Between Death and Rebirth
4 March 1913, Berlin
At the time when materialism — mainly theoretical materialism — was in its prime, in the middle and still to some extent during the last decades of the nineteenth century, when the writings of Buchner and Vogt (‘bulky Vogt’ as he used to be called) had made a deep impression upon people who considered themselves enlightened, one could often hear a way of speaking that is occasionally also heard today, because stragglers from that epoch of theoretical materialism are still to be found in certain circles. When people do not flatly deny the possibility of a life after death, or even here and there admit it, they are wont to say: Well, there may be a life after death but why should we trouble about it during life on Earth? When death has taken place we shall discover whether there is indeed a future life, and meanwhile if here on Earth we concern ourselves only with the affairs of earthly existence and take no account of what is alleged to come afterwards, we cannot miss anything of importance. For if the life after death has anything to offer we shall then discover what it is!
As I said, this way of speaking could be heard time and time again and this is still the case in wide circles today; in the way the subject is expressed it may often, in a certain respect, almost seem acceptable. And yet it is utterly at variance with what is disclosed to spiritual investigation when the facts connected with the life between death and rebirth are considered in their spiritual aspect. When a man has passed through the gate of death he comes into contact with many and infinitely varied forces and beings. He does not only find himself living amid a multitude of super-sensible facts but he comes into contact with definite forces and Beings — namely, the Beings of the several higher Hierarchies. Let us ask ourselves what this contact signifies for one who is passing through the period of existence between death and the new birth.
We know that when an individual has spent this period of life in the super-sensible world and passes into physical existence again through birth, he becomes in a certain way the moulder of his own bodily constitution, indeed of his whole destiny in the life on Earth. Within certain limits the human being builds and fashions his body, even the very convolutions of his brain, by means of the forces brought with him from the spiritual worlds when he enters again into physical existence through birth. Our whole earthly existence depends upon our physical body possessing organs which enable us to come in touch with the outer physical world, to act and moreover to think in that world.
If, here in the physical world, we do not possess the appropriately formed brain which, on passing through birth we formed for ourselves out of the forces of the super-sensible world, we remain unable to cope with life in this physical world. In the real sense we are fitted for life in the physical world only when we bring with us from the spiritual world forces by means of which we have been able to build a body able to cope with this world and all its demands. The super-sensible forces which man needs in order to fashion his body and also his destiny are received by him from the Beings of the higher Hierarchies with whom he has made contact between death and the new birth. What we need for the shaping of our life must be acquired during the time that has preceded our birth since the last death. Between death and the next birth we must approach, stage by stage, the Beings who can endow us with the forces we need for our physical existence.
In the life between death and rebirth we can pass before the Beings of the higher Hierarchies in two ways. We may recognise them, understand their nature and essential characteristics, be able to receive what they can give us and what we shall need in the following life. We must be able to understand or at least to perceive what is being offered us and what we shall subsequently need. But we might also pass before these Beings in such a way that, figuratively speaking, their hands are offering gifts which we do not receive because it is dark in the higher world in which we then live. Thus we may pass through that world with understanding, with awareness of what these Beings are offering us, or we may pass through it without understanding, unaware of what they wish to bestow. Now the way in which we pass through this spiritual world, which of the two ways we necessarily choose in our life between death and the new birth, is predetermined by the after-effects of the previous life and of earlier lives on Earth. A person whose attitude in his last life on Earth was unresponsive and antagonistic to all thoughts and ideas that may enlighten him about the super-sensible world — such a person passes through the life between death and rebirth as if through a world of darkness. For the light, the spiritual light we need in order to realise how these different Beings approach us and what gifts we may receive from them for our next life on Earth — the light of understanding for what is here coming to pass cannot be acquired in the super-sensible world itself; it must be acquired here, during physical incarnation on Earth. If, at death, we bear with us into the spiritual life no relevant ideas and concepts, we shall pass unknowingly through our super-sensible existence until the next birth, receiving none of the forces needed for the next life. From this we realise how impossible it is to say that we can wait until death itself occurs because we shall then discover what the facts are — whether indeed we shall encounter any reality at all after death. Our relationship to that reality depends upon whether in earthly life we have been receptive or antagonistic in our souls to concepts or ideas of the super-sensible world that have been accessible to us and will be the light through which we must ourselves illumine the path between death and rebirth.
Something further can be gathered from what has been said. The belief that we have, so to say, only to die in order to receive everything that the super-sensible world can give us, even if we have made no preparation for it — this belief is utterly false. Every world has its own special mission. And what a man can acquire during an incarnation on Earth he can acquire in no single one of the other worlds. Between death and the new birth he is able, in all circumstances, to enter into communion with the Beings of the higher Hierarchies. But in order to receive their gifts, to avoid having to grope in darkness through life there or in fearful loneliness, in order to establish contact with those Beings and receive their forces, the ideas and concepts which are the light enabling the higher Hierarchies to be visible to the soul must be acquired in earthly life. And so an individual who in earthly life during the present cycle of time has rejected all spiritual ideas, passes through the life between death and rebirth in fearful loneliness, groping in darkness. In the next incarnation he will fail to bring with him the forces wherewith to build his body efficiently and mould his organs; he can fashion them in an imperfect form only and consequently he will be an inadequate human being in his next life.
We realise from this how Karma works over from one life to the next. In one life a man deliberately scorns to develop in his soul any relationship with the spiritual worlds; in the next life he has no forces wherewith to create even the organs enabling him to think, feel or will the truths of spiritual life. He remains dull and indifferent to spiritual things and spiritual life passes him by as though in dream — as is so frequently the case today. On the Earth such an individual can take no interest in spiritual worlds; and his soul, after passing through the gate of death, is an easy prey for the Luciferic powers. Lucifer makes straight for such souls. Here we have the strange situation that in the next life in the spiritual world, the life that follows the dull, unreceptive one, the deeds and the Beings of the higher Hierarchies are indeed illumined for such an individual but in this case not as a result of what he acquired in earthly life but by the light which Lucifer sends into his soul. It is Lucifer who illumines the higher worlds for him when he passes into the life between death and rebirth. Now, he can, it is true, perceive the higher Hierarchies, recognise when they are offering their gifts to him. But the fact that Lucifer has tainted the light means that all the gifts have a particular colouring and character. The forces of the higher Hierarchies are then not exactly as the human being could otherwise have received them. Their nature then is such that when the human being passes into his next life on Earth he can certainly form and mould his body, but he moulds it then in such a way that although he becomes an individual who is, admittedly, able to cope with the outer world and its demands, in a certain respect he is inwardly inadequate, because his soul is tinged with Lucifer's gifts or at least by gifts that have a Luciferic trend.
When we come across individuals who have worked on their bodies in such a way that they are able to make effective use of their intellect and acquire certain skills which will help them to raise their status in the world, although to their own advantage only, snatching at what is in their own interest, dryly calculating what is beneficial to themselves without any consideration for others — and there are many such people nowadays — in these cases the seer will very often find that their previous history was what has been described. Before they began to display their dry, intellectual, sharp-witted character in life, they had been led through their existence between death and rebirth by Luciferic beings who were able to approach them because in the preceding incarnation they had lived an apathetic, dreamy existence. But these traits themselves had been acquired because such individuals had passed through an earlier existence between death and rebirth groping in darkness. The Spirits of the higher Hierarchies would have bestowed upon them the forces needed for fashioning a new life, but they were unable to receive these forces; and that in turn was because they had deliberately refused to concern themselves with ideas and concepts relating to a spiritual world. That is the karmic connection. Such examples do certainly occur; they appear before the eyes of spirit only too frequently when with the help of powers of spiritual investigation and knowing the conditions of human life, we penetrate into higher worlds.
It is therefore wrong to say that here on Earth we need concern ourselves only with what is around us in earthly existence because what comes later will be revealed in all good time. But the form in which it will be revealed depends entirely upon how we have prepared ourselves for it here.
Another possibility may occur. I am saying these things in order that by understanding the life between death and rebirth, life between birth and death may become more and more intelligible.
When we study life on Earth with discernment, we see many human beings — and in our time they are very numerous — who can, as it were, only ‘half think’, whose logic invariably breaks down when faced with reality. Here is an example: A certain free-thinking cleric, an honourable man in all his endeavours, wrote in the first Freethinkers' Calendar as follows: Children ought not to be taught any ideas about religion for that would be against nature. If children are allowed to grow up without having any ideas about religion pumped into them, we find that they do not of themselves arrive at ideas of God, immortality, and so forth. The inference to be drawn from this is that such ideas are unnatural to the human being and should not be drummed into him; he should work only with what can be drawn from his own soul. As in many other cases, there are thousands and thousands of people nowadays to whom an utterance such as this seems very clever, very subtle. But if only genuine logic were applied the following would be obvious: If we were to take a human being before he has learnt to speak, put him on a lonely island and take care that he can hear no single word of speech, he would never learn to speak. And so anyone who argues against children being taught any ideas about religion would logically have to say that human beings should not have to learn to speak, for speech does not come of itself. So our free-thinking cleric cannot propagate his ideas by means of his logic, for both he and his logic come to a halt when confronted by the facts. His logic can be applied to a small area only, and he does not notice that his idea, assuming one can get hold of it, cancels itself out.
Anyone who is alert to his surroundings will find that this inadequate, pseudo-thinking is very widespread. If with the help of super-sensible research we trace the path of such an individual backwards and come to the regions through which his soul passed between the last death and the last birth, when this illogical mentality was caused, the seer often finds that this type of human being, in his last life between death and rebirth, passed through the spiritual world in such a way that he encountered the spiritual Beings and forces while under the guidance of Ahriman; and that although those Beings would have bestowed upon him what he needed in life, they could not make it possible for him to develop the capacity for sound thinking. Ahriman was his leader and it was Ahriman who contrived that the gifts of the Beings of the higher Hierarchies could only be received by him in a form that would finally result in his thinking coming to a halt when confronting actual facts, and in his inability to make his thinking exhaustive and valid. A large proportion of those human beings — and their number is legion — who are incapable of genuine thinking today owe this to the fact that in their last life between death and rebirth they were obliged to submit to Ahriman's guidance; they had somehow prepared themselves for this in their last earthly life — that is to say, in the incarnation preceding the present one.
And what was the course of that preceding life as viewed by a seer? It is found that these were morose, hypochondriacal individuals, who shied away from facts and people in the world and always found it difficult to establish any relation with their environment. Very often they were intolerable hypochondriacs in their previous life; on medical examination they would have been found to be suffering from the type of illness occurring very frequently in hypochondriacs. And if we were to go still further back, to the life between death and rebirth that preceded the hypochondriacal incarnation, we should find that during that period such human beings were obliged again to forego the right guidance and could not become truly aware of what the gifts of the higher Hierarchies would have been. And how had they prepared themselves for this fate in the life preceding the last two incarnations? We should find that they had developed what it is certainly true to call a religious, pious attitude of soul but an attitude based on sheer egoism. They were people with a pious, even mystical nature emanating from egoism. After all, mysticism very often has its origin in egoism. An individual of this type might say: I seek within myself in order that there I may recognise God. But what he is seeking there is only his own self made into God! In the case of many pious souls it becomes evident that they are pious only in order that after death one or another of their spiritual inclinations may bear fruit. All that they have acquired is an egotistic attitude of soul.
When in the course of spiritual research we trace the sequence of three such earthly lives, we find that in the first, the basic attitude of the soul was that of egotistic mysticism, egotistic religiosity. And when today we observe human beings with this attitude to life, we shall be able, by means of spiritual investigation to trace them back to times when souls without number developed a religious frame of mind out of sheer egoism. They then passed through an existence between death and rebirth without being able to receive from the spiritual Beings the gifts which would have enabled them to shape their next life rightly. In that life they became morose and hypochondriacal, finding everything distasteful. This life again prepared them for the ensuing one when, having passed through the gate of death, Ahriman and his hosts became their leaders and the forces with which they were imbued manifested in the following earthly life as defective logic, as an obtuse, undiscerning kind of thinking.
Here, then, we have another example of three successive incarnations. And we realise again and again what nonsense it is to believe that we can wait until death to establish connection with the super-sensible world. For how this connection is established after death depends upon the inner tendencies of soul acquired here on Earth towards the super-sensible world. Not only are the successive earthly lives connected as causes and effects, but the lives between death and the new birth are also connected in a certain way as causes and effects. This can be seen from the following.
When the seer directs his gaze into the super-sensible world where souls are sojourning after death, he will find among them those who during part of this life between death and rebirth are servants of those Powers whom we may call the Lords of all healthy, budding and burgeoning life on the Earth. (In the very lengthy period between death and rebirth, innumerable experiences are undergone and in accounts of the present kind, parts only can be described.) Among the dead we find souls who for a certain length of time in the super-sensible world co-operate in the wonderful task — for wonderful it is — of pouring, infusing into the physical world everything that can further the health of beings on the Earth, can help them to thrive and blossom. Just as in certain circumstances we can become servants of the evil spirits of illness and misfortune, so too we can become the servants of those spiritual beings who promote health and growth, who send down from the spiritual world into our physical world forces that help life to flourish. It is nothing but a materialistic superstition to believe that physical hygiene and external regulations are the sole means of promoting health. Everything that happens in physical life is directed by the beings and powers of higher worlds who are all the time pouring into the physical world forces which in a certain way work freely, upon human or other beings, either promoting or harming health and growth. Certain specific spiritual powers and beings are responsible for these processes in health and illness. In the life between death and rebirth man co-operates with these powers; and if we have prepared ourselves in the right way we can experience the bliss of co-operating in the task of sending the forces which promote health and growth, from the higher worlds into this physical world. And when the seer enquires into why such souls have deserved this destiny, he becomes aware that in physical life on Earth there are two ways in which human beings can execute and think about what they want to achieve.
Let us take a general look at life. We see numbers of human beings who carry out the work prescribed for them by their profession or office. Even if there is no radical case of any one of these people regarding their work as if they were animals being led to the slaughterhouse, it is at least true to say that they work because they are obliged to. Of course they would never neglect their duty — although of course anything may happen! In a certain sense it cannot be otherwise in the present phase of man's evolution; the only urge such people feel towards their work is that of duty. This does not by any means suggest that such work should be criticised root and branch. It should not be understood in this sense. Earth-evolution is such that this aspect of life will become more and more widespread; nor will things improve in the future. The tasks that men will have to carry out will become increasingly complicated in so far as they are connected with outer life and men will be condemned more and more to think and do only that to which duty drives them. Already there are hosts of human beings who do their work only because duty forces them to it, but on the other hand there will be people who look for a Society such as ours in which they can also achieve something, not simply from a sense of duty as in everyday life but for which they feel enthusiasm and devotion. Thus there are two aspects of a man's work: has it been thought out or done as an outer achievement merely from a sense of duty, or has it been done with enthusiasm and inner devotion, solely out of an inner urge of his own soul? This attitude — to think and act not merely out of a sense of duty, but out of love, inclination and devotion — this prepared the soul to become a server of the beneficent Powers of health and salutary forces sent down from the super-sensible world into our physical world, to become a servant of everything that brings health and to experience the bliss that can accompany these circumstances.
To know this is extremely important for the general well-being of man, for only by acquiring during life the forces that will enable him to co-operate with the Powers in question will he be able to work spiritually for an ever intensifying process of healing and betterment of conditions on the Earth.
We will now consider still another case, of one who makes efforts to adapt himself to his environment and its demands. This by no means applies to everybody. There are some people who take no trouble to adjust themselves to the world and are never at home with the conditions either of spiritual or outer physical life. For example, there are individuals who notice an announcement that here or there an anthroposophical lecture will be given; they go to the place but almost as soon as they get seated, they are already asleep! In such cases the soul cannot adapt itself to the environment is not attuned to it. I have known men who cannot even sew on a button to replace one that has been torn off; that again means that they cannot adapt themselves to physical conditions. Countless cases could be quoted of people who cannot or will not adapt themselves to life. These symptoms are very significant, as I have said. At the moment, however, we will think only of the effects upon the life between death and rebirth.
Everything becomes cause and everything produces effects. A man who makes efforts to adapt himself to his environment, someone, that is to say, who can actually sew on a button or can listen to something with which he is unfamiliar without immediately falling asleep, is preparing himself to become, after death, a helper of those Spirits who further the progress of humanity and send down to the Earth the spiritual forces which promote life as it advances from epoch to epoch. After death we can experience the bliss of looking down upon earthly life and co-operating with the forces that are perpetually being sent to the Earth to further its progress, but this is possible only if we endeavour to adapt ourselves to our environment and its conditions. To be rightly and thoroughly understood Karma must be studied in details, in details which reveal the manifold ways in which causes and effects are connected here in the physical world, in the spiritual world and in existence as a whole.
Here again light is thrown upon the fact that our life in the spiritual worlds depends upon the mode of our life in the physical body. Each world has its own specific mission; no two worlds have an identical mission. The characteristic phenomena and experiences in one world are not the same in another. And if, for example, a being is meant to assimilate certain things on Earth, it is on Earth that he must do so; if he misses this opportunity he cannot acquire them in some other world. This is particularly the case in a matter which we have already considered but of which it will be well to be thoroughly aware. The matter in question concerns the acceptance of certain concepts and ideas needed by man for his life as a whole. Let us take an example that is near at hand. Anthroposophy is a timely and active force in our epoch. People approach and accept Anthroposophy during their life on Earth in the way known to you, but again the belief might arise that it is not necessary to cultivate Anthroposophy on Earth, for one will be in a position after death to know how things are in the spiritual worlds; that moreover the higher Hierarchies will also be there and able to impart to the soul what is necessary.
Now it is a fact that having passed through the phase of development leading to the present cycle of evolution, the human being, with his whole soul, has been prepared to contact on Earth the kind of anthroposophical life that is possible only while he is incarnated in a physical body. Men are predestined for this and if they fail they will be unable to establish relationship with any of the spiritual Beings who might have been their teachers. One cannot simply die and then, after death, find a teacher who might take the place of what here, during physical life on Earth, can come to souls in the form of Anthroposophy. We need not, however, be dejected by the fact that many individuals reject Anthroposophy and it is therefore to be assumed that they will not be able to acquire it between death and the new birth. We need not despair about them for they will be born in a new earthly life and by that time there will be a strong enough stimulus towards Anthroposophy and enough Anthroposophy on the Earth for them to acquire it. In the present age despondency is still out of place, but that should not lead anyone to say: I can acquire Anthroposophy in my next life and so can do without it now. No, what has been neglected here cannot be retrieved later on.
When our German Theosophical Movement was still very young I was once giving a lecture about Nietzsche, during which I said certain things about the spiritual worlds. At that time it was customary to have discussions and on this occasion someone got up and said that such matters must always be put to the test of Kant's philosophy, from which it would be evident that we can have no knowledge of these things here on Earth and can begin to know them only after death. That, quite literally, was what the man said. As I have repeatedly emphasised, it is not the case that one has only to die in order to acquire certain knowledge. When we pass through the gate of death we do not experience anything for which we have not prepared ourselves. Life between death and rebirth is throughout a continuation of the life here, as the examples already given have shown. Therefore as individuals we can acquire from the Beings of the higher Hierarchies only that for which we have prepared ourselves on Earth — perhaps by having become anthroposophists. Our connection with the Earth and our passage through the life on Earth have a significance which nothing else can replace.
A certain form of mediation is, however, possible in this connection and I have already spoken of it. A person may die and during his lifetime have had no knowledge at all of Spiritual Science; but his brother or his wife or a close friend were anthroposophists. The man who has died may have refused to have anything to do with Anthroposophy during his life; perhaps he consistently abused it. Now he has passed through the gate of death and Anthroposophy can be conveyed to him in some way by other personalities on Earth. But there must be someone on Earth who passes on the knowledge to him out of love. Connection with the Earth must be maintained. This is the basis of what I have called ‘reading to the dead’. We can render them great benefit even if previously they would listen to nothing about the spiritual world. We can help them either by putting what we have to say into the form of thoughts, conveying knowledge in this way, or we may take an anthroposophical book, visualise the personality concerned, and read to him from it; then he will learn. We have had a number of striking and beautiful examples in our Movement of how it has been possible in this way to benefit the dead. Many of our friends read to those who have died. I recently had an experience that others too may have had. Someone asked me about a friend who had died very recently and it seemed that he was trying to make himself noticed by means of all kinds of signs, especially at night, creating disturbance in the room, rapping and so on. Such happenings are often indications that the dead person wants something; and in this case it was quite evident. In his lifetime the man had been very erudite but had always rejected any knowledge of the spiritual world that might come his way. It became obvious that he would greatly benefit if a particular Lecture Course containing the subject-matter for which he was craving, were read to him. In this way very effective help can be given beyond death for something left undone on Earth.
The fact that can convince us of the great and significant mission of Anthroposophy is that Anthroposophy can bridge the gulf between the living and the dead, that when human beings die they have not really gone away from us but we remain connected with them and can be active on their behalf. If it is asked whether one can always know whether the dead soul also hears us, it must be said that those who do what has been described with genuine devotion will eventually become aware from the way in which the thoughts which they are sending to the dead live in their own souls that the dead person is hovering around them. But this is an experience, a feeling, of which sensitive souls alone are capable. The most distressing aspect is when something that might be a great service of love is not heeded; in that case it has been done unnecessarily for the person concerned, but it may still have some effect in the general pattern of worlds. In any case one should not grieve excessively about such lack of success. After all, it happens even here that something is read to people who do not listen!
These things may well give a true conception of the seriousness and worth of Anthroposophy. But it must constantly be emphasised that the conditions of our life in the spiritual world after death will depend entirely upon the manner of our life here on Earth. Even our community with others in the spiritual world depends upon the nature of the relationship we sought to establish with them here. If there has been no relationship with a human being here on Earth it cannot be taken for granted that any connection can be established in the other world between death and rebirth. The possibility of being led to him in the spiritual world is as a rule dependent upon the contact established here on Earth — not necessarily in the last incarnation only but in earlier lives as well.
In short, both objective and personal relationships established here on Earth are the decisive factor for the life between death and the new birth. Exceptions do occur but must be recognised as such. What I said here at Christmastime (in Lecture Five) about the Buddha and his present mission on Mars is one such exception. There are numbers of human souls on the Earth who were able to contact the Buddha — even in his previous existence as Bodhisattva — as a result of inspirations received from the Mysteries. But because the Buddha was incarnated for the last time as the son of Suddodana, then worked in his etheric body as I have described 1See Lectures Three, Five and Six of the course, The Gospel of St. Luke and has now transferred his sphere of activity to Mars, at the present time the possibility exists that even if we never previously came in contact with the Buddha, we can establish a relationship with him in the life between death and rebirth; and we can then bring the results of that contact with us into the next incarnation on Earth. But that remains an exceptional case. The general rule is that after death we find those individuals with whom we had actual contacts here on Earth and continue these relationships in that other state of existence.
What has now been said is closely related to the information given during this Winter about the life between death and the new birth, and the aim has been to show that if Anthroposophy remains simply a matter of theory and external science, it is only half of what it ought to be; it fulfils its true function only when it streams through souls as a veritable elixir of life and enables these souls to experience in depth the feelings that arise in a human being when he acquires some knowledge of the higher worlds. Death then ceases to appear as a destroyer of human and personal relationships. The gulf between life here on Earth and the life after death is bridged and many activities carried out with this in mind will develop. The dead will send their influences into life, the living their influences into the realm of the dead.
My wish is that your souls will feel more deeply that life is enriched, becomes fuller and more spiritual when everything is influenced by Anthroposophy. Only those who feel this have the right attitude to Anthroposophy. What is of prime importance is not the knowledge that man consists of physical body, etheric body, astral body and Ego, that he passes through many incarnations, that the Earth too has passed through the several incarnations of Old Saturn, Old Sun and Old Moon, and so forth. The most important and essential need is to allow Anthroposophy to transform our lives in a way commensurate with the Earth's future. This feeling can never be experienced too deeply, nor can we bestir ourselves too often in this connection. The feelings we bear with us from these meetings and then move through life under the stimulus of the knowledge of the super-sensible worlds acquired here — these feelings are the really important element in anthroposophical life. Merely to have knowledge of Anthroposophy is not enough; knowledge and feeling must be combined. We must realise, however, how false it is to believe that without any understanding of the world we can do it justice. Leonardo da Vinci's saying is true: “Great love is the daughter of great understanding.” He who is not prepared to understand will not learn how to love.
It is in this sense that Anthroposophy should find entry into our souls, in order that from this influence which proceeds from our own being a stream of spirituality may find its way into Earth-evolution, creating harmony between spirit and matter. Life on the Earth will, it is true, continue to be materialistic — indeed outer life will become increasingly so — but as man moves over the Earth he will bear within his soul the realisation of his connection with the higher worlds. Outwardly, earthly life will become more and more materialistic — that is the Earth's karma — but in the same measure, if Earth-evolution is to reach its goal, souls must become inwardly more and more spiritual. My purpose today was to make a small contribution towards understanding this task.