How should we receive such numerous stories of people who claimed to have near-death experiences and experienced heaven/hell, especially since the impact upon their audiences cannot be overlooked? These stories have been used to inspire people to follow Jesus either because of the riches of heaven or the utter fear of a horrendous hell.
Optional follow-up: How do we take those NDE stories that more closely describe the traditional version of hell of eternal torment?
Thanks for the good question. Here are some stray puzzle pieces to consider:
1. Near-death experiences are just that. They are experiences of almost dying. They are not dying. We die once and after that the judgment. Those who die don’t come back from death except by resurrection or at most, they visit from the other side (as Moses and Elijah did on Mt. Tabor). So to my friends with NDE’s who say “I died and came back,” I say, “No. You nearly died.” The inability to monitor vital signs for x-amount of time isn’t death. It’s a temporary suspension of certain vitals. It’s not death.
Lazarus was dead. He was resurrected. Jairus’ daughter was not dead, according to Jesus, she was ‘sleeping,’ whatever that means. So to be biblical, I could say near-death experiences are not death–they are ‘sleeping,’ which is a good metaphor because it explains consciousness, as in a dream-state.
2. We would especially delimit NDEs in this way to those who claim to have seen hell. First, if we imagine hell literally (as the NDEs tend to), then it doesn’t commence until after the final judgment. So, literally no one is in hell yet (if any ultimately will be). What they may mean is ‘hades,’ the intermediate place of the dead described in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. But of course, we shouldn’t read this literally because it’s a parable and because hades was ransacked and plundered by Jesus through his death and resurrection. But if we do take it literally, then the parable is clear: those who pass over into hades don’t come back.
3. NDEs are very personal, subjective, and inconsistent. I know Christians who think they went to hell and atheists who claimed to go to heaven. Those who thought they saw hell have a huge variety of experiences tailor-made to their own temperaments and religions. These vast differences suggest that NDEs are not visions of objective reality in the actual afterlife. They are more properly projections of the individual’s current state in their own soul, generated by their fears or desires, the regrets or their hopes. I myself have had a profoundly painful experience in which I found myself in a vision of “hell” (I’ll provide a caveat later). The elements of my vision were obviously symbolic and were a brilliant diagnosis of my spiritual state during the time when I had it.
4. And as I said, since even “nonbelievers” have very positive NDEs at times without any reference to Christian faith, I don’t assume we can make much of them in dogmatizing the nature of the afterlife or the criteria for who goes where.
What shall we conclude from these factors? My take is that NDEs are highly personalized experiences involving a heightened awareness of one’s own mortality that project symbolically one’s emotional relationship to the death experience itself. If my heart is unprepared and fearful, that will manifest as hellish visions. If my heart is at peace with God and able to let go of my earthly attachments, I’m likely to have a heavenly experience.
But two other factors spring to mind:
a. the accusing conscience, common to those bound up in religious moralism, is more likely to invoke terrifying visions.
b. grace is involved too, where some folks with an NDA will undergo a conversion experience as a result of seeing either the fire or the light. Their close encounter with death can serve as a wake-up call.
What I wouldn’t do is form a “geography of the afterlife” from these visions. They are more likely “maps of the soul” of those who experience them.
Thanks so much for tackling this question!
It’s refreshing to hear you speak on this topic, especially with your credibility on this subject having gone through a NDE yourself. NDE’s are a whole realm of confusion, and further, it’s disheartening when certain stories are endorsed by churches and used as an important piece in evangelizing.
I notice that these storytellers run into little to no skepticism or criticism from their Christian audience. Testimonials on their books and comments sections from their YouTube videos mostly say things like: “I really needed to hear this, I need to repent and follow Jesus right now!” or “There’s a reason God showed me this video, and it’s to get right with Him!” or “Yes! What he says is true, I went through the same experience!”
Should this be considered at all a “positive” evangelistic impact, since they DO convince people to follow Christ?
A classic example of this is Bill Weiss, author of “23 Minutes in Hell.” Being very knowledgeable in Scripture, he seems to convince his audience by affirming much of the specific elements in his story with particular verses. A more recent example is a video titled “25-year-old shares testimony of heaven and hell” by Fresh Anointing ministries on YouTube, which has gained a whopping 2.5 million views in just 3 months.
For myself, NDE stories have led me to deeply rethink, research, and reconstruct my theological assumptions on the afterlife and the nature of God. Not the content of the NDE’s themselves, but the experience of running into a traditionalist/fundamentalist view of hell manifest in such graphic, gruesome detail in someone’s story. With the details now inescapable, I had to entertain the idea that the story could be true, and thus, most people in the world at the end of their lives would experience such a hopeless fate in hell forever, a fate that is so utterly morally reprehensible and beyond disturbing.
This made me question, “Is this really what the God of love would do to unbelievers? Is this truly justice for sin lived in a finite life?”
I’ve also learned to take NDE’s and supposed visions of the spiritual world with a grain of salt, just as you’ve said. It does make much more sense that these experiences are more projections of the soul. I really like how you pointed out that NDEs are highly inconsistent and do not match up with eschatology as described in the Bible. I’d still want to remain hopeful though of what external truth NDE’s could possibly indicate, if within reason. A good majority of NDEs, according to some research claims, point to ideas such as universalism and hopeful inclusivism.
It’s been a blessing to run across your work as I prayerfully and rationally search deeper for what God is really like.
Your response was fantastic. I will just add a couple of points and then make a request.
1. These popular “visit to hell” scenarios are fascinating to many but after a while, become eye-rolling as it’s often the same people who tell us they went and came back *literally* who also insist the parable of the Rich Man is to be read *literally* and so no one can come back. I don’t get how they can’t hear their own contradiction.
One example is a woman Philip Yancy told me about. He met her in the green room of a major Christian Network TV talk show. She was a former stripper from the South, working the publicity tour and sharing her story about x-amount of minutes she spent in hell after nearly dying when one of her breast implants “busted.” She experienced hell as “molten fire” and beheld a “big old 18-wheeler made outa human body parts” and in that 18-wheeler was “Merica’s youth.” It scared the hell out of her and now she had a platform to glorify her experience.
2. With you, I’ve also heard my fair share of testimonies of those who claim to have ‘seen the light’ and come back with a revelation of universal salvation. While I wouldn’t bet anyone’s soul on such an experience, I don’t see why they’d be less valid than the hell scenarios. It’s certainly a challenge to the Evangelical model when these returnees seem more enlightened, peaceful, and harmonious than their hellion counterparts … without becoming Evangelical converts. Go figure.
In contrast to the former stripper, I recently met an addict who had overdosed 10 years ago and had a NDE. She saw herself leaving her body and turned to see the pure Light of Love. When she reached out to the Light, it reached back to her, filling her heart. She began praying to that Light in her heart every day and over time, got traction in her recovery. She identified the Light as her Higher Power. I do believe she authentically encountered God and surrendered to divine love. Nevertheless, she absolutely does not identify with Christianity, which she has experienced a few times as condemning and abusive.
3. As for my own vision of hell, it actually occurred when I wasn’t physically dying. Rather, I vividly experienced in a dream-state during a dark period of my life when I was having suicidal ideations. It featured nails and acid and torture and prison and lots of blood. When I “came back” I could see how NDEs typically function as a reflection of our own spiritual malady.
So on the one hand, the psychological experience is completely ‘real’ and ‘true’ while not being ‘actual’ or ‘literal’ in any objective sense. In my case, I was not terrorized by the afterlife nor did I assume I could project my experience as a totalized reality onto anyone else. Rather, the symbols were a helpful diagnosis that encouraged me to surrender to God’s care.
If NDEs have that effect on others, great. If they give people a sense of having another chance, great. Indeed, if they’re claiming a second chance for themselves, wouldn’t that indicate the possibility that everyone gets another chance even post-mortem. But as fodder for fear-mongering evangelism, I’d say that lays a pretty poor foundation for faith.