What Role Should Near-Death Experiences Play in the Lives of Those Who Have Undergone Them?
- Introduction and Hypothesis
- Fields of Study
1. Introduction and Hypothesis
Near-death experiences (NDEs) are usually powerful spiritual experiences often reported by people who have been physiologically close to death, or who have anticipated imminent death but unexpectedly avoided it. NDEs have a rich phenomenology (Greyson and Stevenson 1980) which includes affective features – e.g. an experience of brilliant loving light, peace, beauty, an elimination of fear of death (Cassol 2018); cognitive features – e.g. out-of-body experiences, panoramic life review, precognitive visions (Lundahl 1993; 2001); and transcendental features – e.g. experiences of another realm, deceased persons, God/mystical beings. Despite the fact that about 4% of the total population in the Western world experienced an NDE (Gallup and Proctor 1982), there is no scientific consensus as to what explains them.
Regardless of their explanation, NDEs often play a de facto role in the lives of those who have undergone them. Upon their ‘return’, many of those who suffered NDEs undergo profound transformations in attitudes and values. Often, they experience a sense of divine purpose in their lives, and they dedicate their lives to understanding God and to loving and helping others. This situation presents the following philosophical and theological puzzle: In the light of the uncertainty regarding the true nature and explanation of NDEs, what role – if any – should NDEs play in the lives of those who have undergone them? Given that the nature of these experiences is a matter of debate and controversy (both in science and in the various spiritual traditions), how much should those who have undergone NDEs rely on them in their own life? Also, how should those whose mission is to nurture spiritual life (religious leaders, spiritual counsellors) understand and interpret NDEs, and how should they use this understanding in their counselling?
I will argue that under certain circumstances it is permissible to allow NDEs to play a role in one’s life. What matters is not whether these experiences are veridical or not, but whether they have a valid spiritual message capable of engendering objective positive transformation.
2. Fields of Study
2.1 Christian Theological Perspectives on NDEs
In popular culture, NDEs are often presented as “proof of heaven”. Indeed, this very phrase is the title of a 2012 New York Times autobiographical bestseller written by the American neurosurgeon Eben Alexander, who himself had an NDE in 2008 (Alexander 2012). There is now a vast number of books written by people of all walks of life describing their NDEs and offering testimony about the afterlife. Although a minority of these accounts may be questioned and deemed disingenuous, there are still many accounts offered by people who are undoubtedly sincere, which deserve to be examined.
The content of these experiences may vary, but they usually include elements that are prima facie evidence for the existence of the afterlife as understood by many theistic religions, especially Christianity: a sense of being dead, a panoramic life review, the separation of the soul from the body, traveling up through a dark tunnel with a bright yet beautiful light at the end, entering another realm of existence through the light, encounters with benevolent and loving beings of light, sometimes encounters with suffering and/or malevolent beings, reunification with deceased loved ones, the cessation of suffering, feelings of peace and beatitude, an intense feeling of unconditional love and acceptance. Often those undergoing NDEs report having been told that they were not yet scheduled to die and that they would have to return to the body. In some cases, the dying person is given a choice whether to stay or return, and sometimes they are made to return (sometimes against their will). In most cases, the return to the body is perceived as painful and brutal.
While such experiences are interpreted by many (including NDEers themselves) as confirmation of religious tenets (the existence of the soul as separate from the body, the existence of the afterlife, the existence of mystical beings such as angels, etc.), from a theological point of view this interpretation of such experiences is controversial.
I will briefly present how NDEs are seen theologically within a Christian framework. To begin, the scriptural support for NDEs is extremely scarce. Perhaps the only piece of information that might be interpreted as referring to an NDE comes from Apostle Paul, who claims to have been “caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter” (2 Corinthians 12:2-5, ESV). However, not only are we not told anything about what these words were, we are also not given any information about the actual content of the experience. Also, Paul is explicit about not knowing whether this visit to Paradise involved just his soul or also his body, and he doesn’t say anything whether this experience happened in the proximity of death, making it questionable whether this was indeed a near-death experience.
NDEs would fall into the category of what in the Catechism of the Catholic Church is referred to as “private revelations”, which should be interpreted circumspectly and not as adding to Christ’s revelation (Catholic Church 2012).
Despite the growing number of reports about NDEs and arguments about the need for a theological response to the NDE, NDEs have not received much attention from theologians. This has prompted some scholars to lament that the subject of NDEs has been typically met with a “deafening silence” by theology (Fox 2003, 55), or that “the prevailing theologies of organized religions in the West have been deemed unable to comprehensively explain NDEs” (Khalil 2020).
One notable exception is the German Lutheran minister Johann Christophe Hampe, whose book appeared in German in 1975, the same year Dr. Raymond Moody published his seminal book in which he coined the term ‘Near-Death Experience’ (Moody 1975). In this book, Hampe regards these experiences favourably, taking them pretty much at face value, and considering them as reports of death as seen “from within” (Hampe 1979). Hampe considers such experiences as confirming core Christian tenets, such as the existence of a soul as separate from the body, and the existence of an afterlife. At the same time, he suggests that such experiences may have important implications for theologians grappling with the problem of the meaning of death, and that they could be used therapeutically with the dying and the bereaved.
Another notable exception is American Orthodox hieromonk Fr. Seraphim Rose, who in his book The Soul After Death analyzes contemporary NDEs from the perspective of the Orthodox teaching of the afterlife (Rose 1980). Like other Orthodox theologians, Rose is extremely reluctant to take contemporary NDE reports at face value, although he does recognize the genuineness of select NDE reports recounted by saints and sanctioned by the Church. The default attitude of the Orthodox Christian theologians towards contemporary NDEs seems to be very unfavourable. According to some Orthodox thinkers, NDEs contribute to an image of the afterlife that promotes the idea that one’s beliefs and actions have no lasting consequences, and that “love” justifies virtually any deed or misdeed (Ritchie 1995). Orthodox theologians worry that taking NDEs at face value depicts easy access to the afterlife and frees the believers from their moral and religious duties. They also point out inconsistencies between NDE reports and elements of Orthodox belief. For example, according to Rose, Orthodox faith includes belief in the so-called “aerial toll-houses”, a kind of testing station where the soul confronts accusations from evil spirits bearing records of the individual’s sins. The existence of toll-houses is supported with citations from the writings of the Church fathers, including Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Athanasius the Great, Saint Macarius the Great, Saint Gregory the Dialogist, Saint Isaiah the Recluse, and Saint Hesychius, Presbyter of Jerusalem, and are thought to have been experienced by numerous saints including Saint Eustratius the Great Martyr, Saint Symeon the Fool for Christ of Emesa, and Saint John the Merciful, Patriarch of Alexandria. The idea here is that insofar as contemporary NDEs do not reference these “toll-houses”, they are spurious.
Fr. Seraphim Rose criticizes contemporary NDE reports for promoting an idealistically optimistic view of life after death which is deemed as not in line with Orthodox belief. Orthodox theologians tend to regard NDEs as deceitful and to decry those who take them at face value. It is the Orthodox view that NDEs induce in people an unwarranted optimism about their spiritual condition and lure them away from the sacraments and the kind of life sanctioned by the Church. Orthodox theologians have attributed many commonly reported NDE elements (such as the beings of light) to the deceits of the devil, who is perfectly capable of appearing as an angel of light when it suits his purpose to do so (2 Corinthians 11:14; Galatians 1:8 ESV).
In general, the Orthodox Church cautions against taking contemporary NDEs at face value and tends to view them as diabolic delusions. It advises believers to adopt a critical attitude toward NDEs and defend against them with prayer and a knowledge of Scripture and the Patristic writings on the afterlife.
Critical attitudes toward NDEs are promoted by scholars or Church leaders working within other Christian traditions as well. For example, renowned theologian, philosopher, and Christian apologist William Lane Craig worries that people may begin to base their views of the afterlife and heaven on the NDE reports publicized so often in the media, rather than on what the Bible teaches about the afterlife. Craig points out that the biblical view of is not that after death the soul separates from the body and flies off to heaven to be forever with God (Craig 2011, 2022). This may be the Greek understanding of the afterlife, but it is not the Jewish-Hebrew and Christian one. According to Christian doctrine, eternal life with God implies the resurrection of the body, after the model of Christ himself (1 Corinthians 15:20 ESV).
According to the Bible, we do not get our resurrection body immediately upon death. Rather, this happens after the second coming of Christ, after everyone receives their final judgement. In between our death and our resurrection the soul exists in a disembodied state. We do not know what this disembodied state is like, but according to Craig the fact that souls are disembodied makes it impossible for anyone to literally see them. Since the souls are actually disembodied, it is impossible for anyone to see them literally (since that would involve bodies reflecting light). Unless visual perceptions involved in NDEs are spurious, the most plausible interpretation is that they are visions – mental images/projections of other people or of divine beings. According to Craig, it is possible that God enables disembodied souls to project bodily images of other disembodied souls, as well as of oneself, so that it looks to them as if they are seeing other people.
Another critique of NDEs offered by Craig relates to the fact that some of them are inconsistent, i.e. they contain elements that are contradictory. However, Craig does not give concrete examples of such contradictory experiences. However, he argues that since some of them are contradictory it must be necessarily the case that not all NDEs are veridical in all aspects even though the persons who have undergone them experience them as equally real. Craig does not argue that all NDEs are spurious but does encourage us to be cautious and interpret them in accordance not to popular culture, but to revealed truths of the Bible. Thus, he seems to allow for the possibility that some NDEs may be veridical, though it would be difficult to say which or how many.
To sum up, the theological perspectives on NDEs are diverse, and theologians seem to differ in their attitudes towards them. However, contemporary theologians who have approached the topic more seriously seem to caution against taking NDEs at face value, advise checking them against the Bible, and insist that at least some of them (or most of them, depending on the tradition) are nonveridical. Although it not always asserted explicitly, it is often implied that since NDEs are most likely nonveridical, they cannot be relied upon and thus they should play no role in one’s life.
2.2 Scientific Perspectives on NDE
The scientific literature hypothesizing on the cause of NDEs is vast. Many hypotheses have been proposed, ranging from conservative to extravagant. Most of these hypotheses try to explain NDEs within the metaphysical framework of naturalism, i.e. they consider them capable of being explained without postulating super-natural entities or phenomena. However, several prominent medical researchers such as Pim van Lommel and Sam Parnia have put forward theories that challenge or at least prompt a serious revision or expansion of naturalism, or at least of our current understanding of it. For example, van Lommel has hypothesized that mental functions such as consciousness and memory originate and are stored in a non-local dimension as wave-fields of information, and the brain only serves as a relay station for these waves to be received into, similar to a transceiver (transmitter-receiver) interface. According to van Lommel, the function of neuronal networks should be regarded as receivers and conveyors, not as retainers of consciousness and memories (van Lommel 2013, 38). Van Lommel’s hypothesis is in line with mind-body dualism, and at odds with a materialist understanding of the human mind which makes it completely dependent of the functioning of the brain.
Another researcher who is sympathetic to mind-body dualism is Sam Parnia, whose AWAreness during REsuscitation (AWARE) study looked at the NDEs of 101 patients (selected out of 2060 cardiac arrest patients) and found one patient for whom – according to Parnia – it was possible to verify that awareness occurred 3-5 minutes after the heart stopped, and “into the period when the brain ordinarily stops functioning and cortical activity ceases” (Parnia 2007, 68). Parnia is sympathetic to the idea that human mind and consciousness may continue to function in the absence of brain function, and hence that at least some NDEs are veridical.
The idea that the mind can survive in the absence of a functioning brain has been vigorously criticized by researchers who doubt that the data warrants such dualist hypotheses. For example, psychologist Susan Blackmore has argued that the elements involved in the NDEs (out of body experience, tunnel, feelings of presence, etc.) can all be explained by “the dying brain hypothesis”, which asserts that under the stress of the approaching death the brain becomes hyperactive and prone to hallucinations (Blackmore 1993). Neuroscientist Kevin Nelson is also a formidable critic of those who take NDEs at face value, and he has hypothesized that NDEs are caused by syncope (loss of consciousness caused by a fall in blood pressure), which has been shown in the safely controlled environments of the neurophysiology laboratory to produce features indistinguishable from NDEs, including out-of-body experiences (Nelson 2015). Mystical feelings of Oneness that are characteristic to NDEs are explainable by the activity of serotonin-2a receptors, Nelson argues. Other naturalistic hypotheses propose that NDEs can be explained in neurophysiological terms (involving cerebral anoxia or hypoxia, hypercapnia, endorphins and neurotransmitters, endogenous DMT, ketamine, abnormal activity in the temporal lobes, damage in the temporo-parietal junction), and in psychological terms – as dissociation or depersonalization in the face of perceived imminent death, or as expectancy or wish-fulfillment in life-endangering situations (see French 2005; Timmermann et al. 2018; Jansen 1997). Some naturalist hypotheses are quite extravagant, suggesting that NDEs are evolutionary adaptations which are best understood as thanatosis, (i.e. death-feigning), a last-resort defense mechanism that can be found in many animals (Peinkhofer et al. 2021).
Hypotheses on all sides have been criticized and have been deemed incapable of accounting for all the data or explaining all elements of NDEs. At the same time, these criticisms have themselves been subjected to charges of inadequacy. Not only is there no sign of scientific consensus about what explains NDEs, but scientists disagree vehemently on the subject. Philosophers who have approached the topic of NDEs also disagree, with some arguing that NDEs provide a rational basis for belief in life after death (Dell’Olio 2010), and others arguing that it has not been established that naturalism is unable to explain NDEs, or even that there is good reason to increase our confidence in the need for non-naturalistic explanations of NDEs (Mitchell-Yellin and Fischer 2014; 2016).
The uncertainty regarding the scientific explanation and theological significance of NDEs makes it difficult to say how much those who have undergone NDEs should rely on them in their lives. Since there is a serious possibility that at least some NDEs are nonveridical, it is tempting to use the precautionary principle and decide not to rely on them at all. However, the assumption of this argument is that the role that NDEs may play in one’s life should depend solely on their veracity – on their being about what they purport to be, on their being “truthful” in the sense of being conformal to external objective facts. But this ignores the possibility that these experiences can still be good for those who have undergone them even if they are not veridical.
Consider the following analogy. Art and literature can have a powerful role in one’s life. A good theatre play, film, or novel can be very moving and influential in one’s life and can have an important role in shaping one’s soul. It would be beside the point to ask whether Dostoyevsky’s novels are true in order to determine how much one should rely on the moral lessons they convey. Thus, art and literature can have a spiritual impact on people to the extent that they can teach us important lessons about things that we value, such as love, friendship, work, parenthood, our relationship with the environment, with animals, with God, and with the Universe at large, just to give a few examples. They can also teach us how to behave in the face of adversity, illness, and how to receive the highs and lows of life. In one word, art and literature can, and often do, have a spiritual impact on people – they shape people’s soul, including their values, personality, character and aspirations, sense of right and wrong, etc. These, in turn, shape people’s behaviours, decisions, and lives.
But works of art and literature can shape one’s soul and be powerful vehicles of spiritual transformation regardless of their veracity. If the spiritual lessons that art and literature convey are valid, they are so regardless of whether they emerge from actual events or from fictional ones.
One may be tempted to assert that science presents us with a harsh dichotomy: either embrace NDEs as veridical or dismiss them as hallucinations/illusions. But this need not be the case. Science can still inform the answer to the puzzle even if at present it is not capable of settling the veracity of NDEs. Science can help us not just by investigating NDEs directly, but also by investigating their effects on the psyche. As it turns out, many NDEs have cognitive content that is regarded as significant and valuable. They present people with ‘take-home messages’ or ‘spiritual lessons’ that can have positive impact. Just like art and literature, NDEs are often cathartic; they prompt a reassessment of one’s values, a reconfiguration of one’s character and personality; they provide motivation to the psyche to change.
Consider for example the case of Krista Gorman, who had an NDE as a result of a cardiac arrest while delivering her baby (Sartori & Walsh 2017). During her NDE she had what she could only describe as a ‘download’ of information which she subsequently expressed in the form of twelve principles:
Live in Awareness
Although these principles sound quite vague, for Krista they are full of meaning, which she can clarify and explain with concrete examples from her life. Another spiritual lesson that was transmitted to her as a result of her NDE was that “the key to developing and maintaining loving relationships is to develop and maintain a loving relationship with ourselves” (Sartori & Walsh 2017, 1252). During her experience she saw a seven-year-old boy resembling Tom Sawyer who needed her, and other shadow beings who were feeding on her “energy”. This experience helped her learn the spiritual message that that in order to be able to help and love others one needs to love oneself.
It is important to distinguish between the spiritual message transmitted through an NDE and the vehicle through which that spiritual message was delivered, namely the perceptual content of that NDE. The spiritual lesson learned as a result of an NDE can be valid or not quite independently of the veracity of the that NDE. For example, the spiritual message that Krista learned as a result of her NDE can be valid or not independently of whether the seven-year-old boy resembling Tom Sawyer and the other entities she saw truly exist or whether they were projections of Krista’s mind or hallucinations, etc. If a spiritual lesson is truly meaningful and valuable, then it is so independently of the vehicle through which it was delivered – whether one arrived at it through an NDE, or through the wisdom acquired from life experiences, or through psychotherapy, or through religious practice and faith, or through art and literature, etc.
According to Krista, the spiritual lessons she has learned as a result of her NDE changed how she viewed herself, and how she interacted with others, especially in her role as a healthcare worker. As a result of following the twelve principles, Krista’s life has changed positively in many ways. There are many examples of people just like Krista, whose lives had changed in a positive way as a result of taking seriously the spiritual lessons learned as a result of their NDEs. In their book about the transformative power of NDEs, Dr. Penny Sartori and Kelly Walsh give many such examples.
In the light of these facts, it may be tempting to equate the value of these spiritual messages with their utility, in a pragmatist manner, and allow NDEs to play a role in one’s life if they have positive effects. This answer seems to be in line with Christ’s words. In the Sermon on the Mountain, Christ tells us that the method to distinguish between true and false prophets is “by their fruits”, namely by looking at the nature of the effects they produce in the world (Matt. 7:15–20 ESV). However, in this form this answer is too crude and needs to be further refined, as it faces several questions and objections. How is one to assess the quality of the fruits produced by NDEs? What counts as a positive effect, and who is in the best position to assess this? Consider the case cited by Greyson of a woman who as a child had an NDE (Greyson 1997). In her NDE, she encountered nonphysical beings with whom she felt totally connected, and a kind of love that reached perfection. Later in life, to her dismay, she realized that the love she experienced in her NDE could not be replicated in any of her relationships in this world. There are many other cases where soon after an NDE people report the experience as overwhelmingly positive, only to experience later a lot of distress and languishing from it.
Also, there are people who maintain a positive attitude toward their NDEs even though they incur some life events that most would consider negative, such as divorce, or leaving one’s job, or being fired. For example, a study shows that 65% of the marriages in which the NDErs were involved at the time of their NDEs ended in divorce vs. 19% of those who experienced other kinds of life-changing events (Christian 2005). While in some cases the NDE may give one the impetus to leave a loveless marriage or unsatisfactory job (which may ultimately be positive decisions), it is also possible that NDEs may cause the breakdown of a previously functional marriage or the leaving of a previously satisfactory job. This highlights the insufficiency of subjective criteria of assessment of NDEs.
I contend that for an NDE to be allowed to play a spiritual role in one’s life, it is not sufficient for it to be deemed positive in the moment by the person who has undergone it. It must also have positive effects in that person’s life and promote that person’s flourishing in the long run. Human flourishing is not completely beyond the reach of scientific investigation. The branch of psychology called positive psychology attempts to understand and measure human flourishing. According to positive psychologist Martin Seligman, flourishing has five dimensions, abbreviated by the acronym PERMA: Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishments (Seligman 2013, 47). While it is often a difficult task to assess the impact of one’s NDE on their human flourishing (and in some respects this can be done only retroactively), the science of positive psychology can nonetheless inform our efforts. Thus, we formulate the following answer to our puzzle: NDEs should be allowed to play a role in one’s life to the extent that they have an independently valid spiritual message that fosters objective positive change in variables associated with human flourishing, as these are understood by positive psychology.
This answer is quite tentative and theoretical, as it does not solve many complexities that may arise in practice. For example, what if an NDE causes one to undergo a positive change in some variables, but not others? Or what if an NDE causes one to undergo a positive change in all variables but also experience negative emotions in the form of frustration with one’s spiritual tradition? Or what if the NDE causes the person to change their life in a way that is more conducive to human flourishing, yet the NDE itself was truly horrifying (as apparently a significant percentage of NDEs are)?
These are concrete and difficult questions, which imply that answer to the puzzle should be approached with great caution and on a case-by-case basis. But if in principle this answer is correct, then this means that the extent to which people should rely on their NDEs in their life cannot be determined wholesale or in an a priori manner, as some scientists or religious leaders might be inclined to. Spiritual counselors and religious leaders put in a position to advise NDEers would have to listen to their experiences, attend to these people’s life stories and evolution, and carefully identify and weigh the variables involved in the attempt to assess the likelihood of NDEs’ positive impact. This would require careful analysis of the NDEers’ life narratives, familiarity with the scientific literature on human flourishing, as well as epistemic humility, especially in the interpretation of the religious doctrine. In cases where NDE’s impact is deemed highly positive, caution must be exercised in the interpretation of the NDE, in order to ensure that the NDEers do not infer the veracity of their NDE from the magnitude of positive change experienced in their lives (the analogy with art and literature can be invoked here). This can be done if the NDEer understands that the cause of positive transformation is not necessarily the perceptual content of the experience per se (i.e. what the NDEer had heard or saw during the experience) but the spiritual lesson or take-home message transmitted through it (e.g. abandon addiction, take personal relationships more seriously, etc.). Indeed, such a spiritual lesson can be learned from negative, or ‘hellish’ NDEs as well. There are many reports of people who have undergone significant life transformations as a result of negative or ‘hellish’ NDEs, or NDEs that contained extremely disturbing elements. In such cases, the NDEers have interpreted their experiences as a ‘wake up call’ that prompted them to reassess their values, behaviours, and priorities in life. Often, these have resulted in change of careers or occupations, in dedicating more time and energy to relationships and caring for others, and even in religious conversion. Thus, even negative NDEs can prove beneficial and conducive to flourishing. Regardless of the nature of the NDE, if its spiritual take-home message is valid independently and is conducive to human flourishing, we have a prima facie good reason to believe that NDEers should be permitted to rely on their experience in their lives. This should not be taken to mean that the NDE is veridical, only that its spiritual message is valid.
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 By “relying on them” in one’s life I simply mean allowing them to play a role in one’s spiritual and daily life, i.e. to shape one’s values and to ground decisions of all sorts, including major decisions, such as starting or ending a relationship, a job, etc.
 There are also distressing NDEs, which are often described as deeply disturbing, or hellish, and which are not rare at all (Bush 2012).
Cite this article
Manafu, Alexandru. 2022. “What Role Should Near-Death Experiences Play in the Lives of Those Who Have Undergone Them?” Theological Puzzles (Issue 9). https://www.theo-puzzles.ac.uk/2022/06/19/manafu/.