Interpretations of Near-Death Experiences
David San Filippo
is a licensed mental health counselor,
a certified disability management specialist,
and a certified cognitive behavioral
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Interpretations of near-death
experiences are influenced by religious and psychosocial
teachings about death and afterlife beliefs. Different religious
beliefs have resulted in the formation of numerous religious
groups who have fostered their own interpretations of death
and afterlife. The immediate transition period between life
and afterlife. This essay provides an overview of reductionist
theories and for the plausibility of transpersonal theories
of near-death experiences. The essay then provides an overview
of the human consciousness of what seems to be life after
death, religious beliefs concerning death and afterlife,
and interpretations of near-death experiences by different
religious groups. This essay contends that religious interpretations
combined with the contemporary work on near-death experiences
and the arguments against reductionism provide grounds for
the plausibility of the transpersonal theories concerning
near-death experience is a conscious experience in which
the individual experiences a sense of being detached from
the physical world during the process of physiological dying.
Individuals may experience their own physiological dyings
and deaths and at the same time become aware of their disembodied
existences in an altered state where they may experience
a sense of peace, a separation of consciousness from the
body, entering darkness, seeing a light, meeting spiritual
entities, having a panoramic life review, and a sense of
judging their lives (Moody,
Near-death experiencers are generally positively affected
by their experiences and their confrontation with death
seems to give more meaning to the individual's life (Kalish,
1981). Near-death experiences
could be considered "transpersonal" experiences
due to their nature of transcending the usual "personal"
physical and mental realms of human consciousness. Transpersonal
experiences are those incidents that are of the highest
or ultimate human potential and beyond the ego or personal
self (Lajoie &
Shapiro, 1992, p. 90).
In order to evaluate near-death
experiences effectively, it is necessary to have an understanding
of personal beliefs concerning life after death. According
to Kellehear & Irwin (1990),
the interpretation of the near-death experience may be related
to the social conditioning and beliefs of the experiencer,
such as interpreting the experience in relationship to the
experiencer's religious beliefs concerning life after death.
Numerous surveys have documented
that the majority of people in the United States believe
in life after death (Kalish,
Kellehear & Irwin, 1990;
Klenow & Bolin, 1989,
in his article, "Altered States of Consciousness and
the Possibility of Survival of Death", discusses his
belief that humans regain some type of consciousness after
death. He states, The direct experience of existing and
experiencing in some form that seems partially or fully
independent of the physical body is relatively common in
various altered states of consciousness, and this kind of
experience constitutes the most direct knowledge of survival
an individual may have (p. 37). Past-life researcher
reports that there are experiences of what seems to be life
after death, as reported by many of his subjects, and that
the different experiences and concepts of the subject's
lifetime, involving religion and death, can influence the
individual's understanding of death and afterlife.
involve group practices of similar religious beliefs. An
individual's personal religious beliefs are experienced
within the individual's consciousness and may be related
to others through various religious practices. Through social
participation individual beliefs may be formed and heightened.
Religious beliefs may both provide explanations for unexplained
phenomena and communicate the essence of human transpersonal
Interpretations of near-death
experiences can be influenced by religious beliefs in life
after death. The effects of religious diversity may not
only influence the interpretations of near-death experiences
but also may account for some of the differences in the
descriptions of encounters with incorporeal entities, the
setting of the experience, and in the activities that are
reported during the experience. Religious beliefs can provide
references to explain the "difficult to explain"
experiences associated with a near-death experience (Foos-Graber,
Most reported near-death experiences appear to support many
philosophical and religious theories of what is anticipated
in life after death such as communion with incorporeal beings
and the existence of afterlife polar planes of good and
bad, heaven and hell.
It is the intention of this essay
to provide a review of the near-death experience phenomenon
and the beliefs in life after death of some religious denominations
who have reported near-death experiences, as well as their
interpretations of these experiences. The essay will conclude
that these religious interpretations, combined with contemporary
near-death research, and arguments against reductionist
interpretations provide grounds for the plausibility of
transpersonal theories concerning near-death experiences.
experiences appear to be universal phenomena that have been
reported for centuries. A near-death encounter is defined
as an event in which the individual could very easily die
or be killed, or may have already been considered clinically
dead, but nonetheless survives, and continue his or her
physical life (Moody,
1977, p.124). Reports
of near-death experiences date back to the Ice Age. There
are cave paintings, in France and Spain, that depict possible
after life scenes that are similar to reported scenes related
to near-death experiences (Zaleski,
1987). Plato's Republic
presents the story of a near-death experience of a Greek
In this account, the soldier is killed in battle and his
body is placed on a funeral pyre. Just before he is to be
cremated, he awakens and tells a story of leaving his body
and traveling with others to a place where they were all
to be judged (Plato,
1928). Historical figures
Thomas Edison, and Ernest Hemingway
have also reported their own near-death experiences (Jung,
Modern researchers, such as
have provided modern accounts of near-death experiences.
Through their research, they have been able to provide phenomenological
evidence regarding these experiences as altered states of
consciousness, and qualitatively demonstrated that the great
similarities between the different reports of these experiences
are not a result of chance or accident.
to a 1991 Gallup Poll estimate, 13 million Americans, 5%
of the population, have reported that they have had a near-death
1992). Research has
demonstrated that near-death experiences are no more likely
to affect the devoutly religious than the agnostic or atheist.
Near-death experiences can be experienced by anyone (Moody,
According to Talbot (1991),
near-death experiences appear to have no relationship to "a
person's age, sex, marital status, race, religion and/or
spiritual beliefs, social class, educational level, income,
frequency of church attendance, size of home community,
or area of residence" (p. 240).
experiences have been recorded in folklore, religious, and
social writings throughout the world. Reports have been
recorded from societies such as Native American, Tibet,
Japan, Melanesia, Micronesia, Egypt, China, India, Africa,
Australia, Europe, and the United States (Greyson,
According to Ring (1980),
there does not appear to be any relationship between, on
one hand, an individual's spirituality and religious practices,
and on the other hand, the likelihood of experiencing a
near-death experience or the depth of the ensuing experience.
4. The Phenomenology
of the Near-Death Experience
experiencer consistently report similar experiences. According
to Talbot (1991), "One
of the most interesting aspects of the ND phenomenon is
the consistency one finds from experience to experience"
(p. 240). Although most near-death experiencers may not
experience all of the traits associated with near-death
experiences or in the same order, experiencers consistently
report similar experiences. The following is a constructed
description of the content of a near-death experience representing
most of the major traits:
At the onset of the near-death
experience, the individual may experience a sense of being
dead, and surprise at being dead, yet will remain peaceful
and have no feelings of pain. Following the peaceful awareness
of being dead, the experiencer may have an out-of-body experience,
a perception of separating from the physical body and moving
away from the deceased body. The individual may experience
a sense of moving through a tunnel, during the stage of
entering into the darkness. As the individual passes through
the tunnel, there may be an awareness of a bright light
towards the end of the tunnel. While experiencing the consciousness
of the light, ethereal forms recognizable by the experiencer
may be seen in the light. In the later part of the near-death
experience, the individual may sense that he or she is rising
rapidly towards the light into what he or she may consider
heaven or another plane of consciousness. During this ascension,
the experiencer may encounter a Being of Light reported
to be either God, another spiritual deity, or an energy
form recognized by non-theists. The encounter with the Being
of Light engulfs the experiencer with a sense of unconditional
love that emanates from the Being. During this encounter,
the near-death experiencer may become conscious of having
a total panoramic review of his or her life and may experience
a sense of self-judgment when observing his or her life
events in review. The judgment is not by the Being of Light
but is a personal judgment by the experiencer. Throughout
each of the stages, and particularly in the latter stages
of the near-death experience, the individual may be reluctant
to return to his or her former life.
most near-death reports are positive, in that they are pleasurable
experiences, there are some reports of negative or "hellish"
type experiences. The reports of negative near-death experiences
appear to be rare. Of all the reported near-death experiences,
a 1982 Gallup poll estimated that less than 1% are considered
to be negative, hellish, and frightening experiences. The
negative near-death experiences are reported to contain
similar traits as positive experiences but are associated
with a sense of extreme fear, panic or anger, a sense of
helplessness, and possible visions of demonic creatures
1988, p.25, 27; Staff,
1992 p. 1-2; Horacek, 1992, p. 3).
Many individuals who have experienced
a near-death experience claim a fuller understanding of
their religious or spiritual insights and their impact on
their lives (Moody,
They report that they feel closer to God after their near-death
experience. Ring (1980)
comments: The way in which post-incident religiousness reveals
itself among core experiencers is primarily in terms of
an inward sense of religion: They feel closer to God, are
more prayerful, are less concerned with organized religion
and formal ritual, and express a sense of religious tolerance
and religious universalism It isn't clear that their belief
in God per se grows stronger, although it is clear that
their religious feeling does. Following their incident,
they are significantly more inclined then non-experiencers
to be convinced there is life after death (p.173). The effect
of this spiritual awakening on the experiencer is a more
positive attitude towards life, a lack of fear of dying,
and a sense of service towards others (Moody,
Models of Near-Death Experiences
phenomenology of the near-death experience can be described
by reporting the various stages of the experience, the characteristics
or traits of the experience - which occur during various
stages of the experience, by the constellations or related
conscious experiences associated with near-death experiences,
or by the experiential grouping of stages, traits, or constellations
of the experiences. Experiencers may experience some or
all of these stages, traits, consciousness, and types. The
stages of near-death experiences relate to the experiencer's
sense of progression towards a destination. The traits are
associated with a sense of consciousness or knowledge concerning
the activities within the near-death experience. Noyes and
and Sabom (1977)
further categorize the stages and traits of near-death experiencers
into constellations and group types to analyze further the
phenomenology of the near-death experience. The statistical
analysis of the data presented in the Ring (1980,
1981), and Noyes and
studies, and the research of Sabom (1977)
demonstrate the consistency of these models of classification
of near-death experiences.
has devised a model of stages of near-death experiences
that are recognized by near-death experiencers. The stages
Stages of the
A sense of peace at the time of
A sense of separation from the body.
A sense of entering into darkness.
Seeing a bright light.
A sense of entering the light
Raymond Moody (1988),
identifies nine distinguishing qualities, characteristics
or traits that have been associated with near-death experiences
and may be perceived within the stages of the near-death
experiences identified by the Ring study. The Moody defined
near-death experience traits are:
Qualities and Characteristics of the NDE
of being dead.
of peace and painlessness.
of separation from the physical
of passing through a tunnel.
of an encounter with recognizable
ethereal entities, such as family,
friends, angels or religious personages.
These spirits may appear to be enveloped
of rising rapidly into the heavens.
of an encounter with a Being of
Light which emanates unconditional
love. This being has been described
as God or Allah.
of a panoramic, total life review
and sense of self-judgment about
one's life while bathed in the unconditional
love of the Being of Light.
of reluctance to return to the world
of the living.
of a compression or absence of time
and sensing that no restrictions
of space but are freedom to go where
the experiencer chooses.
to a study performed by Noyes and Slymen (1978-79),
near-death experiences can be classified further into three
consciousness constellations of the type of event: mystical,
depersonalized, and hyperalert. The mystical type includes
a sense of harmony and unity, color or visions, and a feeling
of great understanding. Depersonalization relates to the
loss of emotion, detachment from the physical body, and
an altered sense of the passage of time. The hyperalert
constellation refers to the experiencer's sense that his
or her thoughts are sharply defined, vivid, and accelerated.
also has divided near-death experiencers into three experiential
group types: autoscopic, transcendental, and mixed experiences.
The autoscopic experiencers include the individuals who
have experienced the sense of leaving their bodies, having
out-of-body experiences. The transcendental group include
individuals who have a sense of entering into a "spiritual
realm". In the mixed experiences, the near-death experiencer
may experience a mixture of autoscopic and transcendental
1988). Regardless of
the methodology used to classify near-death experiences,
the anecdotal nature of the near-death reports are similar
and consistent between experiencers (Moody,
6. Transpersonal and Reductionist
Theories Concerning Near-Death Experiences
researchers Moody (1975,
1988), Morse (1990),
and Ring (1980,
1985) suggest that near-death experiences are related
to a state of consciousness, separate from the physical
body, which occurs at the time of death. Near-death researchers
have collected hundreds of phenomenological descriptions
of individual near-death experiences and have statistically
correlated the occurrences of the stages and traits associated
with these experience. The consistency of near-death experience
reports provide support for the theories that these experiences
are not a result of hallucinations or mental dysfunctions.
Individuals, regardless, of age, race, religion, or national
origin have reported similar experiences during a near-death
episode. The chi-square method of statistical analysis has
been used by near-death researchers to determine if the
similarity of events reported during the \near-death experience,
by experiencer, are a result of chance or are to be expected
elements of the near-death experience (Morse,
1985). The chi-square method is a non-parametric statistical
test that is used to determine the statistical significance
of the difference between the frequencies of reported outcomes
with the expected frequencies of outcomes. In other words,
did the events reported in near-death experiences happen
by chance or can the events anticipated (Borg & Gall,
1989). The statistical significance of near-death research
provides that the similarity in the reports of near-death
experiencer do not happen as a result of chance but are
consistent phenomena of the near-death experiencers (Morse,
1985; Sabom & Kreutziger,
theologians, medical practitioners, and psychologists do
not believe that near-death experiences are paranormal experiences.
According to Moody (1988),
some theological, medical, and psychological theorists attempt
to explain near-death experiences as physical or mental
phenomena that have more to do with brain and neurological-biological
dysfunctions associated with the dying process.
such as Sagan (1979)
and Siegel (1981)
attempt to debunk the near-death experience by stating that
it is a result of a chemical reaction within the brain during
the dying process. They postulate that as the eyes deteriorate
following death they produce the bright light that is reported
to be seen during the near-death experience. The tunnel
effect and a sensation of being out-of-body is believed
to be caused by the chemical reactions in the body during
the death process (Moody,
1988, p.178). According to researcher Ronald Siegel
"The descriptions given by dying persons are virtually identical
to descriptions given by persons experiencing hallucinations,
drug-induced or otherwise," (p. 65). Carl Sagan (1979)
states that some of the near-death experiences can be associated
with "a wiring defect in the human neuroanatomy that under
certain conditions always leads to the same illusion of
astral projection/out-of-body experience," (p. 47). According
to Moody (1988)
and Morse (1990),
some researchers attempt to explain near-death experiences
as the mind's defense against the fear of dying, that the
mind creates positive images of an afterlife in order to
control the fear of dying.
near-death researchers regard three consistently repeated
reports as providing credibility for the transpersonal theories
that near-death experiences are the expression of an altered
state of consciousness separate from the physical or mental
realm of human existence that have a profound impact on
the experiencer's life. These reports thus are crucial to
cite in responding to the theorists who attempt to debunk
the near-death experience as a transpersonal phenomenon.
These three factors reported are:
Provide Credibility for
Theory of the NDE
Consistent reports of out-of-body
experiences of individuals who sense
that they separate from their physical
body during the near-death experience
and can observe their body and surroundings
from a detached position.
The consistent reports of near-death
experiences of children that are
similar to those experiences reported
and personality changes of the near-death
experiencers following heir experience
The following discussion of out-of-body
experiences, children's near-death experiences, and the
post-experience attitudinal and personality changes of near-death
experiencers, suggest reasons why the reductionist or debunking
theories are implausible.
7. Out-Of-Body Experiences
an out-of-body experience, experiencers report that they
leave their physical body and view their body, and other
activity, from a detached, uninvolved perspective. Upon
recovery from the near-death experience, many experiencers
recall details of medical procedures being performed on
them that they had no prior knowledge of the technique.
Some experiencers report that they travel to other locations,
other than the place where the body may be lying "dead."
The out-of-body experiencer is then able to report things
that he or she may have seen during the out-of-body experience,
and there is no other logical explanation for the source
of this knowledge (Eadie,
An example of this experience is a story told by a very
nearsighted woman. During her out-of-body experience, she
reports that she was first lying on an operating table with
the anesthesia machine behind her head. She then became
aware that she had detached from her body and was able to
see, without difficulty, the equipment identification numbers
on the anesthesia machine. These numbers were out of her
normal visual range and behind her body's head. She then
floated up to the top of the room and noted that the top
of the light fixtures were dirty. After her recovery from
her near-death experience, she returned to the operating
room and was able to ascertain that the numbers she had
seen on the machine were correct and that the light fixtures
were in need of cleaning (Ring,
1985, p. 42-43). This
experience supports the belief that near-death experiences
involve separation from the physical body and mind.
Studying the out-of-body phenomenon
leads to doubt about the beliefs of those who attempt to
debunk the theory that near-death experiences are transpersonal
experiences that transcend the physical and mental realm
of human consciousness. The knowledge that the experiencer
gains during the out-of-body experience, in most cases,
could not have been learned in any other method other than
by a consciousness detached from the physical body (Moody,
The ability of experiencers to report things and events
that they had no prior knowledge of provides for the plausibility
that the out-of-body experience is a transpersonal event
and not a psychological response to dying.
Children and Near-Death Experiences
children have reported having near-death experiences. Their
reports are similar to adult near-death experiences even
though they may not have had time to be enculturated with
the same socio-religious beliefs regarding death as adults,
or developed a fear of death through their psychological
development. Children report having out-of-body experiences,
passing through a tunnel, and encountering spiritual forms
during their near-death experiences. Of interest are the
reports of children meeting spiritual entities that are
later identified as deceased relatives who the child could
not have known prior to his or her near-death experience
The accounts of young children's
near-death experiences suggest the unlikeliness of the debunking
theory that near-death experiences are the mind's psychological
defense towards dying. Children who have not had time to
learn of their mortality do not usually fear dying. According
to Frank (1982)
and Anthony (1967)
children, until between the age of five and seven, consider
death to be reversible and generally do not have a fear
of dying. They, therefore, do not have a need to create
an afterlife experience, such as is experienced in a near-death
experience, in order to overcome a fear of dying (Moody,
Furthermore, following near-death experiences, children
share similar after-effects of the experience as adult experiencers.
They grow to have a sense of purpose and direction in their
lives, and as they mature, do not develop a fear of dying
9. Attitudinal and
Personality Changes Following Near-Death Experiences
to Wilson (1987),
the real importance of the near-death experience is in the
after-effects it has on the life of the experiencer. The
usual psychological and spiritual after-effects of a near-death
experience consist of changes in personality and values
and an attitudinal change towards religion and death. There
is a heightened sense of appreciation of life, especially
of the world of nature and of other people. The near-death
experiencer achieves a sense of understanding of what is
important to him or her in life and strives to live in accordance
with his or her understanding of what is meaningful. Consistently
reported after-effects of near-death experiences are the
lack of fear of death, an attitude of unconditional love
and service towards others, and the desire to seek knowledge
According to Ring (1985),
many near-death experiences act as a catalyst to a spiritual
awakening for the experiencer: What is noteworthy...is the
particular form that this spiritual development takes in
many NDErs - i.e., the real significance of the NDE here
may not be simply that it promotes spiritual growth as much
as the kind of spiritual growth it promotes (p. 144). This
awakening appears to move the experiencer toward what Ring
calls a "universalistically spiritual orientation"
(p. 145). He defines universalistically spiritual orientation
as consisting of:
Universalistic Spiritual Orientation
A tendency to characterize oneself
as spiritual rather than religious,
A feeling of being inwardly close
A de-emphasis of the formal aspects
of religious life and worship.
A conviction that there is life
after death, regardless of religious
An openness to the doctrine of reincarnation
(and a general sympathy towards
A belief in the essential underlying
unity of all religions.
A desire for a universal religion
embracing all humanity (p. 146).
long-term positive effects that the near-death experience
has on the experiencer's life give evidence for supporting
a plausible argument for the transpersonal nature of the
near-death experience. This aspect of the near-death experience
has not been addressed by reductionist theories in the literature
reviewed. The profundity of the after-effects of a near-death
experience on the experiencer's life have not been able
to be achieved through pharmacological or psychological
methods. Most of the sensory nature of the near-death experience
can be induced through drugs or hallucinations but the positive
change in the individual's personality and attitudes do
not appear to be capable of replication (Moody,
reports that these after-effects appear to remain with the
individual for the remainder of his or her mortal life.
first part of this essay, I have reviewed some of the contemporary
near-death research and some of the arguments against the
plausibility of the reductionist theories and for the plausibility
to transpersonal theories explaining near-death experiences.
In the following part of this essay, religious beliefs concerning
death, afterlife, and near-death experiences will be discussed.
This discussion will provide commentary regarding the similarities
between different religious beliefs and experiences concerning
death, as well as between religious interpretations of near-death
10. Religious Beliefs
Concerning Death, Afterlife, and Near-Death Experiences
and studies support the assumption that the majority of
people believe that death is not the end of one's existence
but rather a transition from one life to another (Gallup &
Kellehear & Irwin, 1990;
Klenow & Bolin, 1989).
Different religions have provided belief structures that
support the religious and social needs of practitioners.
Rituals and sacred writings support the various religious
interpretations of what death is and what it will be like
in the afterlife. However, even with the differences in
religious beliefs, there are similarities between many different
religious groups regarding afterlife beliefs. One similarity
among religious groups is the belief in an afterlife following
physical death. Another similarity is the presence of "the
two polar images of life after death - the abode of the
righteous, heaven or paradise, and the place for the wicked,
or hell" (Grof &
Grof, 1980, p. 13).
These polar images are also recognized by many near-death
According to Hick (1980),
a belief in the immortality of the spirit has been present
in most religions for centuries. The belief that there is
a life after death is one of the oldest concepts of human
history (DeSpelder &
Proving the immortality of the human soul has been the objective
of many philosophers, theologians, and scientists. Freud
stated, Our own death is indeed unimaginable, and whenever
we make an attempt to imagine it we can perceive that we
really survive as spectators. Hence the psychoanalytic school
could venture on the assertion that at bottom no one believes
in his own death, or to put the thing in another way, in
the unconscious everyone of us is convinced of his [or her]
own immortality (p. 154). Many beliefs in life after death
have concerned a non-physical transition into a serene spiritual
world with encounters with other deceased people and possible
religious figures. There may be a judgment or accounting
of one's life with a final disposition of the individual
spirit following the period of judgment or personal assessment.
experiences and the reports of a consciousness of life after
death have been provided by members of Buddhist, Hindu,
Islam, Jewish, Christian, and Mormon religions, among others.
Agnostics and atheists also have reported near-death experiences
even with their predisposed lack of belief in anything greater
than personal self and this life. The following are brief
commentaries regarding the beliefs concerning death, afterlife,
and near-death experiences within these religious and areligious
11. Agnostics and Atheists
think that it is impossible to know whether there is a God
or life after death. Atheists believe that there is no God
and no life after death and that death is the cessation
of the existence of the individual.
and atheists have reported having near-death experiences.
These experiences are similar to the reports of individuals
who have professed a spiritual belief prior to their near-death
Agnostics & atheists report that they achieve an altered
state of consciousness in which they have experienced some
or all of the traits Moody attributes to a near-death experience.
Most agnostics and atheists interpret their near-death experiences
as a glimpse of life after death (Rawlings,1978;
Prior to the near-death experience, they did not believe
in life after death. As a result of the experience, most
agnostic and atheist experiencers eventually move toward
a more spiritually guided life with a new found belief in
life after death (Rawlings,
Ring, 1985, p. 151).
Maurice Rawlings (1978)
reported that he did not know of any agnostic or atheist
individual, from his research, who after experiencing a
near-death experience, remained convinced that there was
no God, no life after death, or that there was nothing else
beyond the material existence.
believe that upon death, there is rebirth to another life.
Death is accepted as inevitable and not feared. The believer's
actions, in this life, will determine his or her level of
rebirth. Karma is the force created by the actions of the
individual - the effects of actions. Good karma, which is
achieved by compassionate actions in this life, leads to
a higher existence in the next life. Nirvana is reached
by achieving an understanding of the nature of reality.
This must be discovered through the experiences of other
dimensions of human consciousness (Klein,
1991, p. 103).
According to Buddhist cosmology,
numerous, hierarchically arranged heavens exist along with
eight hot and cold hells. The individual spirit exists in
one of these realms, based upon the karma created in the
previous life, until reborn into another life. This cycle
continues until the enlightenment of nirvana is achieved
According to Swami Adiswarananda
in the Hindu religion death comes as a break in the continued
events of life and brings about a change in the form in
which the spirit resides. Hindus believe that the afterlife
is a passage of time in a heaven or hell, dependent upon
the karma built up in life. The judgment about one's life
is based upon the karma that the individual created in his
or her past lives. The rebirth of the spirit into the next
life, through the transmigration of the soul, is determined
by the developed karma and the individual's last thoughts
in the present life. An individual's search for eternal
happiness and immortality results in the rebirth of the
spirit in different bodies until the spirit learns that
happiness and immortality are not a result of the fulfillment
of desires but are attained when all desires and needs are
no longer important (Adiswarananda,
According to some Hindus, the various religious faiths are "different
paths to reach one and the same goal - union with God as
ultimate Reality" (Johnson &
There are reports of Chinese Buddhists
having near-death experiences (Kellehear,
Heaven, Gao, 1990).
has suggested that near-death experiences may have been
responsible for part of the development of Pure Land Buddhism
in China. A Hindu report of a near-death experience relates
that the experiencer entered into heaven on the back of
a cow (Ferris,
to Mauro (1992), "East
Indians [Hindus] sometimes see heaven as a giant bureaucracy,
and frequently report being sent back because of clerical
errors," whereas Japanese experiencers report seeing
symbolic images, such as "long, dark rivers and beautiful
flowers" (p. 57). During the near-death experience,
the Buddhist experiencers have reported seeing the personage
of Buddha, and Hindu experiencers report seeing Krishna
The difference in Buddhist and Hindu reports of near-death
experiences is predominately associated with the afterlife
setting and the personages that the experiencer reports
Buddhist and Hindu near-death
experiencers may report different interpretations of the
specifics of their experiences; however, the experiences
are consistent with other stages, traits, constellations,
and group types reported by near-death experiencers in other
cultures and religions. Some members of the Buddhist and
Hindu religions interpret near-death experiences as providing
afterlife visions that are similar to visions ascribed to
some Eastern religious experiences associated with death
and afterlife. Becker (1984)
comments "that ancient Japanese Buddhist meditative
and deathbed visions closely parallel modern American near-death
and deathbed visions" (p. 51). The Tibetan Book of
the Dead (1973)
describes the Bardo, the three stages of the transitionary "disembodied
state" following death. In the first stage, the departed
have visions of the "Blinding Clear Light of Pure Reality."
In the second stage, the departed encounter a succession
of "deities." In the third stage the departed
is judged based upon past deeds by the "Dharma Raja,
King and Judge of the Dead" (Grof &
Grof, 1980). These
stages are similar in content to other reported near-death
experiences from other religions and cultures. These similarities
include a movement through levels - such as passing through
a tunnel, visions of pure light, meeting incorporeal beings,
powers of astral projections or out-of-body-experience,
and a judgment about one's life (Becker,
in the Islamic faith, is the cessation of biological life
and the resting of the spirit, in the grave, until the Judgment
Day. Some Muslims believe that the "good souls"
see visions of God, and the wicked see the hell that awaits
them. From the time of death to the time of judgment, Muslims
believe the spirit remains in a state of "dreamless
sleep," with the exception of possible visions of eternity
Johnson & McGee, 1991).
Faith in an afterlife is based
upon the belief in the oneness of God and the belief in
a day of resurrection and judgment for all regardless of
religious belief. At that time, the spirit will be judged,
based upon its deeds in life, and allowed either to enter
into Paradise and be with God, be thrown into the Fire for
a period of purgation, or condemned to everlasting punishment
in the Fire. Most Muslims believe that non-Muslims can reach
Paradise only after a period of purgation (Johnson &
Smith, J. 1991).
Muslims have reported having near-death
Muslim near-death experiencers report seeing and meeting
recognizable spirits (Flynn,
This conforms with the Islamic tradition that the souls
of the faithful, in paradise, welcome the "incoming
souls" and with other reports of visions of people
awaiting the newly deceased (Holck,
In Muslim near-death experiences, the Being of Light is
identified as Allah, whereas in other religions the light
might be identified as God (Ring,
Some Muslims interpret the near-death
experience as a possible glimpse into life after death due
to the similarity of the experience with the religious visions
of Muhammad and their expectations of life after death (Ring,
An Islamic myth describes Muhammad's "Night
Journey" as his
experience of passing through the realms of the afterlife
where he encounters spirits who have died, has a vision
of heaven and hell, and communes with Allah (Couliano,
Grof & Grof, 1980,
Jewish religion generally emphasizes the current life, and
not life after death. Although Judaism recognizes that the
life of the spirit does not end at the point of bodily death,
it is the Jew's responsibility to focus on a meaningful
life and not speculate on life after death. According to
the Jewish Bible states that the actions taken in the present
life will reward the righteous and chastise the wicked.
It does not specifically address the concept of an afterlife.
Even though the Jewish Bible does not directly address immortality,
traditional Jews believe that immortality will bring the
resurrection of the body and soul, followed by the judgment
of the worth of their lives by God. The Reformed Jew believes
that resurrection involves only the soul. Jews believe they
live and die only once (Ponn,
Since there is no discussion,
in the Jewish Bible, of afterlife, there is no official
Jewish religious opinion regarding life after death. However,
according to Ponn (1991),
many Jews believe that human souls will be held accountable
before God for what has been accomplished in the current
life. After death, many Jews believe that they will be reunited
with family members in heaven. Their belief in God's caring
nature disavows a sadistic punishment in hell. Entrance
into heaven is accomplished by righteous living and repentance.
Heaven is considered a place where anxiety and pain is ended
Johnson & McGee, 1991).
There have been a number of reported
near-death experiences by members of the Jewish faith.
a practicing Jew, reports having had several near-death
experiences since 1975. Harris and Bascom's (1990)
book, Full Circle - The Near-Death Experience and Beyond,
is a narrative of Harris' near-death experiences. Jewish
people who have had a near-death experience relate similar
observations and experiences as the experiences of other
religious-spiritual believers. During the near-death experience,
the individuals report being in the presence of the Being
of Light and judging their own lives (Harris &
Bascom, 1990). This
experience is similar to the Jewish belief that what is
important in life is the attending to the responsibilities
of living a meaningful, productive life. Many near-death
experiencers report being met by family members. These reports
are consistent with the Jewish belief that after death they
will be reunited with family members in heaven (Galloway,
Johnson & McGee, 1991;
Christians are united in their belief that Jesus is the
son of God and that there is an afterlife. Upon death, Christians
believe that they come before God and are judged. According
to Smith (1991), "Following
death, human life is fully translated into the supernatural
domain" (p. 355). Fundamentalists and conservatives
interpret the Holy Bible (1952)
literally and believe that there is a specific heaven and
hell and that only Christians are admitted to heaven. All
others are condemned to hell. Other Christians interpret
Biblical scripture more symbolically, taking into consideration
the language and culture of the time when the Bible was
written. Heaven and hell are viewed as a "condition,"
such as happiness or peace, rather than a specific place.
Regardless of whether the afterlife beliefs are interpreted
conservatively or liberally, the Christian believes that
he or she dies only once and that after death, the spirit
is judged, and then exists in an afterlife for eternity
Johnson & McGee, 1991). "It
is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment"
Near-death experiences appear
to be familiar paranormal occurrences to Christians. Bechtel,
Chen, Pierce, & Walker (1992)
reported that 98% of the clergy that they surveyed were
familiar with near-death phenomena and that almost half
of them have counseled parishioners who had a near-death
experience. As with other religious interpretations of the
near-death experience, Christians also report encounters
with religious beings such as Jesus, Mary, or angels (Flynn,
Experiencers report similar out-of-body experiences, meeting
recognizable spiritual entities, movement toward a bright
light, and a sense of being in the presence of an energy
of "unconditional love" while the experiencer
judges his or her life (Moody,
Some Christians refute the near-death
experience as being a demonic deception. They believe that
the entire near-death experience is a trick of Satan to
pull believers from the teachings of Christianity and lead
them into sin (Harpur,
1992). Other Christians
interpret the near-death experience as a glimpse of an after
death state that may exist prior to the after life judgment
by God. Near-death experiences and experiences similar to
the altered state of the near-death experiences are recorded
in the Holy Bible (1952).
These experiences are not reported as being evil or sinful.
The scripture writers have recorded visions of bright lights,
life reviews, the presence of the unconditional love of
God, and visions of heaven and hell from biblical individuals
who have been close to death (Morse,
In the Apostle Paul's letter to the Corinthians,
II Corinthians 12:1-10,
Paul records a "vision" he had. This vision resembles
the content of a near-death experience. It involved Paul
being "taken up to heaven for a visit" and "hear[ing]
things so astounding that they are beyond man's power to
describe or put in words." Near-death experiencers
consistently report the difficulty of verbalizing what they
experience. The effect of this experience, on Paul, was
a personal confirmation and assurance of his work (Hunter,
Living Bible, 1971).
According to Flynn (1986),
to many experiencers, "the near-death experience affirms
the uniqueness and centrality and indispensability of Christ,
but in a universalistic way that does not negate or diminish
the value of other religious traditions...[It will] break
through sectarian and other barriers and shine a laser beam
of Light on the true essence and meaning of Christ for all
people" (p. 80). Ring (1985)
supports Flynn's comments, in his conclusions regarding
the universalistically spiritual orientation of experiencers
following near-death experiences. He found that following
a near-death experience, the Christian experiencer "gravitated
towards a religious world view that may incorporate and
yet transcend the traditional Christian perspective"
in the Mormon religion is not considered to be the end of
existence of the individual but the beginning of a new existence
as the same person. Mormons believe that they have always
lived and will always live as the same individual, "never
as someone else or in another life-form" (Eyre,
1991, p. 139). Members
of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints are
saddened by the death of a loved one but are comforted in
the belief that upon death the spirit is united with God
in a spirit world, continuing to progress in knowledge,
and await the coming of other family members, the resurrection
of the physical body, and the final judgment. A belief in
an afterlife is an essential part of the faith of the members
of the Church of the Latter-day Saints.
In Mormonism, only "sons
of perdition" - former believers who betray the church
- are destined for eternal punishment. All others are assured
at least an entry into a lesser Paradise, called the "telestial
kingdom," where one spends eternity apart from God.
The most faithful attain the "celestial kingdom,"
where they commune directly with God and eventually may
themselves become gods and populate new universes with their
own spiritual offspring. The Mormon church is the only church
that has a "safety net." Any spirit that has not
heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ in life will, before Judgment
Day, will be given a chance in Paradise to hear it, and
if the spirit accepts the teachings, it will receive equal
blessings from God (Staff, 1992, p. 74).
judgment reported by Mormon near-death experiencers is essentially
a self-judgment. This self-judgment is similar to the reported
life reviews and self-judgment that are reported in near-death
experiences. Experiencers report that they see a panoramic
review of their entire life and then judge their own actions
while awash in the "unconditional love" of the
Being of Light. After the judgment, the spirit dwells with
others that are most like it (Eyre,
1991). As with many
other religious groups, Mormon near-death experiencers consistently
report meeting with deceased family members, and being in
the presence of a being of light which they call God. However,
some Mormon near-death experiencers report two events that
appear to be uncommon with non-Mormon experiencers. They
report that they are requested to do something in the world,
when they return to life, by the personage(s) they encounter
during their experience. They also report that they receive
religious and other types of instructions from the "other
world" beings (Lundahl,
According to Lundahl (1982),
members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day
Saints report a high number of near-death experiences per
capita of their religion. The high number of reported near-death
experiences is probably due to the social values of the
Latter-day Saints which encourages individuals to share
their near-death experiences much more openly than most
other social groups (p.166). Mormons interpret the near-death
experiences as part of their religious beliefs and a glimpse
of life after death.
this essay I have discussed the contemporary work on near-death
experiences and some of the arguments against the plausibility
of reductionist theories and for the plausibility of transpersonal
theories of near-death experiences. I have also provided
an overview of the human consciousness of life after death,
religious beliefs concerning death and afterlife, and interpretations
of near-death experiences by different religious groups.
I believe that the consistency between numerous reports
of near-death experiences, regardless of religious beliefs,
and the similarity of the near-death experiences to reported
religious experiences, provide plausible arguments for the
transpersonal theories of this experience.
Throughout history Buddhists
and Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Mormons have
all reported having near-death experiences. These experiences
are similar to some of the visions or journeys into the
afterlife that are described in some of the sacred texts
of their religions. The descriptions of the near-death experiences
by members of these religious groups are believed, by many,
to be a glimpse into life after death, and appear to be
consistent with each religious group's interpretation of
the afterlife. However, there are some religious leaders
who do not believe that the experiencer has been indisputably
dead and returned to life when he or she reports having
a near-death experience. These leaders interpret these experiences
as being pre-death visions of a transitory state prior to
the individual's final death and judgment.
to the subjective nature of near-death experiences there
can be no conclusive proof that these experiences provide
visions of life after death: however, the reports of out-of-body
experiences, the near-death experiences of children, and
the notable changes in the near-death experiencer's life
following his or her experience support the possibility
of the validity of this theory (Moody,
Because of the transpersonal nature of near-death experiences,
it is sometimes reported that it is difficult to describe
the experience in words. Near-death experiencers report
that there are not appropriate words to accurately describe
their near-death experiences. They therefore interpret the
experience using words, phrases, and metaphors that reflect
their religious-cultural backgrounds and experiences.
near-death experiences of individuals of various beliefs
are consistent with many religious beliefs concerning life
after death and do not compromise the foundations of their
religious traditions. The descriptions of the mystical,
depersonalization, and hyperalert constellations of near-death
experiences and the autoscopic and transcendental grouping
of these experiences appear to closely relate to the levels
of heightened sense of consciousness associated with some
religious rituals. However, the shift from an organized
religious practice to a universalistically spiritual orientation
may have an effect on the religious practices of some experiencers.
Many choose to practice their new sense of universal spirituality
within their earlier religions; however, many near-death
experiencers move toward a religion that is more congruent
with their new found knowledge, or choose to practice their
spirituality through areligious rituals and practices.
According to Ring (1985)
many near-death experiencers attempt to incorporate their
new sense of spirituality into their lives. This removes
some of the limits of religious parochialism. To many experiencers
it becomes less important to be a member of a specific religious
group than to practice a more spiritual life not based upon
specific religious doctrine. However, some experiencers
chose to remain or become active in an organized religion
in order to practice their new spirituality. It is therefore
important for there to be an openness by religious groups
towards individuals who report near-death experiences and
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