist says:

          I once dismissed everything in the bible. I now realize that is just as irresponsible as taking the bible on faith, completely. The bible, while containing many contradictions, does contain some profound observations. I take each thought in it on its own merit, and judge it compared to my life experience. All in all there is probably more wisdom in Shakespeare.

          • Paul Herring says:

            With respect, where specifically does 'the Bible contain many contradictions'? Others have said this too, but my studies have found not one thing does. The Churches, yes, have taught many doctrines which are contradictory but what they teach and what the Bible actually says are often poles apart.

        • Paul Herring says:

          Nice comment, Tim – thanks for it. But yes, we'll have to agree to disagree here and you aren't offending me. Cheers!

  22. trailblazer says:

    Wow! Pweety Interesting Subject of discourse. Death is not the final lap. It is the dress rehearsal to new dawn. After life has no time

  23. Scott theczech says:

    What if death is the evidence of life? These polar opposites are among many in our observation of the "universe," giving our consciousness some sense of the juxtaposition of things. May I suggest that when the Bible records God saying something like; "Behold, I make all things new," that this is a continual process in creation. For example, when I witness a dead seed planted in the ground and sprouting something new again – thinking that perhaps, in the whole scheme of things, there isn't much difference between that little seed and us – my thought, my hope is that I'm no different.

    • 1voluntaryist says:

      A "dead seed" does not sprout. A living, dormant seed does. But even a dormant seed is still subject to death. It must be germinated or it dies, but even if it is sprouted, it will eventually die.

  24. James says:

    I have always LOVED your unique sense of humor and got another laugh when you said "perhaps we should at least stick our nose under the death tent and see if we can learn something about it." LOL!

    I'm a Catholic so subscribe to the church's teaching, but that doesn't mean I don't have a million unanswered questions about it. One thing that drives me nuts is the concept of glorified bodies. If one person is eaten by a great white shark and another dies at an old age peacefully in bed, is there a difference in their afterlife?

    Overall though I think you are right and focus on enjoying life and as you have mentioned in one of your books, live as if the whole world is watching.

    Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

    On a side note though, if you want to really drive yourself nuts, buy a telescope and start astronomy as a side hobby. The awareness of the reality of how massive our universe is will blow your mind.

  25. adrianvance says:

    As one having had memories of a previous life at age three and having had the experience of forgetting most of it as we have to realize we are here now and not going back. I can say while I do not look forward to the end of this existence, but do not fear it.

    Google "Two Minute Conservative" for clarity.

  26. Cubic's Rube says:

    Our total existence may consist of a successive series of regressive and/or progressive life experiences throughout various dimensions. In other words, if we somehow mess up in our present dimension, we go back and do it again and again until we 'get it right', then we move on to the next dimension. Our very consciousness is our one and only reality. And, that very consciousness is the Soul you were given by your Creator.

    That Soul is known as your FREE WILL.

  27. Very smooth article piece. I surely like this site . Keep it up!

  28. Mubina says:

    I remember the time when I almost died from being anemic. I tried to fight it and not lose consciousness, but darkness soon surrounded me and I could do nothing about it except accept it. But, what followed was the amazing part! I did not go into nothingness, but rather found myself in a tunnel that was leading towards a light. There was no breathing there or pain but just peace. As I was traveling however, after some time, I heard someone mispronouncing my name, and came back to life in the process of correcting her (the nurse). I realized then that death can't be such a bad thing. We are just scared about it, but it is a reality of life. And then there is another life or existence afterwards. In fact, when you think about it, matter cannot be destroyed. It changes form but cannot be destroyed. It is the same with life since we are composed of matter. We will change form but won't be destroyed. We were, we are, and will be. That is my belief.