Dead & Back Again
How Accounts of “Near-Death Experiences” Have Challenged
I might as well confess right now that I personally never had a “Near-Death Experience” (NDE), unless you count the time in the hospital when I kept passing out and thought the nurses and doctors around my bed had turned into demons. No floating up to the ceiling and looking down at my poor dead body; no trip through a dark tunnel; no angels or deceased relatives coming to greet me. I was not even clinically dead at the time. Some people have all the luck.
It sometimes seems as though almost everyone has had an NDE or at least knows someone who did. I myself know one woman whose heart stopped beating during surgery, and she told me she found herself at “the Gate.” (“What gate?” “ You know, the Gate.”) She met Jesus there, she said, and he told her she could stay with him or go back. She wanted to stay, but decided to go back because her husband needed her—an act of heroic virtue if I ever saw one. But she didn’t tell me any more details.
A classic Near-Death Experience (NDE) includes at least a few of the following: Your soul seems to be released from your critically injured or clinically dead body and finds itself going through a dark tunnel or some other transitional place between this world and the next. You may meet a “Being of Light” and experience deep feelings of peace, joy, and love. There may be a “life review,” where your whole life (or much of it) is recalled and its meanings revealed. You may meet other beings, perhaps angels or the souls of people you knew who have died. There may be some kind of message given or questions asked and answered. The Being of Light (sometimes identified as God or Jesus) may send you back to this world, or give you a choice about going or staying.
Details vary, but the main outlines are often surprisingly similar, and so is the typical outcome: The subject is grateful for what he has received and resolves to be a better person because of it. Even when the experience is not heavenly but hellish—and that does happen—the fear and guilt usually end in the person’s desire to amend his life.
There are many records all through history of things like this happening. They seem to be more common now, but that’s probably because medical advances have made it possible for people to be revived after clinical death has occurred. Also, there have been cultural changes that make these stories safe to tell; people can reveal them without having to fear being called crazy or possessed.
Two Kinds of Worry
I’m fascinated by accounts of NDEs, and reading about them has, in general, strengthened my faith. But a few of them raise questions that have challenged my faith, and I wonder if other Christians have had the same trouble. I hope the story of how I’ve begun meeting these challenges might help others who are also fascinated but sometimes disturbed by these stories.
NDE stories have challenged me in two different ways: On the one hand, I worry that they might be true, and on the other, I worry that they might not be.
The first worry has to do with the content of a few of them: No censor librorum would give them a nihil obstat (“nothing stands in the way”) because plenty stands in the way—in fact, if certain of these accounts are altogether accurate, something is wrong with my religion.
The second worry has to do with researchers who claim that all the elements of NDEs can be attributed to purely natural causes—electro-chemical changes in the brain, drugs, lack of oxygen, psychological needs, or even extreme stress. (Stress is a handy explanation for practically anything, life being made up mostly of stress alternating with boredom). Some researchers have even claimed that they can induce an NDE, or at least an apparent OBE (“Out-of-Body Experience”) by sending an electric current into a particular area of the brain.
Marilyn Prever (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a retired homeschool teacher, mother and grandmother of a large family, whose articles have appeared in Homiletic & Pastoral Review, New Oxford Review, Second Spring, and other publications. She lives in Claremont, New Hampshire, with her family, and they worship at St. Joseph's Catholic Church.
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