Thursday, June 21, 2012

Is there reality to near death experiences?

kw: musings, near-death experiences, beliefs

Getting ready to review the book Heaven is for Real, which I reviewed yesterday, I did a lot of extra reading about NDE's. As you might imagine, there is a very wide spectrum of beliefs about what these extraordinary events might mean, or perhaps several spectra. One spectrum is from complete credulity ("They have to be real") to total rejection ("They are all hallucinations"). Another is based on one's own belief system, from "They support my faith" or "They strengthen my faith" to "They are meaningless" or even "They are a delusion by wicked spirits".

Strangely, reading NDE accounts, I didn't find any people who said, in effect, "Yeah, I saw this and heard that and so forth, but it doesn't mean anything to me." Also, quite a number of folks said it wasn't like dreaming, but seemed a much more concrete experience that led to vivid memories.

There are various lists of the common elements of NDE's. The core experience seems to consist of these few elements:
  1. Transport to a different place, sometimes "taken" by other persons or entities, sometimes more "automatic", like involuntary flight.
  2. Some kind of life review, perhaps having one's life events shown on a screen, or read from a book, or being questioned by an entity who may or may not be sympathetic.
  3. A turn in the action, often a kind of interruption, with the understanding that return to the former existence is required.
  4. Transport back and reviving.
The transport in item 1 is most often flight through a kind of tunnel, perhaps with a light at the end, among Westerners, while Asians and many Africans more often report passing over some kind of landscape. The transport in item 4 is usually more abrupt, and may be a simple thrusting "downward" or "back".

Many, particularly in the West, report meeting deceased relatives or acquaintances. Others report that all the entities they met were "angels" or some other nonhuman beings. Here interpretation is most prevalent; a person's cultural background determines what the accompanying beings will be called.

The life review might be long or short, comforting or frightening, and seems to have little to do with one's religion. A guilty-feeling Christian or Hindu or whatever is more likely to have an unpleasant experience than a more secure believer. I sought out accounts from a variety of cultures and religions. There is little to generalize, but I did discern a few trends:
  1. Christians are most likely to report that they visited "heaven" or "paradise".
  2. Jews from a strictly conservative background tend to report the most detailed life reviews, and one case that I read was long and detailed and very unpleasant and scary.
  3. Jews from more mystical backgrounds are more likely to report a "garden of Eden" experience.
  4. Hindus and Buddhists seldom report a heavenly experience, because the life review takes place before admission to a place they can see nearby. They usually report being sent back before they get a look inside. Buddhist NDE's appear to be quite rare.
  5. Muslims almost uniformly consider NDE's as hallucinations, stating, "If you revived, you weren't dead, and only the dead can go to paradise, so you didn't go to paradise." However, there are a few reports of Muslims who had a very strong, heavenly and pleasant experience, who converted to Christianity after reviving.
  6. I did not find any reports from people whose background was Shinto or Bah'ai.
I looked and looked, but did not find any records of people changing religions after an NDE, except for those few Muslim reports. Rather, people who had been weakly religious before became more pious in their own religion as a result, while those who were already quite diligent were more likely to exhort others than before.

So do NDE's actually have anything to do with God? I tend to think that NDE's are primarily hallucinatory. A few cases, such as that of Colton Burpo, have aspects that make them seem more genuine, just as there are a few cases of visions or revelatory dreams that seem more genuine (as opposed to a great many reported visions and dreams that are most likely theologically meaningless or even deceptive). As a believer in God, of necessity I believe in divine revelation. But I also believe that genuine revelation is very rare. If all NDE's are given by God for His purpose, it would make sense that they contain a consistent message. Generally, they don't.

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