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 they 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, but naturalists have the most difficult position in respect to NDEs. How do we deal with them? 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. People began to study of NDEs. People were motivated by the age-old question: is there is life after death?
People in these modern times want scientific proof. In the 1970’s the benchmark for legitimate the studies was no measurable heartbeat, but some people were skeptical because dying is a process. Does the absence of a heartbeat measure death? Or is there another measure?
Researchers changed their focus to brain activity. Again, though, questions remained. Just because we can’t detect brain activity doesn’t mean there isn’t any brain activity. Flat heart rate and no brain activity simply means no measurable level of heartbeat or brain activity. But, are people really dead at that point?
A cardiac arrest means, by definition, that the heart is not working. After a cardiac arrest, we know that measurable brain activity stops in 20-30 seconds. 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 occurs, and people usually remain “dead” after reaching this state.
A skeptic may say, “If a person comes back to life, he wasn’t dead!” Of course, the modern skeptic believes that miracles don’t happen; they can’t happen based on a naturalistic worldview. So anyone who comes back to life wasn’t dead – because it couldn’t have been a miracle.
NDEs challenge the naturalistic worldview. Whether NDEs are miracles is another story, but something is going on that naturalists can’t explain within a naturalistic framework.
Typical NDEs include an out of body experience that begins with a bird’s eye view above their own bodies. 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 separate location, maybe down the hall, on a different story of the same building or even in a completely different location from the body.
In one example that Habermas recalls, the woman who had the NDE overheard her uncle who was 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. Of course, the family heard it; 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 had borrowed a broach from a friend. She had just put the broach on when there was a signal code. She responded to it and helped resuscitate a guy. She later attended the party, and she gave the broach back to her friend when the party was over.
A number of days later the guy 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 that 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 for some reason during the NDE, and he described it perfectly, though she had only worn it that one time and had given it back.
Some NDE stories include identifying objects on top of the hospital or identifying objects miles away. In one case, a 7-year old girl drowned and had no heartbeat for 17 minutes. A doctor who was a pediatric neurologist responded and worked on her. After the gave up trying, and he left, she resuscitated spontaneously. A few days later, when she came to consciousness, the little girl identified the people who worked on her in detail.
The doctors interviewed the little girl and took notes for an hour. She even drew pictures of where things were, and 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 they 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 body of extremely 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. Some, like Gary Habermas, are not in the medical or scientific fields.
One thing is 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 a couple of 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. Rather than call the light God, 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 a NDE that there are different paths to God? What about a NDE in which an atheist is welcomed into heaven?
If the 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, but 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, while about 80% of NDEs are not. Many people describe a light that they equate with unconditional love, and many of those people are not Christian or even religious.
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, and 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 evidential it is. 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 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 here is an afterlife. But NDEs are really tough on the naturalists. Naturalists have no 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.