Home > Science Why Near-Death Experiences Are Different

Why Near-Death Experiences Are Different

Monument at mountain and blue sky background in dendra park of first president Nursultan Nazarbayev in Almaty, Kazakhstan

Skeptics argue that if near-death experiences (NDEs) were correct descriptions of actual afterlife experiences, these descriptions would corroborate with each other no matter what the background of the experiencer. As if scientists would expect aliens visiting a random location around our planet to return with corroborating descriptions of their experiences. Therefore, the skeptic argues, because NDE descriptions do not corroborate with each other, NDEs are not actual afterlife experiences. But if NDE descriptions were identical all around the world, it would make more appealing the notion of NDEs being nothing but human brains experiencing the same “dying brain” hallucination. It would be suggest that NDEs are “hard-wired” experiences which occur when the brain is dying. But because they are different, this shows NDEs are not “hard-wired” experiences, but rather dynamic experiences — like life in general.

NDEs are very similar to lucid dreaming — an experience of virtual reality where all things are mentally possible. And just as one person’s dream is different from another, so do differences between NDEs correspond with reality. NDEs are very private, personal experiences – as private as a person’s clothes, hair color, language, size, etc. What a person experiences subjectively in an NDE is attributable to many factors: the NDEr’s psychology, personal biases, background, etc. — not just culture. One of the truths of the NDE is how each person integrates their NDE into their own preexisting belief system. Everyone is unique; and everyone is experiencing the world in a way that is absolutely unique to anyone else in the universe. The same is true for NDEs and those who experience them. Reality exists in the mind of the beholder. In ordinary life, we create our own reality from the actions we take and the thoughts we think inwardly. NDEs apparently are no different.

1. The differences of NDEs defined

Kevin Williams

I classify NDEs according to the general category as: positive or negative. My opinion is that people who are primarily motivated by positive influences such as love, joy, and peace generally have positive NDEs. People who are primarily motivated by negative influences (such as hatred, anger, and fear) generally have negative NDEs. There are a many exceptions to this, but I am confident that such a categorization is sufficient.

Positive NDEs have similar aspects. A typical example involves an out-of-body experience (OBE) followed by traveling through a tunnel toward a very bright light. At the end of the tunnel, deceased loved ones or “Beings of Light” often appear. Sometimes, one particular “Being of Light” is identified either as God, Jesus or other religious figures, an angel, or even their own “Higher Self.” This being induces them into a life review in which their entire life can be instantaneously observed. Afterwards, the experiencer reaches a boundary of some kind which they cannot cross. Here, they may be given a choice of returning to physical existence or progressing into the afterlife. They are often told, “It is not yet your time to die” or, “Your mission is not yet completed.”

Negative experiences also have features that are similar. These kinds of experiences often involve people finding themselves in some hellish condition, sometimes corresponding to an object of interest such as a physical addiction, a sexual obsession, a person still living, or some negative influence. Negative experiences are often rescued by a higher spiritual Being of Light, sometimes by a loved one or sometimes by a religious figure. Once rescued, they are shown their entire life in review. They are then given the same choice as those who have positive experiences: to either stay or return. Many negative experiences often end up transforming into positive ones, which strongly suggests these negative states of consciousness are temporary and not permanent.

Whether the experiencer is an atheist or a religious person, American or Chinese, a child or an adult, gay or straight, their experiences are more similar than they are different. Despite all the differences between them, it is the similar aspects that are noteworthy. These similar aspects are of great interest to researchers because they demonstrate a pattern which is repeated over and over again by different people in different cultures during different periods of history.

It should be noted that it is not the reality of these experiences that is questioned by skeptics. It is the reality of them being an afterlife experience that is questioned. Using the scientific method, these experiences can be proven to be valid. In the laboratory, NDEs can be induced using right temporal lobe brain stimulation, the application of hallucinogenic drugs, or extreme gravitational forces. These laboratory experiments prove the NDE to be valid. Whether it is a valid afterlife experience is another matter altogether. Nevertheless, the similarities between them suggest a reality based in scientific experimentation.

2. The similarities of NDEs defined

The similarities among NDEs are too great to be ignored. My own research has revealed the following statistics representing the similarities among 50 experiences:

69% experienced overwhelming love
65% experienced mental telepathy
62% experienced a life review
56% experienced a tremendous ecstasy
56% saw God
46% were given unlimited knowledge
46% experienced different afterlife realms
46% were told it was not their time to die
44% were shown visions of the future
42% went through a tunnel
37% met Jesus Christ
31% received and remembered forgotten knowledge
27% experienced fear
21% described having a homecoming
21% were told of their past lives
19% experienced some form of hell
17% saw a “City of light
13% saw a “Temple of Knowledge
10% saw spirits dwelling among living people
6% resulted from a suicide attempt
0% saw a Devil

As indicated above, 46% of them were told in various ways it was “not their time to die.” Because such a large number of them were given this message, it suggests that it has an objectivity based in reality. It is equivalent to 46% of NDErs report being told “life is but a dream” during their experiences. The cryptic nature of the message combined with being heard by so many experiencers gives its strong credibility as to being an objective experience.

3. People have different needs

Many differences can be found in NDE reports. For example, this website profiles a person traveling throughout the universe in their NDE. Another person toured a “temple of knowledge.” Another was shown the future by thirteen light beings. Another was given a guided tour of the afterlife by her deceased dog. Another was shown the Earth from the perspective of being in outer space. Another experiencer traveled back in time to witness the crucifixion of Christ. Another was told her suicide would result in her reincarnation. Another met her future, and yet unborn, son. One man was molested in hell and then rescued by Christ. One woman experienced the ecstasy of God until she could take it no more. One man experienced a “God of wrath” then a “God of love.” One woman identified the Being of Light as the basic pattern behind the atom and all things in the universe. One man saw the Being of Light changing into various personalities such as Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, Mohammed, and then a mandala of human souls. Another saw the Being of Light as her Higher Self. The differences go on and on. However, despite these differences, all of these experiences are generally the same in that they contain many common aspects.

An interesting concept explained to one person during an NDE is how the afterlife appears to people in the way they need it to appear after death. This explains why the Being of Light appears as Christ to some people and as an angel or Higher Self to another. It also explains why people experience different things during their NDEs. People experience different things because people have different needs. These needs are met at the time of death.

In my opinion, these differences suggest that someone who expects to flutter about with winged cherubs playing harps and singing hallelujah after death is allowed to do precisely that until they realize that this is certainly not a real heaven. Others might expect to spend all their time in eternity in prayer and glorification – until it is clearly demonstrated to them that this is a fantasy-to-be-abandoned. Even those who are convinced by their religious leaders that they will be tormented in hell-fire are given a hellish experience for the purpose of education. This suggests the initial phase of the death experience is transitory and merely a preparatory phase where people are allowed to face their illusions in order to teach them important lessons about themselves.

The basis of this concept of “getting what you need” is the fact that everyone does not need the same things. This concept assumes that a person’s NDE happens in a way they can understand and learn from. It is the idea whereby a person may experience, as an example, judgment from God during their life review only to later learn in the experience they were the one, not God, doing the judging. The life review has been described as the most enlightening experience of a person’s entire life and the single most educational experience. This concept suggests those who experience a life review do so because they needed to experience it.

4. People have different perspectives and perceptions

One of the reasons why these experiences are different can be explained by the great mystic Meister Eckhart. In the NDE movie, Jacob’s Ladder, Meister Eckhart is quoted as saying:

“The only thing that burns in hell is the part of you that won’t let go of your life: your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away, but they’re not punishing you, they’re freeing your soul. If you’re frightened of dying and you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. If you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels freeing you from the Earth.” – Meister Eckhart

To ask whether this is literally true or not misses the point. What it does is illustrate an important fact about people’s perspectives and perceptions and how several witnesses can observe the same thing but come up with different testimonies. One real example illustrating this point involves the tunnel aspect of the NDE. Most NDErs describe traveling through the tunnel as a very beautiful and pleasant experience. However, some experiencers have described this same tunnel experience to be horribly frightening. This demonstrates the fact that one man’s heaven is another man’s hell. It also demonstrates the quality of the NDE depends on the NDErs themselves. In other words, beauty IS in the eye of the beholder.

What a person experiences can be attributed to many factors: the NDEr’s psychology, personal experiences, background and culture. Even the very archetypal pattern of the NDE itself is a factor determining what one experiences in an NDE. These factors may have a different amount of influence from one person to another. For this reason, it may be virtually impossible to determine beforehand how a person will react to an NDE and what they experience.

Everyone is unique and everyone experiences the world in a way that is unique to anyone else in the universe. In the same way, people react to their NDEs in different ways corresponding to their own inner makeup. For example, while the vast majority of NDErs return with a firm belief in some universal force, such as God, they often define this force in a way dependent upon their own psychology, personal experiences, cultural and religious biases.

Jody Long, a researcher with NDERF, points out, “One of the near-death experience truths is that each person integrates their near-death experience into their own pre-existing belief system.” This important truth must be kept in the back of ones mind when reading these different accounts.

One religious tenet states, “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.” (Proverbs 23:7)

This tenet is an eloquent way of stating this same thing. The world of the NDE has been described as the realm of pure mind where all things are possible. It is possible that if a person desires a mansion after death, they will get it. Or, if a person desires food after death, they will get it. Within some NDEs, there is evidence to suggest those who expect nothing after death will probably not be disappointed. That is, until something changes their mind into believing that life is everlasting and continuous. Because people are what they think, people must be careful about what they think because it is quite possible they will get it in the afterlife.

Because of the variations in human understanding, there is certain to be a lot of variations in human experiences. Beauty may not be the only reality existing in the eye of the beholder. Current quantum physics support the notion that ALL reality is in the eye of the beholder. The NDE is no exception in that people create their own reality.

In ordinary life, we create our own reality from the actions we take and the thoughts we think inwardly. The NDE appears to be no different. Einstein’s theory of relativity suggests that all things are subjective and relative. In the realm of quantum physics, it is possible for absurdities to exist. This is because reality is dependent upon the observer’s “frame of reference” or unique perspective. This corresponds with the concept of reality being in the eye of the beholder. For this reason, I believe the quantum realm is identical to the realm defined by the NDE, that is, of the mind.

Quantum physics suggests one cannot truly define reality because when they do, they start setting up limitations to it – limitations that can be broken. From this concept, one can conclude that beliefs limit an open mind. The physicist Fred Alan Wolfe has stated the laws of the universe may simply be the laws of our own minds. Perhaps when we try to define reality, we may not really be getting closer to its actual definition. Perhaps all we really define is our own perception of reality. Keeping an open mind about all things being possible might be as close as one can get to this concept without setting up limitations. Like the mysterious particle of light in quantum physics, when one tries to define it, one changes it. Maybe it is merely our perception of the light that is changing, rather than the light itself.

A case in point can be found in Pastor Howard Pittman’s NDE. He was first taken before a “God of wrath” who condemned and judged him as being unworthy. Rejected, he left the presence of God, but decided at the last minute to return to ask God a question. This time he finds a “God of love” filled with sympathy for him.

I suspect the reason Howard Pittman saw a “God of wrath” immediately after his death was due to this simple reason: For thirty-five years, Howard Pittman preached a “God of wrath” as a minister. During his NDE, a “God of wrath” is what he expected and what he perceived. It is how he interpreted his vision of God. Others have initially felt being judged by God or a group of light beings. Usually they realize that they were the one doing the judging. In Howard Pittman’s NDE, I suspect he was judging himself as well and it translated into the perception of being judged by God. This “perception is reality” concept demonstrates what quantum physicists have been preaching for years. In my opinion, if this concept is true for the physical universe, it is a small step to imagine it being true for the spiritual universe as well.

NDErs often say everyone is on a path toward spiritual progression of some kind. Some have expressed the idea that all paths lead back to God. Perhaps negative experiences happen in order to bring about spiritual progress in people. Edgar Cayce, one of the people I profile on this web page, said we are constantly “meeting ourselves” whether in the physical world or the spirit world. Our thoughts and actions are constantly returning to us. One religious tenet puts it: “A man reaps what he sows.” (Galatians 6:7)

Our lives are primarily the result of our own past actions and thoughts. NDEs generally show that people are not forced to heaven, hell, or anywhere. Our destiny is totally up to us. However, we are given these choices by a Higher Power. It may be debatable whether this constitutes a violation of our free will or constitutes a helping hand to get us on the right path. It may be both. Perhaps we are predestined to choose our destinies. Perhaps to act against the will of God is the same as acting against our own selves. The case may be made that nobody goes against their own will. Even if they could, it is just not a very smart thing to do.

In many experiences, Christ appears; but he does not appear in all of them. Again, one might jump to the conclusion that if NDEs are real afterlife experiences, Christ would appear in all of them. However, there is evidence to suggest the reason Christ appears in many NDEs in western civilization is due to the dominance of Christianity in the west. In Buddhist countries, people meet Buddha. In Hindu countries, the god of death may appear. Jews may meet the Messiah. This suggests that at death, people carry all their perspectives and religious biases with them. It also suggests the NDE is often described in context of one’s own religious perspective.

Everyone is unique when it comes to religious, psychological, educational, cultural and personal background. Nevertheless, the NDE reveals a person’s afterlife experience does not depend exclusively on their religious beliefs or lack of them. Atheists often encounter a God in NDEs, for example. A person’s afterlife experience may depend mostly upon his or her inward spiritual nature rather than any other factor.

Just as there are many possible spiritual experiences of various degrees of intensity within a person, the NDE also reveals the existence of many different afterlife experiences. These afterlife experiences can be extremely different from one another. One can see many of these experiences of heaven and hell being played out right here in this physical world. Some people “rot in prison” while others have a feast in lavish mansions. Some people are suffering in mental institutions while others are on a Rocky Mountain high. Some people are suffering addicts on skid row while others are in the ecstasy of sexual intercourse. Such spiritual experiences more than likely exist in an even more abundant manner in the world of the afterlife.

Because one’s afterlife reality is dependent upon his or her inward spiritual condition, personal background and perspective, this explains the existence of so many different spiritual experiences of NDEs. This also explains how some people are “rotting in prison” on the outside but experiencing the very presence of God on the inside. It also explains how some people are experiencing a living hell while living in luxury and surrounded by worldly comforts and pleasures.

Some people erroneously believe one must have a certain religious affiliation, or believe in God, to have a pleasant afterlife experience. However, even in this physical world, one does not have to be religious to experience love and happiness. In the same vein, to have a pleasant afterlife experience, one does not have to be religious. NDErs state it is not the religion one professes with their lips that matters. It is the spiritual condition of their inner nature that matters. People who are primarily motivated by fear, anger, hatred, and evil, will generally find themselves together with like-minded people after their death.

A case in point is the NDE of Dr. George Ritchie. Ritchie saw an afterlife place where people were locked into trying to satisfy some physical desire but were unable to do so, thereby creating their own “society of the damned.” It should also be pointed out that as it is in the physical world, these hellish conditions are temporary. People who are primarily motivated by love, peace, or happiness, will find themselves together with like-minded people after death. The old saying holds true: “Birds of a feather flock together.” This probably explains why families and friends tend to stick together in NDEs as well.

5. These differences correspond with physical and afterlife reality

The bottom line is the NDE can be said to be a very private and personal experience – as private as a person’s clothes, hair color, language, size, etc. While these differences in humans do exist, and their NDEs reflect this, it can still be said the underlying reality is that when comparing NDEs, it is like comparing apples and oranges. While they are different from each other, are still basically the same. NDEs are NDEs despite their differences.

Although there are many differences in NDEs, there is one concept appearing in an overwhelming number of them that make it practically universal. The concept is that what matters most in life is how much love you give and receive. Many experiencers say this is really the determining factor between having a positive experience or a negative one.

In conclusion, the differences in NDEs suggest to me they are a real afterlife experience. These differences are important because they show the afterlife to be dynamic rather than static. The same can also be said about life in general. The NDE appears to be just as dynamic, if not more dynamic, than our physical experience. If all NDEs were exactly identical, it would make the dying brain theory more appealing. It would mean the NDE is only an experience that comes from a “hard-wired” component in our brains. But because they are different, this suggests they are not “hard-wired” experiences, but rather a dynamic afterlife experience. In general, what you get out of life is what you put into it. The same is probably true of the afterlife.