By Gary R. Habermas
Accounts of near death experiences (NDEs) are by no means restricted to recent times; along with similar phenomena, they have been reported throughout history. Yet, they have commanded far more interest in the last few decades. Many readers appear to be enamored by the supernatural sound of the reports themselves: claims of floating above one’s dying body, traveling down a dark tunnel, encountering or even being welcomed by a loving Being of light, perhaps meeting deceased loved ones, hearing beautiful sounds and seeing wonderful colors, and then afterwards losing the fear of death.
What about the Evidence?
For many, these phenomena alone are enough to account for the widespread interest in NDEs. But critics sometimes charge that even similar sightings such as these may indicate nothing more than the presence of common brain chemistry among humans. Perhaps this is simply what happens to the human brain when it nears a state of personal and final extinction.
However, some NDE reports are accompanied by evidential claims. In these cases, the dying persons report data that can often be verified. The closer the individual is to death and the more detailed the evidential report, the more able the experience is to answering subjective claims like those regarding common brain physiology.
For example, in dozens of NDE accounts, the dying person claims that, precisely during their emergency, they actually observed events which were subsequently confirmed. These observations may have occurred in the emergency room when the individual was in no condition to be observing what was going on around them. Sometimes, the data are reported from a distance away from the scene, and actually may not have been observable from the individual's location even if they had been healthy, with the normal use of their senses.
In more evidential cases, the dying person reported their evidential observations during extended periods of time without any heartbeat. On rare occasions, no brain activity was present in the individual, either. Further, blind persons have also given accurate descriptions of their surroundings, even when they had never seen anything either before or since.
One well-documented case involved a little girl who had very nearly drowned, and who did not register a pulse for 19 minutes. Her emergency room physician, pediatrician Melvin Morse, states that he "stood over Katie's lifeless body in the intensive care unit." An emergency CAT scan indicated that Katie had massive brain swelling, no gag reflex, and was "profoundly comatose." Morse notes that, "When I first saw her, her pupils were fixed and dilated, meaning that irreversible brain damage had most likely occurred." Her breathing was done by an artificial lung machine. She was given very little chance of surviving.
But then, just three days later, Katie unexpectedly made a full recovery. In fact, when she revived, she reproduced an amazing wealth of information regarding the emergency room, specific details of her resuscitation, along with physical descriptions of the two physicians who worked on her. All this occurred while she was completely comatose and most likely without any brain function whatsoever. As Morse recounts, "a child with Katie's symptoms should have the absence of any brain function and therefore should comprehend nothing."
It took her almost an hour to recall all the recent details. However, part of the story made no sense in usual medical terms. Katie related that during her comatose state, she was visited by an angel named Elizabeth, who allowed her to look in on her family at home. Katie correctly reported very specific details concerning what her siblings were doing, even identifying a popular rock song that her sister listened to, watched her father, and then observed as her mom cooked a meal that she correctly identified: roast chicken and rice. She described the clothing and positions of her family members. Later, she shocked her parents by telling them these details that had occurred only a few days before.1
How can someone possibly recall such confirmed details in an emergency room as well as at a distance, especially with no known brain activity? Attempts have been made to provide natural explanations of these NDE accounts. Medical factors like oxygen deprivation or temporal lobe seizures have been suggested, as have psychological causes such as hallucinations or faulty memory. However, in addition to the medical and other shortcomings in each case, each of these subjective approaches shares at least one major, common problem: because they deal with internal conditions relative to the individual, they are unable to account for particular observations of the external sort just mentioned, where evidential reports are confirmed. This is especially the case when the evidence occurs a distance away.
For instance, internal brain states cannot explain or produce accurate descriptions of events, particularly highly detailed ones in other areas. Neither can they explain the ability of blind individuals to report their surroundings. In those instances where the person's heart and/or brain is not operating, this increases the inability of the natural explanation to account adequately for the phenomena in question.
NDEs from a Christian Perspective
Do NDEs conflict with biblical beliefs? Actually, near-death phenomena may be reported in the Bible. For example, in Jesus' story of the rich man and Lazarus, we are told that the beggar Lazarus died and was carried by angels into Paradise (Lk. 16:22), a brief process that sounds somewhat similar to contemporary reports. Just before being stoned to death, Stephen, a righteous leader in the early church, saw a vision of the glorified Jesus standing at God’s right hand (Acts 7:55-56). Paul explains that he had an experience during which he was unsure whether or not he was out of his body, as he visited "the third heaven" (2 Cor. 12:1-5). Some commentators think that the timing of this event coincides with Paul's being stoned and left for dead during his trip to Lystra (Acts 14:19-20). Paul also experienced several other occasions when he was near death’s door (2 Cor. 11:23b-25).
Admittedly, some tough questions remain in relation to this topic. For instance, non-Christians have described very positive experiences during near death episodes. Rarely do they mention judgment.
However, since these individuals were not biologically (or irreversibly) dead, but near death, we can hardly ascertain their eternal state of existence in the future. Further, when near death survivors describe what they often take to be their experiences of heaven or hell, they have moved beyond the more mundane reports of events surrounding them on earth. Thus, they are not describing their perception of common, everyday events in their vicinity, as mentioned above, but their personal interpretations of another reality altogether.2 Beyond this, it is crucial to note that in cases where heaven or hell are portrayed, very little evidence is ever provided, so verifying their perceptions would be exceptionally difficult. For the record, however, exceptionally negative, even ghastly experiences,3 including graphic visions of hellfire, have also been reported during NDEs.
What about occultic or satanic NDE reports? Undeniably, such aspects are sometimes described and caution is definitely necessary. But there appears to be nothing inherently occultic about the actual NDEs themselves. These persons simply recounted their perceptions during their very difficult times. After all, what do Christians expect to occur immediately after death? Further, many of the experiencers are Christian with no previous occult involvement. Even though these experiences appear to be supernatural, they are not thereby automatically occultic. Besides, if we are correct, similar experiences seem to be reported in Scripture. Therefore, it seems that, as in life as a whole, some experiences are occultic and most others are not.
To be sure, tough questions exist with regard to NDEs; much research still needs to be done. There also appear to be solid rejoinders, as well. It should be remembered that there are many highly evidenced cases, too.
The Importance of NDE Studies
Studies of NDEs are valuable for a number of reasons. Initially, as human interest stories, they are absolutely fascinating reading; few accounts make better reading. Beyond that, these accounts purport to address what is arguably the principal mystery of life, that of the nature of death and the possibility of an afterlife.
Alternative attempts to explain NDEs naturalistically have not explained especially the evidential cases. As noted, they are especially unable to account for those observations that are reported at a distance, especially in the absence of heart or brain activity. Arguably, these last cases potentially provide some strong evidence for what may happen near the point of death. Although the argument cannot be restated here, I have developed the case elsewhere that NDEs actually evidence at least the initial moments of afterlife.4
It would seem that the sort of data that emerge from NDE research make few distinctions between the competing theistic world views and do not decide between them. These theistic options presumably would have few serious problems with these arguments. However, such a conclusion regarding the supernatural or an afterlife, if true, would seemingly create havoc for the tenets of naturalism and its claims that this universe comprises all of reality. Since they neither abrogate nor set aside the laws of nature, NDEs are not miraculous events. But these occurrences still argue for a supernatural reality beyond this present reality, thereby presenting serious challenges to naturalism. This may be the chief world view contribution of NDE research.
We have said that tough questions still remain for NDE research. But it appears that these studies can produce well-evidenced data that may be very valuable in ongoing religious and philosophical discussions.
1These details and quotations are taken from two volumes by Melvin Morse (with Paul Perry), Closer to the Light: Learning from Children’s Near-Death Experiences (N.Y.: Random House, 1990), pp. 3-14; Transformed by the Light: The Powerful Effect of Near-Death Experiences on People’s Lives (N.Y.: Random House, 1992), pp. 22-23.
2For an excellent response here, see Michael Sabom, Light and Death: One Doctor’s Fascinating Account of Near-Death Experiences (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), pp. 213-214; cf. pp. 104-141.
3One fascinating example is Howard Storm, My Descent into Death: A Second Chance at Life (New York: Doubleday, 2005), especially pp. 14-23. Storm even recounts his conversion from atheism to Christianity as a result of his NDE (Chapter 4).
4Gary R. Habermas and J.P. Moreland, Beyond Death: Exploring the Evidence for Immortality (Wheaton: Crossway, 1998; Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2003), Chapters 7-9.