Journalist Heather Tomlinson explores near death experiences and theology in light of a recent Big Conversation on this topic
Christians are divided about whether near death experiences (NDEs) are valid and proof of the afterlife. Some believe they reflect a spiritual reality, but not necessarily a God-inspired one. Others argue they can provide powerful, objective evidence for Christian belief.
The basic outline of an NDE (see What is a near death experience and what can it teach us) does not explicitly disagree with Christian doctrine in its broadest sense. There is no doubt that NDEs inspire more interest in spirituality in those who have them, sometimes prompting a radical conversion to following Christ.
However, it is true that the interpretation that some people have of their experiences can seem to contradict Christian beliefs. For example, a well-known experiencer, Anita Moorjani, who says she healed from late-stage terminal cancer during her NDE, expresses views that chime more with modern new age and therapeutic values than traditional Christian ones.
The Christian case for considering NDEs – at least some of them – as valid experiences of heaven and/or God
Many Christians who had NDEs and returned are passionate about Christian beliefs and the Church, and use their experience to encourage others in the faith too. For example, Don Piper was a Baptist pastor who was pronounced dead at the scene of his car accident, who then had a very powerful experience, and wrote best-selling book ‘90 minutes in Heaven’.
Dean Braxton is another well-known experiencer whose Christian faith was strengthened. Many more convert to Christianity either during or after the experience, and use their story to try to help others to find faith, too.
Randy Kay, a Christian who also experienced an NDE himself, makes a distinction between what he calls “Christ-centred NDEs” and others that are less orthodox. He says he has found 500 accounts that are in agreement with biblical doctrine, such as ideas of heaven: freedom from physical limitations (1 Cor 15:42-44); feelings of peace and being free of pain (Rev 21:4) and powerful experiences of love and light (Rev 22:5).
Lee Strobel, the atheist-turned-evangelist who wrote bestseller ‘The Case for Christ’, recently wrote a book arguing that NDEs prove that heaven exists. “I think the evidence of near-death experiences is powerful and persuasive,” he told Religion News Service. “That indeed, after our clinical death, our consciousness, our spirit, our soul does continue to live on.”
Respected New Testament scholar Gary Habermas investigated the area and co-wrote a book on the subject. His verdict: “I don’t think the nature of NDEs helps us construct what kind of worldview is true, only that the naturalistic [atheistic] alternative is probably false, since there is very strong evidence here for an afterlife.”
Even some scientific papers have acknowledged that NDEs are evidence that consciousness exists separately from our physical bodies.
Some Christian evangelicals are concerned that accounts of NDEs may contradict biblical beliefs. For example, David Jones at Southeastern Theological Seminary argues that even Christians’ accounts often disagree, that they are explicitly contradicted by scripture and could be caused by “demonic deception”. He says: “While the authors of NDE books may be sincere, they also may be sincerely wrong in believing that their experiences were divine.”
He points out that the people who came back to life in the Bible are not recorded as saying they saw heaven. He says these Bible verses contradict the validity of NDEs:
- Proverbs 30:4: “Who but God goes up to heaven and comes back down?”
- Hebrews 9:27: “Each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgment.”
- John 3:13: “No one has ever gone to heaven and returned.”
The Christian Medical Fellowship urges caution against the “false reassurance” given by the many positive NDEs that can take away a person’s fear of death without any corresponding commitment to Christ.
Get access to exclusive bonus content & updates: register & sign up to the Premier Unbelievable? newsletter!
NDEs in the Bible?
It’s often assumed that NDEs are a recent phenomenon due to modern resuscitation techniques. However, what the modern world calls an NDE might have taken place throughout Christian history, with many people having described visions of heaven and/or hell. There are two New Testament accounts that sound similar to an NDE.
Stephen’s vision of heaven before being stoned to death: In Acts 7, the trial and execution of Stephen is described. Before he is killed he has a vision of heaven. “Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed steadily into heaven and saw the glory of God, and he saw Jesus standing in the place of honour at God’s right hand.” (Acts 7:55-56)
The apostle Paul explicitly said he visited heaven: “I was caught up to the third heaven 14 years ago. Whether I was in my body or out of my body, I don’t know—only God knows…but I do know that I was caught up to paradise and heard things so astounding that they cannot be expressed in words, things no human is allowed to tell.” (2 Cor 12:2-4)
Ways to reconcile NDEs with Christian belief
Strobel argues that the important thing is to consider the main elements of NDEs, rather than the person’s interpretation of their experience, which can vary widely.
As he told Premier Unbelievable?: “If you look at the core of what takes place in a typical near-death experience, not how people interpret it – because people interpret it through their own religious or cultural lens – but if you look at what actually takes place, it is consistent with Christian theology.”
Heather Tomlinson is a freelance journalist. You can find her on twitter @HeatherTomli or through her blog http://www.heathert.org