Greg and Amy explain why people have different interpretations of their near-death experiences and how near-death experiences can support biblical views on the soul and the afterlife.
Question: Should Christians be concerned by how often near-death experiences (NDE’s) don’t seem to correspond or line up with much of what we are taught, theologically speaking, about the afterlife, God, Heaven, Hell, etc.? Does it call into question the Bible’s veracity? Why or why not?
Greg: Classically, people have an episode where they die in some sense. They call them “near-death” because they return, but by different clinical standards, they’re actually dead. Yet, when they return, they recount experiences they’ve had of going to Heaven, characteristically, or occasionally going to Hell. But there is such a plethora of these experiences that demonstrate diversity, and many of them don’t seem to match up with what Scripture says. So, what do we make of that? And the answer is that I think we ought to be very, very careful. Even the Christian accounts seem to be inconsistent in many ways. When I say “Christian,” I’m referring to people who identify as Christians who have these experiences. They say, “Here’s what I saw when I went to Heaven.” Like that little boy, for example. There’s a lot of these, and they sell a lot of books because they're sensationalistic.
I think what we ought to do is take our cues about what Heaven is like from God and not from other people’s experiences. The same thing is true about any religious truth. There are times when people’s experience is compatible with what Scripture says, but many of them are farcical and they support other worldviews. And one of the things that Gary Habermas—who has researched this quite a bit—has said about that is, people see things in these NDE’s, and then they interpret them in light of their own background. So, they might see a divine-type figure or one that looks like a divine figure. Well, if they’re Christians, they’re going to say, “I saw Jesus,” but if they’re Hindus, they’re going to say, “I saw Krishna.” So, it’s not as if the experience itself in every case is self-interpreting, but rather, one has the experience and has to interpret it for himself, and so, biases are going to come through.
So, you’re going to get this wide variety of things. Gary, who is a very careful researcher, doesn’t draw any conclusions about the content of what people experience. No theological conclusions. He draws conclusions about the implications of NDE’s for worldviews. One might have an out-of-body experience that is veridical. In other words, it’s true—it actually took place and can be demonstrated to have been the case through evidence. So, it’s evidentially substantiated, like remote viewing, where a person leaves their location, goes somewhere else, sees something that they would not have known about, returns, and then tells people about it when they come back. “Well, I went around the hospital and saw a red shoe on the top of the hospital.” Or, “I went back home, and everybody was eating chicken and dumplings, and here’s the conversation they had.”
None of this would have been available to them in the natural. What this does is gives clear evidence that there is a soul that’s separate from the human body, and so, naturalism, in virtue of that testimony, would be refuted.
Sometimes, there are experiences that people have with others on the other side who they don’t know are dead, but when they come back, they talk about it, and then they learn later those people just died, or died earlier, and there was no knowledge of it. So, that’s another point of verification that there is an afterlife. But the nature of the afterlife is still an open question based on NDE’s, but it is not an open question based on Scripture.
Amy: It’s hard to know exactly what people are seeing when this isn’t their final death. They come back, so we don’t know exactly where they’ve been or what they’ve seen or who’s been talking to them. We don’t know any of those things. So, I think you’re right, Greg. We learn that your mind can be separated from your body, that it can outlive your body. That’s the main thing that we learn from this. So, I think Gary Habermas’s approach is a good one here.
Greg: He and J.P. Moreland wrote a book called Beyond Death. It’s really a great book.