What happens after you die? I’m not asking about resurrection. Believers in Jesus know that there will certainly be a resurrection of the dead. That’s also one of the fundamental beliefs of Judaism. But the state of the dead until the resurrection seems a little murky.
Too bad we can’t interview the twelve-year-old girl from Capernaum, the young man from Nain, Lazarus of Bethany, or Tabitha of Joppa: “What did you see? Do you remember anything from beyond?” But we don’t need to go back to Bible times. Many people alive today claim to have endured death and returned to life. Such an event is called a near-death experience (NDE). Is there any truth to such reports?
Here’s the premise of an NDE. A person undergoes clinical death. All neurological activity stops, but then, somehow, the person revives. The brain reboots. Medically speaking, while the brain flatlined, the person should have been entirely unconscious: no dreams, thoughts, memories, or awareness—not until the neurons started firing again and brain activity resumed. A significant percentage of people, however, recall extraordinary phenomena: leaving their bodies, feeling a sensation of peace and bliss, being greeted by departed relatives, traveling through a tunnel toward a divine light, seeing heavenly fields with indescribable colors, encountering divine beings (often Jesus himself), undergoing a life review, experiencing a sense of transcendent oneness with all things, and sometimes even entering the divine presence of God.
Is This for Real?
Skepticism has rarely steered me wrong. It’s appropriate that my middle name is Thomas. When I first heard of near-death experiences, I discounted them, thinking, “Maybe people experience some hallucinations as the feverish dream of a dying brain.” Scientists suggest that the oxygen-starved brain releases a cocktail of endorphins and hallucinogenic chemicals that create a sensation of blissful peace, the illusion of having left the body, and other psychedelic experiences. It turns out there’s no evidence to support that theory. It’s only one out of an impressive number of theories medical science has proffered for what happens inside the brain to create an NDE. None of the theories have been tested or verified, and none can explain the phenomenon.
Despite my skepticism, one story impressed me a lot. My wife and I had a Jewish friend who grew up in a primarily secular family. She told us that when she was five years old, a car struck her in the street and dragged her the length of a city block. They rushed her by ambulance to the hospital and placed her on life support. Strict Jewish law prohibits unplugging, so she slept in a vegetative, comatose state for several weeks. Then, completely unexpectedly, the five-year-old woke up and told everyone that she had been to heaven, she had met the Prophet Elijah, and he had even led her by the hand back to her body.
In 2015, I heard another story that made me rethink my skepticism. Fifteen-year-old Nathan claimed to have left his body while lying sick in bed. He ascended into Paradise, underwent a life review before a heavenly court, had a series of mystical encounters in heavenly places, and saw frightening visions of the future. I watched an interview with him and read a translation of the Hebrew transcript. I was impressed with how closely his experiences corresponded with biblical prophecy, Jewish eschatology, and Jewish mysticism. How could a typical fifteen-year-old kid from a marginally observant Israeli family—who had never studied Torah in any depth—describe things that only a scholar could have derived from a serious study of arcane Jewish texts augmented by deep-level familiarity with the New Testament?
The History of the NDE
Reports of out-of-body, near-death experiences have been around as long as human beings have. They come from every culture regardless of religion. The earliest example in Western literature comes from Plato, who relates the story of a Pamphylian warrior slain in battle and left to rot on the battlefield. They were about to burn his corpse on a funeral pyre when he awoke and described a typical NDE involving common elements such as leaving one’s body, seeing others who are deceased, facing a judgment and life review, beautiful visions that cannot be expressed in human language, and reward for the righteous and punishment for the wicked.
Similar stories appear here and there, but the phenomenon remained obscure until 1960, when the American Heart Association introduced physicians to a medical breakthrough called cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Once doctors started pulling people back from death, reports from beyond the ken of mortal man became common. By 1975, physicians coined the term “near-death experience” to describe what their patients
Medical data indicates that nearly 20 percent of people who survive clinical death during a cardiac arrest will remember an out-of-body experience (see iands.org). The statistics suggest that as many as 750 people in the United States of America will have that experience within the next twenty-four hours.
Common Elements of the Experience
The reports of the experience come from all over the world, but they are all remarkably similar. If the NDE is just a hallucination of random dreams created by a flood of chemicals from an oxygen-starved brain, it seems strange that the hallucinations share so much consistency from person to person. Experiencers object to the hallucination/dream explanation. They describe the experience as more real than reality. The world of souls makes this present reality, by comparison, seem like it’s the hallucination.
The typical experience begins with confusion. They first notice that all sensation of pain has vanished, and then they notice someone’s body below them, prone on the floor or on the emergency room table or whatever the case may be. It’s surprising and disorienting to see yourself from the outside: “What’s going on? Is that me?” One fellow remarked, “I saw myself lying on the floor, and I remember thinking, ‘I thought I was a better-looking guy than that.’” In many cases, the survivors describe watching the medical teams at work on them, and they can accurately retell all that transpired.
Things look sharper and clearer. People born blind report seeing for the first time. The unchained mind works faster, making multiple observations simultaneously. It’s possible to see through walls or to be simultaneously in different places. Time and space fall away as irrelevant.
The experiencers often describe slipping into a dark void, seeing a light in the distance, moving rapidly as if falling or being rushed along through a tunnel toward an ever-brightening divine light. Most report a euphoric sense of peace, bliss, perfect contentment, and unconditional love. They encounter deceased relatives, sacred figures, and angelic beings, and they communicate with them inaudibly, without words, thought to thought. At some point in the experience, the experiencer might undergo a life review, not unlike the common saying, “I saw my life flash before my eyes.” Many report an almost instantaneous yet complete reliving of every moment of their lives, not just from his or her own eyes but also through the perspectives of others involved for good or ill. Some experience a flood of knowledge about the nature of the universe and the meaning of life. Some report conversations with God himself. Some receive the option of staying or returning to the body; others are told they must go back because they have left some mission unfinished.
The Life I Now Live
The near-death experience suggests that an afterlife awaits us whether we like it or not. Consciousness survives. The soul lives on, and it must give an account. Not all NDEs are pleasant. Terrifying, hellish NDEs get reported, too. Not everyone has a good trip, and many people come back to admit that they did not get to go into the light.
People who undergo these experiences are not necessarily religious, but the experience transforms their perspectives on life, death, the afterlife, and spirituality. Priorities are completely upended, and the survivors no longer show much interest in the successes and pleasures of materialism. They discover that life is more about how we treat one another—loving our neighbor as ourselves.
If that’s the takeaway from death, we shouldn’t need to pass through the veil to start living now as if we already have. As Paul teaches, we are to regard ourselves as if we have already died and been resurrected: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). In other words, all disciples of Yeshua are to live as if we have already undergone the near-death experience.