Wednesday, February 9

Exploring Near-Death Experiences

Millions of people around the world claim to have had a Near-Death or Out-Of-Body Experience. (NDE or OBE) An estimated 8-15 millions U.S. citizens claim to have had one such experience. Typically, these experiences occur near "clinical death," which happens after a person stops breathing - and your heart stops beating. About 40% report a NDE. Is there something to these experiences, or are they perhaps just the effects of a dying brain? Are these experiences biblical - or unbiblical?[1] Most reports of a Near-Death experience are similar. The patient reports 1 feeling of happiness or peacefulness followed by a separation from the body - the soul leaving the physical body - viewing surrounds from a distance, passing through a tunnel toward a bright light, meeting a being of light which "feels like love," meeting deceased friends and relatives, a life review, and a decision to - or command - return to life once more.[2] 

Now, let us examine NDE's - could they merely just be caused by a dying brain, or is there something more? In today's world, NDE's are more common than ever before, due to better medical equipment and better medical training as well as medicine. Doctors are able to revive many people who are "clinically dead."[3] Such experiences are not new. Indeed they have been described throughout history. One notable case is from the Greek philosopher Plato, who wrote about a soldier, Er, who died in war. Er's spirit allegedly flew up into the air and into a strange land, and he traveled with other dead soldiers. After seeing this strange land, Er was sent back to his body to tell people about the land he had seen. This alleged experience was written more than 2000 years ago.[4]

There are some Near-Death Experiences that are called "Veridical NDE's." These support the belief that people can have an awareness far from their body. For example, during a Veridical NDE, a person could see events occurring far from the physical body's location. For example, people will report seeing relatives or friends doing something specific. "I saw my brother, who lives hundreds of miles away, getting the high score of 12,000 on some new game he got, then he proceeded to write a reminder to pick up his red coat at the dry cleaners." When called, the brother, astonished, confirms the details. In 2001, a study headed by researcher Pim van Lommel, was done in the Netherlands with 344 people. Scientists interview these people who had been revived - all following heart attacks. This study showed that several common alleged causes of NDE's did not add up. All of the patients had lost consciousness when their brains did not receive enough oxygen - only 18% reported having a NDE. This study tended to breakdown the idea that NDE's are caused by a fear of death: most of these heart attacks happened suddenly: the person had not time to fear. This study showed that cerebral anoxia may not be the cause of NDE's. [5] What is cerebral anoxia? Cerebral anoxia was first studied in 1981. The condition occurs when the brain doesn't receive enough oxygen, producing hallucinations. Some believe this to be the cause of NDE's. Let us examine more of the history surrounding these experiences. The Society for Psychical Research (SPR) was formed in 1882. The organization began to study Near-Death Experiences and similar unexplained things. Dr. James Hyslop, who studied psychology, wrote a famous research paper which was published in 1907.[6]

In 1919, Hyslop wrote Contact With the Other World, a book in which he described several reported NDE's. Not all researchers were interested in proving the validity of these experiences. Dr. Edward Clarke, for example, believed that NDE's occurred when the brain fails to function properly. Other scientists believed that people were hallucinating. Some scientists still believe these things. George Richie, who was in the U.S. Army, became ill while training. In 1943, Ritchie was clinically dead - several minutes passed. When he was revived, he at one point wrote his detailed account of his experience.[7] It was this detailed account that led to Dr. Raymond Moody to become interested in the topic. Moody is now a well-known NDE researcher, publishing a book in 1975, Life after Life, which included 150 NDE's. Moody is credited with coining the term "near-death experiences." In 1982, Dr. Michael Sabom wrote Recollections of Death: A Medical Investigation, in which he notes that many people who have these experiences accurately report events occurring around them while clinically dead.[8]

It has been shown that NDE's drastically affect the way a person lives the rest of his or her life. For example, those who had these experiences during childhood or adolescence were less afraid of dying than others - and reportedly enjoy life more than those who have not had such experiences, though this is not always the case. While most researches claim that NDE's are nothing more than neurological and chemical phenomena in the mind, others cite NDE's as evidence for the soul, for the existence othe afterlife. [9] Dr. Don Rhodes notes, "One of the most common characteristics of the so-called near-death experience is encountering a being of light. This being is said to emanate love and warmth. It has been claimed by numerous (not all) individuals who have had alleged near-death experiences that the being of light they encountered was none other than Jesus Christ.[10] One must note, however, that people also claim to meet Buddha, Krishna, and other figures prominent in various religious traditions. For example - Betty J. Eadie's book, Embraced by the Light, is essentially a near-death experience written (we may argue) simply to support Mormon doctrines. It is for these reasons among others that some Christians seek to identity the common "being of light" reported in NDE's as the angel Lucifer, using St. Paul's words about Satan disguising himself as an angel of light as a "proof-text".

Nevertheless, there are a number of uncertainties in these experiences, their validity, their accuracy, and their vast differences. Yet, part of being Christian - part of being human - is accepting ambiguity, mystery and uncertainty at times. The very origin of the term "sacraments" within the Christian traditions is derived from the word mystery. We may say that although we have textual clues within sacred Scripture, God has not fully revealed every detail of the afterlife to us. Now, near-death experiences occur all the time. Are these merely hallucinations caused by the loss of oxygen in your brain, or could these experiences perhaps show that there is actually life after death? Personally, of course, I believe that some of these experiences indicate life after death. I believe that we should remain open both to the possibilities, and to the movement of God's Spirit in our world today.

Troy Hillman

[1] Martin, Michael. The Unexplained: Near-Death Experiences. 1st ed. Mankato, Minnesota: Capstone Press, 2005. 8-27. Print.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid, [1]
[4] Ibid, [1]
[5] Ibid, [1]
[6] Ibid, [1]
[7] Ibid, [1]
[8] Ibid, [1]
[9] 1983. Counts, Dorothy E. Near-Death and Out-of-Body Experiences in a Melanesian Society. Anabiosis 3:115-135.
[10] Don Rhodes, Dr. "Near Death Experiences - Who is the being of light encountered in near-death experiences?." Christian Answers Network. Christian Answers Network, n.d. Web. July 2010. 


  1. Good article. Paul tells of an event and It is assumed that he was very close to Christ, yet he is unable to describe it and does not attempt to. If it is not in scripture, be very wary, lest we fall victim to the snares of satan.

  2. Some Christians immediately shout Satan when a thing goes against their preconceived ideas.
    I know of Christians who do believe that NDEs may be glimpses of the afterlife, I am one. I would not dream of turning from Christ, as I know others would not.
    It is easy to come to the bible and interpret it according to your own stance.
    Many Christians dogmatically state their own position (from their understanding of scripture) as being the biblical one, whilst judging others who do not hold it to be totally in the wrong. Others hold a different one whilst also being sure it is biblical, but not being judgemental.