Monday, December 3, 2012

Near Death Experiences: Are they real and do they matter?

Picture taken from Daily Mail
I remember the first time I was introduced to the idea that some people have died and come back to life. In the 1970's a documentary style film Beyond and Back was shown in theaters across America. It claimed to be a" movie that dares to investigate the possibility of  life after death" based on the studies of parapsychologists, doctors and the testimonies of real people who were pronounced dead and yet miraculously recovered. Over the course of two hours story after story of people who "died and came back" was shared with the viewing audience.

I was probably ten years old when my parents, new Christians, took us as a family to see the film. We didn't get out to the movies much and I remember thinking I would rather have seen Star Wars. But the film first introduced me to the idea that some people die and come back to life. I think it played an important part in  affirming my own belief in life after death. Of course, when I watch it now I realize just how bad of a film it was, but it did cause quite a stir in the Christian community. And ever since then I have been aware of speakers and books making the circuit that share the stories of people who have died, returned and told their story. Most claim to have gone to heaven or a place of peace and light.  A few claim to have gone to hell and back.

The current issue of Christianity Today has an article on the topic. In the article Mark Galli asks whether it matters if people who have what he describes as "near heaven experiences" tend be theologically confused. Quite often what these people describe is not in line with traditional orthodox Christian belief. But Galli says that he does find many of these testimonies to be true because they have the ring of historical authenticity that historians look for. Unfortunately, Galli doesn't detail the criteria he is using. For a nonreligious point of view on the topic see the Daily Mail's May 2011 piece on near death experiences.

As I said above, over the years I have been aware of numerous books and speakers circulating on the topic. I remember once when someone gave me a book to read about how Jesus took a woman to hell to "show her around." The person who gave me the book wanted to know what I thought. I read the book and told her I didn't believe it. The person was less than happy with me because they didn't want my opinion but my affirmation  At the time I wasn't sure why I doubted the author's story. It was only years later when I began reading Jewish apocalyptic literature that I realized the book was a wholesale ripoff of the book of Enoch and Dante's Inferno.

To this day I remain more than skeptical about people's near death/ near heaven experiences. It's not that I doubt that they really did have some sort of experience. But I am not sure that the experience is all that they claim. I also think that there are a lot of frauds out there.

But whether these experiences are real or not, I wonder to what extent we should be basing any amount of theology on them. The Bible describes people coming back from the dead, yet not one of them that I can think of recounts what is was like. In the end, the way that these type of books are promoted seem to be a distraction from more important issues.

What about you? What do you make of these testimonies? To what degree should base anything in our faith and theology on them?


  1. While I have not seen/read the materials you refer to, I did recently read Heaven is for Real by Todd Burpo. I'd sure like to believe his description of heaven, but there were certainly huge medical bills related to his care and I can't help but wonder if this was written for that purpose. Bottom line: we'll all find out one day!

  2. Why do people never report being told to expect bodily resurrection? Why do these experiences, and the aforementioned book in the previous response, all speak as if Heaven is some end goal for life? When I read the New Testament, that's not what I see in it. When I read Plato, however, I read something similar. All that is to say, I don't put much stock into these testimonies.

  3. I think the books are important because they open up debate about getting beyond materialism.

    Talking to people I think you will find that these kinds of experiences are fairly common - more than 1 in 100.

  4. See

    And see the hyperlinks in my conversation with Randal Rauser on NDEs, almost half way down this page: