Recently a Christian friend asked me for information about Near Death Experiences. I shared a few articles from some other sources and have since been thinking and reading about this phenomenon. A Near Death Experience (NDE) is an event that someone reports after an accident or when their heart stops during an operation. The attraction of NDEs is their similarities.
- A floating sensation or out-of-body experience where they can see what is going on in the room, including their own body.
- Vision is blurred by a bright light or they approach a bright light.
- A vision or encounter with a departed loved one often accompanies the bright light experience.
- Someone with authority (their loved one, an angel, or Jesus) tells them to return to their body.
- When they revive they are no longer afraid of death and feel they have a new lease on life.
The similarities are remarkable
The similarities are remarkable, but a little research lead me to discover that there is variation in NDEs between cultures.* Variations in experience may relate to different beliefs about after-life, reincarnation, as well as the deity / deities of each culture. The apparent continuation of the experiencer’s consciousness in these events seems to impact their interpretation of what they perceive to be happening.
My closest experience to anything resembling a Near Death Experience occurred when I was a school-age boy. I was struck by a car while waiting for a ride to school in May of 1974. I was semiconscious for three days after being hit and tossed like a rag doll ten feet from the car, landing and skidding on the road.
The first vision I recall is of a bearded man in the ambulance who was not one of the paramedics working on me? A bright while light illuminated the back of the ambulance and this bearded man sat in the corner watching over me and those caring for me. Days later, when fully conscious, I told my parents about this man, telling them that Jesus was watching over me. They told me that whom I thought was Jesus, was our next-door neighbor’s unshaven adult son. He volunteered to ride with me in the ambulance so my parents could drive with my older brother.
My other visions have similar lighting, but are of the ER workers speaking in tones of concern for my survival, my mother nearly fainting in the ICU and having to be cared for, and a visit from my mom’s first cousin who stepped in to check on me. All these experiences have a similarity to NDEs, I felt then as I do now that I was watching the events from a distance. What is missing are visits from angels, God, or loved ones as well as a voice telling me to return to my body. Even when I felt distant from the action, I do not recall feeling that I was not in my body. I had never heard of NDEs until a few years later. I often wonder if I had heard of them if that knowledge would have effected my perception of the events.
I should admit that my accident, the questioning of my survival those three days, and some fear that I my leg might be permanently affected did provide me with a renewed purpose and focus in life, even at a young age. I knew that I “owed” God for my second chance and that my life, from that day on, would be for Him. I did not know I would preach, but I knew I would be His person whatever I did.
Turning to Scripture
Turning to scripture we find stories of people who died and rose to live again. J.L. Meredith, Meredith’s Big Book of Lists, (Inspirational Press, NY), 1980, p 115 lists 9 resurrected groups or individuals other than Jesus.
- The widow of Zaraphath’s son – 1Ki 17:17-22
- The son of the Shunammite woman – 2Ki 4:32-35
- The dead man whose body touched Elisha’s bones – 2Ki 13:20-21
- The widow of Nain’s son – Luk 7:11-15
- Jairus’ daughter – Luk 8:41-55
- Lazarus of Bethany – Joh 11:1-44
- Those in the graves when Jesus’ died – Mat 27:50-53
- Dorcas – Act 9:36-41
- Eutychus – Act 20:9-11
With so many revived witnesses to death, some dead for moments, others for days and maybe even years, not one gives testimony to what we would call a Near Death Experience. This absence of narrative is curious, especially when you consider the story of the rich man and an another Lazarus who both died (Luke 16:19-31). I refer to this as story in agreement with some scholars who believe this is not, in fact, a parable, but a true story, pointing to the fact that Jesus uses the name of a specific person, which He does not do in any of his parables. In this real event, the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus back to his brothers and the reply is in effect, “That is not the way it works, let those who still live listen to the Word of God.”
The narrative of the sorceress (necromancer) visited by Saul the King also informs our understanding. This woman seems shocked that Samuel really appears. Perhaps this is the first time a spirit has really come to her. Perhaps her craft was deceiving people and not really bringing back departed spirits. (1Sa 28:3-18).
One other event from scripture comes to mind. One Paul says he does not know exactly what occurred and how. Many scholars consider this to be a first hand account of an event that Paul experienced. Paul relates the following event, “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.” (2Co 12:2-4). I find his reluctance to share the event interesting. He claims that the man is not supposed to tell what he saw and experienced. If this is a NDE, why was Paul (or whomever) commanded not to tell while our contemporaries have no such command?
An Event that Changes You
There is one event in scripture that does have the power to change people. This event includes a death, a burial, and a resurrection from the dead. This event changed the life of a Pharisee named Saul of Tarsus whose life mission before the event was to destroy the followers of Jesus. But after he saw the risen Jesus of Nazareth and recognized Him as Christ, Saul’s life changed dramatically. The one who was once the persecutor of the Way became one of the most recognizable proclaimers of that same Way as the only Way, because, Jesus -the Christ – rose from the dead. After a lengthy defense of the Resurrection Paul would say, “
When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” 1Corinthians 15:54-57.
The Death Experience that Matters
Jesus, the Christ, conquered death for His followers, giving them eternal life in Him. This event changed the life of the apostles, the early disciples, Saul of Tarsus, and many others from then until now. The Death, Burial and Resurrection of Christ is the only Death Experience we need to evoke a change within us.
* Here is an article comparing and contrasting NDEs in Japan and Western Culture (Click here for article).