Re-Thinking Near-Death Experiences

By Patrick Mitchel, a friend and professor at Irish Bible Institute in Dublin.

Someone I’m close to recently went through a ‘near death’ experience after major surgery. I’d heard of such experiences but never given them much thought one way or another.

If pushed, I’d probably have given them little weight in terms of authority or reliability. Too much room for wishful thinking, subjective individualistic interpretation and the influence of powerful anaesthetics to put much trust in compared to God’s self-revelation in Scripture – a source of revelation recognised and accepted by Christians of pretty well every hue over the centuries.

And from my limited knowledge, they also tended to be implicitly ‘universalistic’ – in the sense that they often describe quite vague generalities of light and peace that could apply to all sorts of belief systems.

But theology is occasioned by events. It’s a dynamic process of trying to think with a Christian mind about questions life throws up. And so I’m asking what do you think about this near death story and other stories like it? Do you know people who have had such experiences and what has the impact been? How should Christians interpret such experiences?

In ICU after the operation there was a complication and he was not expected to make it through the night. So this was literally a near death experience. When he regained consciousness, he amazed the nurses by having the determination and energy to want to write down for us what he’d seen (he couldn’t talk). He desperately wanted to communicate and nothing was going to stop him.

He wrote ‘I’ve looked into the face of death and of God’. He went on to describe a series of gates, the last one being death. But he did not go through it. There was light and a tremendous sense of the presence and goodness of God. He felt no fear but a peace and certainty that he would be with God rather than enter death. He mentioned people from all over the world being there, of every culture and nation. Things went into reverse. He talked of being given more time.

It’s only a few weeks but I think it’s fair to say that this experience has impacted him at a spiritual and emotional level in a way a lifetime of going to church hasn’t seemed to – in terms of experiencing the goodness of God and of the reality of the hope of life beyond death. He now says he wasn’t prepared for death and people need to know what lies ahead. The experience was very unexpected – all of this is not how he would normally talk of spiritual stuff.

God is no stranger to using dreams and visions to communicate – often in times of crisis. I certainly think that is what is going on here.This experience speaks to me of God’s love and grace, giving hope and revelation of himself at just the right time.

But just as prophecy and tongues need to be assessed, so do dreams and visions. I don’t see here anything contrary to the gospel. There is death as an enemy as opposed to the life-giving presence of God. There is sure hope of life beyond death. There is peace. There is the wideness in God’s mercy for men and women from every tribe and tongue and nation. All of these are deeply Christian themes.

Of course there is plenty missing from the gospel story. But what dream or vision (or sermon) can get it all in? So here’s where I now am in regard to near death experiences:

Let’s not be captive either to a cold rationalism that is dismissive of such experiences or to a desperate sentimentalism that unquestioningly accepts all that they say. But let’s be open to the idea this could be God in his patience and grace choosing to communicate just what we need to hear just when we most need to hear it. And then let’s fill out the rest of the gospel narrative from that starting point.

Glad of your thoughts to add to the conversation.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://www.theleapofdoubt.com Bob

    Seeing that the scriptures are so silent on this matter, and seeing that there is a kind of universal agreement among those who experience this (not all details, but many), I find it rather arrogant to discount people’s experiences because they don’t fit with whatever teachings have been handed down about a subject that isn’t really discussed in scripture anyway. Yes, it smacks of universalism… but then, maybe the universalists got it “right”. Maybe Jesus’ death paid for EVERYONE’s sins (if we’re in need of substitutionary atonement) or maybe Jesus’ death was a ransome for ALL (if we align more with the ransom theory) or maybe he showed that death really has no sting anymore and the grave has no victory… maybe the way of Jesus was more about how we live in the here and now, restoring shalom, than the Soterian gospel or other gospels that get us in to the afterlife because we “believed the right things”.

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    Well, if NDE may points to universalism, what about those who say they were heading to Hell (a minority of people but I’d thought I would throw it on the table). Does that mean there is a Hell for those who say there is none and how does that fit into universalism? However others want to rationally asses them, I for one as a Christian apply Jesus “fruitfulness” test. Does it produce good fruit after the person had the experience or does it produce something else?

  • http://www.faithinireland.wordpress.com Patrick Mitchel

    Bob, you seem to have misread the post. I was saying such experiences are NOT discounted. This has been a powerful and unexpected real and good experience. I’m asking about how we think of and interpert such experiences and hopefully hear some other stories along the way.

  • Norman

    If eternal life is a “gift” from God as a result of being in relationship (child of God) then what is the result of not recieving the “gift” of eternal life? Is it possibly a natural occurence of a biological ending in which there is no eternal existence. Just asking?

  • http://acts217.blogspot.com/ Paul Tillman

    My Religious Studies senior seminar was on death and the afterlife. One of the interesting historical notes was that in the Medieval era NDE stories were typically of a person going to hell, whereas in the modern/post-modern era people usually experience going to heaven. There are modern exceptions to this, such as 23 Minutes in Hell. Regardless, NDEs seem to be strongly influenced by the stories of our time, or there are just a lot more saved people having NDEs now than in the past.

  • CGC

    Hi Norman,
    When I was in seminary, one of my prof’s brought this up and said the Scriptures only speaks about God giving a resurection body that lives forever to followers of Jesus. He said the Bible is silent concerning the unrightous. He went on and said if Hell is eternal as well, then God must give an everlasting body to people who persist in separation from God. The prof said, “if that is right (and he was not sure), then he said that makes the problem of Hell seem even worse. It’s not, why does God send some people to Hell but now, why does God give them a body to suffer eternally? I know you line up more with annihilationism and others even go different directions on this issue. However people interpret the meaning of what happens to people who are “cut off” from God, the imagery is not positive (even if some people want to somehow make it sound not as bad). I will say, non-existence or the absence of God sounds pretty bad!

  • Kel

    I think we need to make room for such experiences and lay them before others, but never canonize them in the sense that we allow them to trump Scriptural imperatives or become an end in and of themselves.

  • http://brentwhite.wordpress.com Brent White

    I began changing my mind about (or at least opening my mind toward) NDEs after reading something from Habermas and Licona in one of their apologetics books. They documented at least one case of an NDE in which the person had access to knowledge she wouldn’t otherwise know. The authors didn’t seem like crackpots, you know?

    Besides, based on what I’ve read, modernity has installed a kind of “filter” within our minds, which often prevents us from experiencing anything beyond what our senses tell us. Pre-modern people, some sociologists say, often don’t have this filter. If that’s the case, it stands to reason that in the liminal space between life and death, our defenses would be down, and we might have access to spiritual experiences we otherwise wouldn’t have.

    Who knows? I’m open to the possibility.

  • http://www.theleapofdoubt.com Bob

    Patrick – thanks for the clarification.

  • http://justindgentry.blogspot.com Justin Gentry

    I was at a Q and A with Rob Bell and he talked about an atheist in Grand Rapids that had an NDE. He said the man was in a field and saw Jesus on the other side of a river. He was told he could cross it and be with him or go back a live a little longer and then come and be with him. The man decided to go back lived for about 6 months and then died. Bell also said the man was completely braindead and heading to the morgue when he woke up so it kinda seems legit to me. Some stories just don’t fit our systematic theologies. I think some NDE’s could be wishful thinking but to have no brain activity and have one seems pretty miraculous.

  • D. Foster

    I’m completely open to to the possibility that people have spiritual experiences near death, though I wouldn’t give much credence to the details of any particular story.

    My personal, unsubstantiated hunch is that when a person has a legitimate “spiritual” encounter of any kind, the mind translates these super-phenomenal experiences into a swirl of familiar, associative imagery derived from that person’s memories. At death, this dream-like experience precedes genuine death as an individual passes on from their bodies into a subsequent state.

    Just my two cents.

    –Derek

  • Sherman Nobles

    My aunt died and saw the Lord, wanted to stay with Him but He said she couldn’t because she had a young son who needed her. She was revived and lived 30+ more years though she should have been a vegitable. Anyhow, I believe in NDEs. Jonah had an NDE where from Sheol in torment he cried out to God and repented and was brought back to life and even given another chance to obey God.

    I believe that when people die, they come into the full reality of whatever kingdom they are a part of, saved – heavenly, unsaved – hellish. And I’ve studied many examples of people who died and experienced the full reality of the kingdom of darkness, oppression by evil, and am amazed at how many experienced salvation, calling on Jesus, and changed through their experience. They were saved while dead and awoke changed people! And I believe that visions and dreams that believers have of “Hell” are actually visions of the full reality of what Paul calls this “Present Evil Age” which Jesus saves us from.

    Of course, being a Christian Universalist, the NDE’s smacking of universalism doesn’t disturb me at all; rather, they encourage me to believe that scripture is true and Jesus is the savior of all, in deed not just in title, especially, not only, we who believe (1 Tim.4.10), to believe that Jesus does not fail to save any He loves and that He truly loves all.

  • phil_style

    Before I entertain the theology of NDEs I need to have some kind of commitment to them being an experience of a reality that is outside of the brain. For the moment, I remain completely unconvinced that NDEs are anything other than intra-brain generated.

    If, of course, I can be convinced otherwise, then I would certainly begin to examine theological implications. But, for the moment, the theological musing seems an unnecessary step too far.

  • CGC

    Hi Phil,
    What kind of evidence would there have to be to prove something to be beyond the brain? How would someone be convinced of this?

    To all,
    It seems like there could be a lot of experiences that could be viewed as the legitimate to the illegitimate? It seems like people could try to use the authentic to prove the inauthentic and others could use the inauthentic as none of them are real. And what about spiritual deception? If there are spiritual dark forces or things like demons, could not some of the testimonies of people fall into that category? In the end, whatever people’s conclusions, I doubt there is one explantion for them all. I think life’s experiences are so multi-faceted and polyphonic that there probably should be different classifications or categories for these experiences rather than they are all one thing or another.

  • http://whoisrobdavis.wordpress.com Rob Davis

    I think there are reasonable “natural” explanations for these kinds of things. That, to me, doesn’t negate the possibility that it was “God,” but it makes it less likely to be “real” in some “objective” sense. On the other hand, “attacking” an individual who has had an experience like this won’t likely have any positive impact on him or her.

    I came across this the other day that is in a similar vein:

    Depth psychologists C.G. Jung (in his concept of the shadow) and Rollo May (1969) provide psychologically sophisticated, secular theories of human evil and daimonic (as opposed to demonic) possession which do not demand literal belief in the devil or demons. (I discuss these matters in detail in my book Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic.) But, tragically, most psychotherapy today does not adequately comprehend or treat the possession syndrome. For some bedeviled individuals, the traditional ritual of exorcism or myth of “demonic possession” serve to make more sense of their suffering than the scientific, secular, biochemical explanations and cognitive-behavioral theories proffered these days by mainstream psychiatry and psychology. If psychotherapy as a healing of the soul (not just the mind) is to survive and thrive into the future, our current overemphasis on cognition, behavior, genetics, neurology and biochemistry must be counterbalanced by the inclusion of the spiritual and depth psychological dimension of human existence. It must become, as Freud intimated and C.G. Jung courageously recognized, psychotherapy for the soul.

    http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evil-deeds/201201/the-devil-inside-psychotherapy-exorcism-and-demonic-possession

  • EricG

    Within the past week or so the Templeton Foundation donated $5 million to have NDEs and afterlife studied (led by some philosophy prof at UC-Riverside). There was also a prior study of NDEs in the Lancet. I’m somewhat skeptical, but interested in what they come up with.

  • Norman

    CGC#6

    I lean toward an annihilationist viewpoint but I’m not sure I agree with your college Prof about the possibility of an eternal conscious hell and I realize you framed his ideas as possibilities. I think regarding this subject it’s dangerous to be too dogmatic because of the imaginative Hebrew language being utilized so I remain open but doubtful we are going to reconcile this issue.

    My own personal anecdotal account with a vivid imagery while under anesthetic was a child in which ether was used and it put me into a white spiraling tunnel that I eventually snapped out of. It was quite the hallucinogenic experience triggered by the ether. However it often reminds me of descriptions of NDE accounts that I have sometimes read. Also I don’t have any memory recollection before about 2 or 3 years old so not sure where my soulish conscience derived from except from God who gives and takes away. Since I haven’t transported beyond the biological realm yet, I find it hard to speculate although my tendency is to do so.

    A scripture reference from the Jewish perspective has always intrigued me and it may be instructive or it may be just another limited viewpoint and that is the Lament of Ecc 3.

    Ecc 3: 17 I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work. I said in my heart with regard to the children of Adam that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts. For what happens to the children of Adam and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and the Adams has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. Who knows whether the spirit of the Adams goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?

    I have changed the word man for adam above because that is the Hebrew word there and is instructive to understanding this section as a comparison. The “children/son of man/adam” from my studies typically is indicating covenant man or often the Jews/Israel in context. It doesn’t necessarily imply generic gentile humanity at large so when we see the application toward the beast we might possibly draw some Jewish conclusions. One is that the nature of the Beast and the nature of the Adams all derive from mortal earth which is referencing back to Gen 2 & 3 concerning the dust of the earth. However if one is familiar with OT usage of “beast” it becomes apparent that it doesn’t typically represent an animal per se but a human who is outside covenant relationship and a walk with God. It was a Jewish means of drawing a distinction between themselves and gentile pagan humanity. A good illustration is the story of King Neb when he did not give glory to God but to himself and he became like the beast until he came to his senses and gave glory to God and was restored to the mind of a “man”.

    However using the analogy of the beast as a gentile by the Jews the question that ecc 3 raises is whether the gentile is any better off than the animal/beast it is being caricatured as? Does their spirit go either up to be with God or down into sheol to the realm of the lost (mortal dust). However also the analogy is compared to Israel (children of Adam) whom due to their fallen nature at present were no better off than the gentile or the animal when it comes to deaths grip. Of course this is the plight of all faith seekers of God before the coming of messiah and reflects the lament’s concern toward their present futility without hope of eternal life. The Jews understood their need for resurrected life even 2 or 300BC when Ecclesiastes was possibly written.

  • CGC

    Hi Norman,
    I agree we should not be too dogmatic about such things. I hope you saw even as I was giving an illustration of one of my prof’s speculations, he certainly was not dogmatic about it either. Actually, that encounter was almost 30 years ago. I wonder what direction my old prof’s thinking is on this issue now? I will say, his speciality or focus has been on faith and science and particularly neuro-science. I wonder what he would say about NDE’s?

  • http://www.nateweatherly.com Nate W.

    It seems to me that some of the problems Christians have with NDEs stem from a fundamentally dualistic view of God, heaven, and Spirituality; e.g. “It’s EITHER the brain OR really actually heaven. For me to believe its heaven I’d have to have proof it isn’t the brain.”

    I think we need to be careful not to limit spiritual reality to just “that which transcends the physical” When speaking of heaven or any spiritual realities it is not one, not the other. It is not both or neither, and it is not a place somewhere in the middle. The spiritual exists both entirely within and entirely without the physical.

    It is perhaps like another dimension to reality beyond the 3 (or 4 counting time) that we experience. It exists, (as length and height and depth do), but it is more like a way of measuring or quantifying experience of the physical world than an explanation of it. God is not so much an object that we objectively know, but the One who by knowing us transforms how we see, quantify, and interact with the world.

    So when it comes to these kind of things maybe we should say that for the person experiencing it, whether we can prove it is due to brain chemistry or not, it is nevertheless an experience of spiritual reality if it is something that changes the way they see and relate to the world.

    if what they experience is defined by an awareness of the deep love of God for them then i think we can say with certainty that within that experience they received a taste of heaven.

    Whether they were actually in heaven or not becomes irrelevant when we stop thinking of heaven as “up there” and begin to see and recognize that heaven is here and now and forever and is a reality we ALL can experience with the act of Loving and being Loved.

    This is of course just the way I’ve come to understand it and I’d love to hear other’s thoughts.

  • http://www.faithinireland.wordpress.com patrick mitchel

    Good conversation. While previously agnostic on this, I’m open to God being at work through a NDE. The personal example I’ve given in the post has been unexpected and very positive. I guess it also links to our doctrine of God. If he is a God of grace and compassion, an NDE can be him giving a very personalised revelation to someone when they need it most. What I found interesting about the example I gave is that the person is still invited or given a choice to respond to something attractive and hopeful. Jesus on the Emmaus Road comes to mind.

    Such an experience can fit well within Christian hope. If the ‘end game’ is resurrection and new creation, I can see a NDE as compatible with the ‘inbetween time’ in the presence of God, in a temporary disembodied state.

  • http://whoisrobdavis.wordpress.com Rob Davis

    #19

    Nate, I’m tracking with you…

  • http://www.nateweatherly.com Nate W.

    Rob Davis – Really glad to hear it. Sometimes I wonder if my thoughts are in a different language than other people’s. Nice to know someone can follow my ramblings! : )

  • Marshall

    We have a fellow in our church who experienced a vision of Hell when he had a life-threatening heart attack … the traditional place, being suspended by a thread over a burning pit. It quite turned his life around, these days he is our head usher.

    I tend to agree with Derek #11, noting that NDEs tend to be coherent with the person’s culture. Phil at #13, of course the experience is in the brain; that doesn’t contradict the notion that such things are (can be) a legitimate spiritual encounter.

  • Mike M

    Sure the brain stuff is physical. Neurotransmitters, nerve endings, receptor shape & size, connections, and even the shape of neurons are all important for a fully functional brain and mind. I’ve had plenty of bipolar patients who have had mystical encounters with God the Father, Jesus, and even heaven & hell and who insist their encounters are real. I even have one woman who claims God “told” her she was pregnant despite numerous negative pregnancy tests.
    So what does this mean for NDE’s? Between each level of physical complexity of the brain lies a qualitative difference. For example, if I prescribe a mid-complexity medication, there’s a good chance higher level functioning will increase. So while a NDE may just be the result of a cascade of certain chemicals, the qualitative difference is “beyond” the physical.
    I’m intrigued by Rob Davis’ slant on Jung and May because those two tried to bridge the gap between brain and mind without more modern discoveries. Very much like the Chinese coming up with a treasurable medical system while forbidden to dissect bodies.

  • Steve Robinson

    St. Paul was taken into the 3rd heaven and shown things he could not speak about and to keep him humble he was given a thorn in the flesh. I think NDE’s need not be even “concious” experiences. My mother used to tell me that she knew I was “different” because she’d find me as a 3-4 year old sitting in front of a crucifix in our house staring at it. I’ve always had an obsession with God. A few years ago she revealed to me that I was born dead and was revived. “No one comes to the Father except through Me” is not a threat but a promise. It makes sense to me that God knows the heart and does whatever it takes to save a soul.

  • Sherman Nobles

    Nate, you wrote “Whether they were actually in heaven or not becomes irrelevant when we stop thinking of heaven as “up there” and begin to see and recognize that heaven is here and now and forever and is a reality we ALL can experience with the act of Loving and being Loved.”

    I too am thinking along these lines when previously speaking about people experiencing the full reality of either the kingdom of light or the kingdom of darkness, the present eternal reality of both. And sometimes people experience both in their NDE. We are challenged in sharing of such a reality when we are so bound to our temporal physical nature. Paul not only wrote of experiencing the “3rd heaven” but also wrote that Jesus saves us from this “present/at-hand evil aion/age/world”, which reminds me of what Jesus preached, “repent for the kingdom of heaven is “at hand”. When people shed/transcend the limitations of our physical temporal aion/age/world, we experience the reality of either/both the eternal spiritual kingdom of light and/or kingdom of darkness.

  • Jamie

    Hi, Phil_style et al. With regards to NDEs being events that occur “outside the brain”, arguably all of our lives occur both “outside” and “inside” the brain, if you accept that we are spiritual (i.e. fundamentally nonphysical) beings.

    And if you need evidence of the mind operating “outside the brain”, then look at the many NDE accounts in which the NDEr (experiencer) is able to give accurate reports about conversations, resuscitation details, and previously unknown details of their family members after “returning” to life.

    There is a great deal of other evidence that supports that our minds exist independently of our bodies. This concept isn’t much of a stretch for those who believe in the immortality of the soul, which must exist independently of our bodies to be immortal. If you want to do research, search on the phrase “non-local mind” or some such related phrases.

    With regards to how Christians “should” regard such events, there is no one answer since Christians vary widely. But there are studies that show that NDErs (experiencers) have both common elements and also unique interpretations of their NDE. Atheists may come to believe in God, but without attempting to align that experience of God with any particular religion. Some people become more attentive to their religion, others see the negativity in their religious institutions and move away from formal participation but towards an investigation of spiritual life through other methods.

    But the “fruits” test is the most telling one. If you read P.M.H. Atwater’s survey of NDErs (she had three herself) she reports that the majority of NDErs are substantially changed by their ordeal and often report a loss of a fear of death. Many make important (and sometimes overdue) changes to their work and family relationships, often pursuing service-oriented work.

    The “life review” process is very revealing of the importance of the “do unto others” recommendation as well as of the concept of karma. In the life review, one experiences the consequences of one’s actions as if one were the person (or living animal, plant) upon whom one acted. The impact of one’s life is felt, not just seen, in its entirety, even to people passed on the street.

    This also helps to illuminate the immediacy of the “repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” idea, meaning that every action, thought and emotion should be understood as having an intimate impact on not only our present but on the world around us. And that we will experience our actions from the “other side” when we go through the life review process.

    As for NDEs pointing towards universalism, death is universal, so how can NDEs be anything else? It is those concepts that urge ideas of separation, from God, from each other, from all life in all of its forms, that should be suspect if we accept the idea of one creator sustaining one creation in a vastness of forms and aspects that are inconceivable at a purely rational level.

    Obviously people who undergo NDEs have their own unique “mental filter”, born of the totality of their life experience. This filter will cause them to impose interpretations upon all of their experiences, including NDEs. Some will see the unconditionally loving light experienced during an NDE as God, Jesus, Budda, an angel, or any other divine being that their beliefs about reality bring to bear on the experience. But the salient fact is that most experience an unconditionally loving presence which is seen as light.

    Some do have “hellish” experiences which are probably also born of internal conflicts which they are trying to resolve as well as from the negativity that they may experience during the life review.

    So there is much to learn if one can keep an open mind and study the vast amount of material available now. How lucky we are to be able to read thousands of such accounts and form our own understanding of what awaits us!


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