Are Near Death Experiences Real?


A near-death experience is when one claims to die, or come close to dying, observing something of the ‘other side’, and then reporting back to tell the rest of us what it was like. These are similar or synonymous with ‘out of body experiences’ in which the people have allegedly left their bodies behind and remember floating above them before coming back.

Are they real?

They generally occur when the brain is starved of oxygen. This may produce delirium and disorientation, and thus panicky imaginings might be later recalled as actual memories. Furthermore, these people’s ‘deaths’ are generally accidental, violent and unplanned. No-one seems to have one who’s dying in their sleep at the old folk’s home. Sometimes doctors seem to vouch for their deadened state, but those same doctors have been pumping them with drugs or shocking them back to life. It is possible that their minds are still active even while in some comatose state.

What impresses me

-People who were previously atheists, having had one of these experiences, are atheists no more. They all ‘return’ thoroughly convinced that materialism is a deeply flawed world-view and that death is not the end. This is a tonic to the monotonous atheism which lazily rules out all possibility of life outside the body.

-Although we may doubt their reality, they have been experienced by people on all continents and during all periods of time. Back in the 1890s, Swiss geologist Albert Heim recorded over 30 such experiences from his fellow climbers after he himself almost died and had some spiritual sensation. The large numbers surely indicates that there is there is some truth in them.

-They sometimes correspond with what the Bible seems to teach. A number of people have become Christians as a result (but see below), whose testimonies have been much used by God for gospel proclamation. The most convincing in this regard that I have seen was New Zealander Ian McCormack, who was stung by a deadly jellyfish and was converted to Christ in his ambulance.

-These experiences, if true, demonstrate that consciousness is not bound up with the brain, that existence is more than being an animated body. They show that a human being is made up of body and spirit (or soul) which is something we Christians have always known.

What depresses me

-Many do not support the biblical record. I’ve seen a Roman Catholic priest describe his visit to purgatory. As no such places exists, he quite clearly did not go there. Furthermore, members of other religions claim to have them, and they typically see things which confirmed their existing beliefs. Another Catholic lady claims she heard a distinctly female voice talking to her from heaven, which she naturally attributed to Mary.

-The vast majority of people who claim such things remain non-Christians. They describe the tunnels of light, smells of flowers, dearly departed relatives or even being surrounded by benevolent spirits assuring them that their “time has not yet come”, and that they must return to their bodies. Here is heaven for everyone, a Christless paradise for all and sundry.

-Furthermore, even years after the event, survivors claim to see spirits or to see premonitions and possess knowledge of when others will die. This sounds occultic, and not something than honours the Living God. That these experiences would multiply or exacerbate such goings-on renders them jighly suspect. 

Even the minority of people having them, who seem to be real Christians, are at variance with each other. McCormack claims to have visited hell, which was dark and unpleasant; another said hell was being in a cell being turn apart by ugly creatures. These two descriptions do not necessarily negate the other, but it seems strange they should have so little in common.

Are they Biblical?

Near Death experiences are not really found in the Bible. There are some episodes which might be considered, however.

According to 1 Samuel 28, Saul and the Witch of Endor apparently call up Samuel from the grave. However, he had been dead some time and this episode does not really fit the patterns described above.

In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul writes

I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven.

It may have been himself; whether or not he left the body, he clearly allows for the possibility of the spirit and the body parting company, and then being reunited. This would therefore be classified as an out of body experience.

In John 11, the Lord Jesus resurrects Lazarus, who had lain dead for three days. Had we been able to interview Lazarus, after the event, and assuming he had any memories of his time in the grave, his account would surely have made it into one of the many books which detail these experiences. No such record has been made, however.

In Luke 16 we read of the rich man and Lazarus (a different person to the one in John 11). I do not believe this to be a parable, for Jesus never declares it be such, and one of the protagonists is named, for no apparently good reason. Here is the Lord describing two people’s experience of the afterlife. Although one is resting quite agreeably in Abraham’s bosom, the other is suffering in hell’s fire. The rich man requests an opportunity to go back and warn his family, which would be accounted a return from the grave, an out of body experience. The request is denied.

I therefore cannot rule out the accounts of some Christians who tasted death and appear to have returned. Neither must I assume that the Lord always operates only in His usual ways, for the Bible itself has two, possibly three, accounts of what might be understood as near death experiences. However, we must never base our understanding of the afterlife on these accounts. If something is in the Bible, we believe it; if some aspects of heaven or hell are not described in the Bible, that we leave well alone, preferring to have gaps in our knowledge.

Most of the accounts I have heard, watched and read, however, directly contradict the Bible and those who have had them are no nearer salvation in Christ. Arguably, they are further away. Having been assured they have some lovely heaven to go to when they die, they consider themselves already good enough to go there and have no need of Christ’s salvific work. I believe some ‘experiences’ were generated by active and adrenaline-boosted imaginations. Though close to death, their minds wondered what heaven would be like, and from this they drew some kind of comfort. I wonder if others are demonic in origin. Gary Bates’ work researching into alien visitors makes a strong case for demonic entitles implanting false memories into humans that they might be better deceived. These apparently benevolent spirits, dressed as angels of light, welcoming sinners into heaven with neither Christ’s blood nor God’s grace, are nothing but dangerous liars.

And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment. Hebrews 9:27

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