Are Near-Death Experiences (NDEs) genuine visits to the afterlife or ecstatic brain events brought on by acute medical crisis? I have followed this topic for years now and have read a wide variety of viewpoints. I am of course unable to offer an assuredly correct assessment of NDEs—no one can at this stage of the inquiry—and I remain teachable about what to make of NDEs, but I offer the following considerations for anyone pondering the remarkable stories coming to us in books and movies. First, some thoughts about the science of NDEs.
- People play fast and loose with the definitions of “dead” or “death.” Cardiac arrest for a few minutes is not properly equated with biological death, nor is the temporary shut-down of the cerebral cortex a sign that the patient is brain dead. Heart seizure and flat brain waves are stepping stones along the path to death, but expert clinicians (and that may well exclude the attending physician in the ER) will tell you that death itself is an eventual result of these conditions and ought not to be confused with the conditions themselves. In many near-death situations, the patient is not hooked up to the proper equipment for measuring vital signs, and even in the best of circumstances no steps are taken to measure every possible sign of brain life. The implication of all of this is that we tend to describe as “dead” patients whom science would describe as “nearly dead,” and “nearly” is a word of great significance since, presumably, the “nearly” dead cannot enter the afterlife, and since to be alive in any way at all means that experiences during this time are life experiences and not death experiences.
- Having read twenty or so books and numerous articles on NDEs, I believe the best arguments and evidences point toward NDEs being brain events, not transportations to heaven. The common features shared across many NDEs (the tunnel of light; out-of-body viewpoints; lightning-fast thoughts; serenity and heightened awareness) are increasingly explainable on the basis of brain function during medical crisis. The biological basis for these features was unknown just a short time ago. Neuroscience is advancing rapidly, and the trajectory is toward identifying biological grounding for all NDE phenomena. A biological explanation may provide welcome relief to Christians, for otherwise NDEs commend deviations from biblical teaching (see below).
- What about the fact that some NDE experiencers claim to have obtained information while visiting heaven? As the story often goes, while in heaven the NDE experiencer discovers that someone they know has preceded them in death and is there to greet them in heaven. Or they meet a sibling they never knew they had, perhaps a baby that miscarried but was never mentioned by grieving parents. These stories are emotionally compelling and in some cases contain no obvious flaws in credibility. And yet we must consider the fact that the brain holds a deep power to store information and inferences that never even reach our consciousness. Think of the brain as a recorder that never shuts off, but the “playback” feature only ever bothers to recall a fraction of what is recorded. All of us know far more than we realize we know. When in crisis mode (due to its dying or reviving from near-death) the brain enters a state of remarkable activity, as if it were a drowning swimmer desperately trying to reach the water’s surface. At such times, is it a stretch to suggest that the brain coughs up all sorts of dormant awareness? Researchers at the University of Michigan have shown that the brains of rats undergo a great surge of activity as they die from heart seizure. It is suspected that human brains behave in a similar way under the same circumstances. If correct, this may explain why NDE experiencers “discover” new information. Perhaps they are just dredging up data from unknown depths or making inferences that were available to them prior to their NDE. In one popular NDE story, a young boy’s parents claim that his “discovery” that he had a little sister who died before his birth is evidence that he was in touch with heaven, for they assure us that they had never told him of the miscarriage while he was living. The parents may be over reading what constitutes “told him.” Did they never make brief mention of it in his presence in the four years of his life prior to the NDE? Never once while he crawled around their feet, seemingly oblivious to what they were saying? Never once while he hid from them behind the couch? They never mentioned it to one another in his presence when he was so young that they did not think he would understand or remember? Never once did an aunt or uncle or cousin mention it in his presence when he was small? The fact is we hear all sorts of things when we are young—too young to understand at the time—and comprehension emerges only later, when we’ve gained enough paradigmatic information to make sense of disparate bits and pieces that came to us at a time before our intellectual dawning. The brain records all. Comprehension is a synthesis that comes later, picking up puzzle pieces and fitting them together. In my opinion, it is unlikely that the boy was never exposed to knowledge of his miscarried sister. When undergoing an NDE—which followed a serious illness of several days that may have prompted him to consider death—the boy may have pieced together for the first time the incomplete information that had come to him about his deceased sister. Do I know this to be true? Of course not. But in view of all other considerations, it warrants strong consideration.
- What about out-of-body experiences (OBE)? Are these evidence that the essence of the human—the soul or spirit—has left the material body and entered into afterlife? Science has shown that one thing the brain will do in near-death states is create an “out-of-body” perspective. The brain does this because all of its normal sensory inputs are failing. Your arms, legs, head, etc. are no longer sending sensible reports on body position, and so your brain “creates” a visual orientation in space. The brain creates a fictional report based on past experience plus whatever perceptions it gathered about your surroundings before you entered a near-death state. Does this sound like a far-fetched theory of naturalistic scientists trying to dodge apparent immaterialist implications of NDEs? Well, it isn’t. Research has shown that you can force a patient to experience OBE by zapping the part of the brain responsible for assimilating sensory input and mapping bodily position. Certain varieties of epileptics experience OBE regularly. They will find that they are sitting next to themselves, lying next to themselves, or watching themselves stand from bed. It is a wigged out brain event, not a temporary escape of soul from body. Several other conditions can promote varieties of OBE, including drug use, centripetal force, and sudden shock. If OBE can be prompted by manipulating the brain, it may be best to conclude that OBEs during NDEs are a result of disrupted brain function, not the tug of heaven on a departing soul.
Aside from growing evidence for a biological basis for NDEs, there are numerous non-scientific considerations that commend healthy skepticism regarding NDEs.
- The Christian community is predisposed to believe NDE stories uncritically, for our worldview supports belief in an afterlife and we feel affirmed by anything that supports that worldview. We feel our way to conclusions and risk missing countersigns along the way. This is especially evident in the way some bloggers and pastors have unreservedly embraced NDE stories. One blog, written by a pastor, complained about the critical verdicts of “theological police” and concluded that he, presumably being more open of mind and heart, was in no position to deny that NDEs are true experiences of heaven. To paraphrase, “Hey, God can do anything he wants, and who am I to stand in the way?” This may sound commendably pious of him, but I wonder if isn’t something more like naivety. As even a brief review of NDE literature will demonstrate, the messages coming from Jesus/God/Light Orb in NDEs are most often biblically problematic. NDE advocates talk about theological police as if the concerns about NDEs can be dismissed as the zealotry of theological tight wads, but that just doesn’t fly. NDE experiencers claim to have been in touch with heaven and to have received messages from God. What can Christians do but measure these claims against the Bible, which is taken to be an authoritative revelation from God? No two NDEs are alike, and they are case studies in inconsistency, subjectivity, and variance from the biblical norm. In this light, NDEs are dubious sources for information about God and the afterlife.
- NDE experiencers disagree about all kinds of details about heaven and hell. For instance, is everyone in heaven young in appearance (say, an optimal age of 30) or do they remain essentially unchanged from the age at which they died? Pick up any two NDE books and you are likely to get contradictory answers. Which is it? It cannot be both ways, unless everyone gets a personal heaven that is populated in just the way they prefer. I see my wife as one age, my children see her as another age, and my mother-in-law sees her as another age still? Can we even take such a notion seriously? The variance on this and many other points suggests that NDEs are subjective brain events rather than ventures into the biblical heaven, the common destination of all saints.
- In one popular NDE story, a small boy returns from the afterlife and reports that all the men in heaven carry swords for the purpose of combating a resurgent Satan in the end times. This is unsupportable from a biblical standpoint and is defamatory toward God. Must God employ redeemed men to help ensure his final victory over Satan? By the way, this same boy assures us that the women of heaven carry no swords. Tuck in, ladies. The menfolk will keep you safe. What seems most likely—that the boy’s report is an unbiblical but true reflection of the afterlife, or that it’s a figment of his childish imagination?
- NDEs that occur among non-Christians, especially those in the East, are utterly unbiblical. Folks meet Krishna or whatever deity they are trained to follow. In India, NDE experiencers often meet the god who presides over the book of the dead, and he sends them back to life because a clerical mistake has prematurely summoned them into death. If NDEs really put us in touch with an objectively real heaven, why do non-Christians not meet our God or encounter our version of afterlife? Why do folks who have never heard of Jesus not come back devoted to him? The fact is NDEs are culture-specific. You will experience in your near-death state whatever your culture has programmed you to experience, which means you are alive enough to draw from your brain the afterlife themes (whether you accept or reject them) that have been planted there.
- If NDEs are true experiences of the afterlife, why does no one come back with indisputable proof that they were made privy to information from God? This is a somewhat presumptuous argument since it assumes that God would want to offer the world proof that he is real and that NDE experiencers really do meet him, but it is worth mentioning that it would be easy for God to load up an NDE experiencer with information that would close out all doubts. This has never happened, a fact that needs no explanation if NDEs are brain events and not true experiences of afterlife.
Given the subjectivity, biological basis, and biblical problems common to NDEs, it may be best to say that what happens in an NDE should stay in an NDE. It is a private experience and should remain such. I fear that we are gullible when we run after sensational NDE stories, especially those told by toddlers whose parents are ministers. Heaven is for real because the Bible says so, not because a child’s parents probe his imagination in the months and years after his NDE.
Extraordinary claims are being made by NDE experiencers, and Christians are under obligation to weigh such claims carefully against the standard given to us, the Bible, plus we must exhaust natural explanations lest we prematurely advocate divine causation.
For further reading, and from a variety of viewpoints, consider the following: Out-of-Body and Near-Death Experiences, Michael Marsh; Beyond Death, Gary Habermas and J.P. Moreland; The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain, Kevin Nelson; Science and the Near-Death Experience, Chris Carter; 90 Minutes in Heaven, Don Piper; Heaven is for Real, Todd Burpo; Proof of Heaven, Eben Alexander; There is More . . . 18 Near-Death Experiences, Hector Keaopa’uhane; My Descent into Death, Howard Storm; Consciousness Beyond Life, Pim van Lommel; Dying to Live, Susan Blackmore; Evidence of the Afterlife, Paul Perry and Jeffrey Long.