Near Death Experiences

In college, I had a class called ‘Death and Dying’. I took the course not out of some morbid curiosity, but out of what I assumed to be occupational necessity (at least that is what my advisor recommended). Turns out I (and my advisor) was right. I don’t have the exact count, but I’ve sat with more dying persons than I have candidates for baptisms or couples to be married – combined.

One of the common pastoral concerns that comes up near one’s time of death is an assurance that our promises of faith are true. How can I be sure I will go to Heaven? How am I sure there is anything after this life? These are two of the most common versions of the concern. I often listen to the dying person’s thoughts on their own question before offering my perspective – as we often sometimes just need to talk ourselves out of our own anxiety.

One place relief has been found in the search for certainty about the life after this one comes from near-death experiences (NDEs). The book and film Heaven is For Real has made near death experiences popular in recent times.  In that Death and Dying class we had an entire section on NDEs, which are “a common pattern of events that many people experience when they are experiencing intense threat, are seriously ill, or come close to death.”[1] Across many cultures and religions there are a shared set of experiences of the afterlife. Although NDEs vary from one person to another, they often include such features as the following:

  • feeling very comfortable and free of pain
  • a sensation of leaving the body, sometimes being able to see the physical body while floating above it
  • the mind functioning more clearly and more rapidly than usual
  • a sensation of being drawn into a tunnel or darkness
  • a brilliant light, sometimes at the end of the tunnel
  • a sense of overwhelming peace, well-being, or absolute, unconditional love
  • a sense of having access to unlimited knowledge
  • a “life review,” or recall of important events in the past
  • a preview of future events yet to come
  • encounters with deceased loved ones, or with other beings that may be identified as religious figures

My experience has been that if people of different cultures, languages and religions share in the same experiences, while not scientifically verifiable, there seems to be some credence to these shared experiences. I have even been at the bedside and felt a warm, loving presence and moments later have had a dying person ask me if I can see Jesus in the corner. While I couldn’t see Jesus, I sure felt him nearby.

Scripture is a mixed bag on NDEs. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is telling the hyperbolic story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 that foreshadows Jesus’ death and resurrection and the reluctance to accept the resurrection. This story could be interpreted to dismiss any accounts from NDEs. Paul had a non-traumatic NDE in 2 Corinthians 12:1-4 where he (or someone else) saw pleasant visions he doesn’t feel permitted to discuss. The early apostle Stephen had an NDE during his martyrdom in Acts 7:54-60 with a powerful, pleasant vision of Heaven. Then there are all the people in Scripture who were raised from the dead. We don’t have any stories from them recorded in Scripture, but they must have had something to say.[2]

In proper Wesleyan fashion, we must weigh our experiences with tradition and reason against the authority of Scripture. Personally, I find NDEs to carry truth, even if they are not verifiably true. I’ve had too many experiences to doubt that Heaven is for real and that it is God’s desire that all humankind experience such paradise.

This coming Sunday, I’ll be speaking on the process of dying and encouraging us on how to die well (when our time comes). When I speak about Hell as a topic on Halloween weekend, I’ll revisit NDEs and share anecdotes of distressing NDEs[3].

I offer this information and experience as a source of comfort. Sometimes, though, this can be distressing. Especially if one is anxious about the spiritual question, will I get into Heaven? It’s my calling and sacred privilege to walk with persons in discerning these questions. If you’d like to talk more about what’s on your heart and mind as I engage the topic, don’t hesitate to contact me and we can set up a time to talk and pray together.

I close with this assurance from Romans 8, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

[1] Definition and description from UVA School of Medicine.

[2] Some of those raisings include Elijah raising the son of the Zarephath widow from the dead (1 Kings 17:17–22), the dead man who was raised when his body touched Elisha’s bones (2 Kings 13:20, 21), Jesus rising from the dead (Matthew 28:5-8; Mark 16:6; Luke 24:5, 6), and Dorcas being brought back from the dead (Acts 9:36-41).

[3] Here is a preview of a study on distressing NDEs.