Near Death Experiences (NDEs), what do we need to think about them? Are they real? Do they conflict with evangelical Christian thinking? Ironically, great debate exists in Christianity concerning NDEs, a religion based upon the resurrection of Jesus Christ. One of the great factors behind this debate is some of the testimonials that seems to contradict biblical teaching. Therefore, many feel that this leads to one of two problems: 1) the NDEs are real and the Bible is not, or 2) the Bible is real and the experiences are not. However, I feel that a third option is viable. That option is that both the Bible and the NDEs are true, but maybe there is a reason behind the discrepancies. Maybe the experiences did happen, but there is a flaw in the output of information in some testimonies. Before we look into this possibility, let’s answer some basic questions about NDEs.
What are Near Death Experiences (NDEs)?
Near Death Experiences are one of two events. They can be events where a person dies, consciously experiences something beyond the body, and comes back to tell about the events. Or, they can be events where a person remains living but experiences the heavenly realm, otherwise known as a “vision” or sometimes as an “out-of-body experience.” Predominantly, NDEs are known for the former rather than the latter.
Do Near Death Experiences (NDEs) Conflict with the Bible?
In this question, we are simply going to deal with the event itself and not the information presented. We’ll deal with that question later. For now, we are examining the NDE event. It is troubling that some Christians go to such an extreme to combat the information presented by the witness that they essentially “throw out the baby with the bathwater.” I heard a preacher, that will remained unnamed, state that “No one has ever died and come back on this earth.” Really? He really went there. Now, this is a good, godly preacher who presented that statement. Did he really mean that or was he not thinking? I don’t think he was thinking about what he said because Christianity itself is based upon one critical event in history: the Resurrection of Christ Jesus.
Granted, some would say, “Well, He’s the Son of God. I mean that no mere human has been raised from the dead!” Really? Have you read John chapter 11?
“Now when He has said these things, He (Jesus) cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!” And he who had died came out bound hand and foot with graveclothes, and his face was wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Loose him, and let him go’” (John 11:43-44, NKJV).
Furthermore, in verse 39, Martha indicates that Lazarus had been dead for four days. I read once that a pastor sought out to see how Jesus performed eulogies. He found no evidence of a single eulogy that Jesus delivered. Why? It was because that Jesus wrecked every funeral He attended. Instead of mourning the dead, He raised them to life.
“Now as He approached the gate of the city, a dead man was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow; and a sizeable crowd from the city was with her. 13 When the Lord saw her, He felt compassion for her, and said to her, “Do not weep.” 14 And He came up and touched the coffin; and the bearers came to a halt. And He said, “Young man, I say to you, arise!” 15 The dead man sat up and began to speak. And Jesus gave him back to his mother. 16 Fear gripped them all, and they began glorifying God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and, “God has visited His people!” 17 This report concerning Him went out all over Judea and in all the surrounding district” (New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Lk 7:12–17).
Could it not be that Jesus is doing the same thing now in NDEs that He did when He walked the earth? I think this is indeed the case. But, what of those visions of heaven that some people report? Should this really surprise us either? Listen to the words of the Prophet Joel:
28 “It will come about after this
That I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind;
And your sons and daughters will prophesy,
Your old men will dream dreams,
Your young men will see visions.
29 “Even on the male and female servants
I will pour out My Spirit in those days“ (New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Joe 2:28–29…underline mine).
Isaiah saw a vision of God as reported in Isaiah 6. What of John the Revelator who saw and recorded the visions that he had in the Book of Revelation? Is this really a surprise especially in light of the prophecy of Joel? It really shouldn’t be.
Does Evidence Suggest These Experiences are Real or Just Hallucinations?
There exists a wealth of information that suggests that these experiences are in fact real. For over 20 years, Dr. Gary Habermas of Liberty University has studied NDEs. He and Michael Licona wrote in their book The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus the following:
“During the past few decades, however, dozens of more credible reports have been documented of individuals who returned to consciousness after being comatose or at the point of clinical death…Some have described details of medical procedures performed on them. Some of them have related conversations that others had during their medical emergencies or even described the jewelry and clothing worn by those around them. Some accounts have given verified details about what happened outside their immediate room, down the hallway, or even miles away. The amount of verification is staggering. People blind from birth have correctly recalled visual details of things around them and outside their presence. Many of these near-death details were of events occurring when the individual had no heartbeat or brain wave activity, as indicated by “flat” EKG and EEG readings, sometimes over lengthy periods of time.
A nine-year old girl had a swimming accident and was under water for nineteen minutes. She was given very little chance of surviving. Hooked up to machines to keep her alive, she surprised everyone by regaining consciousness three days later. She took almost one hour to describe her experiences during that time. Even though Melvin Morse, the pediatrician who resuscitated her in the emergency room, reported that she was “profoundly comatose” with “fixed and dilated pupils” and without brain activity, she accurately described several details from the emergency room. Then she said that she visited heaven with an angel and had spoken with her deceased grandfather. She said that she also looked in on her family at home, and accurately described what her father, brother, and sister were doing, as well as their clothing. She knew that her mother had cooked roast chicken and rice for dinner. Since she claimed that these conditions had occurred only a couple of days before, Morse was able to verify these details with the family” (Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2004) 146-147).
Dr. Eben Alexander presents some additional evidence for the validity of these NDE accounts. In his book Proof of Heaven, he recounts the conscious experiences of heaven while being medically confirmed as brain dead. The staff of Lynchburg Hospital monitored his brain waves the entire time of his severe comatose condition as bacterial meningitis had taken away the functionability of his cerebral cortex. It is in the cerebral cortex that hallucinations and dreams are made possible. With this section of his brain flatlining, there is no medically known way for him to have had conscious experiences of anything. In other words, it would be impossible for him to have hallucinations with this part of his brain being shut down. This adds to the already incredible mix of evidence for the validity of conscious experiences beyond the body.
What About Some Reports That Present Information Contrary to Biblical Teachings?
This is the million dollar question. Why is it that there are differences in experience? I would argue that there are great overall similarities in most of the NDE experiences (light, feeling of weightlessness, seeing loved ones, seeing God, feeling of peace, overwhelming feeling of love). But why is it that some pose a theology of works? Why is it that some bring forth an universalist message that everyone will go to heaven? What of the more controversial elements to the Burpo story in Heaven is For Real? Why do Hindus claim to see Vishnu and Christians see Jesus? If these events are legit, do they undermine the integrity of the Biblical message?
Not really. Dr. Eben Alexander offers a clue to why there are differences in these experiences. In the end, it may not be a difference in experience, but a difference in interpretation.
“Over and over, in the modern NDE accounts and in spiritual writings from earlier times, I’d feel the narrator struggling with the limitations of earthly language, trying to get the entirety of the fish they had hooked on board the boat of human language and ideas…and always, to one degree or another, failing” (Eben Alexander, M.D., Proof of Heaven (New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 2012), 132.)
This would explain why it seems that the Christian is best prepared for events such as these. It also describes why the Burpo story seems childish…because it came from the interpretation of a 3-year old boy. This would describe why the Hindu thought they saw Vishnu, because they never heard of Christ and interpreted the image according to what they knew. So, this explains why there are differences. The brain trying to fathom what the spirit witnessed. The brain, like a filter, tries to interpret on a linear scale what is on a non-linear scale. The brain tries to illustrate in finite terms what is infinite. I think that is the underlying answer.
What about atheists who experience heaven? Why did God allow them to see heaven and does this mean that everyone goes to heaven? Not really. We have to remember that atheists experienced heaven and came back to tell about it. God knows all. What if the atheist died and was not slated to return? I think the eternal result would be far different. I believe that God Himself is using apologetics to show the skeptic and to show the atheist that heaven is real. The experiences also serve as a warning that if they do not change, they will not be back. By the way, those who experience the bliss of heaven and the presence of God rarely, if ever, choose not to live differently after they return.
Could This Not Be the Work of the Devil who Poses as an Angel of Light?
From time to time, I hear about some who claim that all of this is a work of the Devil who is posing as an Angel of Light. There are two problems with this theory. One, we may be ascribing more power to the Devil than he deserves. Yes, he is a very deceptive being. But, can the Devil raise the dead? Is it in his power to do this? I am not entirely sure.
Secondly and perhaps more importantly, why would the Devil do this? You are taking individuals who are skeptics and already do not believe in God and putting them in circumstances where they place their faith and trust in God! Many of whom will submit to the Lordship of Christ. Does this seem logical for the Devil? If the Devil is doing this, he is using very poor strategy.
A Word of Caution
There is a word of caution that must be given. We must take great care to the level of emphasis we place on theology from NDE events. Remember, these are the interpretations of individuals who have come back from eternity. Did they have the experience? Yes, I think so. But, are their brains accurately interpreting every event and detail that occurred? Probably not. You must weigh everything through the lens of Scripture. The Bible is God’s revelation to humanity. The Spirit of God preserved truth in the writings of the Bible so you will not be led astray and could be grounded in God.
These NDEs give great hope because they are real events. NDEs prove the naturalist assumption that the material world is all that exists to be false. NDEs give evidence to the fact that God is very real and very loving and that there is a heavenly home awaiting God’s children. NDEs give us hope. But, NDEs must be consumed like eating fish: “eat the meat and spit out the bones.” It is absolutely essential to weight these experiences, and in fact everything for that matter, by the lens of Scripture. The great thing that we can take away from NDEs is that not only are God’s children engaged in apologetics (defense of the faith), God Himself may be engaged in apologetics by proving to skeptics the world over that God is very real, and heaven is too.
New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (LaHabra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995).
The New King James Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982).
Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2004).
Eben Alexander, M.D., Proof of Heaven (New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 2012).