Near-Death ExperienceThe near-death experience has become more common as modern medical science has advanced over the past few decades. One of the greatest advances has been in Critical Care Medicine – the ability to take care of the sickest people. These are the ones who might be on life support with artificial ventilators, pacemakers, aortic balloon pumps, and artificial hearts.
Many people now survive illnesses that would have taken their lives only a few short decades ago – the amount of time I have been in clinical medicine. One of the results of these wonderful advances is that some people who were clinically dead now survive with normal neurological function.
Some of these people report “experiences” when they were clinically dead. I have only witnessed very few people who admitted to having a near-death experience, but none of them would discuss what happened to them. But many others have discussed their experiences with physicians worldwide in every culture and with every religious affiliation – even atheists.
There are now many millions of these experiences, with many thousands subjected to scientific scrutiny. Some of this research has been published in the most prestigious scientific peer-reviewed journals as their conclusions are controversial.
Many of these near-death experiences describe an afterlife similar to that portrayed in Scripture, and many agree with each other. Many of these experiences also sometimes vary widely, perhaps describing something from a different perspective. But these experiences of the exhilarating life to come is the common experience of most near-death experience (NDE).
Not all NDE is wonderful and exhilarating, however. Some experiences are horrific, anything but exhilarating, and those rescued from these experiences often transform their lives positively.
Some of this confusion may represent a lack of understanding of what is experienced by most of those with an NDE or how it can be interpreted in light of orthodox Christian understanding.
Many people with NDE may not wish to discuss their experiences, feeling they would be ridiculed. Some Christian denominations and influential evangelical authors outright believe all these experiences are offensive to the Word of God and cannot be accurate. But most NDE experiences confirm the picture Scripture paints about the afterlife but does not add to that which is revealed.
But study into the NDE has been very fragmentary until recently when it has been subjected to scientific inquiry. It is common, for example, for those with NDE to report witnessing their resuscitation efforts and activity in other parts of the hospital. They report what nurses, physicians, and others in the hospital were doing during their resuscitative efforts and even what drugs were used and where they were stored in the critical care unit. They seem to obtain extraneous knowledge that seems to confirm their experience.
NDE does not supplant or deny what the Scripture says after the afterlife, although sometimes it can be misinterpreted, misunderstood, or not remembered correctly. Many of the stories will be told by those with little to gain from the notoriety they received and, usually, much to lose in their credibility. These include orthopedic surgeons, commercial airline pilots, neurosurgeons, professors, pilots, and engineers. Respected professional people do not usually fabricate stories that could damage their reputation.
There are always charlatans, of course. There are always those who will make up experiences to gain fame and possible fortune by writing a book or appearing on late-night television. But many others – far more than you would imagine – have had such experiences. Most of these experiences are deeply personal and are not revealed or discussed with the family.
Early History of Near-Death Experiences
Near-Death Experiences (NDE) have occurred throughout time, but they have become more common recently with the advancement of medical science. One of the first to be well documented was an NDE experienced in 1943.
The man is George Ritchie, who unfortunately got pneumonia in an era when there was no good treatment for pneumonia. While some antibiotics were available, they were very rare, and none were administered.
Ritchie had pneumonia in both lungs, and he was not doing well. He relates how his 106-degree fever produced drenching sweat and caused his young heart to pound like a jackhammer. He passed out while getting an X-ray and found himself looking down at his body. He tried to interact with several people, but they ignored his presence. He wrote,
Almost without knowing it I found myself outside, racing swiftly along, traveling faster, in fact, than I had ever moved in my life. It was not as cold as it had been earlier in the evening—felt neither cold nor hot, actually. Looking down I was astonished to see not the ground, but the tops of mesquite bushes beneath me. Already Camp Barkley seemed to be far behind me as I sped over the dark frozen desert. My mind kept telling me that what I was doing was impossible, and yet . . . it was happening. A town flashed by beneath me, caution lights blinking at the intersections. This was ridiculous! A human being could not fly without an airplane—anyhow I was traveling too low for a plane. . . . An extremely broad river was below me now. There was a long, high bridge, and on the far bank the largest city I had come to yet. I wished I could go down there and find someone who could give me directions. . . . . . . I caught a flickering blue glow. It came from a neon sign over the door of a red-roofed one-story building with a Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer sign propped in the front window. Café, the jittering letters over the door read, and from the window’s light streamed onto the pavement. . . .
He found a man walking and tried to interact with him to figure out what was happening. He noted,
At least, I thought, I could find out from him what town this was and in what direction I was heading. Even as the idea occurred to me—as though thought and motion had become the same thing—I found myself down on the sidewalk. . . . “Can you tell me, please,” I said, “what city this is?” He kept right on walking. “Please sir!” I said, speaking louder. “I’m a stranger here and I’d appreciate it if—” We reached the café and he turned, reaching for the door handle. Was the fellow deaf? I put out my left hand to tap his shoulder. There was nothing there.
He eventually found his way back to his room and noted a sheet had been pulled over the body of the man occupying his bed. He then noted that a hand stuck out from under the sheet which had his black onyx ring on it. It then sunk in that he was dead.
A light appeared in his room, which grew brighter and brighter,
I stared in astonishment as the brightness increased, coming from nowhere, seeming to shine everywhere at once. . . . It was impossibly bright: it was like a million welders’ lamps all blazing at once. And right in the middle of my amazement came a prosaic thought, probably born of some biology lecture back at the university: “I’m glad I don’t have physical eyes at this moment,” I thought. “This light would destroy the retina in a tenth of a second.” No, I corrected myself, not the light. He. He would be too bright to look at. For now I saw that it was not light but a Man who had entered the room, or rather, a Man made out of light. . . . The instant I perceived Him, a command formed itself in my mind. “Stand up!” The words came from inside me, yet they had an authority my mere thoughts had never had. I got to my feet, and as I did came the stupendous certainty: You are in the presence of the Son of God.
He had to give an account of every moment of his 20 years of life – even those times that he was not proud about. He was then especially asked,
What have you done with your life to show Me?
This seems to be a shared experience of adults with an NDE. They have to give a detailed account of their life, including what they have done for others as Christ has loved them.
Common Near-Death Experiences
Near-Death Experiences are experienced across all age groups, religious traditions, and races. Many of them have commonalities that lend some credence to their stories.
One common experience is the appearance of a man terminating light associated with a detailed inventory of your life – every detail. What seems to be most important is their interactions with others. Wealth and personal accomplishments have little importance. The questions are always something like,
What have you done with your life to show Me?
There are many other shared experiences, including extraordinary beauty and a world with love, purpose, and belonging that surpasses even the best experiences on earth. Earth experiences become just a dim shadow of the real life to come. The thought of being separated from this future life to have to come back to mortality was very alarming.
Ritchie did return to his body and found out he had been declared dead. He would forever keep a notarized statement of his death. Years later, he would return to where he had his out-of-body experience and revisit scenes he had never personally experienced except in his NDE.
Ritchie would later write,
“I have no idea what the next life will be like. Whatever I saw was only—from the doorway, so to speak. But it was enough to convince me totally of two things from that moment on. One, that our consciousness does not cease with physical death—that it becomes in fact keener and more aware than ever. And two, that how we spend our time on earth, the kind of relationships we build, is vastly, infinitely more important than we can know.”
George Ritchie would go on to become a medical doctor and lecture about his experiences to whoever would listen. He was given one such talk at the University of Virginia, where another physician, Raymond Moodie, heard him.
Moody taught philosophy and started to have his philosophy students read theories on postmortem survival. He found that about one out of thirty students reported something similar to the Ritchie story. He would coin the term “near-death experience” in 1975 and publish his findings in an international bestseller, Life after Life.
Moody interviewed hundreds of people who had an NDE experience, finding many similar stories. These similarities began with a dying person reaching the end of life and then finding themselves no longer in their physical body yet aware of their immediate surroundings.
They often observe their body from a distance and are confused and unaware that they have died. Eventually, others show up to help him, supporting him in various ways. JH sees the spirits of deceased family members and friends.
Then a being of light appears, frequently described as being brighter than the sun. This being is warm and loving and asks questions, usually communicated through thoughts – not speech. This interview leads the recently deceased to examine their life and actions, including a detailed replay of their life.
Many times, there is an encounter with a boundary, a border separating earthly life from eternal life. At the edge of this border, he is told it is not yet his time, and for an often personal reason, they have to return to earth. Usually, this revelation is greeted with protest – who wants to leave such a beautiful existence? There is no choice, and the person returns to their physical body and continues to live.
References for Near-Death Experience
Burke, John. Imagine Heaven (p. 25). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Burke, John. Imagine Heaven (p. 21). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Burke, John. Imagine Heaven (pp. 20-21). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.