By Ian Todd
Not wishing to boast, but….
“It is necessary to boast; nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a person in Christ who, fourteen years ago, was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations.”
Saint Paul wrote the above words in about 56AD in his second letter to the Corinthians (chapter 12, verses 1-7). Although Paul chose to speak in the third person about being ‘caught up to heaven’ and ‘caught up into Paradise’, it seems probable that he was recounting his own experience, but not wishing to boast about it! What Paul describes bears many of the hallmarks of what, today, would be called a ‘Near-Death Experience’ (NDE) – i.e. a vivid, memorable, highly meaningful and transformative spiritual experience that occurs during an episode when the person comes close to death, but with subsequent recovery. We don’t know for certain the circumstances of Paul’s experience: it occurred fourteen years earlier than the time he wrote about it – so around 42AD. This would fit with the ‘revised dates’ for Paul’s first missionary journey (39-43AD) that included the incident at Lystra when he was stoned and left for dead: ‘But when the disciples surrounded him, he got up and went into the city’ (Acts 14:20a). If this was when Paul had his experience of being ‘caught up into Paradise’, then it could, indeed, be classified as an NDE!
More than anecdotes….
Although accounts of NDEs have arisen throughout history, the term ‘Near-Death Experience’ was introduced only in 1975 by Dr Raymond Moody, a psychiatrist who undertook one of the first detailed investigations of a large number of NDEs and reported his findings in his book Life after life (1975). This helped to trigger a wider interest in NDEs amongst clinicians and scientists, leading to a plethora of research studies and publications (including research papers in high profile medical and scientific journals). A number of these researchers have also published books for a general readership on their findings and conclusions: these include the cardiologist Dr Pim van Lommel (Consciousness beyond life: the science of the near-death experience, 2010); the cardiologist Dr Michael Sabom (Light and death, 2011); the radiation oncologist Dr Jeffrey Long (Evidence of the afterlife: the science of near-death experiences, 2009); the ITU nurse and researcher Dr Penny Sartori (The wisdom of near-death experiences: how understanding NDEs can help us live more fully, 2014); and the psychiatrist Dr Bruce Greyson (After: a doctor explores what near-death experiences reveal about life and beyond, 2021). John Burke has published a comprehensive book about NDEs considered from a Christian perspective (Imagine heaven: near-death experiences, God’s promises and the exhilarating future that awaits you, 2015). Numerous people who have undergone NDEs have also published books about their personal experience, often motivated by the conviction that they are called to share what they’ve learnt during their NDEs about God’s purposes, love and faithfulness, and how God is calling us to live our lives. These include Dr Mary Neal (To heaven and back: a doctor’s extraordinary account of her death, heaven, angels and life again, 2012); Dr Howard Storm (My descent into death: and the message of love which brought me back, 2012); Crystal McVea (Waking up in heaven, 2013); Dr Eben Alexander (Proof of heaven: a neurosurgeon’s journey into the afterlife, 2012); Dr Rajiv Parti (Dying to wake up: a doctor’s voyage into the afterlife and the wisdom he brought back, 2016). There are also some organisations and websites devoted to the consideration of NDEs, including the Near-Death Experience Research Foundation that currently gives detailed first-hand accounts of nearly 5000 NDEs (https://www.nderf.org/index.htm); the International Association of Near-Death Studies (https://iands.org); the Horizon Research Foundation (http://www.horizonresearch.org).
Materialism, dualism or pan-experientialism?!
NDEs are, in fact, surprisingly common – studies in Europe and North America indicate that over 4% (1 in 25) of the population have had some sort of NDE. These can vary greatly in the precise nature and intensity (or ‘depth’) of the experience, as will be discussed more below. However, the most obvious question that anyone is likely ask when they first encounter the concept of NDEs is, “Are they ‘real’?”. In other words, is an NDE an experience of real places, beings and events, or are they fictitious, imagined experiences created by the brain?
The first thing to say in trying to address the above question is that the answers a person will entertain as possibilities depend on their ‘world view’ and how open-minded they are prepared to be. The basic philosophical and scientific issue here is whether the mind and the brain are one and the same thing, or whether the mind is an entity that, during life, is located in the brain, but is actually different from the brain. This issue is discussed philosophically by David Ray Griffin in his book Parapsychology, philosophy and spirituality: a postmodern exploration (1997). Here, he discusses three key factors that affect any person’s views on ‘supernatural’ or ‘paranormal’ phenomena. One of these is the ‘evidence’ or ‘data’ that’s available to support or refute the reality of such phenomena. However, the objective assessment of such evidence is then affected by two subjective factors: one of these is what a person regards as being ‘possible’ or ‘impossible’. For example, if someone is convinced in their own mind that ‘life after death’ is impossible, then evidence in support of this is likely to be regarded with great scepticism, or may simply be dismissed as ‘anomalous’. The other subjective factor is a person’s ‘world-view’ – in particular, ‘materialism’ versus ‘dualism’.
The ‘materialist’ view is that the only reality is the matter and energy of which the Universe is made – nothing else exists, so there is no such thing as souls, heaven or hell, or God. Thus, to the materialist, the mind is simply the expression of the biochemical workings of the brain; so, when the brain dies, the mind disappears – death is the end. It is therefore clear that, to a materialist, NDEs cannot be ‘real’ – they must be some sort of hallucination constructed in the neural networks of an oxygen-starved, dying brain (or the product of some other, purely material process).
The ‘dualist’ (and also the ‘idealist’) view is that the mind exists independently of the brain although, during life, the mind is ‘expressed or channelled through’ the workings of the brain. This does mean, however, that the mind may survive the death of the brain and, indeed, be released from the ‘limitations’ of the brain’s neural networks. Thus, the dualist view is consistent with there being a ‘spiritual’ dimension to reality and that NDEs may therefore be ‘real’ experiences of this spiritual domain.
Griffin proposes a third possibility that he calls ‘pan-experientialism’. This proposes that all matter, even down to the level of subatomic particles, has the capacity for ‘experience’ and that, in highly organised and integrated matter, the capacity for ‘experience’ exceeds the sum of its parts. The most advanced form of such matter on Earth is the human brain, whose experiential elements survive the demise of the material brain tissue, hence giving rise to the ‘soul’.
So what of the Christian view of NDEs? Well, it’s safe to say that there isn’t just one, consensus view on NDEs amongst Christians (as with many other matters of theological interpretation!). It is, of course, central to Christian beliefs that there is a spiritual dimension to reality in which God exists, and that Jesus Christ was God incarnate in ‘material’ human form. It then, however, becomes more contentious as to what different Christians believe about the human soul, what happens to it after death, and what (if anything) are heaven and hell. Furthermore, even if a Christian believes that, after death, the human soul survives and is transported to another dimension that may be pleasant (Heaven) or unpleasant (Hell), they may still be unhappy about considering NDEs as providing evidence in support of their beliefs. At least in some cases, this may be because (without knowing much, if anything, about the topic!) they equate NDEs with ‘spirituality’ which, in turn, they equate with ‘the occult’. For example, Dr Yvonne Kason reported the case of a woman who underwent an NDE, but when she tried to discuss it with the pastor of her local church he told her it was the work of the devil! To me, personally, it seems strange and ironic that, when presented with possible evidence of the truth of their core beliefs as recounted in NDEs, some Christians shy away from even considering them.
But are they ‘real’?
Anyway, lets return to the original question: are there reasons to believe that NDEs are ‘real’ rather than imagined? That’s a difficult question to address scientifically and unequivocally because it’s not possible to set up reproducible, precisely measurable experiments, as could be done when investigating a chemical reaction, for example.
So what features of NDEs and related phenomena provide evidence consistent with their reality? One approach to this is to ask if there are features which can be observed by ‘independent observers’, i.e. by people other than the person who is actually experiencing the phenomenon. Something that’s relevant to this is what’s called ‘terminal lucidity’ (or ‘paradoxical lucidity’). This isn’t actually an NDE, but is relevant to the issue discussed above of the relationship between the mind and the brain. ‘ Terminal lucidity’ often refers to situations where patients with advanced dementia, close to the time of death, become remarkably and inexplicably mentally lucid – for example, being able to hold conversations and recall names and events far better than they have for a long time previously (see, for example https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/feb/23/the-clouds-cleared-what-terminal-lucidity-teaches-us-about-life-death-and-dementia). So, at a time when their brain function should be the most severely compromised, their mind seems to clear of the ‘brain fog’; and this is apparent to all those around them – relatives and medical staff alike. There is currently no ‘materialist’ explanation for ‘terminal lucidity’; however, from the ‘dualist’, ‘idealist’ or ‘pan-experientialist’ perspectives it might be explained by the mind being freed from the constraints of a degenerating brain as death approaches, thereby allowing the mind to express itself once again before it finally separates entirely from the body at the point of death.
Another line of evidence is provided by a common feature of NDEs themselves called the ‘Out-of-Body Experience’ (OBE), which occurs in about 75% of people who undergo NDEs. The OBE refers to the experience of the person’s ‘mind’ or ‘consciousness’ (or ‘soul’?) separating from their physical body and viewing their body and events around it from an external location. Given that NDEs frequently occur whilst the person is in a hospital emergency room (e.g. following a heart attack), or in an operating theatre, the OBE may involve them reporting that they floated away from their body and near to the ceiling of the room from where they viewed their body lying on the bed or trolley and the medical staff working (frantically!) around them. The value of the OBE as a source of veridical evidence for the reality of NDEs is that it can be shown that the events the patient claims to have witnessed whilst unconscious and close to death match the medical staff’s recollection of events. For example, a particularly remarkable example was described in a study of NDEs published in the highly reputable medical journal ‘The Lancet’ (van Lommel et al., Lancet, vol.358, pages 2039-2045, 2001):
…a coronary-care-unit nurse reported a veridical out-of- body experience of a resuscitated patient: “…an ambulance brings in a 44-year-old cyanotic, comatose man into the coronary care unit…When we want to intubate the patient, he turns out to have dentures in his mouth. I remove these upper dentures and put them onto the ‘crash car’. Meanwhile, we continue extensive CPR. After about an hour and a half the patient has sufficient heart rhythm and blood pressure, but he is still…comatose…Only after more than a week do I meet again with the patient, who is by now back on the cardiac ward…The moment he sees me he says: ‘Oh, that nurse knows where my dentures are’. I am very surprised. Then he elucidates: ‘Yes, you were there when I was brought into hospital and you took my dentures out of my mouth and put them onto that car…When I asked further, it appeared the man had seen himself lying in bed, that he had perceived from above how nurses and doctors had been busy with CPR. He was also able to describe correctly and in detail the small room in which he had been resuscitated as well as the appearance of those present like myself…”
Turning to the features of NDEs that involve being transported to ‘other dimensions’, it is clearly not possible to seek evidence of their ‘reality’ through verification by independent ‘living’ observers. What researchers have therefore done is carefully scrutinize the common features of many NDEs to determine whether they are more consistent with reports of ‘real’ events, or the nature of events experienced during hallucinations or other types of ‘imagined’ events. For example, Dr Jeffrey Long published an article in the journal ‘Missouri Medicine’ (vol. 111(5), pages 372-380, 2014; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6172100/) that details nine lines of evidence indicating that NDEs are real, rather than imagined, experiences. In addition to the verification of OBEs discussed above, these lines of evidence include the following:
- NDEs are lucid, organized experiences as distinct from muddled or vague experiences as might be associated with hallucinations, delirium or dreams. Indeed, the majority report that during their NDEs they feel “more conscious and alert than normal”.
- NDEs including ‘seeing events and people’ have been reported by people who had been blind from birth. (Kenneth Ring and Sharon Cooper, Mindsight: near-death experiences and out-of-body experiences in the blind, 2008).
- NDEs reported by children under the age of 5 years (who are unlikely to have strongly established religious beliefs or understanding of death) are not significantly different from those reported by older children and adults.
- NDEs experienced by people of different nationalities and different racial, cultural and religious backgrounds are similar.
Jeffrey Long also reported that, in a survey of 1,122 NDEs, 95.6% of those surveyed reported that their NDE was ‘definitely real’ and 4.0% that their NDE was ‘probably real’; thus only 0.4% (i.e. 4 people) thought that their NDE was not real. Long goes on to say:
…..there have been over 20 different “explanations” of NDE suggested that cover the gamut of physiological, psychological, and cultural causes. If any one or several of these “explanations” were widely accepted as plausible, then there would be no need for so many different “explanations” of NDE. Among those who believe that physical brain function must explain everything that is experienced in all NDEs, there is no consensus whatsoever about how physical brain function produces NDEs…… The combination of the….lines of evidence converges on the conclusion that near-death experiences are medically inexplicable. Any one or several of the nine lines of evidence would likely be reasonably convincing to many, but the combination of all of the presented nine lines of evidence provides powerful evidence that NDEs are, in a word, real.
So what occurs during NDEs?
No two NDEs are entirely identical, but they do contain some ‘core elements’ that are reported across many NDEs from around the world by people of different cultures, religions, ages and ethnicities. This, in itself, is again suggestive of the ‘reality’ of NDEs, since ‘imagined’ events might be expected to vary markedly based on the diversity of individuals involved.
In a study of 1,300 NDEs from around the world, Jeffrey Long identified twelve common elements of NDEs, summarised as follows, with the percentages indicating the proportion of NDEs in which each element occurred (Long & Perry, Evidence of the afterlife, 2009):
- Out-of-body experience: separation of consciousness from the physical body (75.4%)
- Heightened senses (74.4% said “more conscious and alert than normal”)
- Intense and generally positive emotions or feelings (76.2% “incredible peace”)
- Passing into or through a tunnel (33.8%)
- Encountering a mystical or brilliant light (64.6%)
- Encountering other beings, either mystical beings or deceased relatives or friends (57.3%)
- A sense of alteration of time or space (60.5%)
- Life review (22.2%)
- Encountering unworldly (“heavenly”) realms (52.2%)
- Encountering or learning special knowledge (56%)
- Encountering a boundary or barrier (31%)
- A return to the body (58.5% were aware of a decision to return)
Rather than go into details of each of these elements individually, there follows a couple of extracts from NDE accounts that illustrate some of these elements. The first is from the NDE account of Dr Mary Neal, an orthopaedic surgeon who experienced drowning on a white-water kayaking expedition, when her kayak became lodged under a torrent of water for 14 minutes. These extracts are reproduced from the books of John Burke (Imagine Heaven, 2015; Imagine Heaven Devotional, 2018) and Mary Neal (To heaven and back, 2012). Mary very quickly realised that she was likely to die:
The moment I asked that God’s will be done, I was immediately and very physically held by Christ and reassured that everything would be fine…I was overcome with an absolute feeling of calm, peace, and of the very physical sensation of being held in someone’s arms. . . . I knew with absolute certainty that I was being held and comforted by Jesus…
Whilst held in Jesus’ embrace, still under the water, Mary underwent a ‘life review’:
My life was laid bare for all its good and bad. One of the things we did was look at many, many, many events throughout my life that I would have otherwise called terrible or horrible or sad or bad or tragic. And, instead of looking at an event in isolation, or looking at how it impacted me and my little world, I had the most remarkable experience of seeing the ripple effects of the event when seen 25, 30, 35 times removed . . . [and how it] changed me and changed others such that again and again and again, I was shown that indeed, it is true: beauty comes of all things. Jesus was showing me this and saying, “Look at how that event impacted this person that impacted that person that impacted that person.”…Through this experience, I was able to clearly see that every action, every decision, and every human interaction impacts the bigger world in far more significant ways than we could ever be capable of appreciating.
When her body finally broke free from the kayak, Mary felt her soul rise above the water, where:
I was immediately greeted by a group of . . . people, spirits, beings…They were wearing robes of a sort but they were absolutely exploding with a pure, pure love. It was a welcoming committee. I absolutely knew that they were there to welcome me and greet me and make me feel loved and comfortable. . . My arrival was joyously celebrated and a feeling of absolute love was palpable as these spiritual beings and I hugged, danced, and greeted each other. The intensity, depth, and purity of these feelings and sensations were far greater than I could ever describe with words and far greater than anything I have ever experienced on earth. . . As I was drinking in the beauty and rejoicing with my companions, I glimpsed back at the scene on the river bank. My body [which after fourteen minutes underwater had now been recovered] looked like the shell of a comfortable old friend, and I felt warm compassion and gratitude for its use. I looked at Tom and his sons [close friends kayaking with Mary], and they seemed so terribly sad and vulnerable. I heard them call to me and beg me to take a breath. I loved them and did not want them to be sad, so I asked my heavenly companions to wait while I returned to my body, lay down, and took a breath.
The second account, also from Imagine Heaven Devotional (2018) by John and Kathy Burke, is from a young Middle Eastern woman called Samaa, who was caught in the blast of a terrorist’s bomb in the church she was attending:
Thrown ten feet into the air and smashed against the opposite wall, I called out to Jesus silently in my agony: “Jesus, help me!” And then, in that instant, my spirit left my body and I died. . . . When I opened my eyes, I saw brilliant white light illuminating Jesus… His face was brighter than the sun, and He was so glorious. . . . It was as if Jesus could see through me, reading all the thoughts of my heart . . . He radiated an amazing love that contained deep acceptance. I felt neither condemnation nor shame. . . . “Welcome home, Samaa,” He said in a voice sweet and gentle, yet also powerful, like the sound of many waters. He opened His arms to me. His beautiful eyes were like blazing fires of consuming love that overwhelmed me. Like a magnet, His love drew me in. . . . “Do you want to go back or stay here in heaven?” Jesus asked. Then He showed me my life. As if seeing snapshots of a movie, I watched myself growing up. The nineteen years I’d lived passed in front of my eyes. After seeing the choices I had made, I realized I had been living for my own agenda and repented. Oh, Lord Jesus, I’m so sorry. Please forgive me. All my life I’ve been living for myself—my ways, my dreams, my desires, my plans. But it’s not about me. It’s all about You. . . . He wanted me to go back for my family, for their salvation, but also for the salvation of His family, which is multitudes!…..He never forced me but gave me the freedom to choose. As I told Him my choice—that I wanted to go back to earth and be a witness for Him—I was motivated by love, not a sense of duty. . . . “All right, see you soon,” He said. Immediately a fresh wave of love washed over me. It felt so easy to talk to Him, to communicate, like a child speaking to her Father.
Although these two accounts don’t contain all of the twelve common NDE elements listed above, they do exemplify the feelings of peace (not panic!), and the feelings of overwhelming love and acceptance experienced, particularly during encounters with Christ. They also illustrate the ‘life review’, the main purpose of which seems to be to help the person to understand how their actions and behaviour has affected others during their life – vividly bringing home the ‘golden rule’ that we should ‘love our neighbours as ourselves’. As in Samaa’s account, Jesus often appears as a ‘being of light’ – “I saw a brilliant white light illuminating Jesus….His face was brighter than the sun”. Both Mary and Samaa made a decision to return to their Earthly bodies and, indeed, Samaa was offered the choice to stay or return. Some NDE accounts also speak of a barrier which, if crossed, will mean that a return is no longer possible. Numerous NDEs also include descriptions of the ‘topography’ of Heaven, which often is described in terms of beautiful landscapes. The sense of time is also changed – although the person’s body may be ‘dead’ for just a few minutes, their NDE can seem to last much longer.
Not all NDEs are ‘heavenly’!
Although the majority of reported NDEs can be described as ‘positive’, ‘pleasurable’ or ‘heavenly’, about 15-20% of reported NDEs can be regarded as ‘negative’, ‘distressing’ or ‘hellish’. I say ‘reported’ NDEs because it has been suggested that the true number of negative NDEs may be larger, but that these may be under-reported either because the affected individuals have feelings of shame, or they avoid recounting the experience due to its distressing nature.
Various types of negative NDEs have been reported, but two main categories involve either entering a ‘black void or pit’ or being exposed to scenes or ‘beings’ that are ‘hellish’ in nature. An example of each is given below. Also, in both of these accounts, it’s encouraging to find that these individuals experienced a positive turn of events by appealing to God or Christ, thereby transforming the ‘hellish’ experience into a ‘heavenly’ one. This is therefore consistent with the belief, expressed by the Open and Relational theologian Dr Thomas Jay Oord, for example, that God continues to work for the redemption of the individual beyond death. This is what Tom Oord refers to as God’s ‘relentless love’ (Oord, God Can’t – Questions and Answers, 2019).
Firstly, ‘the Pit’ – possibly akin to ‘the Pit’ referred to in the Hebrew scriptures (e.g. in the Psalms)? A scuba diver from New Zealand, Ian McCormack, was stung by five box jellyfish and died in hospital for 15-20 minutes. His NDE is recounted by Jenny Sharkey in the book Clinically dead: I’ve seen heaven and hell, 2013:
It was so dark I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face and it was bitterly cold. . . . A terrifying encroaching evil seemed to pervade the air around me. Slowly I became aware that there were other people moving around me, in the same predicament as I was. Without my saying a word out loud, they began to answer my thoughts. From the darkness I heard a voice screaming at me: “Shut up!” As I backed away from that one another yelled at me, “You deserve to be here!” My arms came up to protect myself and I thought, “Where am I?” and a third voice shouted, “You’re in hell. Now shut up.” I was terrified—afraid to move or breathe or speak. I realized that maybe I did deserve this place. . . . I’d prayed [in the ambulance] just before I died, and asked God to forgive me for my sins. I was weeping by now and I cried out to God, “Why am I here, I’ve asked you for forgiveness, why am I here? I’ve turned my heart to you, why am I here?” Then a brilliant light shone upon me and literally drew me out of the darkness. . . A voice spoke to me from the centre of the light…The voice said, “Ian, do you wish to return? . . .” I replied, “If I am out of my body I don’t know where I am, I wish to return.” The response from this person was, “If you wish to return, Ian, you must see in a new light.” The moment I heard the words “see in a new light,” something clicked. I remembered being given a Christmas card, which said, “Jesus is the light of the world,” and “God is light and there is no darkness in him.” . . . So this was God! He is light. He knew my name and he knew the secret thoughts of my heart and mind….. I felt totally exposed and transparent before God. . . To my amazement a wave of pure unconditional love flowed over me. It was the last thing I expected. Instead of judgment I was being washed with pure love. Pure, unadulterated, clean, uninhibited, undeserved, love. It began to fill me up from the inside out. . . . This love was healing my heart and I began to understand that there is incredible hope for humankind in this love.
Howard Storm, an American professor of Art, died of a perforated duodenal ulcer in a French hospital whilst on a trip to Paris. Not realising he was already dead and was undergoing an OBE, he was persuaded to follow some ‘people’ who he thought were hospital staff who’d come to take him for surgery. However, as they travelled further and further into darkness, and Howard became more and more anxious and tried to turn back, they attacked him, mercilessly and horrendously. Through a personal interview with John Burke (Burke & Burke, Imagine heaven devotional, 2018) and in his own book (Storm, My descent into death: a second chance at life, 2005), Howard describes what happened next:
And as I’m thinking . . . “There’s no hope. There’s no way out,” I am in the bottom of the pit of hopelessness and despair and self-pity . . . this memory comes of myself as a little boy, sitting in a Sunday school classroom singing “Jesus Loves Me.”. . . . But more important than the words was what I felt as a little boy. This simple, this beautiful Superman figure—better than Superman—loved me, cared about me. . . But I had put all that away behind me . . . and denied it all and mocked it all. And now, all of a sudden it was all I had…..so I thought . . . “Enough of this!…..Jesus, please save me!” And when I said that, I saw a light. A tiny, little speck of light, and it rapidly got very bright and came over me. And I saw hands and arms emerge out of this impossibly beautiful light . . . and they reached and they touched me. And in that light . . . all the gore began to just dissolve, and I became whole. And much more significant to me than the physical healing was that I was experiencing a love that is . . . far beyond words. I have never been able to articulate it, but I can say that if I took all my experience of love in my entire life and could condense it into a moment, it still wouldn’t begin to measure up to the intensity of this love that I was feeling. And when those arms went on me and healed me, they went behind my back and he picked me up as if it was no effort on his part….Howard remembers they rose up through space toward a large illuminated area in the distance. Howard found himself thinking: I am a terrible piece of garbage. They should put me back where I belong, back in that hole of darkness and terror. They made a terrible mistake…… “We don’t make mistakes,” he [Jesus] said. “You belong here.” . . . I knew that he loved me very much, just the way I was.
It’s of note from both of these accounts the individuals involved weren’t what human society might define as ‘really bad people’! They weren’t murderers or child abusers, for example. What they themselves acknowledge, however, is that they were self-centred, egotistical and manipulative individuals who were just ‘out for themselves’ – who were disdainful of others and dismissive of God. One might therefore suggest that they had ‘chosen’ separation from God in this life, and that also fed through into the next.
Is Heaven only for Christians?
NDEs are reported in all populations around the world, and by people of diverse religious backgrounds (or no religion!). In his book After (2019), the psychiatrist Dr Bruce Greyson reviews his more than 40 years of research on NDEs. As in other people’s studies, Dr Greyson has found that the majority of NDEs include encounters with a ‘divine’ or ‘god-like’ being, although the individuals do not necessarily identify this ‘being’ as the God of Judaism or Christianity. As we’ve seen in the NDE accounts above from Mary, Samaa, Ian and Howard, some individuals unequivocally identify the ‘divine being’ they meet as Jesus or God. But this is not always the case. For example, Bruce Greyson recounts how Suzanne Ingram, who regarded herself as a ‘lapsed Catholic’, underwent an NDE following a car accident and described her experience as follows:
I recall meeting my Creator. Call this Creator what you will: God, Buddha, Krishna, Allah. It does not matter. I will call him God for simplifying this, but do not refer to any particular religion or God. God spoke to me…..God told me I could stay there now and that my life would be considered a success. It would be a good place to stay, but I’d have to return to earth in yet another lifetime to accomplish what I hadn’t completed so far in this lifetime, or I could go back to earth and continue my life. I believe he said I would complete my mission here on this planet and would be able to pass into the world beyond the door. God opened a door just a crack and let me peek into the light that streamed from the door, and at that precise moment I chose to return to earth and continue my life. Nothing was going to keep me from attaining that place in death, and I knew I wouldn’t have to return to earth in yet another lifetime….What that accomplishment is, is still unclear to me….I remember both God and I were smiling. God was very pleased with my decision.
Bruce Greyson also describes the case of Tracy, a 27 year old agnostic, who also underwent an NDE following a car crash:
I felt completely surrounded and taken up in an indescribably warm and loving Omnipresence of Light. The serenity and unconditional love emanating from it through me is beyond verbal description. Direct, unimpeded transference of thought, more like a shared knowingness, was washing through every cell of my being. IT was me and IT was not me. I was IT and I was not IT. I was in IT, of IT, yet still simultaneously my individual unique beingness. I knew myself to be preciously priceless to this Presence of Light and Sound, as if I was an atom of IT….Words do not do the experience justice….
It goes without saying that some Christians will find these NDEs problematic – particularly those whose view is that only Christianity is ‘true’ and all other religions are ‘false’. Neither of these NDEs unequivocally describes the ‘divine being’ as the Judeo-Christian God; furthermore, the first account raises the possibility of re-incarnation (which is widely accepted in many cultures, as described by David Ray Griffin in his book referenced previously) and the second account indicates that the human soul is, in some way, incorporated into the divinity (although some Christian theologies might be consistent with this concept).
My personal view is that – however much we think we do, or can, understand the nature of God and of the afterlife – in humility, we should accept that our knowledge and understanding is miniscule in comparison to the infinite and eternal greatness of God. However, God knows and understands this (immeasurably better than we can), and therefore goes well beyond ‘halfway’ to meet us at a point that we can cope with. Christianity provides one of the best, or perhaps the best, meeting point between God and humanity. Christians are therefore absolutely correct in trying to persuade others to accept the Good News of Jesus Christ as the gateway to God and eternal life. This is supported by the ‘Christian’ NDEs, some examples of which have been given in previous sections, and further examples are given below. I also have the impression that some of the most vivid and specific NDEs are those with a ‘Christian’ foundation. However, it’s not our place to try to impose arbitrary limits on the ways in which God can express His love, mercy and grace across the human race and the whole of His Creation.
Born again NDErs!
Whatever one’s view is on the nature and meaning of NDEs, it’s an undeniable fact that many people who’ve undergone NDEs (let’s call them ‘NDErs’) are permanently changed in their values, outlook on life and attitude towards death. In fact, in several ways, the changes seen in NDErs are similar to those often associated with a ‘religious conversion’. This has been shown in numerous studies of NDEs. Furthermore, these ‘life changes’ are frequently permanent, not just transitory. Common changes identified in those who have undergone NDEs are summarised in Dr Penny Sartori’s book (The wisdom of near-death experiences: how understanding NDEs can help us live more fully, 2014) and include:
- No longer having a fear of death. Because many NDErs are convinced that there is life after death and of the reality of Heaven, they no longer fear death as being ‘the end of everything’.
- More loving and considerate to others. Many NDErs are convinced that our purpose on Earth is to love each other – exactly as Christ instructed us to do!
- Less materialistic and status-seeking. The pursuit of wealth and the accumulation of material possessions becomes significantly less important to many NDErs. Similarly, striving for ‘status’ loses its appeal. Again, this equates precisely with the biblical message that worldly values are not God’s values.
- Enhanced appreciation of life. Although many NDErs admit that they didn’t want to leave Heaven and return to Earth, they often show enhanced appreciation of the value of living, in the knowledge of how life on Earth relates to the afterlife and the fulfilment of God’s purposes.
- Change in spiritual values. For some NDErs, their experience leads to profound changes in their spiritual values and/or religious commitment. For example, Howard Storm, who was a successful university academic and confirmed atheist prior to his NDE (described in a previous section), resigned from his University position and became a Christian minister following his recovery. Another example is provided by Dr Rajiv Parti who, following his NDE, resigned from his post as a Chief Anesthaesiologist, sold his mansion and set up a Wellness Clinic (Dying to wake up: a doctor’s voyage into the afterlife and the wisdom he brought back, 2016).
- Sense of mission or purpose in life. Some NDErs feel that their recovery and return to life is intended to give them a ‘second chance’ to live out the values they learned during their NDE, and to use their experience to help others come to faith in God.
A caveat to the above ‘positive’ effects of NDEs is that studies also show that the after-effects are not entirely and uniformly beneficial. Some NDErs struggle to re-adjust to life on Earth after their experience. Sometimes those close to NDErs (e.g. spouses) can’t understand or adjust to the ‘new person’ who has returned to them, which may lead to separation or divorce. Some who underwent a ‘negative’ NDE may have long-term effects from the distress.
Food for thought…..
So what should Christians make of NDEs? As I discussed earlier, there are likely to be those who will say that NDEs ‘shouldn’t be touched with a barge pole’! This may be because they consider NDEs to be either ‘dabbling in the occult’ or, as some others do, that NDEs aren’t ‘real’, but are some sort of erroneous hallucination. In either case, it’s likely that many who adopt these stances do so without really knowing anything substantive about NDEs.
Earlier on in this paper, I considered the evidence consistent with the ‘reality’ of NDEs, and also touched on the concern that they ‘should not be for proper Christians’. The latter objection is somewhat bemusing to me, given that the bible is brimming with visions and revelations – look at the Book of Ezekial, the Book of Revelation, or the Transfiguration of Christ. At the outset I also drew attention to St Paul’s own experience of Heaven, and speculated that this could have been in the context of an NDE. Furthermore, more recently than biblical times, holy visions have been reported and led to the establishment of ‘holy shrines’ (e.g. Walsingham in the UK and Lourdes in France) that are places of Christian pilgrimage to this day. So, why discount or ignore NDEs because they happen to ‘ordinary people’ today, rather than to saints or prophets hundreds or thousands of years ago?
There’s also the issue that, as we’ve seen, not all NDEs, or aspects of them, are consistent with some Christians’ beliefs. But perhaps, to some extent, this is pointing to the limitations and inadequacies of our beliefs rather than raising doubts about the veracity of NDEs. Indeed, many Christians would readily admit that ‘they don’t have all the answers’ or ‘have a monopoly on the truth’.
Some who’ve experienced NDEs believe that their deeply personal revelations should not be widely discussed or ‘spread abroad’. Clearly such feelings should be respected – no one should feel ‘obliged’ to recount their spiritual experiences to others. Indeed, St Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians, seems to mention his own experience of transport to Heaven only reluctantly and emphasising that he is not ‘boasting’.
However, others are convinced that God wants them to make use of the their NDEs to help to bring others to faith, to transform lives, to help mitigate fear of death and to bring a degree of comfort to the bereaved. For some of these NDErs, as we’ll see in the final section below, the main message from their NDEs is not about death and the afterlife, but what their NDEs can teach them and us about how we should live our lives here on Earth!
It was the astrophysicist, science-populariser and agnostic, Carl Sagan, who coined the phrase, ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’. For many in our modern secularised societies, the belief that God exists is ‘an extraordinary claim’. Some atheists do say that they would change their view if they were provided with clear evidence of a ‘spiritual dimension’ and the existence of God. Others are purposefully agnostic, or are ‘nones’ who simply don’t give any thought to whether or not there is a God. So, are there ways, and is it appropriate, for Christians to use the ‘evidence’ of NDEs as one line of persuasion in their mission and evangelism? After all, Christ instructed us to ‘make disciples of all nations’ (Matthew 28:19).
We should remember, however, the parable of ‘the rich man and Lazarus’ (Luke 16:19-31). After both of them had died, the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus back to Earth to warn his brothers of the fate that might be awaiting them in the afterlife. Abraham replies, however, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ It occurs to me that NDErs are rather like Lazarus in this parable, except that they do actually return from the dead to recount their experiences. But, as the parable indicates, is human nature such that there are those who will resist the ‘possibility of God’, however strong the evidence? It was the philosopher Thomas Nagel who said: ‘It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God, and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.’ But, still, shouldn’t we try to convince even the most reluctant atheist to think again?
All you need is love!
I’d like to conclude with the words of three people whose NDEs profoundly affected their views of the meaning of life and God’s plan for us all.
The first is Crystal McVea, who’d had a difficult life as a child and teenager but, as an adult, underwent an NDE during an acute episode of pancreatitis. In her book (Waking up in heaven, 2013) Crystal says:
In [God’s] radiance, it all makes perfect, perfect sense. In this way all the questions I had for God were answered without me even having to ask them. And yet, standing in His glorious presence, filled with His infinite wisdom, there was still one question I felt compelled to ask . . . “Why? Why didn’t I do more for You? Why didn’t I accomplish more in Your name? Why didn’t I talk more about You? Why didn’t I do what You asked me to do?” It’s not that I felt regret—it’s that I loved God so immensely I felt like He deserved so much more from me. But God wouldn’t allow me to feel bad about it. There is no feeling bad in heaven. . . . He is a loving God. I realized I didn’t just love God. I realized He IS love.
Rev Howard Storm’s NDE was presented in a previous section. In a personal interview with John Burke (Burke & Burke, Imagine heaven devotional, 2018), Howard said:
[Jesus] said, “I have a purpose for you. . . . Your purpose is to love the person that you’re with.” And I said, “Yeah, okay, great. I got that. What do you want me to do?” And he said, “No, that’s it.” And I said, “That’s it?! Love the person I am with?” And he said, “That’s your whole purpose.” And I said, “What good will that do?” And he said, “It will change the whole world.” I said, “Come on, there’s billions of people in the world. How in the world would me loving someone change the world?” . . . He laughed and he said, “If you love the person that you’re with, they’ll love the person that they’re with and they’ll love the person that they’re with. And that will multiply.”…..He said, “Whether you believe it or not, whether you like it or not, it’s God’s plan. It will work. Just love the person that you’re with.”
Dr Mary Neal’s NDE was also presented in an earlier section. In a personal interview with John Burke (Burke & Burke, Imagine heaven devotional, 2018), Mary said:
We need to be about God’s business every moment of every day. One of the things that changed for me very dramatically is—and I believe it can change anyone’s life—is that, if you accept that there’s life after death and then, even more so, if you accept the rest of God’s promises . . . it changes the way you see today. Because, all of a sudden, every day matters, every moment matters, every choice, every decision, it matters. We think about our lifetime as so long, but in reality, it’s a blink of time. And the reality is that we are here for a reason. We are here to learn and grow and change and help others do the same. And we don’t have much time to do it. There is no doubt that the only thing that truly matters is loving God and being a window through which God’s light can shine through this world, and loving each other.
I can’t think of a better conclusion than Mary’s final sentence; and, referring back to where we started, I’m confident that St. Paul would agree!