Many people wonder if there's life after death and what it's like after we die. Brent L. Top seeks to answer these questions, and more, in his newest book What's On The Other Side? published September 14, 2012 by Deseret Book.
Modeled after his audio CDs, this book is meant as a gift. With so many of his readers wanting to know the sources from his original audiobook, he notes that much of the content is taken from his original audio CD with additional new content. He says "it's an easy read and meant to be a comfort to someone who has lost a loved one."
Brother Top gave an education week broadcast at Brigham Young University which is one of the most popular downloads BYU has had. It generated so much interest, he realized that people were hungering for more on the topic. "Near-death experiences (and TV specials about them) are things people are naturally interested in. We want to believe. We want to have something to hold onto, and the things in this book will ring true."
"Some of the cited ideas in the book came from Swedenborg, an 18th-century mystic who talked about heaven being made up of three degrees of glory. In his book Heaven and Hell, Swedenborg talked about the ins and outs of the spirit world; he was viewed as a heretic by his Church but my wife and I find his teachings fascinating. People such as Helen Keller and Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke very highly of Swedenborg."
Another cited story in the book is about Norman Vincent Peal who, having lost his mother, believed there was a life after death. He, intellectually, believed in the idea, but was still seeking comfort. He described how he felt his mother's hands touch lightly on the back of his head soon after her funeral. From this experience and others, Top believes that Heaven is close around us.
"There is a connection of families that transcends the veil. If the Lord were to send us messages from beyond, who better could He use than our deceased family members. They don't become disinterested after death -- our family members continue to love us."
Top's favorite part of the book is a quote by Neil A. Maxwell found on page 33. He said: "On the other side of the veil, there are perhaps 70 billion people. They need the same Gospel, and releases occur here to aid the Lord's work there. Each release of a righteous individual from this life is also a call to new labors. Those who have true hope understand this. Therefore, although we miss the righteous departed so much here, hundreds may feel their touch there. One day, those hundreds will thank the bereaved for gracefully forgoing the extended association with choice individuals here, in order that they could help bereaved there. And God ecology, talent, and love are never wasted.... A mortal life may need to be shortened by 20 years as we might view;but, if so, it may be done in order for special services to be rendered by that individual in the spirit world -- services that will benefit thousands of new neighbors. "
"One of the nicest things people can say about What's On The Other Side is that 'it helps me to deal with my grief it brings me peace and comfort.' The book is meant to be more inspirational than informational ."
"Most people have a diagrammatic type of knowledge of the spirit world, but when we get beyond the diagrams and beyond the categories, we start to learn more. It's a subject we ought to study day and night. The Lord has given us many more precious morsels than we thought."
"Sometimes we grieve so hard that we can't be comforted. Our loved ones have a different perspective and they want us to move on."
Top hopes that the book will allow people to better see the whole picture. There are so many greater things in store for us, and the grief should be swallowed up in the absolute adventure that awaits -- as well as the service that will be rendered.
Q & A With The Author Brent L. Top
How did you first become interested in writing about life after death and the spirit world?
I think the first time that it really hit me was in the 1980s after Raymond Moody's landmark book, LIFE AFTER LIFE, was published. I was particularly interested in how the NDEs that he described and the concepts contained in his book corresponded to LDS doctrines. I was more interested in doctrine rather than just the experiences themselves. The study of near-death experiences received much attention in the 1980s and 90s—with television shows (like Ripley's Believe it Not, Dateline, A&E network) that examined the question of life after death. There were several very popular books at the time including Betty Eadie's EMBRACED BY THE LIGHT. There was a lot of talk even in the Church—in Sunday School lessons and quorum meetings—about these experiences. I found it interesting that there were two camps, or ends of the continuum: those who embraced the near-death experiences of others , LDS and others, as the definitive word on what we believe and what the spirit world must be like and at the other end who totally dismissed the experiences, viewing them as either misguided or fabricated at best or Satanically-inspired at worst. I rejected both camps. My approach was to focus on what we absolutely know—the revealed doctrines of the Gospel and then let the experiences of others "highlight" those doctrines. I became particularly interested in what those not of our faith who had had NDEs said about the experiences because they were usually just describing, not defining or interpreting a preconceived doctrine or belief. The more I researched the more parallels I found. I decided that a book needed to be written that would address the doctrine and then use the NDEs to help inform or illustrate our understanding of the doctrine. That resulted in a book I co-authored with my wife, Wendy entitle GLIMPSES BEYOND DEATH'S DOOR. In the years since that I have written articles and given numerous presentations on the subject. I was a member of the International Association of Near-death Studies for many years and attended conferences.
My book WHAT'S ON THE OTHER SIDE? focuses primarily on some of the inspiring things that LDS Church leaders have taught about the doctrine coupled with interesting experiences and comments from others. My primary motivation is to inspire and comfort those who have lost loved ones. I guess I could also say that I (and probably all of us) are interested in the subject because we all know we are going to die. I guess you could say that for all mortals it is "the last frontier" and we all want to know more about it. We know it isn't really the "last frontier" but I am convinced that all of us wonder at times. Some wonder if there is a life after death (even if they are convinced there is none). And others who believe (or at least hope) that death is not the end of our existence, wonder what it will be like. Those "wonders" have motivated me to learn as much as I can.
You emphasize the importance of studying death and what lies thereafter. Why do you think it's so important to ponder?
The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that the Plan of Salvation in general and death and the spirit world in particular ought to be a subject we study more than other. He said that we should study it "day and night." At first glance that admonition sounds rather macabre or morbid, but I think what he is saying is that that knowing that we will continue to live, love, laugh with our loved ones and serve our fellowmen not only gives us a hope for an eternal future, but also enriches and guides our lives on earth. President Harold B. Lee once said that "What you do here after will determine where you are hereafter." I like to paraphrase it to say, "How I live my life HERE and NOW determines what I will be like THEN and THERE." Just as we "die to live" in an eternal sense, we can "live to die" in a meaningful way every day. The popular song, "Live like you are dying" captures that thought. However, it is more than just "skydiving, Rocky Mountain climbing, and riding a bull name Fu Manchu." It is indeed loving deeper, speaking sweeter, forgiving, and enjoying the moments we have. Each and every one of us is living moment to moment and we need to focus more on the things that really matter to us than just having a "bucket list."
One of early brethren that spoke so much on the subject (and I quote him liberally in my books) is Elder Orson Pratt—perhaps the greatest theologian of the 19th century (of course, after Joseph Smith). He said it best:
"And do not forget to look forward to those joys ahead, if we do forget, we will become careless, dormant, and sluggish, and we will think we do not see much ahead to be anticipated, but if we keep our minds upon the prize that lays ahead—upon the vast fields of knowledge to be poured out upon the righteous, and the glories that are to be revealed, and the heavenly things in the future state, we shall be continually on the alert. . . . Let these things sink down in our minds continually, and they will make us joyful, and careful to do unto our neighbors as we would they should do unto us. Lest we should come short of these things is the reason I have touched upon the future state of man the two Sabbaths past, to stir up the pure mind of the Saints that we may prepare for the things that are not far ahead, and let all the actions of our lives have a bearing in relation to the future." (Journal of Discourses 3:105.)
How would you describe heaven or the state after death to a non-believer?
I am not sure that my explanation would be very satisfactory to a non-believer, unless they have, as Alma said, even "a desire to believe." Then I think D&C 77:2 would help us to understand that "that which is temporal is in the likeness of that which is spiritual." Death is just a transition—a continuation of life in a little different setting. In some ways like moving a new city—new environment and experiences, but things are pretty similar in other ways. President Brigham Young taught that everything will appear natural to us. I like to say that it will just be in "super high definition." The Prophet Joseph Smith likewise taught that we will have there "the same sociality that exists among us here"--except it will be intensified with great glory and power. I like to think of it as a continuation of our family and friends without a lot of the baggage that comes with the mortal, fallen world.
Are you planning on teaching another class about it at BYU or elsewhere?
As of right now I don't have any plans to teach another Honors Colloquium or interdisciplinary class on Death and the Spirit World like we did over a decade ago. The main reason is that I am so busy with being department chair and just trying to keep my head above water with all of my administrative, teaching, and research responsibilities. It was a lot of work to organize the course. I loved working with Dr. David Busath of the Biology department and learning from his scientific background, but we both have a lot on our plates right now. I do lecture on the subject at Education Week every few years.
Favorite bookstore or place to read?
On my bed. I know it is terrible "sleep hygiene"--I think that is what doctors call it. You are not supposed to have mental stimulation, like reading or watching TV right before you go to sleep. You are supposed to program your brain to shut off. But I can't help it. My life is so busy with all of my responsibilities that it is usually the only time that I have to myself. So I love to read right before bed. I usually have four or five books at time on my nightstand. I love to wander through bookstores, but I really don't like to read there. Its in the quiet and solitude of my bedroom where I love read.
What other related works would you recommend to those who are interested in your subject matter?
I have read so many books on the subject that it is too hard to recommend one or two (other than my own books, of course). From an LDS perspective I like THE MESSAGE by Lance Richardson. From a non-LDS viewpoint, Dr. Kenneth Ring is considered one of the "pioneers" of the field and his work LIFE AT DEATH is considered a classic. I really like his LESSONS FROM THE LIGHT. Raymond Moody's books are classics. There are also some relatively new books that are quite fascinating including, SCIENCE AND THE NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCE by Chris Carter and CONSCIOUSNESS BEYOND LIFE by Pim von Limmel. I was also intrigued by the personal account of Dr. Mary Neal in her book, TO HEAVEN AND BACK.
Who is your hero and why?
My wife Wendy is my hero and inspiration. She has an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and an intellectual curiosity that I envy ( even though it can be annoying at times, because she peppers me with questions all the time—thinking that I might know the answers). More than her intellect, I admire her goodness, faith, and love for the Lord.
About The Author: Brent L. Top is a professor and the chair of Church history and doctrine at BYU, where he has also served as associate dean of Religious Education. Brother Top has written numerous books, including co-authoring LDS Beliefs: A Doctrinal Reference, and is a popular speaker at BYU Education Week. He served as mission president of the Illinois Peoria Mission and is currently serving as a stake president. Brent and his wife, Wendy, are the parents of four children and live in Pleasant Grove, Utah. Find out more at Deseret Book/ Goodreads/ Amazon
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