I’ve delayed publishing this essay for several months due to the fact that, the more I seem to learn about this subject, the more I know that I don’t know. I suppose it’s that way with anything. However, it’s a subject that I think is absolutely remarkable in its implications. You’ve seen them on talk shows, the radio, best-selling books, and now the Internet: people who claim to have had a near-death experience (NDE). We’ve known about NDEs for years now, and, though they were once seen as “fringe science,” due to sheer numbers of experiencers, psychologists, neurologists, and theologians have been forced to begrudgingly confront, explain, and study the NDE.
My interest in the near-death experience began a few years ago as I, with great interest, poured over the subject of consciousness and alterations thereof. Consciousness in itself is an amazing mystery, and sometimes it seems that we’re no closer to explaining it now than we were when Descartes sat befuddled at his desk. However, the mystery of the NDE struck me as even more interesting, as it seems to incorporate elements of philosophy, theology, and spirituality.
What is an NDE?
A near-death experience is generally characterized as a striking alteration of consciousness associated with a subject being near death. These experiences range from out-of-body experiences, or OBEs (the sensation of being out of one’s own body, often floating above one’s self), seeing a light at the end of a tunnel, seeing religious figures or family members, even to seeing future or past events in history. Experiencers often receive meaningful information in the NDE, sometimes they see and hear things that seem inexplicable (such as veridical information about events happening simultaneously with their death) and the vast majority view their experience as positive.
How prevalent are NDEs?
It’s hard to pin down an exact estimate (NDE experiencers often don’t share their stories for many years, and reluctantly share them with researchers), but research has suggested that 4-15% of Americans have had an NDE (anywhere from around 12 million to around 45 million people). A large study in the Netherlands, interviewing those who had experienced cardiac arrest, found that 18% reported at least one common aspect of an NDE.
What are some common characteristics of NDEs?
Raymond Moody, the first psychologist to scientifically study the NDE, published his best-selling Life After Life in 1975. He found that NDEs were curious in that many of them shared very common elements:
Later, researchers such as Kenneth Ring, Bruce Greyson, and George Ritchie expanded on Moody’s work in subsequent studies and books. The scientific world was reluctant to accept the NDE, often based on the subjective nature of the experience, and its philosophical and metaphysical implications. However, the field has grown considerably, and as the number of people who have experienced NDEs grows, science is finding it harder and harder to ignore.
Is the NDE a biological or physical phenomenon?
Well, this is where things get tricky. Again, science has been reluctant to study the NDE. When Moody wrote Life After Life, NDEs were filed strictly in the same cabinet as UFO abductions and Bigfoot sightings. Feeling in the public is mixed, but it does seem that everyone knows someone who knows someone who has had an NDE. And let’s not pick on the scientists too much: it’s hard to make testable predictions based on subjective experience. The mind has been known to do strange things under stress, and is also known to be notoriously unreliable in terms of understanding objective reality. Human beings are known to hallucinate from time to time, we dream in unreal worlds every night, and when under the influence of certain chemicals we see things that don’t seem to be there for anyone else. There are indeed materialistic interpretations of the NDE:
1. The NDE is like a dream, a fantasy created by the brain. People see what an NDE is “supposed” to be like on television and during times of great stress, it retreats into this fantasy world.
2. The NDE is caused by a release of a certain chemical in the brain.
3. The NDE is caused by a lack of oxygen in the brain.
4. The NDE is caused by the brain, from some unknown process.
5. NDEs are fabrications from people who just want to make money.
This last option is a major concern, as there have been people in recent years who have capitalized on their NDE. Notably, we may have heard of Betty Eadie, whose book Embraced By The Light was a #1 New York Times bestseller. Certainly there are men and women who have made quite a bit of money by reporting NDEs! However, even more overwhelming are those who do not make any money off their experience, and often find themselves ostracized, ridiculed, or dismissed for relating their experiences to their faith groups or family.
So are NDEs the result of something biological? From the International Association for Near-Death Studies (emphasis added):
In a scientific age, it is only natural that people want to understand the biological or psychological origins of experience, and a variety of neurological and chemical explanations have been proposed as the cause of NDEs: lack of oxygen, excess of carbon dioxide, seizure activity in the temporal lobe, the effect of drugs such as DMT or ketamine, hallucination, psychological avoidance of death, normal shutting down of brain activity, and a dozen or more other possibilities.
No scientific explanation so far has satisfactorily accounted for all aspects of NDEs or their effects. For example, numerous patients who were being clinically monitored and were known to be well oxygenated have later reported having an NDE during that time; drugs are not a factor in all NDEs; the characteristics of sleep disorders and NDEs are not identical. Hallucinations are highly individual and produce confusion and hazy memories, exactly the opposite characteristics of near-death experiences, which tend to share characteristics and be remembered vividly for decades as being “realer than real.” For every medical cause that has been put forward, there are reasons the NDE researchers say, “Not quite right.”
Further, despite reports that scientists have been able to induce NDEs through the use of drugs or electrical stimulation to the brain, none of the reports has been altogether convincing. The reports have been based on a partial similarity to a limited aspect of NDE, or they have involved very few people—sometimes only a single individual—in an experiment that does not really replicate a full NDE, or the aftereffects do not coincide with those of a true NDE. After decades of investigation, researcher and psychiatrist Bruce Greyson, MD, has reported, “No one physiological or psychological model by itself explains all the common features of NDE.”*
Thousands of documented NDEs challenge mainstream Western thinking and belief systems. Expectations about an afterlife may be challenged, and some people abruptly develop radically new interests and abilities after an NDE. One subject of debate is whether consciousness (mind) resides exclusively in the physical brain. For example, many people who have had an NDE accurately report events that occurred around their bodies when they were unconscious or even clinically dead—in at least one case, when clinical monitoring clearly showed no brain activity. Some NDEs have revealed family secrets, such as the existence of a never-mentioned sibling. According to the prevailing belief system of industrialized societies, these things are scientifically impossible.
It seems that finding an explanation for all NDEs is difficult. Pim van Lommel presents a thorough examination of the various medical theories of NDEs, and why none of them quite fully explains the NDE, here.
What is the effect of NDEs on experiencers?
An interesting fact about NDEs is that they tend to be transformative and positive for the experiencer. Though there is often a period of depression immediately following the NDE (often due to the contrast between the feelings of joy in an NDE and the monotony and cruelty of daily life), NDE experiencers tend to be much better off in the long run:
There is one common element in all near-death experiences: they transform the people who have them. In my twenty years of intense exposure to NDErs, I have yet to find one who hasn’t had a very deep and positive transformation as a result of his experience. – Raymond A. Moody, M.D.
There are after-effects generally associated with NDEs, including, but not limited to, decreased fear of death, increased charity and spirituality, increased curiosity and philosophical outlook, and an increased sense of meaning and purpose in one’s own life. These effects are not positively correlated with hallucinations, dreams, or intoxication.
What do you think, Arthur?
After reading many accounts of near-death experiencing, I’m convinced that they are authentic (though subjective) experiences. For me, this is the most important part of NDE research: NDE experiencers are overwhelmingly convinced that their experiences were real. To almost all NDE experiencers, they didn’t see a vision of their dead parents, they saw their dead parents. They didn’t have a hallucination of Christ, they didn’t have an open vision of Christ, they saw Christ. The NDE challenges a reductionistic, materialistic world-view so convincingly, that it’s almost comical reading the accounts themselves and the scientific attempts to explain them. You don’t have to take my word for it, there are huge databases online filled with literally thousands of self-reported NDE accounts. Some meaningful quotes from the NDERF database:
“Reality” seemed so unreal and boring compared to what I had just experienced and I was disappointed to be back. – Marta G.
I knew during the experience that is real, I knew directly after, I know now and will always know. – Veronica W.
I know it was real. The feeling of being in the light is like nothing that could be recreated – Robert L.
I have never had a dream that was so vivid so I can’t believe it was a dream it was like a dream only 1000 times more real than life itself. – Linda G.
I cannot explain it actually, but I know I really went there and saw Jesus I know. I know, I know. Period. I know. – Linda K.
If NDEs are authentic experiences, what does this mean for Mormonism?
This question continues to fascinate me. The NDE can be threatening to some Latter-day Saints, when information retrieved from “beyond the veil” seems on its face to contradict LDS teachings. Often NDE experiencers report that God “didn’t care” what Church they associated with, that there is “no sin,” that human souls reincarnate, or that all religions are equal in God’s eyes.
A quick search of NDERF’s database of NDEs turns up some interesting quotes about the LDS Church and Mormonism, from first-hand NDE accounts.
What was the best and worst part of your experience? The best was talking with our Lord Jesus Christ and finding out truths that the ancient theologians conveniently forgot to put into the scriptures. I also know and it was confirmed to me the missing points could be found in three books that have never been revised or changed. They have only been translated once and revealed only once. Those three books are: The Book of Mormon, The Pearl of Great Price and The Doctrine and Covenants. – William S.
I became a Mormon in 1998, but left that Church again in 2003. The Mormon Missionaries told me that I was sent to “Spirit Prison” how they call it, because I was not a Mormon at the time of my death and that the only way to avoid another frightening death would be to become a Mormon myself. So I did. I worked in the Mormon Temple to “save the dead”, because they told me that I could help those other trapped spirits out of that world and I could help them to get to heaven by spending time in the Mormon Temple and doing the ordinances for them. I believed them and worked as an Ordinance Worker in the Temple for 2 full years (amongst elderly people – I was 23). I now feel like they used my NDE to put pressure on me to join their Church. I am glad I am no longer part of it. I am now just spiritual and free. – Dominique S.
I told some of my friends that were Mormon. They believed that I was probably hallucinating. After that, I have told no one until now. – Beth L.
My parents, in Utah, who were temple workers, a temple for the Mormon church, had my name written on the prayer list of names prayed for by those attending the temple that day for all the temples in the western United States that day. Prayer is a tangible force, a power for good here on this earth! Many people ask me what was the 1st thing I thought or felt when I came out of my coma, about 3 weeks after the accident. What I felt, was the incredible feeling of power by being thought of by many and them praying for my recovery to God. I could feel his love and compassion for me, and I believe this communication led to my incredible experience with Christ in that heavenly garden. I now no longer hope that there is heaven and that Christ’s life experience and atonement are real, Now I know! – Derry B.
Many Latter-day Saints have experienced an NDE themselves, and were able to reconcile LDS theology with their NDE. Betty Eadie speaks at firesides about her experience, and remains a faithful Latter-day Saint (though she has de-emphasized at times her religious affiliation when telling others of her experience). Many have drawn links between “classical” NDEs and early Mormon Visions. Lee Nelson has released a series of books called Beyond the Veil, that feature many Latter-day Saint NDE accounts. Even FARMS has published at least one article comparing NDEs and visions in the Book of Mormon.
When I was a missionary, I tracted into a young Hispanic woman who, in broken English, immediately insisted that we listen to her own account of her near-death experience. I remember with embarrassment, because, though I listened as politely as I could, in my mind I casually dismissed her story as a hallucination, because her Evangelical interpretation of the experience seemed to contradict the LDS Gospel that I was trying to teach her. I feel ashamed now that I could be so callously dismissive of what I now think could have been a genuine experience with Diety. Maybe this just makes me human.
But as for me, now, the NDE is a a fascinating part of my faith. The more I read about NDEs, the more convinced I am that they might actually represent an authentic experience. Of course, I’ve never experienced one myself, and due to the traumatic circumstances that seem to trigger them, perhaps I don’t want one, either. Materialistic attempts at explaining the causes of NDEs seem to fall very short, especially considering how ferociously the experiencers seem to defend the reality of their experience. But even if the NDE turns out to be a completely physical phenomenon, isn’t it strange that natural selection has provided a mechanism whereby millions of people see lucid, immensely joyful, loving visions of Jesus, deceased family members, other religious figures, God, or angels as they die? Makes you think, doesn’t it?