First published October 7, 1988

Eight years ago, my great-grandmother saw Jesus. Senility had taken her out of her little frame house—in which I most clearly remember her sitting with feet raised, reading the Bible and literature from Billy Graham—and confined her to a nursing home. On the night she saw Jesus, she apparently had planned to escape. She had shuffled to a back door, opened it, and fallen on the concrete stoop.

When an orderly found her, Great-grandma was lifeless. She was delivered to a hospital. Family was alerted and, when they arrived at the hospital, told that Grandma Nash was clinically dead. My aunt, Grandma Nash's youngest daughter, had already telephoned a few relatives with the news, when elevator doors across the hall opened and a breathless nurse appeared. Grandma Nash, she said, was alive.

The next night, as Grandma Nash recovered from the fall, my father sat at her bedside and read the Bible aloud. At one point she interrupted him and declared, "I saw Jesus last night. I saw him twice. God is so good, he's so good to me."

I have known two other people who had similar experiences. If my count is not atypical, most readers of this magazine know at least one person who came close to death and lived to tell of it. Philosopher cum psychiatrist Raymond Moody, Jr., struck by the pervasiveness of such accounts, coined the phrase near-death experience and made the NDE household parlance with the 1975 publication of his Life After Life (Bantam/ Mockingbird), which went on to sell three million copies.

Interest in the near death experience has not abated in the years since. Television programs from "Donahue" to "Nightline" have focused on the subject, as have periodicals from The New York Times to Good Housekeeping. Within the past few months, McCall's and Vogue have devoted space to NDEs. And late last summer, Moody stirred his old brew again, threw in a little fresh material about children with NDEs, and ladled up yet another best seller, The Light Beyond (Bantam).

Even academia, ever suspicious of the masses' predilection for foolishness, is taking the subject seriously. Last year Oxford University Press published Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times, written by Carol Zaleski, a Harvard University lecturer in religion.

Questions about NDEs, whether on talk shows or in doctoral research, have remained virtually the same: Are NDEs anything more than hallucinatory visions? Do they prove there is life after death? But Zaleski's fresh approach, comparing modern accounts of NDEs to those from medieval times, and her success—Theology Today called her book the "most thorough, thoughtful, and well balanced study" on the subject—has renewed and deepened the debate over what NDEs mean.

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The NDE: Moody's account

In Life After Life, Moody takes the existentially ultimate religious question What happens after death? and loosely applies to it the methods of science—the regnant religion of our time. His caution about the results (he disavows any attempts to "prove" life beyond death) only adds to their quasi scientific trustworthiness.

Moody makes it clear that he made no attempt scientifically to select the dozens of near death visionaries whom he interviewed for his study. Yet, despite the random nature of his interviews, he does form a composite NDE, much like the following:

The visionary is dying and has the sense of approaching another, unexplainable and indescribable, realm of existence. He hears medical personnel pronounce death, but is oddly serene and unafraid. Then he "begins to hear an uncomfortable noise, a loud ringing or buzzing."

At that point the visionary is thrust into, and propelled through, a long, dark tunnel. He suddenly finds himself "outside of his own physical body, but still in the immediate physical environment, and he sees his own body from a distance, as though he is a spectator. He watches the resuscitation attempt from this unusual vantage point and is in a state of emotional upheaval."

Soon the upset passes, with the visionary realizing he still has a "body." Then others deceased friends and relatives come to comfort him. They are shortly followed by a being of dazzling light, who questions the visionary about his life. The questions are nonverbal, and the visionary's answers are assisted by a "panoramic, instantaneous playback" of the major events of his life. The review is not a decision about the destiny (heaven or hell) of the visionary, but an educational effort. The being of light stresses learning to love other people and the importance of continuing to grow in knowledge.

Next the visionary finds himself approaching a kind of barrier, "apparently representing the limit between earthly life and the next life." Then he learns he must go back to life and resists, because the life after death seems so attractive. "He is overwhelmed with feelings of joy, love, and peace." Despite his resistance, however, he is sent back to life.

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Later, the visionary tries to tell others about his experience, but it is hard to describe and is often greeted with skepticism and even derision. So he stops speaking of it. However, the NDE, now unmentioned, still has a profound effect on his life. He has more vitality, and works and plays harder than before. He appreciates anew the importance of love. He is no longer afraid of death. Finally, the visionary meets or learns of others who have experienced near death, so he is emboldened to claim and proclaim his NDE.

Christianity and the LADE

Evangelical writers are almost conspicuous for their skepticism among NDE students. Their objections are obvious. If Moody's composite NDE is taken to be a revelation of life after death, it is, in some significant respects, not what Christianity has traditionally taught it to be.

If the apostle Paul, for example, found death in one way attractive it would allow him to "be with Christ" (Phil. 1:23)—he largely viewed it as an adversary, the "last enemy" (1 Cor. 15:26). For Paul, as for the Hebrews before him, death was the unnatural fruit of sin. Judgment followed it, and with judgment, the fearful possibility of eternal separation from God.

In contrast, the contemporary near death visionary discovers death as an unqualified friend. It is eminently natural and, as it turns out, almost entirely pleasant. Judgment is a gentle self judgment, undertaken for therapeutic and educational purposes. In the end, there is apparently no question about personal destiny. It will be overwhelming bliss.

The apparent dismissal of orthodox Christianity and the plunge into New Age currents by some researchers have caused some Christians to ascribe NDEs to the Devil and leave it at that. Yet there are problems with that response.

One is the New Testament criterion for judging spiritual phenomena: the fruit they bear (Matt. 7:15 20). In most accounts, near death visionaries do not convert into Voltairean skeptics. Instead, some who were atheists are opened to the possibility of religious truth. At other times, nominal Christians are renewed in their faith. Apparently even where there is no explicit turn toward religion, there is frequently a reorientation of self away from self.

Equally important, Zaleski's historical perspective provides a reminder that NDES, in fact, have a heritage extending back through Christendom to the Bible itself. As she summarizes the matter, "In Western culture, return from death stories developed within and alongside the apocalyptic traditions of late antiquity, flourished in the Middle Ages, declined during the Reformation, and reappeared in connection with some of the evangelical separatist and spiritualist movements of the 19th century."

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Zaleski says Paul's brief reference to a man (presumably himself) "caught up to the third heaven" (2 Cor. 12:1 4) was the base for what became a more florid lore of journeys to the other world. By the third century, there was a Greek text circulating that purported to tell the whole story of Paul's journey to the third heaven.

Paul's vision, Zaleski notes, was the "foremost source" for otherworld imagery as the accounts developed into the Middle Ages. In Otherworld Journeys, she discusses about half a dozen medieval near death accounts at length, then compares the similarities and differences of the tales to their modern counterparts.

Culturally conditioned

The most striking difference is the medieval NDEs' inclusion of indeed, their near obsession with the pains of hell. Sinners are variously eaten by dragons, attacked by serpents and toads, pinned to the ground with red hot nails, baked in furnaces, dropped into boiling pots, hooked to flaming wheels, and cast into sulphurous wells from which their naked bodies bounce in and out like scorched popcorn.

With the helpful detachment born of the passage of centuries, the cultural elements in medieval NDEs are immediately apparent. Whereas guides to the otherworld in modern NDEs are benevolent and parental, medieval guides are foreboding and authoritarian; they clearly reflect feudalism.

One of Zaleski's most fascinating instances of cultural influence is the medieval NDE phenomenon of the test bridge. In a representative chronicle from the twelfth century, a Knight Owen is journeying through the otherworld and comes to a bridge spanning a river of fire and sulphur. The bridge is too slippery and narrow for a foothold, but Knight Owen has been cleansed of his sins by other ordeals, and the bridge widens with each step he takes across it. Before he reaches its end, it is large and secure enough to accommodate two carriages.

The test bridge is culturally specific, not only because it typifies ordeals absent from most modern NDEs, but also because it reflects the hazardous travel of medieval time. Bridges then were often precarious; but dangerous as some may have been, they were necessary for crossing. Consequently, bridges took on a supernatural mystique; their maintenance was overseen by the clergy. Modern NDEs do not feature bridges of any sort, let alone test bridges.

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Zaleski, however, does find several formal similarities between medieval and modern NDEs. Both are dualistic, in that the soul separates from, and leaves behind, the physical body. Both have the visionaries finding guides to aid them in the strange world. And upon resuscitation, both the medieval and the modern visionary are spiritually changed.

Yet even these formal similarities, on most counts, break down when their content is compared. So, though both modern and medieval NDEs feature the soul departing from the body, each has different imagery for the soul. Medieval accounts often imagine the soul as a homunculus, a small, childlike, and innocent figure. Modern accounts, on the other hand, refer to the soul with quasiscientific language borrowed from electricity and magnetism. The soul is an "energy pattern," a "wave length," or some kind of vibration.

Likewise, NDE accounts from both periods have conversion as their real aim. But the medieval accounts mean to convert people away from false religion to true religion. They are explicitly urgent about avoiding hell. Accordingly, the conversion that medieval accounts urge often results in an austere spirituality. Many near death visionaries entered monasteries following their experiences. And one writer, Caesarius, states that those who return from the dead never laugh afterwards.

By contrast, modern near death visionaries are not converted to a particular religious faith. Instead, they tend to become suspicious of religious "sectarianism," and, rather than fleeing to a monastery, more typically take up new voluntary service duties in a hospital, nursing home, or such. The modern visionaries' conversion is not to an austere spirituality, but to one that affirms joy and laughter.

Given the differences in accounts from different times and places, it is clear that NDE accounts are definitely and strongly influenced by culture. Whatever else they are, then, they are not simply literal accounts of the afterlife. Indeed, they are shot through with elements from this life.

Armed with insights from Zaleski's cultural comparison, we can now return to the questions that dog any discussion of NDEs, the questions that make the experience so fascinating and compelling. Are NDEs anything more than hallucinatory visions? Do they prove there is life after death? If they do prove life after death, what do they reveal about God? And since nearly all reported NDEs are pleasant, do they deny the reality of hell?

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The NDE debunkers

Some critics of the NDE would take Zaleski's book as confirmation of their long abiding suspicion. Psychological and physiological debunkers have suggested that NDEs are explainable purely on natural grounds.

A psychological reduction is offered by Carl Sagan in Broca's Brain (Random House, 1979), which asserts the NDE is a shadowy recall of intrauterine bliss. The near death visionary's passage through the dark tunnel is actually nothing but the dim memory of transit through the birth canal.

Physiological explanations are more varied, including the effects of drugs and anesthetics, oxygen deprivation, endorphins, sensory deprivation, and more exotic medical phenomena such as limbic lobe syndrome and "false sight."

There can be no doubt that NDE visionaries are, at the time of their experience, affected on both the psychological and physiological levels. The visionary at the time of his experience certainly has psychological needs not to be alone, to have fears assuaged. And Elizabeth Hillstrom, a physiological psychologist at Wheaton College, suggests that aspects of the NDE have a plausible physiological basis. Nearly all NDE visionaries, medieval as well as modern, experience the sensation of drifting away from their bodies. This, says Hillstrom, may occur because "parts of the brain are shutting down." The sense of touch and gravity is lost and, not surprisingly, the visionary feels as if he or she is floating "out of the body."

Thus there are undeniable cultural, psychological, and physiological elements to the NDE. But Christians should be cautious in assigning NDEs completely to any one or all three of these "natural" factors. The same explanations could be used to reduce, without remainder, all spiritual experience to a matter of sociology, psychology, and physiology. Paul's biblical vision on the Damascus Road, for example, could be written off as nothing more than hallucination, or perhaps the result of neurological abnormalities similar to epilepsy.

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In fact, such a reduction is exactly what Sagan has in mind. He alludes to the pre-birth period not only to discount NDEs but to dispense with all religion. "Religious doctrine is fundamentally clouded," he guesses, "because not a single person has ever at birth had the skills of recollection and telling necessary to deliver a coherent account of the event."

The reality of the spiritual realm

Confessing Christians, of course, cannot be so cavalier about spiritual experience. We are bound to regard the spiritual realm as real as the cultural, the psychological, and the physiological. So we are bound to consider seriously the possibility of a significant spiritual dimension to the NDE.

Yet taking seriously the spiritual does not mean we must respond to NDEs as a threat to (or affirmation of) the faith. NDEs fundamentally "prove" nothing about life after death. They are, after all, near death experiences. As such, they may tell us no more about death than someone who has been near Denver but never within city limits can tell us about that town. Both NDEs (near Denver and near death experiences) are bereft of certitude. At best, they provide hunches and possibilities about the lay of the land. And in both cases, more reliable maps are available.

The modern NDE actually presents no new challenges to historical Christianity. Rather, it is best understood as a mystical experience, and we should respond to it as we would respond to other mystical experiences. Demonic (or New Age) elements cannot be ruled out. But neither can the possibility that something of God is being glimpsed, however imperfectly. Physiological, cultural, and psychological factors also play a part and must be considered in their own right.

The undeniable presence of these three "natural" factors means that NDEs can never be understood as straightforward, literal transcripts of another world. At best they are partial, ambiguous, fragmented, and distorted glimpses of such a world. If the near death visionary sees anything of heaven or hell, he sees it with "eyes" intended for this world and unaccustomed to the form of the next. He is suddenly aware of dimensions previously unavailable to him, just as any of us might see new but strange and disorienting things if we were abruptly given the night vision of a cat.

With such an approach, NDEs can be respectfully attended to but always contested, and will never constitute "proof" of any religious position. This approach entails looking at NDEs on a case by case basis, examining each with several dimensions (spiritual, cultural, physical, psychological) in mind. And it allows us to accept witnesses such as my great-grandmother as the levelheaded, devoted woman of God she was without needing to base our faith on her NDE or, more problematically, that of those who make no Christian profession at all.

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Perhaps an assumption underlying this approach should be made explicit at this point. Since NDEs are multidimensional, ambiguous, and debatable in each of their parts, they are always and thoroughly open to interpretation. Consider the being of light so prominent in both old and new NDEs. Is it, as many Christians have suggested, Jesus Christ? Or is it, as Moody asserts, a religiously nonspecific but benevolent figure? Either of the two alternatives is an interpretation, although Moody thinks his is not. (When compared to the being of light in medieval accounts, the cultural aspects of Moody's being of light are clear. As Zaleski observes, in its bearing and manner it resembles nothing so much as a late twentieth-century psychotherapist.)

The NDE: Any theological usefulness?

Even if NDEs are taken seriously as spiritual experiences of respectable men and women, they do not, however, hold much theological usefulness. As noted earlier, NDEs were prominent in the Middle Ages but fell out of favor with the Reformation. Her book does not specify, but in an interview, Zaleski suggested NDEs lost popularity because of the Reformers' bias against the elaborate medieval panoply of religious practices and ideas including NDEs in favor of a "pure biblical faith."

The Reformers' instinct was correct. There is no solid theological reason Christians should desire a surer witness to the reality of life beyond death than the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is instructive that Paul's otherworld vision was a minor footnote to his faith. He gives it a few lines in the context, and almost as an example of petty wrangling over trivial matters. He bases his trust that there is life after death squarely on the resurrection of Christ: "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished" (1 Cor. 15:17 18).

That said, however, NDES do have some theological usefulness. In a world saturated with scientific materialism, accustomed to a workaday denial of any transcendent reality, NDES are—to borrow sociologist Peter Berger's phrase—"rumors of angels." They prove nothing in and of themselves, but here and there they open the spiritual realm to those who previously ignored it.

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This is not an unqualified boon, for when aspects of reality are ignored and suppressed they often come to be a dark and unruly obsession—sex in the Victorian age might be an example. Likewise, as the surge of enthusiasm about New Age channeling and other practices shows, there are dangers when the undiscriminating are awakened to the spiritual world. But at the very least, its acknowledgement is an entree for sober theological discussion of a reality transcending what we can see with our eyes and touch with our fingers.

The NDE literature is theologically useful on one final count. It shows the reigning popular world view for all its vapidity, monotony, and utter lack of adventure. The medieval NDEs are no basis for a theology themselves, but they were heavily influenced by a Christian understanding of reality. In them ordeals were faced, doom was possible, hope was found only on the way of along and arduous trek.

However truly or falsely this corresponds to existence following death, the medieval NDES surely reflect what we know about life. Life is difficult. It is attended by failure and even tragedy. In life, hope is real but hard won; suffering is unavoidable but sometimes redemptive. Zaleski sees in the medieval accounts an "imaginative rehearsal" that enables the near-death visionary and hearer of his tales to "learn roles they must play in order to live and die meaningfully."

By comparison, contemporary NDEs feature no ordeals, cater easy hope, and ignore suffering as assiduously as a Christian Science convert visiting a cancer ward. In a fairly typical account of the climax of modern NDEs, a woman named Phyllis shifts to third person to explain how she comes to judge her intentions and actions during her life on Earth. Phyllis had sometimes done wrong, she observes, but at least she always did "something . … She tried. Much of what she did was constructive and positive. She learned and grew in her learning. This was satisfying. Phyllis was okay."

Given the depth of drama inherent in even the most ordinary person's daily existence, this trivializes the pain and joy, the struggle with good and evil, that most of us know in a year let alone a lifetime. And that says nothing about the extraordinarily heroic figure, who may not genuinely be "bigger than life" but is certainly bigger than life as the contemporary NDE envisions it. Imagine Crime and Punishment ending with "Raskolnikov was okay."

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Zaleski correctly identifies the dominant cultural influence here as client-centered psychology. In modern NDEs, God is created in the image of therapist Carl Rogers. It raises a worthy question for those who think the Christian story incredible and deadening. Does the newer culturally dominant version of the truth, supposedly so much more credible and promising, really help us better learn how to live and die meaningfully?

First published October 7, 1988

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Travel Writing from the Afterlife | If the Bible doesn't quench your curiosity on what it's like in heaven and hell, we have two new firsthand accounts.

Other Christianity Today articles on the afterlife include:

Harleys in Heaven | What Christians have thought of the afterlife, & what difference it makes now. (June 6, 2003)
Hell's Final Enigma | Won't heaven's joy be spoiled by our awareness of unsaved loved ones in hell? (April 24, 2004)
Christian History Corner: How the Early Church Saw Heaven | The first Christians had very specific ideas about who they would meet in the afterlife. (August 9, 2002)
What's a Heaven For? | C.S. Lewis saw belief in heaven not as wishful thinking, but as thoughtful wishing. (Oct. 26, 1998)
The Believer's Final Bliss | The regeneration of man requires that old things must pass away and all things become new. By John Murray (July 7, 1958)
The Glories of Heaven | While heaven will be glorious, the greater glory will consist in our transformation. By Stanley C. Baldwin (May 22, 1964)
The Hope of Heaven | Have Christians forfeited their rightful anticipation of eternity? By L. Nelson Bell (May 24, 1968)
Illusion or Reality? | Heaven is a place. There is a city we are going to see and walk in. By Edith Schaeffer (Mar. 12, 1976)
Heaven Can't Wait | I have seen the electrifying results of what can happen when the reality comes alive. By Philip Yancey (Sept. 7, 1984)
Heaven: Not Just an Eternal Day Off | As if anticipating the question, "Will life on the new earth be boring?" the Bible points to much activity there. By Anthony Hoekema (Sept. 20, 1985)
What Will Heaven Be Like? | Thirty-five frequently asked questions about eternity. By Peter Kreeft (from Tough Questions Christians Ask, 1989)
The Eternal Weight of Glory | If only we could have the positives of earthly life without the negatives. By Harry Blamires (May 27, 1991)
Afraid of Heaven | We do not yearn to be near God because we do not find sin utterly repugnant or goodness rapturously attractive. By Kenneth Kantzer (May 27, 1991)