Chapter Nine: Life After Death
One of the most widely believed supernatural idea associated with God is life after death. Even if, God forbid, life after death isn't true the reason for its wide acceptance is obvious. Human beings possess the knowledge of the inevitability of their own death. While some people may be content with the ancient stoic philosophy of Lucretius that nonexistence after death will be no more painful than nonexistence before life, most people naturally prefer having a more reassuring belief. Some feel satisfied to know that something they accomplished in their lifetime will continue to influence others long after they are gone. Some find reassurance in the knowledge that their children will succeed them and continue the family name and traditions. But most people naturally wish for something much more substantial. The best thing to believe would be that our conscious self continues to exist after our physical body dies. And who in their right mind wouldn't want that to be true?
Life after death is certainly a universal feature in most religions. Religious scholar Carol Zakesju believes that the stories about an afterlife are actually essential to the religious worldview:
"Comparative study of religion shows that homo religiosus has never found it sufficient to orient himself solely in terms of his place in local history, in that rat race, in private concerns that devour his energy. The imaginative cosmologies and eschatologies of different cultures testify to our human need to find a place to occupy in a wider universe." (The Near-Death Experience p351)
"It is in the religious imagination that turns map into cosmos and cosmos into home; in visionary literature this is accomplished by sending scouts to visit the farther reaches and return with eyewitness accounts that imaginatively appropriate the current world-picture. Without such reports of actual experience, we seem to live in an unevaluated and desacralized universe. (The Near-Death Experience p351)
But it is worth briefly noting that throughout history there have been a few people that have not accepted the various doctrines of life after death. Ancient Greek philosophers such as Epicurus and Lucretius believed that death was the final end of consciousness. They in fact felt that this total annihilation would at least have the beneficial effect of ending the experience of suffering and torment. Many Greeks had this phrase written on their tombstone to express their belief: "I was not; I was; I am not; I do not care." (Reincarnation in World Thought p204)
In other words, they believed that there was a point in time before each person had a conscious existence. Then for a few a years we live out our lives in the world. After death we will no longer have a conscious existence. But since we aren't aware of any absence of anything in death, we will in no way be troubled by its loss. We won't care because we can't care. This, obviously, is not a very appealing view of life and death for most people compared to the traditional religious views. Small wonder that people from around the world have independently come up with the more optimistic idea of an afterlife.
While the psychological basis for belief in life after death is obviously real, can we say the same for the often-made claims of proof of its reality? These claims take on at least two major forms-theology and personal experiences. If you accept the metaphysical basis of a religion, obviously you will likely accept its doctrine of life after death. The degree to which you will accept the afterlife doctrine of your faith will be closely tied into the degree to which you accept the overall theology of the religion itself. The more devout a religious person is, the more assured they will tend to be about the existence of an afterlife. But for those with little faith theology alone will not satisfy the need to be sure.
A second major reason for belief in life after death comes from personal experience. This can take on various forms of encounters with the supernatural world. One thing we should remember is that an individual need not necessarily have the experience itself. If someone we know or respect reports that they have had a supernatural encounter with the afterlife, then that can function as a lesser form of evidence for us.
One of the most dramatic reported encounters with the afterlife is the near death experience, or NDE. Some form of physical or mental trauma that comes close to death can cause a brief but radical shift in a subject's perception of the world. In the Western world many people who have had this experience often report the feeling of hovering supernaturally above their own body during the crisis. Individuals sometimes feel that they can actually leave the scene of their unconscious body and visit other places. Sometimes people even report ascending to heaven in a bright light. Once in heaven, or at least at the gates of heaven, some people report speaking with loved ones, both dead and still alive. Others report speaking with the religious leaders of their faith. Some believe that they directly encountered God during their experience.
R.A. Moody in his famous 1975 work Life After Life gives dramatic examples of the recollections of people who came close to dying. According to Moody, these accounts provide "exciting evidence of the survival of the human spirit beyond death." (Life After Life, back cover) In the Foreword of the book Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, another well know researcher of NDEs, makes this powerful endorsement: "It is research like Dr. Moody presents in this book that will enlighten many and will confirm what we have been taught for two thousand years-that there is life after death." (Life After Life p 7)
Moody gives a famous general description of these experiences as they were told to him:
"A man is dying and, as he reaches the point of greatest physical distress, he hears himself pronounced dead by his doctor. He begins to hear an uncomfortable noise, a loud ringing or buzzing and at the same time feels himself moving very rapidly through a long, dark tunnel. After this, he finds himself outside of his own physical body. . . Soon, other things begin to happen. Others come and meet and help him. He glimpses the spirits of relatives and friends who have already died, and a loving, warm spirit of a kind he has never encountered before-a being of light-appears before him." (Life After Life, back cover)
Perhaps the first thing we need to note in examining these reports is that almost all NDE researchers are convinced that the individuals giving these descriptions are being entirely sincere and honest in their descriptions. There doesn't seem to be any realistic motivation for deliberate deception on the part of most of the individuals telling the stories. In fact, NDE researchers often find that patients who have had these types of experiences are extremely reluctant to speak about them.
Moody for example points out that while some NDEers are supported by their family and friends, many often find society very unsympathetic and sometimes even hostile to their stories. Moody quotes one man as saying: "It was very interesting. It's just that I don't like telling people about it. People just kind of look at you like you're crazy." (Life After Life p 62) Another woman is quoted as saying: "I tried to tell my minister, but he told me I had been hallucinating, so I shut up." (Life After Life p 63) And a third comments: "You learn very quickly that people don't take to this as easily as you would like them to. You simply don't jump up on a little soapbox and go around telling everyone these things." (Life After Life p 62)
Most researchers of the NDE, both those who accept it as proof of life after death and those who don't, tend to believe that the patients are reporting a genuine experience of some kind. Deliberate fabrication can, to a large extent at least, be ruled out in examining the NDE stories. Subjects who have a NDE are also convinced that it was a real experience. Whatever the ultimate explanation for the NDE, it's obvious that most of the people who have them don't believe it was just a dream. NDE researcher Kenneth Ring has encountered this conviction with the people he has interviewed:
"In reflecting on your near-death experience-though you would probably not label it thus-what is clear to you is that this was no dream or hallucination. Nor was it something that you simply imagined. This was compellingly real and absolutely objective: it was more real that life itself." (The Near-Death Experience p 184)
An important observation to be made about the NDE is that the general version of the experience that Moody describes is a composite of dozens of different experiences. It seems that few NDEs are exactly alike. Each aspect of the classic NDE that Moody outlines may or may not occur during any one individual's NDE. If we accept that the NDE is really an encounter with death, then we seem forced to conclude that there is no fixed experience at the point of death. Some people see angels and some don't. Some people see dead relatives and some don't. Some people travel outside of their bodies and some don't. Many if not most people, it should be noted, also come close to death and come away with no memories at all.
One example of a variation on the classic NDE is the feeling that you have gained an astonishing understanding of the reality of the world during the experience. St. Theresa of Avila gave the following account of this type of experience that she described as a rapture.
"I thought I was being carried up to Heaven: the first persons I saw there were my mother and father, and such great things happened in so short a time. . . I wish I could give a description of at least the smallest part of what I learned, but when I try to discover a way of doing so, I find it impossible, for while the light we see here and that other light are both light, there is no comparison between the two and the brightness of the sun seems quite dull if compared with the other." (The Near-Death Experience p 371)
It is certainly intriguing to consider if this sense of enlightenment and divine insight that some people believe they achieve during a NDE is the origin of at least some religious beliefs. Is the NDE a form of divine revelation, as St. Theresa seems to have believed? Are prophets actually individuals who have had a NDE? Since the NDE can be found in multiple religious traditions, this would perhaps provide some insight into the universal occurrence of revelations and divine inspiration. But as we will see the fact is that most NDEs seem to merely reaffirm the cultural beliefs of the individuals having them. In any case, we need to acknowledge that survivors of NDEs who have had this sense of enlightenment, like St. Theresa, often feel that they are unable to fully describe the insight once they return to the physical world.
One possible explanation for the variety in the NDE is that some NDEers are coming closer to the point of no return than others, and therefore are experiencing more of the afterworld. But given the vast array of different stories coming from people with multiple levels of brain trauma, this is not a very convincing explanation. I think it is more consistent with the facts at the moment to simply say that NDEs vary from person to person for a variety of reasons, some of which are unknown.
Another point to be made about the NDE is the dramatic influence that a person's cultural preconception plays in their eventual interpretation of the event. Moody makes some interesting observations about his subject's interpretation of these experiences. One is that individuals tend to perceive the being of light to be specifically associated with their religion. "Thus, most of those who are Christians in training or belief identify the light as Christ and sometimes draw Biblical parallels in support of their interpretation. A Jewish man and woman identified the light as an "angel."" (Life After Life, p 46) Obviously there is an enormous difference between an image of Christ and an angel, and it surely can't be a coincidence that you only report seeing the images of the religious tradition that you are the most familiar with.
The influence of a person's religious belief on their interpretation of a NDE is also noted by Allan Kellehear. In a review of a study of the NDE in India he writes:
"A life review was regularly reported, but this took the form of a reading by others of the record of the percipient's life. The panoramic review commonly mentioned by Anglo-Europeans is not reported in this Indian sample. The reading of a person's record is a traditional Hindu belief that, according to the authors, is apparently widely held or known to the people of India." (Experiences Near Death p 26)
Kellehear also comments that Aboriginal Australian's tend to interpret their NDE according to their own cultural beliefs. For example, one man relates the story of visiting an Aboriginal version of the land of the dead. "Again, both the people and the place have traditional mythical qualities. However, no tunnel experience and no life review are mentioned." (Experiences Near Death p 31) If the NDE is in fact an encounter with the afterlife we must conclude that the experience will be quite different depending on our cultural expectations. Of particular interest is the interpretation of the being of light that many NDEers report. Most don't apparently see a clearly defined image, but somehow "know" what the being is anyway.
Susan Blackmore, a psychologist of University of the West of England points out how a patient's previous cultural expectations are influential to their interpretation of the bright light. In a review of 5,000 doctors carried out by Osis and Haraldsson she notes: "Religious figures were, not surprisingly, in conformance with the person's own religion. No Hindu saw Jesus and no Christian saw a Hindu deity." (Dying to Live p 17)
Blackmore observes that, according the study, Americans were more likely to join their relatives in the light, while Indians are more likely to put up a fight and refuse to go willingly. (Dying to Live p 17). Blackmore offers this interesting explanation for the difference:
"It appears to be based on religious teaching. In Hindu mythology, Yamraj, the king of the dead, is a well-known figure, as are his messengers, the Yamdoots. Then there is Chitragupta, the man with the book. In this book are entered each person's deeds throughout their lives, implying, once again, the belief in a final judgement. In Christian mythology, St. Peter is waiting at the gate to heaven but there are no messengers to drag the unwilling soul away from life. The difference in experience could be due to such contrasting cultural and religious beliefs."
So not only does cultural expectation influence what an individual will see during an NDE, it can also affect how they will react. Historic descriptions of NDEs from cultures outside the major religions reveal even further differences in the experiences. Black Elk, a member of the Lakota Sioux tribe, reported having a near death experience which seems to confirm the idea that a person's worldview has an immense influence on the NDE:
"He was raised up out of his tipi into the clouds, feeling sorry to leave his parents. He was shown an elaborate vision oriented around a classic Native American mandala: the circular hoop, the four directions, and the center of the world on an axis stretching from sky to earth. Numerous neighing, dancing horses, surrounded by lightning and thunder, filled the sky at each direction. He was told to behold this, then to follow a bay horse, which led him to a rainbow door. Inside, sitting on clouds, were six grandfathers, "older than men can ever be-old like hills, old like stars."" (The Near-Death Experience p82)
Rather than see one of the religious figures that Christians or Hindus routinely report, Black Elk saw images that were more familiar to his culture's worldview. He reports seeing several beings that he describes as Grandfathers, each one representing a Power of the World. (The Near-Death Experience p85) As Lee W. Bailey puts it:
"As a Christian might see Christ or a Hindu see Vishnu, Black Elk saw six Grandfathers, old like stars, representing the traditional six directions of the Sioux world picture. Black Elk saw not European cities of light, but familiar horses, migrating geese, spotted eagles and the peace pipe. Near-death experiences integrate local cultural symbols such as these with worldwide images such as light, mandalas, and rainbows. This is the collective language of seeing in a sacred manner." (The Near-Death Experience p85)
Respected NDE researchers Ian Stevenson and Bruce Greyson also acknowledge the importance of a person's worldview on what they report seeing. "Comparisons of accounts of near-death experiences obtained in different cultures suggest that the beliefs a person has before he approaches death have an important influence on the kind of experience he will report if he comes close to death and escapes." (The Near-Death Experience p204)
Melvin Morse, a pediatrician who has done extensive research into NDE in children, makes a similar observation about reports from children:
"We have studied 400 Japanese near-death experiences, and fifty Native African experiences collected at the University of Zambia, and found the same core experience as seen in American children. For example, in a retrospective study of over 400 Japanese near-death experiences, Japanese adults described a wide range of experiences in keeping with their cultural traditions. However, Japanese children similarly describe simple experiences of seeing a bright light or seeing living teachers and playmates. A four-year-old boy who had fulminant pneumonia described floating out of his body and coming to the edge of a river. His playmates were on the other side, urging him to go back. There was a misty bright light on the other side." (Morse, 1992) (The Near-Death Experience p308)
Of special interest is the fact that some children who appear to be describing a NDE also report seeing living teachers and playmates. Other researchers have noted this odd feature of some NDEs. To encounter the dead in the afterlife is perhaps to be expected, but to encounter a living person there is more difficult to explain.
NDEs are also not limited to the afterlife expectations of any single culture or religion. The artist Mellen-Thomas Benedict experienced an unusual multi-religious version of the NDE. The "being of light" appeared to him in many forms:
"The Light kept changing into different figures, like Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, mandalas, archetypal images and signs. I asked the Light, "What is going on here? Please, Light, clarify yourself for me. I really want to know the reality of the situation." I can not really say the exact words, because it was sort of telepathy. The Light responded. The information transferred to me was that you beliefs shape the kind of feedback you are getting before the Light. If you were a Buddhist or Catholic or Fundamentalist, you get a feedback loop of your own stuff." (The Near-Death Experience p42)
From all these examples it should be clear that when someone has a NDE what they see and how they will react is heavily influenced by their cultural expectations. If we were hoping to get confirmation of a single religious view of life after death from stories of NDE obviously we are going to be somewhat disappointed. If you are from a largely Christian background you would probably expect to see a Christ-like version of God at the moment of dying. That is what you apparently will see. If you are from a Hindu background you will probably expect to see the God of Death or a God image centered around the specific deities of your personal faith. And, if the reports are to be believed, that is exactly what you will see. For individuals who live outside of the major world religions you will tend to see whatever vision of the afterlife you have come to accept (or at least be most familiar with) in your life. And if you hold to a multi-religious type of theology or imagination, you may well see all the images of the different figures you expect to see.
Specific aspects of the NDE also vary from one religious tradition to another. For example, according to Kellehear:
"Life review and the tunnel experience seem to be culture-specific features. Life review seems to be a feature of Western, Chinese, and Indian NDE accounts. Cases collected from hunter-gatherer, primitive cultivator, and herdsmen societies do not exhibit this feature. The tunnel experience is not described in most non-Western accounts, though an experience of darkness of sorts is often reported." (Experiences Near Death p 35)
In the case of life review, religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity have cultivated an ethic of personal responsibility and conscience. This may be the chief influence on the evaluative style of mental processes near death. Life review in people with this cultural orientation is part of the general social and psychological process of identity formation. (Experiences Near Death p 41)
Another interesting aspect of the NDE is that the reports from modern people are actually somewhat different from the reports of the past. Carol Zaleski has noticed several contrasts between modern Christian accounts of NDEs and those of the Christians in medieval Europe. They are fascinating and enlightening observations worthy of several quotes:
"In broad terms, the similarities we found were as follows: both medieval and modern narratives depict the death and revival of individuals whose experience is held up as an example of what we can expect in our own final moments. The manner of death-departure of the spirit from the body-is described in frankly dualistic terms, the separate spirit looking down upon its former dwelling place with the indifference or contempt." (The Near-Death Experience p334)
"Although the medieval hell and purgatory scenes find scarcely any counterparts in the near-death testimony collected by Moody and his colleagues, motifs of paradise topography are much the same in both periods: shining edifices, gardens, meadows, heavenly cities, and so forth." (The Near-Death Experience p335)
The most glaring difference is the prominence in medieval accounts of obstacles and tests, purifacatory torments, and outright doom. Aside from continuing the hellfire traditions of early Christian apocalyptic, medieval narratives serve as vehicles for the consolidation of Catholic teachings on purgatory and penance. In modern accounts, on the other hand, a sense of inevitable progress softens the rigors of final reckoning; the review of deeds is transformed from an ordeal into an educational experience; and the only serious obstacle is the barrier marking the point of no return. These narratives are shaped throughout by optimistic, democratic, "healthy-minded" principles that transparently reflect a contemporary ideology and mood. (The Near-Death Experience p336)
On the other hand, medieval and modern narratives differ considerably in their understanding of the nature of the visionary's message, commission, and conversion. Moral rehabilitation is too vague a goal for medieval visions; they are concerned, as we have seen, to promote particular penitential and monastic institutions. Modern narratives, however, advocate the renunciation of worrier and fears and conversion to a life of love, learning, and service; this is an individualistic, anti-institutional, humanistic ideal, of which churches, hospices, and other service organizations may be the incidental beneficiaries. (The Near-Death Experience p337)
How you will experience a NDE is apparently based not just on your culture or religion, it is also based on the worldview of the time period you live in. In other words the reports of a NDE will be different for someone living in a village today than from someone that lived in the same village several hundred years ago. The NDE is therefore not frozen in time, but will vary to accommodate the cultural changes of each generation. We can reasonable expect that if a new religion is created in the next century, believers who have a NDE will encounter whatever symbolic images of the afterlife that the new religion has adopted.
Given these facts we must ask a tough question. If these are truly visions of the afterlife, why is there this inexplicable variation in what is actually seen on the other side? One possible supernatural explanation is that when we die, God creates the death experience to match our expectations. But if that is so, that would strongly imply that no religion is really the true religion. In other words, if God is supernaturally creating the afterlife to custom fit each person's expectations, it would seem that there is no single afterlife. God would be creating a unique and separate supernatural world for each person, or at least each closely related theological community. Heaven would therefore have to be a sort of eternal segregation between rival religions, each with there own personalized version of God. If one person sees an angel, one Jesus, one Krishna and one a spiritual Grandfather, how could conscious humans interact with such undeniable contradictions? As odd as this seems, if we accept NDE claims as accurate reports from the afterlife there seems to be few other possible interpretations-God creates separate heavens or hells based on the theology we were taught as children or later accepted as adults.
I think very few theologians from the world religions would accept this explanation. To say to a Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist devotee that their religion is no more true or false than the others would radically undermine the very faith that is needed to internalize religious doctrine. But if we only look at this aspect of the NDE, that it is extremely culturally driven, we are left with the conclusion that it does not support the afterlife view of any one faith over another. Obviously we need to try to find another explanation to the puzzle that the NDE brings to theology.
One possible supernatural solution has not been lost on some fundamentalists. Religious studies scholar Carol Zaleski made this observation about the reactions provoked by the publication of Moody's book:
"The loudest reaction against Life After Life and its successors comes from conservative Christians who see these books as a Satanic trick, designed to lull us into a false sense of security about the future life, to lure us into occult practices such as astral projection, to beguile us into accepting the advances of demons disguised as departed spirits, and to sell us a secular (but fundamentally diabolic) bill of goods about salvation without Christ." (The Near-Death Experience p332)
As odd as that might sound this would logically fit a few of the pieces of the puzzle together. Let us speculate for a moment that an evil supernatural being is loose in the world. This devil is attempting to keep humans from believing in the one true religion. At the point of near death the devil is able to mind control some individuals and give them a supernaturally created experience of encountering a being of light, who will be interpreted as the religious figure that the person has grown up to believe in. Since people hold to differing views about God, many of the NDEs will contradict others. Some impressionable people are led away from the true religion because their incorrect theology is confirmed by their NDE.
But the deeper we consider this devil conspiracy theory the more bizarre it must become. We are giving an evil being the power to alter human perceptions by implanting a contrived experience at the point of near death. But the main effect of this experience is to reinforce the afterlife beliefs the individual already accepts. If in fact a devil wanted to mislead people away from the true religion, it seems that implanting a universally consistent but theological fraudulent experience would be much more effective. Of course for this conspiracy theory to make any sense we would have to accept the very existence of a devil that has such astonishing powers over fragile human minds. This theory would require that evil beings possess powers beyond what the majority of the world religions currently accept.
But before dismissing this idea we might consider a few facts. First of all some NDEers do on occasion alter their view of God. Some find that the experience directly challenges some aspect of the religious beliefs that they once held. For example, Betty Eadie, a mother of seven, encountered the being of light in a NDE. She recalls that "There was no questioning who he was. I knew that he was my Savior, and friend, and God. He was Jesus Christ, who had always loved me, even when I thought he hated me." (The Near-Death Experience p56) But her Christian upbringing had taught her that the dead wouldn't go to heaven until the Second Coming of Jesus. "Then questions began coming to my mind. I wanted to know why I had died as I had not prematurely, but how my spirit had come to him before the resurrection. I was still laboring under the teachings and beliefs of my childhood." (The Near-Death Experience p56)
Eadie took a somewhat unusual action of asking theological questions of the being of light. "I wanted to know why there were so many churches in the world. Why didn't God give us only one church, one pure religion? The answer came to me with the purest of understanding. Each of us, I was told, is at a different level of spiritual development and understanding. All religions upon the earth are necessary because there are people who need what they teach. People in one religion may not have a complete understanding of the Lord's gospel and never will have while in that religion. But that religion is used as a stepping stone to further knowledge. Each church can fulfill everybody's needs that perhaps others cannot fill." (The Near-Death Experience p57)
Eadie came to believe that some people at least went to heaven before the Second Coming of Jesus, despite what she had been told growing up. This would be an example of a NDE altering a person's theological views. Her understanding "from God" that in fact her religion happens to be the purest one, and all others are only stepping stones to the higher truth, is of course the natural view that most believers have toward their own religion or culture.
George Ritchie encountered a similar theological conflict during a NDE. Growing up in the Baptist and Presbyterian traditions, Ritchie was also forced to reconsider part of his view regarding life after death:
"I still carried the concept that when one died, he/she slept until judgement day when he/she would be judged and then sent to heaven or hell. The experience I was having now had never been mentioned. Suddenly an amazing thing began. The light at the end of the bed began to grow brighter and brighter. I first thought it was the little night light until I realized it was coming from beside the white bedside table at the head of the bed. It continued to increase in intensity until it seemed to be equal to a million welders' lights. I knew if I had been seeing through my human eyes instead of those of my spiritual body I would have been blinded. Then three things happened instantaneously. Something deep inside of my spiritual being said, "STAND UP: YOU ARE IN THE PRESENCE OF THE SON OF GOD." I was suddenly propelled up and off the bed. Out of the brilliant light at the head of the bed stepped the most magnificent Being I had ever know." (The Near-Death Experience p 99)
So in fact some theological changes can occur as the direct result of a NDE. A more subtle change is also reported. Many NDEers come away from the experience with a deeper sense of closeness to God. "More spiritual" is a common description used by NDEers. But this does not necessarily mean more religious. On the contrary, some NDEers often find that they place less emphasis on tradition religious activity than before. So we might be able to say that the NDE can cause some people to become more spiritual but less religious.
In any case, there seems little justification for thinking that an evil entity is taking control of people's minds during the NDE for some diabolical reason. It seems more likely that people are having a genuine encounter with either the Divine or at least with their expectations of the Divine. But this leads us back to our challenging question. If the NDE does not support the afterlife views of any single religion over the others, what exactly is going on at that critical moment between life and death? How can we explain these amazing and varied stories of the afterlife?
From the orthodox theological sense there are sound reasons to deny that the NDE is the genuine thing. If, for example, you believe in hell and believe that this is confirmed by a NDE, how can a theologian dispute the point? They must either decide that you must be right because you "encountered God and the afterlife" or they must decide that you are mistaken because it contradicts their theological beliefs. In other words, a believer who cannot alter their religious beliefs must deny that you actually encountered God or the afterlife. Perhaps if all NDEers saw the same religious images we might have some level of proof that subjects were actually encountering something supernatural. But since most NDEs appear to see what they were culturally raised to expect to see, we must conclude that the specific images reported are not intrinsically evidence for any one religion's view of life after death.
But that said, can we say the NDE is at least evidence for some form of life after death? On this subject there is a major and seemingly unbridgeable gap between believers and non-believers. Many skeptical minded investigators feel that the "believers" fail to apply a rigorous standard of critical thinking when studying the NDE. Many believers feel that "skeptical scientists" are blinded to certain evidence because of deeply held naturalistic beliefs.
In any case, we should make a very important point regarding the claim that the NDE proves the existence of an afterlife. There are many researchers in the field who personally believe that NDEs are real encounters with the afterworld, but who don't believe that there is actually enough evidence to prove the point. Even though they accept that some people have seen the "other side," they still don't think that the evidence meets the level of scientific verification. The fact that so many believing researchers have come to this opinion, combined with the scientific community's skepticism, creates I think a powerful argument against insisting that the NDE proves the existence of life after death.
For example, Ian Stevenson and Bruce Greyson are cautious regarding the claim that the experience proves life after death:
"Some persons who report such out-of-body experiences claim that they become aware of events that they could not have perceived normally. Some remember conversations between the physicians and nurses who were working to revive them. This kind of experience is not necessarily evidence of extrasensory perception; patients who are anesthetized or otherwise ostensibly unconscious sometimes can assimilate, and afterward remember, conversations held in their presence (Cherkin and Harroun, 1971). Other patients, however, make stronger claims of remembering conversations held in adjoining rooms or other events outside the range of their sense organs." (The Near-Death Experience p204)
Psychologist Rober Kastenbaum placed this disclaimer in a book on NDEs:
"Do you believe there is a divine purpose at work in the cosmos, and that this plan includes survival or persistence of the soul? If so, let is be said immediately that nothing in this chapter will challenge you faith. On the other hand, nothing in this book adds a whit of support. The same must be said for other books that base their conclusions on near-death experience (NDE) reports. That many people have accepted NDE reports as proof of survival is an interesting social and cognitive phenomenon, but the popularity of a belief does not certify its accuracy." (The Near-Death Experience p247)
Kastenbaum affirms the rationality of seeing the NDE as supportive of life after death, but not to the point to proof:
"Taken together with the logical and methodological problems already noted, these findings do not provide the basis for concluding that NDE texts are reports form people who have made a round-trip journey to the realm of death. One can choose to believe that the complete and permanent cessation of life is followed by a blissful spiritual state, but NDE research has provided no evidence for this proposition. People who have died and stayed dead have not necessarily had the experience reported by those who have shared their extraordinary episodes with us." (The Near-Death Experience p261)
Carol Zalaski says: "It appears to be impossible, in any case, to determine objectively whether near-death reports are accurate or inaccurate depictions of the future life." (The Near-Death Experience p334)
Moody makes an attempt to provide corroborating evidence to some of the events described in his book, such as a NDE traveling to another room during the experience. For example, we read: "Can any of these reports be checked out with other witnesses who were known to be present, or with later confirming events, and thus be corroborated? In quite a few instances, the somewhat surprising answer to this question is, "yes."" (Life After Life p 71) But the anecdotal evidence that Life After Life presents doesn't pass the skeptical test of most scientific-minded investigators. Years later Moody acknowledged this fact: "After twenty-two years of looking at the near-death experience, I think there isn't enough scientific proof to show conclusively that there is life after death." (The Near-Death Experience p37) But not all researchers agree. Many feel that the evidence from the NDE is not only enough to convince an individual of life after death, it is enough to establish a scientific fact. Morse's believes that the eyewitness accounts are valid enough to establish a supernatural reality to dying:
"The unmistakable conclusion of the scientific evidence on dying is that profoundly comatose dying patients do in fact have an expanded sense of awareness and consciousness. The processes of dying are often spiritual, involve out of body perceptions and paranormal abilities and perceptions (transformed). This represents circumstantial evidence of some sort of consciousness surviving physical death." (The Near-Death Experience p309)
It should be noted that Morse also believes that the number of sightings of ghosts increase during NDE situations:
"A retrospective case control study of premonitions of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) by the Southwest SIDS Research Group documented that 21 percent of parents had a premonition of their infant's subsequent death. Seven parents documented their premonitions in a journal prior to the death. A retrospective control group and two prospective control groups reported 3-5 percent of parents whose infants did not die of SIDS having premonitions and that the control premonitions were of a qualitatively different nature than the premonitions of SIDS. Some parents reported spiritual visions similar to near-death experiences, including spiritual voices telling parents that the child was to die, out-of-body visions, including angels who predicted the child's death, and a four-year-old sibling sharing the infant's dying experience. The control premonitions were primarily vague feelings of unease" (Hardoin, Hensley, Morse, et al., 1993). (The Near-Death Experience p311)
With all that said lets examine exactly how the NDE researchers attempt to explain the phenomenon. Ring believes that the explanations for the NDE fall into three basic categories: biological, psychological, and transcendental. "The biological theories tend to be reductionistic and anti-survival in tone whereas those with transcendental emphasis tend to be empirically untestable but compatible with survivalistic interpretation. Naturally the psychological theories are intermediate in most respects." (The Near-Death Experience p 186) The most hoped for explanation for most people of course is the transcendental one, for that would assure us of the reality of life after death. We wouldn't have to rely on things like "faith" to believe. We would know there is an afterlife because some people have been there and come back.
Crucial to the transcendental explanation is the idea that the soul, the container of human identity, can exist outside of the body. This means that human consciousness must be able to somehow exist outside of a functioning human brain. That human beings have a personal identity is obvious. But to claim that our conscious identity can exist outside of a functioning brain is to cross swords with some very well established observations of medical science.
First, there is overwhelming evidence that consciousness, the basis of our identity, is the product of a functioning brain. We know this in part because a damaged brain creates damaged consciousness. In fact, damage to specific parts of the brain will create damage to specific parts of consciousness. Memory formation and retrieval is intimately tied into specific areas of the brain. The idea that when the brain is totally destroyed our consciousness somehow supernaturally reconstitutes itself might be true, but it is so far only speculation. No one has yet been able to demonstrate this to the satisfaction of the scientific community.
But there is one candidate for the role of proving the existence of a non-physical self. Most researchers seem to agree that if the soul is able to survive after death, some form of supernatural ability should exist during life. Belief that a human consciousness can float above a body during an accident closely coincides with the belief that some people can psychically leave their body while they are still perfectly healthy. In fact one way to predict whether or not a NDE researcher believes that the phenomenon supports belief in life after death is to determine if they believe in extrasensory ability.
Parapsychologist J.B. Rhine makes this strong claim on the subject:
A type of lawfulness peculiar to mind and contrary to physics is increasingly evident in the extra-sensory perception and psychokinetic researches. Without these researches and with only the facts of the biological sciences to go on, it is hard to see how any kind of immortality would be possible. The brain-dominating, or cerebro-centric view of personality, would not allow it. In that view the brain is primarily and completely the center of man. But if the psyche is a force and a factor in its own right, with laws and ways peculiarly non-physical, the survival hypothesis has at least a logical chance.
If the mind is different from the physical brain system, it could have a different destiny, could perhaps be independent, separable, unique. This degree of simple possibility must not, of course, be mistaken for probability; but the mere logical possibility is itself very important. . . Is it not then provocative, to say the least, to discover certain capacities of mind that appear to operate beyond the boundaries of space and time within which our sensorial, bodily system has to live and move? Here, surely, if ever, "hope sees a star" and the urge toward an inquiry into the question of survival received valuable impetus and encouragement. (Reincarnation in World Thought p429)
But psychic ability has so far been unable to gain acceptance in the scientific community. Societies dedicated to trying to prove ESP exists worldwide and often make impressive claims of experiments that show at least a small degree of psychic ability. But attempts by skeptical scientists to verify these results for publication in mainstream scientific journals invariable prove unsuccessful in repeating the experiments. Scientific opinion is therefore unconvinced that psychic ability actually exists. To quote a bluntly worded paper by the National Research Institute there is "no scientific justification from research conducted over a period of 130 years for the existence of parapsychological phenomena." (Science and Supernatural p5) This fact no doubt has some bearing on the preconception of scientific researcher of the NDE. Many believers are convinced that this is an obstacle for most scientists in fairly looking at NDE stories. Theologian J. Paul Williams makes this insightful observation:
"The argument for the future life which logically precedes all others is the simple one that if man is a soul it is not unreasonable to suppose that he survives death. If man is simply a body, a physio-chemical reaction, and nothing more, it is obvious that he does not live again as such a body. If, however, man is-or perhaps has-a soul, the door is left open to the possibility that the soul persists after death. Thus the case for the future life is no stronger than is the case for the existence of the soul." (Reincarnation in World Thought p7)
However I think most scientists would find Williams' attempt to demonstrate the existence of a supernatural soul distinct for the physical world somewhat unconvincing.
There are two ways to prove a thing. One is to show how it follows logically from other things that [are true]. The other is just to point and say, "There it is.". . . I am among those who feel that they must believe in souls simply because they experience them. It may be that my family, the students I meet on campus, the friends I play cards with are just bodes, machines, not essentially different from the images I see on a movie screen, images that move and talk. But I find that a very hard position to accept. It is much easier to account for one's experience of people and for one's knowledge of himself on the assumption that the essential human being is more that just a physio-chemical reaction. Is man a living soul? For answer observe people: watch a group of boys playing football; read Shakespeare; look into the eye of one beloved. (Reincarnation in World Thought p7)
To give a metaphoric defense to his idea of the soul Williams says the following:
"William James pointed out that we can take two positions concerning the relation between the body and life: one is that the body produces life; the other that the body reflects life. Light is produced by a candle; if the candle is put out its light disappears. Light is reflected by a mirror; if the mirror is taken away the light still continues. Now is it not at least easy to suppose that the body reflects the soul as it is to suppose that it produces the soul? It may be that this human carcass, full of aches and disease, heir to boils and rheumatism, produces things like "Hamlet," theory of evolution, psychoanalysis, and the fortieth chapter of Isaiah, but it is a great deal easier for me to believe that these things are the work of living souls who used bodies as instruments..." (Reincarnation in World Thought p8)
Psychic researcher Charles Tart offers a more harsh view of the motivation of scientists:
"Lurking in the background of many of our beliefs about survival is fear. If you believe that the soul survives death, and that you will be judged, then you may fear that you have an excellent chance of going to Hell, because you weren't good enough. The materialist position is marvelously psychologically appealing, because it rejects this belief. "Oh, materialists do not go to Hell; at least that fear is over." I don't think we recognize that psychological factor often enough, and how much if affects the way that we think about things." (The Near-Death Experience p322)
Tart goes on to chastise scientists who don't accept evidence of physic phenomenon or the NDE:
"Speaking as a working scientist, the main think that I want to tell you about the materialist position is that it is not good science. The first rule of science is that you have to account for all the data, all the experience, all the information, all the facts that you can gather about something. And if you theory cannot account for all the facts, it is not very good. Well, the materialist equation of the mind with nothing but brain simply does not take into account all the facts. Of course, the brain has a lot to do with the mind, there is no doubt about it. We are working this personal bio-computer and it has its style. But that is not all there is to mind. It is bad science simply to accept materialism without having looked at all the evidence." (The Near-Death Experience p322)
Of course for Tart's theory to be correct we must accept that scientists secretly believe the theology of whatever country they live in. Scientists, we must remember, live and work in different countries with different religious worldviews. There is no such thing as American Christian science, or Egyptian Muslim science, or Indian Hindu science, or Japanese Buddhist science. Global scientific consensus is just that, global. To claim that scientists with a naturalistic worldview don't accept stories about NDE as evidence proving life after death because they would otherwise have to "fear damnation" is ignoring this global multi-cultural and multi-religious reality of the scientific community.
I think most (but not all) scientists come to largely accept a naturalistic worldview because it is repeatedly and consistently affirmed by their experiments with physical objects. Scientists don't (for the most part) believe that supernatural powers have been proven to be real because they can find no experiment that actually demonstrates that it is real. I don't think scientists should be denounced for this reality. If for example the priests of one religion could consistently transform water into wine without any physical action under controlled experiments, I think the scientific community would eventually include this "supernatural" fact as a part of their worldview. Remember, one key feature of science is that all beliefs must be altered if there is convincing, demonstrable evidence that proves an idea is mistaken. In any case, if traditional theology requires that not all NDEs can be seen as true, we must come up with alternative explanations. And science does provide a purely naturalistic explanation to the NDE that does answer many, if not all, of the major questions. Many of the researchers that make these paranormal investigations are called skeptics, which to some religious and supernaturally minded people is almost a four-letter word. Kellehear gives a somewhat amusing but fairly accurate description of some of the groups that investigate supernatural or paranormal claims from the skeptical perspective:
"There is a small and unpopular group in many Western societies who do not share other people's paranormal or occult explanations for these experiences, preferring instead to explain them in psychological or physiological terms. These people sometimes band together in belligerent organizations that discourage uncritical belief in these issues. The members of these organizations are known as skeptics." (Experiences Near Death p 68)
Kellehear describes the skeptical approach in regards to the NDE briefly as ". . . the skeptics offer only answers that survive or thrive under test conditions, or conditions within the framework of logical positivism." (Experiences Near Death p 132) In other words skeptics attempt to apply the scientific method to claims of the supernatural world whenever there is any physical evidence to examine. Before going into detail of naturalistic explanations for the NDE it is worth repeating that the experience itself is very varied. The sense of peace or divine union, the sense of leaving the body, the tunnel, the being of light, the images of dead people, the life review, all these different aspects do not normally occur with every NDEs. It is important to understand that no single naturalistic explanation alone may account for each and every aspect of the experience. The sensation of leaving the body and the image of a tunnel may each have a different explanation. Many scientists such as Jansen are critical of researchers who claim that each and every aspect of the NDE must have the same explanation:
"Some authors have declared that the NDE must have a single explanation and then presented anecdotes to counter each scientific theory (e.g. Ring, 1980), or required that any scientific theory put forward must explain all of the experiences ever given the name of NDE (e.g., Gabbard and Twemlow, 1989). It is more likely that the NDE is a final common expression of several different causes. Even then, the final 'common' expression contains sufficient variability to suggest different types of NDE with different explanatations." (The Near-Death Experience p271)
One of the first insights that skeptics are found of pointing out is that many of the experiences of a NDE can occur to people who don't actually come close to dying. This is a powerful fact and one worth carefully considering. Any action that causes a person to imagine that they might die can trigger the same type of powerful emotional experience that a traumatic accident can cause. For example, people who are accidentally isolated from society for long periods of time are often forced to contemplate their eventual death. Kellehear notes that people who have found themselves stranded after a shipwreck or are trapped in a cave-in will experience many of the aspects of the NDE even though they were at the time in no imminent danger of dying:
"All of these cases reveal many of the elements commonly found in accounts of clinical NDE. There is a period of separation and a review of one's life-sometimes with the assistance of another. There are reports of a sensed presence. Emotions range form terror, fear, and despair to elation and euphoria, particularly when rescued. Transformation of attitudes and values is experienced-commonly in a positive, humanitarian direction." (Experiences Near Death p 49)
Mountain climbers who fall from a great height often report several of the aspects of a NDE. (The Near-Death Experience p210) A momentary sense of mental peace and clarity is often reported, the same type of experience that we find described in the NDE. The panoramic life-review is also often reported, again just like in the NDE. It is important to note that these falling climbers did not actually come close to dying. They luckily suffered no extreme physical trauma that brought them physically close to death. But they did, for at least a few dramatic moments, believe that they were about to die. In other words, the mere belief that you are encountering death, whether from a sudden fall or from a longer period of forced isolation, can bring on the NDE without any actual physical trauma to the body.
A second observation about the NDE is that it closely parallels the experience of losing consciousness from lack of oxygen flow to the brain, such as being subjected to an extreme gravitational pressure. This loss of consciousness, known as G-LOC, has been studied by the US military. High performance aircraft can create sufficient g-forces to literally "knock out" the pilot during high-speed maneuvers, causing terminal crashes. Researchers have been trying to discover how to increase the g-forces that their pilots can endure before blacking out. Subjects are strapped into a large centrifuge and spun around at an increasing speed to create a strong gravitational pull.
In a long-term series of experiments, James Whinnery of the Naval Air Development Center in Pennsylvania studied pilots who blacked out from anywhere between 2 to 38 seconds. (Dying to Live p 57) One effect G-LOC produces is physical paralysis and an inability to communicate. "He could not make any purposeful movement, or even turn his head, which was terribly frustrating since he could hear the G-LOC warning tone in the centrifuge and couldn't turn it off even though his consciousness was returning." (Dying to Live p 59)
This is an important point when we consider reports of NDE patients who remember events that occurred when the doctors believed they were unconscious. "During this state they might be able to hear what was going on around them and so build up a clear mental picture of what was happening." (Dying to Live p 59) In other words, a patient who might appear to be unconscious might still be able to take in sensory information and build up a partial mental picture of what was going on in the room. In fact many hospitals have noticed this phenomenon of some patients during surgery and instruct doctors to be careful even when they think the patient is unconscious.
Another similarity between the NDE and G-LOC is the tunnel-like vision pilots experience as they begin to lose consciousness. While the increasing centrifugal force begins to prevent blood flow to the brain, pilots start to lose their peripheral vision. This produces a tunnel-like affect. (Dying to Live p 60)
Some pilots also report dream-like states as they lose consciousness. As Backmore explains:
"They are in many ways similar to the NDE visions, at least in that they include radiantly bright colours and sights, beautiful surroundings and loved ones appearing to meet them. One volunteer went home and saw his mother and brother-'We were outdoors, it was wild! . . . I got to go home without taking leave.'" (Dying to Live p 60)
Another critical observation about the NDE is that mind altering drugs can produce many of the same sensations and experiences. Blackmore recounts her own NDE type experiences that obviously did not require her coming close to death:
"Under conditions of extreme tiredness and smoking hashish I had an NDE-type experience complete with the tunnel and light, out-of-body travels, expansion and contraction of size, timelessness, a mystical experience and the decision to return; all occurring over a period of about two hours while I was sitting up and quite alive and healthy." (Dying to Live p 43)
There are however several differences to drug induced experiences and the classic NDE. Blackmore found that the NDE were more likely to hear noises and see a tunnel with a brilliant light. They are also more likely to see their body from an outside perspective and encounter spiritual beings. These conditions Blackmore believes were more likely to be caused by physical trauma such as cardiac arrest and anaesthesia. (Dying to Live p 45) The emotional effect of the NDE is also different. "NDErs are more likely to feel there was a purpose in the experience, that it had lasting benefit, that it was a spiritual or mystical experience and that their life has been changed by it." (Dying to Live p 43) But drug induced out-of-body experiences do parallel the NDE on several key points ". . . in terms of the feelings of peace and serenity, the life review, encountering a border or barrier or even in the change in belief in life after death." (Dying to Live p 43) Breathing carbon dioxide can also produce some of the effects reported in NDEs. Blackmore gives this example of 29 year-old nurse who had breathed in the gas:
"Then the colors left and I felt myself being separated; my soul drawing apart from the physical being was drawn upward, seemingly to leave the earth and to go upward where it reached a greater Spirit with Whom there was a communion, producing a remarkable, new relaxation and deep security." (Dying to Live p 54)
Psychiatrist Karl Jansen extensive research into the effects of the drug ketamine on the brain brought him to this conclusion regarding NDEs:
"The near-death experience (NDE) is an altered state of consciousness with characteristic features. These can be reproduced by ketamine via blockade of a glutamate (N-methyl-D-aspartate, NMDA) receptor. Overactivation of these receptors by a glutamate 'flood' occurs under the same conditions which precipitate NDEs, resulting in neurotoxicity. Ketamine prevents this neurotoxicity. Endogenous substances in the brain (e.g., endopsychosins) have similar actions to ketamine. Thus conditions which trigger an NDE may also trigger and endopsychosin flood, to protect cells. The NDE is a side-effect on consciousness with psychological functins." (The Near-Death Experience p267)
He goes on to say:
"Descriptions of the NDE have been closely matched with those produced by ketamine (e.g., Siegel, 1980, 1981). Explanations of NDEs as related to hallucinatory phenomena are sometimes rejected by spiritualists because so many persons insist that their experiences were 'real' (Osis and Haraldsson, 1977; Ring, 1980). It is significant that 30 percent of normal subjects given ketamine insisted that they had not been dreaming or hallucinating, but that the events had really happened." (Rumpf et al., 1969; see also Siegel, 1978)
Direct stimulation of the brain can also produce NDE-like effects. "Penfield performed electrical stimulation studies of the right Sylvian fissure and found that patients often heard heavenly music, saw vivid hallucinations of people, and recall memories so vividly that they seemed to be three dimensional and real. One patient is reported as saying: "Oh god, I'm leaving my body", and another saying "I'm half in and half out" (Penfield and Rasmussen, 1950; Penfield 1955).
A book compilation of the skeptical journal The Skeptical Inquirer gives this overview of naturalistic explanations on the phenomenon of Out of Body Experiences, or OBEs:
"In the last century, the neurologist Hughlings Jackson reported that aberrancies in the temporal lobes of the brain can produce floating, disembodied sensations, including viewing one's body from a distance (MacLean 1977). OBEs have since been produced by electrical stimulation of the temporal lobes during neurosurgery. They are also associated with a variety of drugs, epileptic seizures, hypoglycemic and migraine episodes, and neurochemical changes near death. Occasionally, OBEs occur spontaneously in normal, awake individuals, probably due to random activation of temporal lobe systems. OBEs seem less mysterious when we consider that the brain generates similar imagery during dreams and even in visual memories, where we routinely view ourselves from positions we never actually occupied." (The Hundredth Monkey p48)
Kastenbaum has come to three conclusions regarding NDEs that are worth considering.1. Reject the assumption that NDEs must either be fabrications ("unreal") or that they must provide valid information about death.
2. A clear distinction should be made between experience and report.
3. It makes good sense to concentrate on reports and to apply methodologies that are best suited to analyzing texts. (The Near-Death Experience p253-254)
Kastenbaum also makes five points regarding the overall evidence of NDEs:
1. Many people who have returned from a close encounter with death do not have NDE reports to offer. Why are NDEs not a universal characteristic of brushes with death? We do not know.
2. Some of the reports are nightmarish rather than comforting. Why this variation? Again, we do not know (although, again, there are no shortage of speculation).
3. Reports with the features that have been found in NDE texts have also been made by people who were in situations in which their lives were not in danger. Why, then, should we associate such reports so strongly with death?
4. Some people who recovered from illness or injury over- or mis-interpreted what they had been told by health care providers (Stevenson et al., 1989-1990). They persuaded themselves or were persuaded by others into believing they had been dead.
5. People who were actually close to possible death have been found less likely to report and NDE than those who were less endangered (Greyson, 1981). This suggests that the production of NDE texts requires a central nervous system that is still in working order.
So we are left with the dilemma that the features of the NDE can be stimulated by natural means. While this does not in itself rule out the possibility of the NDE being an actual encounter with the afterlife, it does lead us to the conclusion that a supernatural explanation is not required to explain the experience. As to the religious images and symbols that are encountered, there are several psychological theories that attempt to explain why different people perceive different things. One of the first things to note is how the very words that a subject uses to describe the event are culturally driven.
Theologian John Renard notes this importance of language in describing a mystical experiencez:
"Even when a Hindu mystic talks of oneness with an unnameable, indescribable "All," he or she is still talking about that "All" from an identifiably Hindu perspective. In other words, there is no such think as pure experience, even among certified mystics. All experience is mediated through, organized by, and made intelligible via categories of religious language and symbolism." (101 Q Hinduism p 116)
One of the earliest influential psychologists to comment about death was Sigmund Freud. Although many of his ideas have come under great criticism, they initially had such a large impact on the Western word they are still worth briefly looking:
"When primeval man saw someone who belonged to him die. . . then, in his pain, he was forced to learn that one can die, too, and his whole being revolted against the admission. . . So he devised a compromise; he conceded that fact of his own death. . . but denied it the significance of annihilation. . . His persisting memory of the dead became the basis for assuming other forms of existence and gave him the conception of a life continuing after apparent death."
"These subsequent existences were at first no more than appendages to the existence which death had brought to a close-shadowy, empty of content, and valued at little. . . It was only later that religions succeeded in representing this after-life as the more desirable, the truly valid one. . . After this it was no more than consistent to extend life backwards into the past, to form the notion of earlier existences, of the transmigration of souls and of reincarnation, all with the purpose of depriving death of its meaning as the termination of life." (Reincarnation in World Thought p400-401)
Philosopher Michael Grosso presents a psychological reason why people see religious figures during NDEs:
"The psychological significance of the eruption of the Self-archetype is that wholeness, symbolized by Christ, is won through "crucifixion," through death. Wholeness means welding together opposing forces, somehow taking in pain, evil, darkness and helplessness, all that we consciously dread and wish to avoid. The epiphany of the Christ-image in the midst of being near-death is a living message from the death of our Selves; it boldly declares that there is hope of renewed being in the menace of nonbeing. The near-death experience, against the dictates of everyday reasonableness, hints of a much fuller potential for coping with death. It encourages us to trust in the power of life to transcend death."
"The phenomenology of the near-death experiences displays different symbols for the archetype of the Self. Among Christians, Christ is the chief symbol; even atheists (in a Christian culture) or persons who only experience the light without form, project the Christ image or interpretation. In the cross-cultural studies of Osis and Haraldsson, Hindu religious figures were "seen" during NDEs. In Carl Becker's study of NDEs and Pure Land Buddhism, deathbed visions of the Buddha were reported. The basic function of the near-death archetype appears to be constant, although the contents vary, depending on culture and other personal variables." (The Near-Death Experience p134)
Grosso believes that during the NDE some individuals encounter their "higher self":
"So powerful are the luminous effects, symbolic and expressive of the extended consciousness, that they seem to stand outside the normal personality. Experiencers therefore tend to believe that the "being of light" is God. "We now that an archetype can break with shattering force into individual life... It is therefore not surprising that is it called God." Theological speculation aside, the most we might say here is that for the person who has this type of experience, the upper limits of the Self seem to border on the lower limits of the Divine."
"In the Western tradition, to claim identity of Self with God is blasphemous. But perhaps in the light of what we are learning about the near-death experience, and what Jung believed to be latent in the human psyche, we can understand how some people might be led to identify themselves with God. Jesus was accused of blasphemy because he claimed a special intimacy with the Father (John, 10:33). The Hindu doctrine of the oneness of Atman and Brahman is not shy about asserting this lofty equation. Tibetian Buddhist teachings say that we must recognize that the divine light before which we stand in awe is the Self. The Gnostic and enthusiastic traditions of Christianity, the Sufis and cabbalists of the Islamic and Judaic traditions, drew inspiration, often at great risk, from the well of this Supreme Identity." (The Near-Death Experience p140)
Carl G. Jung was another psychologists who has greatly influenced the Western view of death. He once said:
"Death is psychologically just as important as birth, and. . . an integral part of life. It is not the psychologist who must be questioned as to what happens finally to the detached consciousness. Whatever theoretical position he assumed, he would hopelessly overstep the boundaries of his scientific competence. He can only point out that the views of our text with respect to the timelessness of the detached consciousness, are in harmony with the religious thought of all times and with that of the overwhelming majority of mankind. He can say, further, that anyone who does not think this way would stand outside the human order, and would, therefore, be suffering from a disturbance in his psychic equilibrium. As physician then, I make the greatest effort to fortify, so far as I have the power, a belief in immortality, especially in my older patients to whom such questions come menacingly near." (Reincarnation in World Thought p416)
Jung was greatly interested in Buddhist and Hindu theology and its relation to the workings of the unconscious mind. His personal experience gives another revealing example of the power of a person's worldview on the NDE. Jung vividly described an encounter he had after suffering a heart attack. Jung recalls leaving his body and traveling up into space. From above he was able to look down on the earth, recognizing the Himalayas and Indian Ocean. Jung then recognizes a giant Hindu stone temple approaching him in space:
"I had seen similar stones on the coast of the Gulf of Bengal. They were blocks of tawny granite, and some of them had been hollowed out into temples. My stone was one such gigantic dark block. An entrance led into a small antechamber. To the right of the entrance, a black Hindu sat silently in lotus posture upon a stone bench. He wore a white gown, and I knew that he expected me. Two steps led up to this antechamber, and inside, on the left, was the gate to the temple. Innumerable tiny niches, each with a saucer-like door with a wreath of bright flames. I had once actually seen this when I visited the Temple of the Holy Tooth at Kandy in Ceylon; the gate had been framed by several rows of burning oil lamps of this sort." (The Near-Death Experience p104)
The parallels between Jung's mental images of the afterworld drawn from his personal life and what he actually saw during a NDE could not be more obvious. After the experience Jung attempted to interpret the images he saw:
"The figure of the yogi, then, would more or less represent my unconscious prenatal wholeness, and the Far East, as is often the case in dreams, a psychic state alien and opposed to our own. Like the magic lantern, the yogi's meditation "projects" my empirical reality. As a rule, we see this causal relationship in reverse: in the products of the unconscious we discover mandala symbols, that it, circular and quaternary figures which express wholeness, and whenever we wish to express wholeness, we employ just such figures." (The Near-Death Experience p110)
Sogyal Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist, compares the NDE with his own religious teachings. For example, ancient Buddhist texts describe that at death a person will encounter a light:
"At the moment of death, the Ground Luminosity or Clear Light dawns in all its splendor. The Tibetan Book of the Dead says; "O son/daughter of an enlightened family. . . your Rigpa is inseparable luminosity and emptiness and dwells as a great expanse of light; beyond birth or death, it is, in fact, the Buddha of Unchanging Light.""
"Inevitably some have tried to show that the events of the near-death experience constitute something other than a spiritual experience, and reductionist scientists have tried to explain it away in terms of physiological, neurological, chemical, or psychological effects. The near-death experience researchers, however, doctors and scientists themselves, have countered these objections lucidly one by one, and insist that they cannot explain the whole of the near-death experience." (The Near-Death Experience p175)
These several examples provide several plausible possibilities as to why certain people see certain religious images during these types of experiences. The idea that God is somehow creating individual experiences to parallel each person's religious expectations is I think unlikely. It seems more reasonable to conclude that the subjects are interpreting their unusual experience as best they can, using the spiritual beliefs they already expect to encounter in the afterlife.
So we are left with several dilemmas in believing that the NDE proves life after death. First of all, the scientific community has not been convinced by the evidence. But many individual researchers and many people who have actually had a NDE are convinced. This is further complicated by the fact the NDE seems to be heavily influenced by each individual's preconceptions about the afterlife. Christians believe they see Jesus. Hindus believe they see the God of Death. People outside of the traditional religions believe they see the cultural images they expected to see. From the theological view of any of the traditional religions, this severely undermines the ability to rationally believe that the NDE is a real encounter with God and the afterlife.
The NDE also varies from one person to the next. Some people encounter a being of light and some don't. Some people believe they gain a profound understanding of reality and some don't. While some researchers believe this is because some subjects are coming closer to the point of no return than others, there is much evidence that this isn't necessarily true.
Many people also report having a NDE without coming close to death. Mountain climbers who fall suddenly, people who are trapped in a cave-in and people who are stranded by a shipwreck all report several of the aspects of the classic NDE without actually coming close to death. At least part of the NDE can therefor be considered a natural brain reaction to the mere emotional contemplation of death.
Many if not all of the aspects of the NDE can actually be triggered by taking mind-altering drugs or from inhaling certain gases. Lose of oxygen supply to the brain during the strain of a heavy gravitational force can also simulate several aspects of the NDE. These facts make it clear that a supernatural explanation does not seem to be required to explain the NDE.
So in the end it seems doubtful that the NDE can be strongly claimed as evidence that proves the existence of life after death. It also can't be seen as verification of the metaphysical views of any one religion over another. Acceptance of life after death, like the metaphysical basis of each of the world's religions, must be to some extent simply be accepted or rejected as a matter of faith and personal experience. We simply have no way to prove the belief one way or another here in our earthly existence.
That said, we must be careful not to overstate the case. People who have a NDE usually are convinced they have had a first hand encounter with God and the afterlife. It is important that these convictions be respected. The NDE also typically seems to have a very beneficial effect on most subjects. While the scientific community has come to the overwhelming conclusion that the NDE is not evidence that proves the existence of life after death, this does not mean that science has somehow dis-proven the existence of life after death. For those who feel the need to base their beliefs on what verifiable evidence tends to support, life after death may be a difficult pill to swallow. But for those who are able to make a few leaps of faith, there is at least some degree of anecdotal evidence that supports belief in the afterlife. And given the immense emotional and social aspects of the belief, there is little doubt on which side of the issue most of us will want to lean towards.