I have recently watched a number of recollections of near-death experiences (NDEs). I also recently listened to a lecture by Gary Habermas, who has studied NDEs for more than a couple of decades. He notes that NDEs have been known for millennia. Some scholars speculate that Plato ‘s Myth of Ur is about a real NDE. There are even near-death experiences recorded in Scripture.
I had no idea NDEs were so common. Habermas says Americans, alone, have reported about 8,000,000 NDE experiences, and they occur around the world in all cultures.
Many NDEs could be made up, though there are many similarities among the reported NDEs. Just listening to a dozen or so of them I could identify the similarities. NDE accounts often don’t fit with worldviews, including the Christian worldview.
Naturalists, however, have the most difficult position in respect to NDEs. Naturalism is the premise that the universe is comprised of nothing but material things: matter, motion, time and space. They hold to a position that no transcendent or supernatural reality exists.
How do we deal with NDEs? How do we account for them?
Beginning in the early 1970’s, a number of books were written about accounts of NDEs going back to the 1700’s. In studying NDEs, people, no doubt, have been motivated by the age-old question: is there is life after death?
People in these modern times want scientific proof, but it alludes us. Nevertheless, the sheer number of NDEs, and the themes that run through them from all over the world, point us to something that isn’t reducible to the material world, even as it remains a mystery.
The study of NDEs has exposed that we are certain of what death is or when it occurs. In the 1970’s, the benchmark for death was no measurable heartbeat, but some people were skeptical because dying appears to be a process. Does the absence of a heartbeat measure death? Or is there another measure?
Researchers changed their focus over time to on brain activity. Again, though, questions remained. Just because we can’t detect brain activity doesn’t mean there isn’t any brain activity. A flat heart rate and no brain activity simply means no measurable level of heartbeat or brain activity. Are people really dead at that point?
People who study NDEs focus on the time period after the measurable heart and brain activity stop because our data indicates that this is the point at which death seems to occur, and people usually remain “dead” after reaching this state. People have “come back” from no measurable brain activity and no heartbeat, however. Where is the point of no return? For now, no measurable brain activity and heart activity is the most reliable measure we have for death.
Whether NDEs are miracles is another story, but something is going on that naturalists can’t explain within a naturalistic framework. NDEs challenge the naturalistic worldview.
Typical NDEs include an out of body experience that begins with a bird’s eye view of the body of the person who had the NDE. The body may or may not be immediately recognizable. Many people experience leaving the area of their bodies and “coming upon” family or people gathered in a different location, maybe down the hall, on a different story of the same building or even in a completely different, remote location from the body.
In one example, Habermas recalls a woman who had an NDE in which she overheard her uncle gathered with the family in a different area of the hospital. She recalled him saying, “If she is going to die, I hope she kicks the bucket pretty soon. I have an appointment in an hour.”
When the woman came out of unconsciousness, the first thing she did was ask if he said that. The family heard it; so he couldn’t deny it. But, how could she have heard it?
Another example includes a female doctor who changed out of her hospital scrubs to attend a Christmas party. She borrowed a broach from a friend, and she just put the broach on when she received a signal code. She responded to it and helped resuscitate the man who had “coded”. After he was revived, she attended the party, and she gave the broach back to her friend when the party was over.
A number of days later the man who was resuscitated was standing in the hospital as the doctor walked past. He introduced himself, but she didn’t recognize him. He explained who he was and said he remembered her because she was the person in the hospital room who had the dress on.
Then he asked her about the broach. His attention had been drawn to the broach during the NDE, and he described it perfectly. She had only worn it that one time and had given it back to her friend after the party. He couldn’t possibly have known about it unless he had actually seen it.
NDE stories include identifying objects on top of the hospital or identifying objects miles away. In one case, a 7-year old girl drowned. She had no heartbeat for 17 minutes. A pediatric neurologist tried to revive her, but he gave up trying. After he left, she resuscitated spontaneously. A few days later, when she came to consciousness, the little girl began to identify in detail the people who worked on her.
Doctors interviewed her and took notes for an hour. She drew pictures of where things were. She described what they did to her. She asked them why they said specific things, repeating things they actually said. She also reported an angel, named Elizabeth, who visited her. She claimed the angel took her and let her look in on her family at the house. She described what her siblings did, what her father did, and what her mother did.
The doctors wrote down all the details, including what her siblings were playing with and what her mother cooked for dinner as she described them. When the family came to visit her, the doctors asked about the details without telling them what their daughter had described. They confirmed all of it!
These examples are extremely well-documented, and they are only a sampling of a large database of well-documented NDEs. The University of Virginia has the only peer-reviewed, near-death journal in the world. Most of the reviewers are MD’s or psychologists. Only a few, like Gary Habermas, are not in the medical or scientific fields.
One thing seems clear, though, stories like the examples described above can’t be explained by the involvement of the central nervous system. Details that people can describe from a perspective outside their own bodies, often from outside the room where the patient’s body was, and sometimes even miles away, are not explainable by known science.
Gary Habermas often is asked to review the stories that take a religious turn. He notes that some of the stories are strange and don’t follow a Christian worldview.
One famous atheist, AJ Ayer, had multiple NDEs. The first one occurred after his heart stopped. He described the experience in What I Saw When I was Dead. He described standing before a “painful” red light. He didn’t call the light God, but he described the light as “responsible for the government of the universe”, and it made him feel very uncomfortable.
Of course, this story fits the Christian world view. What about NDEs that don’t fit the Christian worldview?
What about the story of a Hindu welcomed into the afterlife by a Hindu deity? Or someone who was told in an NDE that there are different paths to God? What about an NDE in which an atheist is welcomed into heaven?
If Ayer’s story tells us anything, it tells us that experience doesn’t necessarily change worldviews. Ayers ended the initial account of his NDE by stating,
“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. They have not weakened my conviction that there is no god.”
A few months later, he walked that concession back even further, clarifying that he hadn’t changed his belief that there is no life after death, though, he said, he was open to considering it. (See On the Near-Death Experience of an Atheist and Speculation on Its Effect)
Habermas observes that about 20% of NDEs are hellish in nature. Many people, on the other hand, describe a light that they equate with unconditional love, and many of those people are not Christian. Some are not even religious at all.
According to Habermas, the NDE data indicates that something objective is going on, but people may have different interpretations based on their own experiences and worldviews. Factual observations are one thing, but interpretation is another.
Habermas says that we have to distinguish this-worldly data (facts) from other-worldly data (metaphysical interpretations), like an angle named Elizabeth. When people describe heaven or angelic beings or light or love, how do we know they aren’t dreaming or delusional?
We don’t have any data to falsify it. Therefore, we need to be cautious about reaching conclusions.
NDEs have been written up in more than 20 different medical journals. Many of them are discounted and written off. Some in the medical profession will explain them as temporal lobe seizures. When the temporal lobe is stimulated by manipulation, people often see lights and tunnels. Others suggest that NDEs could be explained by oxygen deprivation.
The problem is, however, that these explanations cannot account for details people report remotely from their bodies at the times they are experiencing their NDEs. The further away from the location of the body, the more difficult it is to explain. Temporal lobe seizures, oxygen deprivation or hallucinogenic causes don’t explain knowledge of those details.
We don’t have data to falsify the metaphysical accounts so we have to take them with a grain of salt. This means we have to discount Christian and non-Christian accounts alike. We can’t accept the one and reject the other.
At the end of the day, though, “the odd man out” is the naturalist, says Habermas. The various religions of the world provide ways to account for NDES. They all admit that some sense of an afterlife exists, but NDEs are really tough on the naturalists. Naturalists have no present way to account for NDEs.
Following is the full length presentation by Dr. Gary Habermas on his research into near-death experiences, and after that is a link to a number of people who describe their own near-death experiences.