What Near Death Experiences Prove, and What They Do Not Prove

What if reality consists of more than the natural, physical world?

I am interested in peoples’ stories. I can trace my interest in personal stories to my own experience of becoming a Christian and my own spiritual journey. I have found much common ground with other people who have had similar experiences. The story of spiritual journey (a “testimony”) is part of the fabric of the evangelical Christian tradition. The testimony is a test of sorts of the authenticity of the journey, of a real encounter with God that we call being “born again”.

A testimony is the most personal evidence for the existence of God for the person who claims to be a Christian, but it isn’t evidence in a scientific sense. It’s evidence that is easily discounted by the naturalist who relies only on science and empirical, measurable and falsifiable evidence.

It can also be problematic for the Christian community. There is a certain social, group pressure – unintended, or not – for every Christian to have “a testimony”. The more dramatic the better. The person who was “always a Christian” may feel a tinge of self doubt. The person whose story does not line up with more “typical” testimonies may feel out of step.

Personal stories are subjective, and the subjective nature of them engenders some natural and warranted skepticism.

Don’t get me wrong. The intimate and private nature of a personal experience with God is exactly the most compelling thing about it. Like the woman at the well who told everyone of her encounter with Jesus – “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did!” (John 4:4-30) – the intimate and highly personal nature of the experience is what makes it so meaningful and convincing.

But personal encounter, ultimately, is meaningful and convincing mainly to the one who experiences it. It can’t be empirically verified, and it doesn’t carry the same weight with other people who don’t have the same intimate connection to the personal details.

Personal experiences are not bound by logical, rational or empirical factors. If we rely on personal experiences, especially to the exclusion of more “scientific” analyses, the highly subjective and personal nature of personal experiences can led a person down some questionable rabbit holes. We probably all know people who have been so influenced by their own personal experiences which, unchecked by some objective analysis, have led them onto some strange and questionable paths.

For the Christian, that objective analysis is Scripture, doctrine and tradition. For each religion, that objective analysis is some combination of that religion’s scripture, doctrinal corpus and tradition, and for the naturalist, that objective analysis is empirical evidence, proven theory and scientific analysis.

This is where NDEs get interesting. NDEs have been reported universally around the world and throughout history. Plato even provides an account of an NDE. NDE’s are reported in every culture, people group and religion, and the NDEs often (but certainly not always) take on the characteristics of culture, people and religion of the people experiencing them – at least they are interpreted through the lens of cultural and religious constructs of the people experiencing them.

If a person is looking for some proof of their own religion in the mass of NDE stories, collectively, from throughout the world as experienced by people of all religions and cultures, a person is going to be disappointed. While there are many, many similarities to NDEs, the “angel” one person saw is the cosmically conscious being another person saw according to their own tradition. The white light in one encounter is Jesus in another.

To be sure, there are some stories that defy cultural, societal and religious boundaries, but NDEs don’t really provide us proof, ultimately, of the truth of any one religion. Dr. Gary Habermas, a professor who has studied NDEs for decades, addresses the question – which religion do NDE experiences prove – here (finding the proof inconclusive):

Going back to the point made above, though, of the need for some objective analysis to ground personal experience, there is one group that is utterly and totally at a loss to explain NDEs: the naturalists. The naturalist who does not believe in spiritual reality, who believes only in matter and motion, in the material world that can only be measured by the five senses, who believes only in science and what scientific study can reveal  – the characteristics of matter and energy –  cannot explain NDEs.

Dr. Habermas explains the problem for naturalists in the following clip:

The naturalist is limited to a singular reality that is bounded by space/time and matter – the physical world. The naturalist is a person who doesn’t admit the possibility of any other reality.

Science, of course, is the study of the natural, physical world. If the only reality that exists is the natural, physical world, science would be the study of all of reality. Indeed, this is what many a naturalist believes – that science (and science alone) can inform us about reality.

But what if reality consists of more than the natural, physical world?

Science would still be the best method of knowing the natural, physical word, but science is limited by the boundaries of the natural, physical world. It might be able to tell us when we are getting beyond the natural, physical world, but it can’t tell us much beyond that.

Indeed, this the case with NDEs. As Habermas explains, empirical evidence can show us that NDEs point to something beyond this natural, physical world, but it can go no farther. Just as science can show us that something happened to form the universe at “the Big Bang”, but we can go no further back in our exploration of that event than immediately after the moment of the event.

While some committed naturalists will insist that the formation of the natural, physical world has an in-kind (natural & physical) explanation, they are simply being dogmatic at that point. They can’t prove it, because all natural, physical proof ceases at that point. The assertion of a multiverse with an infinite number of possible worlds – a favored explanation among naturalists – is just a dogmatic assertion with no proof.

If we strip the dogmatism from the equation, we have to admit that other explanations are, at least, plausible. Some naturalists will argue (correctly) that many things that people once explained metaphysically have turned out to have physical explanations. People worshiped sun gods and moon gods before we knew about gravity. The fact that many things have physical explanations, though, doesn’t eliminate the possibility of metaphysical explanations.

It’s kind of like the joke my father was fond of telling when I was a child.

Fred sees Joe looking for something under a streetlight one night, so Fred goes over and asks, “What are you looking for?” Joe says, “I lost my keys.” Fred, being a helpful chap, starts searching for the lost keys with Joe. Some time later, finding nothing anywhere around the street light, Fred asks Joe, “Are you sure you lost your keys right here?” Joe says, “No. I lost them over there in the dark, but the light makes it easier to search here!”

If we insist on seeing only by the light of science, we will never know more than what science can tell – science being limited to the study of the natural, physical world. Our science runs out of light at the point where the natural, physical worlds ends. If we want to know more about reality that might not be explainable by science, we need to be willing to go beyond science.

Admittedly, we enter into a world that may seem dark and unfamiliar when we do that, but it’s only dark and unfamiliar to the extent that science can’t illuminate it. For thousands of years, and for millennia, people have explored that “super” natural and metaphysical world. As with our knowledge of the natural, physical world, our knowledge of the metaphysical world has progressed over the years. Though it may not be as certain or definitive as our knowledge of the natural world, it is no less worthy of study.

When we reach the point beyond which the light of science can illuminate our view, we have no choice other than to venture into the dark and unfamiliar places if we are going to find the substance of that reality. NDEs point us beyond the light that science provides.

If you haven’t watched the second of the clips embedded above, now might be a good time to do that. For more explanation of how NDEs point to something beyond which the study of the natural, physical world can go (beyond the science) you might read Gary Habermas on Near Death Experiences, What Can Be Learned from Near-Death Experiences?, The Journal of Near Death Studies, and listen to people explain their NDEs)

Finally, if a person concedes that reality likely consists of something more than the natural, physical world, then I suggest a person should be interested in studying the nonphysical nature of reality, just as we study the physical nature of reality through science, and we should be no less careful in that study than we are in science.

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