1. Introduction to the Near-Death Experience
In 1975, the near-death experience burst into contemporary consciousness with the publication of Raymond Moody‘s famous book Life After Life. The public was newly fascinated, unaware that the phenomena had been described throughout recorded history (the story of Er in Plato’s Republic being the most famous example).
2. Defining the Near-Death Experience
In 1979, Sir Alister Hardy began his exploration of all types of religious/spiritual/mystical experiences with the publication of his book The Spiritual Nature of Man in which he reported that one “trigger” for these phenomena was the “prospect of death.” Working with cases from Hardy’s original sample, Mark Fox in his book Religion, Spirituality, and the Near-Death Experience labeled these “crisis experiences” because it was unclear whether some persons had been clinically dead. Fox found little difference between these “crisis” cases and other religious experience cases.
From the beginning of NDE studies, some researchers have included individuals who had only come “close to death” with those who were resuscitated after being clinically dead for a brief period of time. In their effort to clarify the terminology, Peter and Elizabeth Fenwick in their book The Art of Dying coined the term “temporary death experience” to separate those who came near to death from those who revived following clinical death.
Continuing this effort to define the characteristics of the NDE, Vince Migliore used a large sample from the files of the International Association of Near-Death Studies (IANDS) and published it in his book A Measure of Heaven. Comparing a sample of 193 accounts of clinical death to a sample of 189 accounts of “NDE-like” experiences (e.g., mystical experiences) that were not near death, Migliore found that the NDEs were more in-depth than the mystical experiences, but the difference was not statistically significant.
Unfortunately, there is still no agreed-on definition of the NDE or other religious experiences in the literature.
3. Near-Death Experience Commonalities
People can and do have mystical experiences that resemble near-death experiences without dying. St. Paul’s out-of-body experience (OBE) in which he went to heaven is a famous example (2 Corinthians 12). The NDE is unique among religious /mystical /spiritual experiences in that its “trigger” is clinical death, and we now have over 35 years of research that enable fascinating insights into what the NDE teaches us about God and afterlife.
I begin with Jeff Long‘s “proofs of afterlife” from his book Evidence of the Afterlife because of the magnitude of the sample (N=1300) and the fact that 613 subjects were given an objective questionnaire. They are as follows:
(1) NDErs report increased alertness and consciousness.
(2) NDErs provide evidence from verifiable OBEs.
(3) NDErs blind from birth report a form of “vision” during their NDE.
(4) NDErs report experiences while under anesthesia.
(5) NDErs report life reviews that include experiencing the feelings of others.
(6) NDErs report seeing dead relatives, including people unknown to them who were identified to them later by viewing family photographs.
(7) NDErs who are children report having every NDE element of older NDErs, and this is true whether their account is told during childhood or as an adult who had the experience in childhood.
(8) NDErs who were non-English-speakers from Long’s database form the largest collection of cross-cultural NDEs and provide evidence that NDEs are the same all over the world.
(9) NDErs report that their lives were changed as a result of their NDE and, for the majority, the change was for the better.
To this list of “proofs,” we can add the “Shared Death Experience” which Raymond Moody describes in his book Glimpses of Eternity. This occurs when a person or persons at the bedside of an individual who is dying experiences the beginning of the dying individual’s first moments of death, including such things as alternate reality, mystical light, OBE, coliving the life review, unworldly or heavenly realms, and mist at death.
4. NDEs as the Basis for World Religions
“The founders of every church owed their power originally to the fact of their direct personal communication with the Divine.”
“This unmistakable experience has been achieved by the mystics of every religion; and when we read their statements, we know they are all speaking of the same thing.”
(1) There is a remarkable consistency among largely unconnected cultures and times regarding belief in life after death.
(2) The core elements of these religious beliefs are largely similar to the core elements of the NDE.
(3) These consistent beliefs in life after death contrast with the widely divergent creation myths of different religions.
In other words, the above studies taken together demonstrate the NDE to be a world-wide phenomenon and that it is at the generic core of afterlife beliefs in the world’s religions. Organized religion is, at best, second-hand.
5. Insights into God and Afterlife
Using the same tools that social scientists employ to study all other facets of human behavior, researchers have gained fresh insights into how humans experience God in the here-and-now and in the hereafter. The following 9 findings are the ones I personally find most compelling:
a. God (aka, Ultimate Reality/Great Spirit) Is With Us and Not Distant
Sir Alister Hardy in The Spiritual Nature of Man states that, from the evidence:
“[God is] partly transcendent, and felt as the numinous beyond the self, and partly immanent within him.”
“The spiritual side of man is not the product of intellectuality.”
In other words, the data from NDEs and other religious experiences indicate that the God of the panentheist is the Ultimate Reality; in The God We Never Knew, Marcus Borg makes a strong case for panentheism being biblical.
b. Judgment Is a Reality
In the NDE, the experiencer is often brought before a divine judge/being of light for a “life review“. This can be frightening, comforting, or both; nevertheless, it is awesome. Judgment is virtually universal in world religions.
c. Hell Is Not Permanent
Hell is for purification and rehabilitation — not eternal punishment. In Universalism, the Prevailing Doctrine of the Christian Church During Its First 500 Years, J. W. Hanson makes a good case that universalism was the dominant theology of early Christianity. In the West, it has been relegated to a minority position for the past 1,500 years; nevertheless, it is the norm in the religions of the East (e.g., Hinduism, Buddhism).
Whether they use the word “universalism” or not, a large number of NDE and/or religious experience researchers have come to the conclusion that ALL people are unconditionally loved by God and that, in the end, ALL will be “saved” regardless of religion or denomination. A list of 20 researchers who express this view can be found in Chapter 8: Religious Experience Research Reveals Universalist Principles.
But there is also a dark side. Nancy Evans Bush offers her analysis of distressing NDEs using 21 studies (N=1,828) in The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences: Thirty Years of Investigation by Jan Holden, Bruce Greyson, and Debbie James. Nine of these studies had no distressing NDEs, but the remaining 12 had a 23% rate of distressing NDEs. One of her blockbuster findings was that anyone – not just “evil” people – can face a “time of trial.” Evidence that hell is not permanent includes the fact that NDErs are rescued from hell when they call out to God (or in the West, Jesus).
One very interesting case regarding the impermanence of hell is that of an 18th century NDEr, Dr. George De Benneville, who died of a consumptive-like illness and revived 42 hours later at his wake. During his tour of heaven and hell, he saw angels taking people out of hell and into heaven when they repented. A full account of his experience can be found in Chapter 11: An 18th Century NDE: The Case of George de Benneville.
Both George Ritchie in his book Return from Tomorrow and Raymond Moody in his book Reflections on Life After Life report accounts of people trapped in negative/hellish states as having beings of light standing by them, waiting to rescue them. James McClenon in his book Wondrous Events describes a 7th century Japanese account of a butcher having a hellish deathbed vision which turns positive when he begins chanting the name of the Amida Buddha. Merete Jakobsen notes in Negative Spiritual Encounters that the antidote for negative spiritual experiences is prayer and religious rituals.
d. Jesus Is Not An Only Child
Jesus is called “the only begotten son” four times in the Gospel of John and one time in the 1st Letter of John, but none of the other New Testament writers mention this. There are also a number of Bible verses which indicate that God is the King of the gods (Psalms 82:1, John 10:30-36, Daniel 2:47, 1 Corinthians 8:5). While non-Christians sometimes encounter Jesus in their NDEs and mystical experiences, they also report encounters with other divine entities. Divine beings that individuals encounter are discussed in Religious Experience in Contemporary China by Xingong Yao and Paul Badham and in At the Hour of Death by Karlis Osis and Erlendur Haraldsson. The latter book compares the death-bed visions and NDEs of people in India and the United States.
e. What’s In Your Heart – Not What You Believe – Is What Matters
Religious groups that declare that theirs is the only path to God and salvation are totally wrong. NDE and other religious experiences (e.g., after-death communications, death-bed visions) are replete with stories of people of all faiths and denominations in heaven.
f. “By Their Fruits You Shall Know Them”
Virtually all of the books on the NDE and other religious experiences mentioned in this article speak to the fact that these events change people’s lives for the better, with some authors devoting a whole chapter to this finding.
g. The NDE Implies Mind-Body Dualism
In The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences: Thirty Years of Investigation, Jan Holden notes that attempts to place targets in hospitals for NDErs to see during their OBEs have been unsuccessful to date; however, the sheer volume of veridical perception anecdotes over 150 years demonstrates the reality of NDErs being out of their bodies. Additional evidence for mind-body dualism is presented in E. F. Kelly et. al.’s Irreducible Mind and Pim van Lommel‘s Consciousness Beyond Life.
h. Reincarnation Is THE Unanswered Question
Reincarnation is an essential part of the belief system of Eastern religions. The “official” position in Western religions is “no,” although 25% of Christians in the UK and USA tell us that they believe this. The data supporting reincarnation is beginning to come in, as this is a major research area at the University of Virginia Medical School’s Division of Perceptual Studies. Jim Tucker‘s book Life Before Life is based on 2,500 cases of reported reincarnation from the division’s files.
i. The NDE Is Not Without Its Skeptics
The NDE has attracted numerous detractors, many of whom offer only explanations rather than data. An excellent refutation of questions raised by major skeptics of the NDE can be found in Bruce Greyson’s chapter on the topic in The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences: Thirty Years of Investigation.
Research into the NDE and other spiritual experiences broadens our understanding of God and afterlife and serves as an essential counter to the oppressive religion that is all too common in today’s world. Thanks to research over the past 150 years, we currently know more about how humans experience God and afterlife than at any time in recorded history.
To me, the greatest contribution of Sir Alister Hardy and the Religious Experience Research Centre has been to demonstrate that religious /spiritual /mystic experiences are, in fact, quite common. The picture emerging is of a generic God and afterlife that are universal; its essential elements are an “off-the-rack” fit for all the world’s religions but a “tailor-made” fit for none of them. What is universal is from God; the remainder of religion is cultural. I pray that we continue this research.
Borg, M. (1997). The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco.
Fenwick, P., & Fenwick, E. (2008). The art of dying. New York, NY: Continuum.
Fox, M. (2003). Religion, spirituality and the near-death experience. New York, NY: Routledge.
Hanson, J. W. (2007/1899). Universalism, the prevailing doctrine of the Christian Church during its first five hundred years. San Diego: St Alban Press.
Hardy, A. (1997). The spiritual nature of man: A study of contemporary religious experience. Oxford, England: The Religious Experience Research Centre. (Original work published 1979).
Holden, J., Greyson, B., & James, D. (Eds.). (2009). The handbook of near-death experiences: Thirty years of investigation. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger/ABC-CLIO.
Jakobsen, M. D. (1999). Negative spiritual experiences: Encounters with evil. Lampeter, Wales: Religious Experience Research Centre.
James, W. (1958). The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York, NY: Signet. (Original work published 1901).
Kelly, E. W. & Kelly, E. F., et al. (2007). Toward a psychology for the 21st century. In E. F. Kelly, E. W. Kelly, A. Crabtree, A. Gauld, M. Grosso, & B. Greyson, Irreducible mind: Toward a psychology for the 21st century (pp. 577-643). New York, NY: Rowman & Littlefield.
Lommel, P. (2011). Consciousness beyond life: The science of the near-death experience. HarperOne.
Long, J., & Perry, P. (2010). Evidence of the afterlife: The science of near-death experiences. New York, NY: Harper One.
McClenon, J. (1994). Wondrous events: Foundations of religious beliefs. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Migliore, V. (2009). A measure of heaven: Near-death experience data analysis. Folsom, CA: Blossom Hill Books.
Moody, R. (1975). Life after life: The investigation of a phenomenon – survival of bodily death. Covington, GA: Mockingbird Books.
Moody, R. & Perry, P. (2010). Glimpses of eternity: Sharing a loved one’s passage from this life to the next. Guideposts; Book Club Edition.
Moody, R. (1977). Reflections on life after life. Bantam.
Osis, K., and Haraldsson, E. (1977). At the Hour of Death. New York, NY: Avon.
Ritchie, G. G., and Sherrill, E. (1978). Return from Tomorrow. Old Tappan, NJ: Sprite.
Shushan, G. (2009). Conceptions of afterlife in early civilizations: Universalism, constructivism, and near-death experience. London, England: Continuum International.
Tucker, J. (2005). Life before life: Children’s memories of previous lives. New York, NY: St. Martin’s.
Underhill, E. (2006). Practical mysticism: A little book for normal people. Cosimo Classics.
Yao, X & Badham, P. (2007). Religious experience in contemporary China. Cardiff: University of Wales.
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