While my seminary training solidified my biblical roots, and began a thread which has run right into the present, other influences cropped up along the journey. One of these was reading about near-death experiences (NDE’s). About the same time I began seminary I encountered the seminal book on NDE’s, Life After Life, by Raymond Moody. Fascinating stuff!
And what fascinated me particularly was the consistency of NDE’s. So many people, a high percentage of those who had these experiences, reported similar elements. Moody’s valuable contribution was to distill these common experiences into a picture of what a typical NDE was like.
From the eighties onward, I would read about NDE’s whenever I encountered material on them. Though not obsessed by them, they continued to fascinate me. The picture they give of the afterlife, although admittedly limited, is thrilling. These experiencers are showing us a glimpse of the spiritual dimension. Christianity believes in this dimension, but does not know a lot about it. There are many opinions formed from Church teaching on the matter, but little actual data.
And here is data! Through the eyes of people clinically dead and revived we can begin to see a little bit of what “heaven” is like. So, what is it like?
For one thing, that dimension into which these people go upon dying is completely, unwaveringly, one of acceptance and love. They experience comfort, support, encouragement, and wisdom. They encounter wise beings who are there only to help them.
They are given perspective for the return to their human bodies. Many of the people going through these NDE’s do not want to return to their bodies. This dimension is so filled with peace and love compared to their lives on earth, why would they want to come back?
But of course there are limits. The information we have about this heavenly dimension comes only from those who do come back. We cannot know about those who died and do not return. Those people who do come back from an NDE are almost universally restricted in how much of “heaven” they were allowed to experience. So the ones who come back to tell about this are able to give us a glimpse of the spirit dimension. But only a glimpse. Not a complete, or full picture.
NDE’s vary as to the depth the person was allowed to go into the spirit world. Many are brief encounters, coming only to the gates of heaven, so to speak. Others go very deep into this world, and come back with much fuller pictures of where we go when we die.
One thing which occasionally showed up in these NDE’s was the idea that we live multiple lives. This was difficult for me to accept at first, given my conservative religious upbringing and training. But this idea began yet another thread in my life’s journey, which will be treated in the next chapter.
The ideas inferred by NDE’s seem to cause great consternation in some Christians’ minds. There are many aspects to this picture of the spirit world which do not fit with orthodox Church teaching. And predictably, the Church reacts. To my eyes, it over-reacts needlessly. Initially, there was much discrediting of the whole phenomenon of NDE’s. “It is all just a biochemical reaction as the brain near death”, or some such foolishness. I could not believe the lengths to which some people went in their mental gymnastics to try and explain these folks’ experiences away.
Why are we so afraid of our own, or others’, experiences? We talk in church about “experiencing God”. But when people actually do experience something of God, then all kinds of resistance springs up. Why? Is it because we are so tied to our own beliefs of how things “should” be that we can’t allow ourselves to be challenged by anything outside our belief system? When people talk of spiritual truths in language and words with which we are unfamiliar, do we immediately shunt these words aside, ascribing them to heresy?
When it came to NDE’s, I adopted a stance that these individuals had experienced something. Any other stance would’ve been disrespectful to that person. Non-acceptance of his story basically says I believe he is lying.
So, okay, you experienced something. Now, what does your experience tell me about the spirit dimension? What did you learn about God and the afterlife? How does that fit with my present beliefs? Do I have to shift anything? What is God saying to me personally through your experience?
Before I move on to deeper considerations of these questions, I want to make one more observation about NDE’s. Pretty much everyone who has one of these experiences comes out of it a changed person. They find themselves more loving, more ready to listen to others, more sensitive to their own spirits, much deeper people than before. Some of these “conversions” are radical and dramatic, others a lesser shift in focus. People who have never believed in God, or any form of religion previously, come away with a deep appreciation of God and the spirit world, feeling loved and cared for beyond anything they have ever imagined possible.
But not nearly everyone, not even close to a majority, seeks out organized religion. Generally, it is those who have previously been involved in organized religion who perhaps continue, although with a much deeper and quieter understanding of what this is all about. Some leave their religion. But I have heard very few stories of NDExperiencers who become more religious after their experience. An encounter with God does not drive them to Church. Experiencing the spirit world makes them more spiritual, less afraid, more peaceful, loving persons. But it does not make them more religious. More often the opposite.
Could this be one of the reasons the Church is threatened by NDE’s? Hmmm. I wonder. If that is the case, it says more about the Church’s need for control than it does about the integrity of NDE’s.