There is hardly a more popular genre of religious literature today than that of Near-Death Experience (NDEs). I often tell people that if they want to become a millionaire, all they have to do is die, come back to life, and then write about what they saw (if Kiefer Sutherland and Julia Roberts could do it in Flatliners, why not?).
The fascination with this subject is certainly understandable. After all, we are talking about people who assert that they have had first-hand experience with the afterlife. Their testimony, were it to be true, could overturn atheism, and give us the most insider information that we have had since the Apostle John. Who wouldn’t want such confirmation? After all, for most of us, our experience of God is filtered through so many events that are hard to interpret and, frequently, over-interpreted. How many of us haven’t asked God to do something for us personally that breaks through the often boring mundane, in order to show Himself and His will to us in a definite experiential way? I know I have.
In comes NDEs to the rescue. From the claims of a little four-year-old boy’s meetings with John the Baptist and explanations of the Trinity to a neurosurgeon’s personal Journey to the Afterlife, we can’t miss a demographic here (although the first is not technically an NDE). We now even have anthologies of this stuff.
Many devoted Christians have begun to see the light (pardon the pun) as more and more of these stories surface. At the very least, we are left scratching our heads, slowly developing a love-hate relationship with NDEs. While most of the NDE stories come from either Christians, we do have others joining the conversation. As of 2005, close to 95% of the cultures of the world have documented some sort of near-death experience (The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences [yes, they have a handbook on these things] pp. 1–16). But more significant than this (to me) are the conflicting testimonies of Christians and/or converts who describe the afterlife. While there are some common elements in their stories (discussed below), the details are more difficult to reconcile.
Theological Problems with NDEs
An important bit of information occurs when details of heaven go beyond the “light at the end of the tunnel.” This information normally reflects the folk theology of the culture, rather than serious biblical and theological understanding. In other words, whatever the cultural understanding of heaven, hell, and the afterlife is, NDEs will normally refect this preunderstanding. Muslims will see 72 virgins, Christians will see Jesus, and Buddhists will join Nirvana.
Here are some problematic testimonies:
- Angels often have wings and look like humans. Although this is possible, there is no evidence or reason to believe it to be the case.
- The streets of heaven are often made of gold. Even if the streets of heaven are made of literal gold, this does not come until the new heavens and earth are created (Rev. 21:21).
- Sometimes people have halos over their heads. I guess this is possible, but a detail provided by culture, not the Bible.
- For those who go to Hell, it is almost always made of fire. Again, possible, but, to me, unlikely as fire is probably a metaphor simply describing terrible suffering. Otherwise, how do we explain heaven being described as darkness and fire?
- Many unbelievers who have NDEs describe the afterlife as a place of peace and overwhelming joy. For these, there is often no Christian message associated with their testimony.
To be sure, there are many more of these details that can be critiqued, but when looked at as a whole, it becomes evident that something else is going on in most (if not all) of these stories.
The Benefit of NDEs
However, while I would never encourage anyone to gain hope in the truth of Christianity solely based on NDE’s as the source of their theology regarding the afterlife, I don’t think NDEs are necessarily bogus or unhelpful, spiritually speaking. Of course, there are going to be those who make things up entirely. Others will exaggerate. Some may even misinterpret what they saw. But the sheer number of testimonies from people who claim NDEs must give pause, even to the most skeptical of us.
While the details often differ, there are many common elements in people’s stories. Coming from people who are in a brain dead state, these details become very significant and transcend the knowledge of science. Here are some of the common experiences:
- Awareness of being dead
- A consciousness away from the body
- Moving through a tunnel
- A bright light
- Meeting with deceased loved ones
There are more, but these are the most significant.
Among conservative Christians who think critically about these matters are Gary Habermas and J.P. Moreland, both of whom have written on the subject. In discussions with them, they seem to agree that while NDEs have debatable significance in giving us a glimpse of heaven, and peripheral value in proving the Christian faith, they do have significant value in discrediting naturalism (the belief that there is no transcendence to nature) and scientism (the belief that science can explain all things). Why? Because, at the very least, NDEs give evidence that there is a conscious part of individuals that transcends the body and brain. In short, NDEs give evidence of the soul.
How We Should Prioritize NDEs
I personally think that we, as Christians, should engage in NDE studies. I think the subject is important and fascinating. However, I would caution all Christian not to ever base their confidence in Christianity on subjective experiences such as these. God has already provided us with such significant evidence of the truthfulness of our faith in the historicity of the advent, death, and resurrection of Christ. This is enough to establish and secure our faith. It has stood the test of time and has overcome the most powerful of scrutinies. Testimonies from individuals about heaven should never be the basis for our conversion. It is troubling for me to think that thousands of Christians are opting to hand out Heaven is for Real over The Case for the Resurrection of Christ.