Let’s Talk about Near-Death Experiences—Theologically
Someone asked me to reflect on so-called “near-death experiences.” I will attempt to here while noting that many books and documentaries have been made about the subject. I can’t possibly do justice to it in such a brief space as this.
First, “near-death experience” (NDE) is a misnomer. I don’t know who coined it for the phenomenon under consideration. Perhaps the famous researcher and author of the subject, Raymond Moody who published one of the first scientific studies of it in the 1970s. It’s a misnomer because the phenomenon, if it is one, is not actually an experience of “near-death” but of death and afterlife, then coming back to bodily life after being “out of the body” for a time.
Youtube is full of videos, both serious and not-so-serious, about this subject. The University of Virginia has several videos where scholars discuss NDEs (or claims of them). I have read several serious books written by serious, mature people who claim to have experienced life out of the body during a death experience.
My tendency is to be skeptical about these stories, but I can’t dismiss them entirely as fictional or imaginary. Because I am a Christian and believe in God and the Bible as a revelation of God and ourselves, I do believe in life after life (to use N. T. Wright’s preferred term for what most people call life after death).
However, I don’t think the Bible tells us very much about life after life. There is much imagery, but very little detail. So it is natural that all people, even Christians, seek out further information about life after life. We often turn to people who have experienced it and returned to tell about it.
A problem is that their descriptions vary greatly. Even “good Christians’” descriptions of “heaven” (better called biblically “paradise”) differ greatly—to say nothing of non-Christians’. There are some commonalities including, for example, seeing a bright, shining light and being drawn toward it. Also, usually, though not always, a feeling of great peace that takes away fear of death after that.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
Speaking for myself only, I think death must be a lot like birth. If a maturing fetus, say eight months in gestation, could understand language and if a person attempted to tell him/her about life outside the womb, what could he/she possibly understand? Nothing. He/she would give anything to stay in the womb rather than emerge into this big unknown—no matter how pleasant the voice from outside made it sound. And the voice from outside the womb would have to use descriptions that the fetus would have no way of understanding.
So I think it must be with death. Yet some people have claimed to have returned from “outside the womb” (bodily life here, on this earth), from “heaven” (or someplace) and yet their descriptions are unclear simply because they conflict with other seemingly credible accounts of the same “place.” What to do with these stories of NDEs?
I simply don’t know. I find them interesting but unconvincing. Many people die temporarily and return to life but have no recollections of anything outside the body. Why? There may be good reasons, but I find it odd.
My hope for the future after bodily death, for “life after life,” is based on Jesus who promised it and on the rest of the New Testament which I do believe is divine revelation, however difficult sometimes to interpret. It is not based on NDE stories although some of them are extremely interesting. After reading them or hearing them, I just put them aside and decline to base any of my hope on them even as I sometimes contemplate whether and to what extent (if any) they are true.
*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment only to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).