Posts Tagged ‘near-death experiences’

“Freedom from the dread of dying”

August 26, 2015

odenI’m afraid of dying. As a Christian, I feel slightly guilty in saying this. But it’s true. I am not yet at the place where the apostle Paul was, in Philippians, when he could look forward to death: “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.”

I am unimpressed, therefore, when I hear atheist apologists, as I often do, accuse us Christians of being weak-minded—that our faith is a psychological crutch to help us cope with the harsh reality of death.

Oh, please! I find the materialistic alternative—that our existence ends in death—much easier to believe! In other words, without examining the evidence, without reasoning it through—relying on gut feeling alone—I find it harder to believe in heaven and future resurrection.

What about you?

I hope and expect, God willing, that this fear of death will diminish over time, that God will give me the grace to deal with my own death when I need it. In the meantime, I take comfort in reading credible testimonies of Christians who have near-death experiences. In saying this, I’m well aware that near-death experiences are controversial—and I’m skeptical of many of them, too.

But I do believe that in some cases, at least, God gives people a spiritual experience when they are close to death, which bolsters their faith when they recover. For them, these experiences are a gift of grace.

One such testimony comes from theologian Thomas Oden, which he describes in his recent memoir, A Change of Heart. He had open-heart surgery back in the ’80s. There were complications after completing the bypass, so the doctors needed to go back in for a second, emergency procedure. He nearly died.

I regained partial consciousness in between those two surgeries and could hear the voices in the operating room and was conscious enough to realize that a serious medical emergency was occurring. During that unforeseen waking moment, I had the clear impression that I had already died. Unexplainably I felt an unexpected sense of relief, joy and entry into a distinctly new world where a bright light was radiating into my soul.

I was bathed in a glorious world of light—stunning, radiant light of a different sort than I had ever seen. The light seemed to be not the light from the operating room ceiling but from somewhere far beyond. I was surprised that I was not at all afraid. After the second surgery, when I woke up I realized that I had not died…

The deeper discovery for me was the lasting realization that I was not afraid of dying. This is not a report of a near-death experience but rather an imagined death experience. After that I felt a freedom from the dread of dying that has offered inexpressible comfort to me in the ensuing years. At my lowest point physically I underwent a peace experience spiritually. It was as real as anything I have ever experienced.[1]

1. Thomas Oden, A Change of Heart (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 182.

Christianity Today’s take on near-death experiences

December 6, 2012

ct_decemberIf you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you probably know that I’ve softened my stance on near-death experiences. Like the most hardened philosophical materialist, I used to think that NDEs were merely ephemeral impulses of an oxygen-starved neocortex. I now believe that they are, in many cases, gifts from God that have some value for those of us who are interested in Christian apologetics.

Christianity Today editor Mark Galli, whose book-length response to Rob Bell’s controversial Love Wins I recommended last year, shares my point of view. In this cover story, “Incredible Journeys,” he addresses the biggest obstacle that Christians face in accepting the validity of NDEs: What if the God revealed in these experiences isn’t quite like the God revealed in Jesus Christ? Because of these discrepancies, he writes,

many Christians dismiss them as mere hallucination or a deceptive work of the Devil. I, for one, find the latter unconvincing. In most cases, people who have had near-heaven experiences return to earth and give themselves in love and service of others. If the Devil is inspiring such godly work, he’s confused about his job description.

As for the cultural and theological anomalies: First, it is hardly surprising that people interpret their experience through a particular cultural or religious lens. What other way do they have to process what is happening to them? Besides, all who’ve had this experience acknowledge Neal’s point: Words are inadequate to describe what they saw and heard. They really have no choice but to try to describe what happened in the language of their time and culture, and it is no wonder that so many of the descriptions seem to be at odds.

As for the confused theology, we have to remember that those who experience these things are not theologians. We are not required to accept every one of their insights as dogmatic statements of received doctrine. What they experienced is, at best, the anteroom to heaven. We have no idea what happens after the initial 90 minutes or so, what their experience of God will be like, what will be revealed to them if they remain.

And we must guard ourselves against the Prodigal Son’s elder brother syndrome. Too many of us are troubled when non-Christians enjoy an overwhelming experience of unconditional love in NDES. I would hope that we would all hope that the God we preach is in fact the God of prodigals, and that he reveals himself to us while we are yet sinners, sometimes on earth, sometimes during NDES.

Galli, careful theologian that he is, deals with the chief theological problem I had with Todd Burpo’s Heaven is For Real: What about future bodily resurrection? Our ultimate Christian hope isn’t heaven when we die, but fully embodied life in a renewed world on the other side of resurrection.

Galli couldn’t agree more, but he identifies the pastoral challenge we face when talking about resurrection versus an immediate, intermediate state that begins when we die.

In general, when life-after-the-afterlife folks talk about this future state, the language gets global and the vision abstract. There is a lot of talk about how “justice will reign,” and “evil will be defeated.” There are sweeping statements about “the culmination of history” and “the coming reign of God” and “the renewal of the whole earth.” This is heady stuff, and, as stated above, true as true can be.

But it doesn’t always connect with the widow whose husband was struck by a fatal heart attack. It doesn’t always speak to the 10-year-old whose mother just died of cancer. It doesn’t necessarily help those who wrestle with a question that troubles millions: “What happens when I die?” Some of us (usually the highly educated among us) may be most interested in life after the afterlife, but most people in the pews are deeply concerned simply with the afterlife—the one that comes right after this one. Their highest existential priority is not that justice will reign in all the earth, but to hear some good news about “what will happen to me next.”

Truer words… Even N.T. Wright, who’s done more than anyone to bring the Church back to a fully orthodox and full-bodied understanding of resurrection, tends to get fuzzy on resurrection. If our biggest fear is death, which I believe it is, then it’s enough for most of us to know that there’s an afterlife, never mind life after that afterlife. The distinction between the intermediate state and resurrection just isn’t important to most people.

When it comes to NDEs, Galli gets to the heart of the matter with this conclusion:

Despite their varied accounts and sometimes confused theology, there are moments when it is apparent that many of these people have had a remarkable encounter with the living God revealed in Jesus Christ. In the end, these are not so much near-death or near-heaven experiences, but, as a friend noted, near-God experiences. And when we see that people, even those who do not share our biblical assumptions, experience the God revealed in Jesus Christ—that is, the God of unconditional love—we cannot help but be thrilled and gratified. And to see it as an opportunity to talk about the full counsel of God.

“Heaven is real,” says this week’s Newsweek

October 15, 2012

Many people will be talking about this week’s Newsweek cover story, “Heaven Is Real,” and for good reason: It’s a beautifully written first-person account of a near-death experience (NDE), written by a scientifically minded person—a well-respected neurosurgeon—who knows exactly how crazy it will sound to his skeptical colleagues.

His NDE is different from many others that we know of, simply because he experienced it during that time when the part of his brain that controls thoughts and emotions, the neocortex, had been disabled due to an attack of bacterial meningitis. He was, for all practical purposes, brain-dead.

I’m not the first person to have discovered evidence that consciousness exists beyond the body. Brief, wonderful glimpses of this realm are as old as human history. But as far as I know, no one before me has ever traveled to this dimension (a) while their cortex was completely shut down, and (b) while their body was under minute medical observation, as mine was for the full seven days of my coma.

All the chief arguments against near-death experiences suggest that these experiences are the results of minimal, transient, or partial malfunctioning of the cortex. My near-death experience, however, took place not while my cortex was malfunctioning, but while it was simply off. This is clear from the severity and duration of my meningitis, and from the global cortical involvement documented by CT scans and neurological examinations. According to current medical understanding of the brain and mind, there is absolutely no way that I could have experienced even a dim and limited consciousness during my time in the coma, much less the hyper-vivid and completely coherent odyssey I underwent.

He writes that during his journey in the heavenly realm, he was accompanied by an angelic being, a woman, whom he describes as follows:

The woman’s outfit was simple, like a peasant’s, but its colors—powder blue, indigo, and pastel orange-peach—had the same overwhelming, super-vivid aliveness that everything else had. She looked at me with a look that, if you saw it for five seconds, would make your whole life up to that point worth living, no matter what had happened in it so far. It was not a romantic look. It was not a look of friendship. It was a look that was somehow beyond all these, beyond all the different compartments of love we have down here on earth. It was something higher, holding all those other kinds of love within itself while at the same time being much bigger than all of them.

Without using any words, she spoke to me. The message went through me like a wind, and I instantly understood that it was true. I knew so in the same way that I knew that the world around us was real—was not some fantasy, passing and insubstantial.

If nothing else, let’s pause a moment to appreciate the author’s literary skill—the man knows how to write! Digging deeper, I find his account credible and consistent with scripture and the message of the gospel. NDEs, while hardly any kind of slam-dunk proof of God or the afterlife, are not nothing, as I’ve written before. 

I’m willing to accept that, for whatever reason, God gave Dr. Alexander this experience. This is no big leap for me: when friends or parishioners tell me that God intervened in their life, or communicated something to them, or worked a miracle of some kind, I tend to believe them. God, I believe, does these sorts of things all the time!

I’m glad that other Christians have also embraced him and his story.

One of the few places I didn’t have trouble getting my story across was a place I’d seen fairly little of before my experience: church. The first time I entered a church after my coma, I saw everything with fresh eyes. The colors of the stained-glass windows recalled the luminous beauty of the landscapes I’d seen in the world above. The deep bass notes of the organ reminded me of how thoughts and emotions in that world are like waves that move through you. And, most important, a painting of Jesus breaking bread with his disciples evoked the message that lay at the very heart of my journey: that we are loved and accepted unconditionally by a God even more grand and unfathomably glorious than the one I’d learned of as a child in Sunday school.

Near-death experiences and what they might tell us

April 18, 2012

Last year, I said some unkind things about the glurge-y Christian best-seller Heaven Is for Real, a father’s account of his four-year-old son’s near-death experience (NDE). Among other things, I wrote,

Even giving Colton Burpo—the four-year-old son of the author who supposedly died and spent three minutes in heaven—the benefit of the doubt that he had some kind of out-of-body, near death experience (which are common), Christian eschatology is, in fact, so complicated that I would expect a four-year-old to misunderstand it.

My main criticism, in other words, was not that the child didn’t have the experience, but that his father—a Christian pastor—interpreted the experience in a theologically deficient way. He didn’t speak a single word about our ultimate Christian hope: resurrection of the dead. The intermediate state to which a soul goes prior to Second Coming/Final Judgment/Resurrection and of which the Apostle Paul speaks in Philippians 1:21 is strictly a spiritual state.

We may call this temporary, disembodied state “heaven” if we like, so long as we understand that on the other side of Second Coming/Final Judgment/Resurrection, we will be physically re-embodied in a redeemed, renewed, and restored Creation. See the New Jerusalem of Revelation 21: our final destination is a place in which heaven comes down to earth.

I feel self-conscious writing about resurrection because there is much we don’t know. Paul himself calls it a “mystery” in 1 Corinthians 15. Our bodies won’t be merely physical according to our understanding of physics. They will be like Christ’s resurrected body—physical but more than physical; in continuity with who we are now, but different, transformed.

As I said on Monday, for most of us it’s enough that through Jesus, we get to have an afterlife at all, and that this afterlife will be happy and fulfilling. We don’t need to sweat the details—which is good, since the Bible doesn’t furnish us with many. But the Bible tells us enough to know that heaven is a two-stage process.

That being said, the prevalence of NDEs helps us as we defend our faith against atheists who reject anything beyond this physical world. NDEs provide one tantalizing clue that life continues beyond death—that there is more to reality than meets the eye (or the lens of a microscope or telescope). There is something beyond this physical universe.

One thinker I admire, Adam Hamilton, thinks so. He said as much in 24 Hours That Changed the World.[1] In their book The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, Habermas and Licona think so, too. They describe their own interview with the family of a nine-year-old girl who had a swimming accident and was underwater for 19 minutes. Although she was resuscitated, she had been, by all appearances, dead. She had no brain activity. To everyone’s surprise, however, she recovered from a coma three days later and described in detail verifiable events that occurred around the time of her death—events to which she had no natural access. Like Todd Burpo’s kid, she also met loved ones in heaven… the whole nine yards.

Habermas and Licona write:

Many of these reports [of NDEs] are so well-documented that some naturalists have been forced to take them seriously, even admitting the possibility they pose of life beyond the grave. John Beloff, writing in The Humanist, argued that the evidence for an afterlife was so strong that humanists should just admit it and attempt to interpret it in naturalistic terms. Amazingly, the well-known atheist philosopher A.J. Ayer experienced an NDE that he could not explain in natural terms: “On the face of it, these experiences, on the assumption that the last one was veridical, are rather strong evidence that death does not put an end to my consciousness.” Ayer concluded, “my recent experiences have slightly weakened my conviction that my genuine death, which is due fairly soon, will be the end of me, though I continue to hope that it will be.” Atheist philosopher Antony Flew attests that NDEs “certainly constitute impressive evidence of the possibility of the occurrence of human consciousness independent of any occurrences in the human brain…. This evidence equally certainly weakens if it does not completely refute my argument against doctrines of a future life.”[2]

A couple of points: NDEs say nothing about resurrection. They simply cast doubt on the philosophical materialist’s belief that nothing exists outside the realm of time, space, and matter. If something exists beyond this physical universe—and according to reports it seems to be a heavenly place in which we’re reunited with loved ones, for instance—then why not believe in God and the Christian gospel, with which such a place is theologically consistent?

It could be, as I wrote in the comments section of my post on Monday, that in the liminal space between life and death, people are susceptible to the spiritual realm in a way that they’re not otherwise, when their defenses against God are at full strength.

1. Adam Hamilton, 24 Hours That Changed the World (Nashville: Abingdon, 2009), 124-6.

2. Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004), 147.