Not long ago I wrote a review of the book Heaven is for Real, which is the story of an alleged near-death experience (“NDE”) by a small child by the name of Colton Burpo. I evaluated this account as false, based on the inconsistency of the reports with known facts, particularly: The placement of Jesus' crucifixion nails, and Burpo reporting Jesus to be a white Anglo-Saxon (see link below).
Since that time, a reader has initiated a correspondence indicating their own interest in NDEs, citing them as one of the lines of evidence that convinced them that Christianity was true. They noted that there were certainly many levels of credibility to be assigned to NDE accounts, although Burpo's was of the sort the reader found least credible. After some discussion, I decided it would be a good project to investigate to evaluate what were considered the most credible NDE accounts and to see if they could be tested for historical verisimilitude the way Burpo's was.
I chose Michael Sabom's Light and Death (“LD”), written in 1998, for the first part of this series. I am familiar with Sabom as one who, like I, writes for the Christian Research Journal publication, which is why I chose his book as a place to begin.
The result: Sabom offers less than a dozen accounts in LD, and none provide evidence that is unequivocal in terms of my specific target of interest. This does not mean that I have judged the accounts false, merely that they offer little if anything to which I can direct my attention:
- The NDE account of Pam Reynolds, which Sabom says is regarded as one of the most reliable, consisted of Reynolds perceiving herself as floating above her own body on the operating table. An NDE like this, with no involvement by any reputed divine being (which, in effect, doesn't "leave Earth!") can obviously provide nothing for me to evaluate. Several other examples offered by Sabom were of this nature.
- Likewise, NDE patients who encounter deceased relatives can offer no basis for the sort of evaluation we are engaging in here.
- Some basis for evaluation might be found when a person claims to see God or Jesus. If this happens, we may be able to evaluate the experience of someone like Sabom's subject "Darrell." Darrell claims that he was out of his body and that Jesus stood next to him while he was, so-called, "out."
Darrell, however, describes Jesus as having "reddish-brown hair" and a "blue T-shirt."  The former by itself makes it highly unlikely that the being was Jesus, for as a Semite, Jesus would have had black hair. However, this does not disqualify Darrell's experience in and of itself, because as Sabom points out, many people who have NDEs identify certain beings as "God" or "Jesus," even though the beings themselves make no such declaration and do not identify themselves. Rather, Jesus is only "intuitively identified"  by most subjects. Sabom reports only one instance of a subject actually asking such a figure if they were Jesus, and interestingly, though this figure was described in exactly the same terms as others who said such a figure was Jesus (dazzling white, in a robe, a kind, loving look), the being answered this one person by saying they were not Jesus.
This ends up being the most "detailed" of Sabom's reports where we are concerned. A second experience by Margaret describes Jesus as having "long hair and white robes." This is not specific enough to evaluate. Nor is a person named Bobby Jean who says she met a Jesus with "white clothing" and a "kind, loving look." 
In closer looking, we found nothing in Sabom upon which to offer an evaluation, so we shall try again next time. However, I would like to close with an observation that may resolve some aspects of NDEs that have been found puzzling by Christian commentators on NDEs who express concern that even non-Christians have "seen the light" in arguably authentic NDEs.
One of the recurring themes in NDEs reported by Sabom is that a person "seeing the light" (presumed to be God) will reach a certain point and find their way barred or being told to turn back.  The assumption is that this is because they are turned back to live longer on earth, which may indeed be the case. But under the rubric of heaven and hell , as either conditions or states of honor or shame, and access to God, these experiences can also be interpreted in terms of even an unsaved person having a view of God, but not being permitted the sort of honor-access a saved person might receive. Theoretically, such a person might also feel the sort of peace and tranquility associated with an NDE, for, if nothing else, the presence of God might reflect that even to an unbeliever -- especially when compared to what is currently experienced on earth, where God's presence (in the Old Testament, "manifestation" sense) is minimal. Interestingly, and a confirmation of this, is that Sabom reports that some "hellish" NDEs have the subject reporting a sense of "eternal nothingness" or emptiness, and "an experience of being mocked." 
We will see whether this too bears out with further investigation.
I also ordered Pim van Lommel's Consciousness Beyond Life (“CBL”). Unfortunately, there was a problem in that CBL is overwhelmingly a scientific look at NDEs, with little in the way of descriptive accounts of the sort we intended to evaluate in this series, and from those accounts that are present, nothing is suitable for evaluation.
However, all is not lost, for Lommel does provide something useful to sink our teeth into. CBL discusses twelve "NDE Elements," or factors common to NDE experiences on pages 17-40. In this entry, we will discuss the 12 elements in terms of our perspective on Christian theology and the afterlife. Not all of the 12 are relevant to our concern, but we will at least briefly describe all of them.
One: Ineffability The inability to describe in words what one saw during an NDE. We might expect this factor under any view of NDEs as it would certainly be the result of any genuine experience. Under our rubric, any stage in the afterlife -- even one in which the subject would inevitably find out that they are ultimately excluded from access to God -- might result in an ineffable experience. The poignant lack of God's presence in the fallen world -- as opposed to even the minimal presence associated with God simply "being there" manifested in what we might call another dimension or universe -- would sufficiently account for such an experience.
There is more that can be said related to our thesis of hell as shame and exclusion. We might ask of a subject:
- Were they made aware of their sins by anyone, whether God or someone else, while experiencing the NDE? Shame, as understood in the Biblical world, is based on what others think of you. If you are not aware of what others think of you, then you cannot experience shame as a result of their thinking or judgment. Put another way, the subject of a positive NDE who is without salvation is conceivably in a state where "ignorance is bliss" -- they have yet to meet God or anyone who will make them aware of their sins and what effect they will have in eternity.
Of course, those that enter into a "hellish" NDE will, by the same token, be experiencing that reality.
- Did they have direct access to God at any time? This is the "exclusion" aspect. Did the subject get to "approach God"? Did they get to make petitions of God, as a client to a patron?
If these questions are answered no, then we have a viable explanation for why an unbeliever's NDE can be relatively positive.
Two: Peace, Quiet, Lack of Pain As with the first factor, this would understandably be relative to experience in a fallen world, and also devolve to the same questions as above. Of course, if they have no body, it is not remarkable that they have no pain!
Three: Awareness of Being Dead
Four: An Out of Body Experience
Neither of these would be specially tied to any view of NDEs, or cause any epistemic problem for a thesis of hell as shame and exclusion.
Five: A Dark Space This one is particularly of interest, as what is described matches well with an understanding of hell as exclusion. Lommel says that persons describe this space as "an enclosed space, a void, or a well." He also notes that 15 percent of those who experience this void regard it as "frightening". If 85 percent do not regard the experience as frightening, this may be explained by the relative seriousness of the accountability for sin these persons may experience. Or, it may simply be subjective.
Another interesting point is that many see a light at the end of this tunnel and get pulled towards it and out into it. This might signify some sort of status or honor elevation from a fallen world. Lommel also notes that 1-2 percent of those who experience this darkness "find themselves pulled even deeper into the profound darkness." This is in accord with the idea of hell as darkness, as presented in the New Testament. Others describe experiences of falling, fire (though Lommel does not record that they felt burning), hearing screams and smelling a horrible stench. Any of this could accord with hell as shame. Alternatively, it could be argued that these experiences were merely some sort of dream, influenced by reading something like Dante, or Lewis' Great Divorce , a point Lommel acknowledges when he says that one description has a "remarkable similarity" to Dante.
Six: Perception of an Unearthly Environment
As with 3 and 4, this one is equivocal for our purposes.
Seven: Meeting and Communicating with Deceased Persons
This one is of interest, inasmuch as we would be prompted to ask how such meetings can be read in light of Biblical descriptions. In my view, the judgments of Jesus as depicted in Matthew 25 started in 70 AD and continue to this day as people pass on. Since people are seen to be judged together, it is hardly unlikely that they would be able to communicate with one another, no matter whether they are "sheep" or "goats." But can the "sheep" and "goats" communicate with each other? This is a question we should pursue as we examine more NDE accounts. Jesus' teaching of Lazarus and the rich man implies a chasm that cannot be crossed; but it also, nevertheless, has Abraham and the rich man communicating easily across that gap. The gap might thus be read as a status representation rather than a physical chasm.
Eight: Perception of a Being of light
An interesting point here is that Lommel notes that a "person's religious background is a significant determining factor" in how they identify this Being of light. As we noted in our last issue, no examples but one were found where an NDE subject asked who the Being was (i.e., specifically asking of “it” if it was Jesus) and got a negative answer. Lommel offers three accounts, and none report that the subject communicated with this Being of light but merely report subjective impressions.
Nine: Panoramic Life Review
Ten: Preview/Flash Forward
Eleven: Perception of a Border
Twelve: Conscious Return to the Body
As with 3, 4, and 6, these factors are equivocal for our purposes. I should note that for #11, the border is one which is perceived as a "point of no return" for the NDE subject, such that if they cross that border they cannot go back to being alive again.
This completes our survey of the twelve points. We will close with some miscellaneous observations on the rest of the Lommel CBL text.
- A notable set of statistics tracks religious allegiance before and after an NDE. "No religion" among NDE subjects grew from 46% before to 84% after. Roman Catholic went from 12% to 8%. Church of England went from 24% to 4%. It seems interesting that Catholicism, with its minor emphasis on experience through ritual, changed the least of all noted affiliations. However, the rest of the groups included (Jewish, Lutheran, etc.) all started with less than 2% of NDE subjects being allied with them.
- Another survey shows that after an NDE, subjects as a whole assigned less value to organized religion, attended church less, prayed more often and meditated a lot more often. I would suggest that this reveals that modern organized religion doesn't provide enough "meat" or reason to be loyal, which I ascribe to as well. Under such circumstances, it is no surprise that an experience like an NDE can grab a person's attention and inspire such devotion.
- Lommel provides a longer and more detailed account of the NDE of Pam Reynolds, whom we mentioned in our last entry in this series. The one relevant detail we may note is that Reynolds asked persons she met in the NDE what the "light" was and whether it was God. The response: "No, God is not the light, the light is what happens when God breathes." This is of interest because in the Bible, the Holy Spirit is functionally compared to wind, or breath, inasmuch as the word for "spirit" can also carry those meanings. What this could mean, in terms of Reynolds' experience, is open to speculation, but I might suggest that it reflects something missing from the atmosphere of a fallen world; namely, the presence of God, the Shekinah glory which appeared over the tabernacle. But, rather than being localized like that presence, the NDE subject visits some realm where the Spirit permeates everything. This is also reminiscent of this passage: Col. 1:17 And he is before all things, and by him all things consist.
Could this reflect that, in a fallen and decaying world, God does not “hold together” the creation as closely, because His presence is not as manifest as it had been over the tabernacle, and perhaps, in the world visited by the NDE subject?
The importance of this is that it would also accord with non-believers being able to experience this light during an NDE. The localized Shekinah presence of God did not destroy or injure non-believers merely by being present in the world, and there was no barrier to them observing it.
For our next entry, I selected a book said to have an extended collection of NDE accounts; namely, Jeffrey Long and Paul Perry's Evidence of the Afterlife. Long heads his own institute devoted to the topic of NDEs (the Near Death Experience Researcher Foundation), and collects NDE experiences as part of his efforts.
The good news, then, is that this time we had plenty of stories to evaluate. The bad news is that in not one case did we have one with elements we could evaluate for the purpose of this series. In other words, there was no story in which someone saw Jesus with nail holes in his hands, or wrists. There was evidence given of knowledge of present situations (e.g., someone seeing themselves on an operating table), but none given of knowledge of past events.
So, what are we left with? As was the case last time, we are left with a chance to make a few miscellaneous observations.
- One NDE experience offered this commentary:
It was like going home at last, at last. A feeling of belonging, of meaning, of completeness.
We should note that a "feeling", here, is not as objective an indicator as we might like. However, it is nevertheless of interest that this is fully in accord with our thesis of hell as a life of exclusion and meaninglessness.
Long also reports that NDErs "may dramatically describe their strong attraction to the light [that they see during their experience] and their emphatic desire to approach or merge with the light." This, too, coheres with our model of heaven and hell, with the caveats we expressed in the last installment, like no NDErs successfully approached or "merged with" said light.
- Some NDErs describe a "life review" which (ironically!) sounds a great deal like a scene from the Chick tract we examined last issue, This Was Your Life! They speak of seeing every important event, including a first birthday or first kiss. Of particular interest is this description:
...[you will] experience your emotions and others that you hurt, and feel their pain and emotions. What this is for is so you can see what kind of person you were and how you treated others from another vantage point, and you will be harder on yourself than anyone to judge you.
Again, with the prior caveats in mind, this bears a striking resemblance to a thesis I offered in the recent e-book on hell:
A second image comes from the Voyager incarnation of the Star Trek series. One of the crew members, accused wrongly of murder, was sentenced by a planet’s justice system in which the death penalty was considered too cruel. Rather, mind-altering technology was used so that the crew member would periodically relive the murder, from the point of view of the victim. (The pain of being murdered was not clearly involved in this; the main focus was apparently on the experience.)
The Biblical perception of justice makes punishment equitable to the crime (reaping what you sow). A Hitler would be shamed more than (say) a robber baron by the degree of his deeds; but also, they might be compelled to relive the experiences of their victims. Thus, for example, Hitler might be compelled to endure, from the point of view of the victims, each and every one of the millions of deaths he caused, in an endless, eternal loop. (That can be fair since the victim will remember it eternally also!)
- Long notes the story of Betty Eadie, but does not discuss it much. It occurs to me that hers may be the sort of detailed account (like Colton Burpo's) I have been looking for, and may be especially interesting (and likely to suffer disproof) given Eadie's Mormonism.
- Here is a description that deserves a contrast:
....I felt as though I had never been more alert. My mind was fast, even though I physically was unconscious.
Compare this with our commentary on the nature of the afterlife in the OT (link below), in which the afterlife is a “sleepy” (but not “sleep”) state.
Of course, the NDErs description is merely an impression, and a subjective one at that. He says his mind was fast, but what kind of test did he endure to indicate this? Later, Long quotes another NDE researcher as saying that NDErs often describe their mental processes as "remarkably clear and lucid." But in what way? Could these persons now do advanced calculus with ease? Or could it simply be that they were lacking in their state a good deal of the mental clutter associated with daily conscious life? Alternatively, has something changed from the period of the OT, such that the afterlife is no longer a "sleepy" state? Without more data, it is impossible to say.
- One story offered by Long reports an alleged extended talk with "God," though how this NDEr determined that they were talking to God is not stated. The message from "God" professes a quite simple works salvation, and relates that how good or bad one was will in turn affect how one "feels" in the afterlife.
Even apart from consideration of Christianity, this account seems like an oversimplified version of popular conceptions of heaven. It is enough reason to be suspicious of either its authenticity, or its accuracy. Another NDEr professes to have received a message of pantheism.
- In contrast, one NDEr explicitly states that when they were shown the bad things they had done in life, their response was to fall down on their face "in shame." Though this is in accord with our thesis, the account regrettably contains no more verifiable data than the one we noted previously.
Such are the limited observations we gleaned from Long. In order to arrive at some substance for our intended purpose in this series, we will consider Betty Eadie's account in our next installment.
We have had little success fulfilling our purpose of finding verifiable details in NDE experiences. For this reason, you might say I got to the point of scraping the bottom of the barrel. While looking for an account like that of Colton Burpo's (that did offer some details), I then turned to another popular account by a Betty Eadie.
Eadie's NDE account is a longish one, and in the past was subjected to criticism by various apologists. It's not hard to say why as she presents herself as having received a message from beings in the spirit world that is mishmash in three parts. One part is Mormonism, per her own faith where she even calls God a "Man," refers to pre-mortal lives, and presents a Mormon view of the Fall as a positive thing. Another part is straight out of Wayne Dyer where she refers to "positive and negative energies" and to "positive self-talk" with alleged healing powers. The third part is pantheism, with the notion that even drops of water have purpose and intelligence. That sounds more like a Disney cartoon than a serious rendition of the afterlife, yet Eadie has the temerity to equate these with the "living waters" of the Bible.
Eadie also presents a sort of naive universalism, as the existence of multiple religions is explained as an accommodation for some persons just not being suited, or ready, for certain religious traditions. Some speak of making God in one's own image, and Eadie does that very well -- her career is that of a "registered counselor," so her God seems to be one too.
Her account offers not one instance of a verifiable detail of the sort we have been seeking.
Indeed, if Eadie is telling the truth, she passed up the chance to get such details numerous times. As with many NDErs, she claims to have met a divine being that she states to have been Jesus, but she never asked if it was him. This, and everything else she claims to have been imparted to her, she says she either "saw" or "understood." Her account of the "understood" Jesus also includes a revelation that (surprise) the Trinitarian view is wrong and Mormon tri-theism is right. I would have liked to have asked "Understood Jesus" about Wisdom theology, then. More practically, she claims to have been given a vision of early American pioneers, and of a street corner drunk who was aided by a lawyer, but heaven forbid she might ask for the names and locations of these alleged visions. This is all the more outrageous since Eadie claims that while in the NDE, she could "learn about anybody in history...in full detail." Gee -- any chance we might get some helpful facts to verify her NDE? Perish the thought! We're also told a couple of times that she was made to forget some of the details she had learned…how very convenient.
Eadie's account fails the closest we come to any verifiable details. Her reports about things like divine love assume modern, Western values for those concepts, which alone is enough to call the authenticity of her account (or her understanding of it) into serious question. More evidence is found in her primitive understanding of prayer, which reads more like a Frank Peretti novel than the Biblical expression of patronage. As for the rest, though it has some parallels to more serious NDE accounts, it is but a mere caricature. A closing account of how demons surrounded her in the hospital, and were warded off by a "dome of light", sounds like a scene from a Chick tract, rather than a serious account.
A reader with an interest in NDEs told me the week I wrote this that I shouldn't take Eadie seriously, and I don’t.
I was kindly sent a copy of a book titled Near Death Experiences, by the author, J. Steve Miller. As a sort of popular handbook to NDEs, it succeeds admirably. Miller takes an apologetics approach to NDEs, answering some common objections and arguments. It is well worth a look. However, Miller's goal was not to provide extended accounts of NDEs, so that we have little here to evaluate. Therefore we will only give consideration to a few of Miller's points that concern our model for verifying NDEs.
Our first point of reference is where Miller addresses the rebuttal that some NDEs reflect unrealities in real life. The examples he uses are of encountering mythological creatures, or people who are not dead. This would also be inclusive of such things as seeing Jesus with nail holes in his palms.
Miller's response to this is partly valid. He first points out that such details are rare in NDEs. This much we found to be true in our own research: In my survey earlier, I could not find a single confirming detail in hundreds of surveyed NDE reports, and very few disconfirming details. In fact, Colton Burpo's incorrect placement of nail holes in Jesus' palms was the best example, apart from those who also saw Jesus as a white, Anglo-Saxon male.
Miller also points out, relatedly, that we'd expect some quirks in a large collection of accounts. He suggests that some NDE subjects may confuse later hallucinations with what happened during their NDE. He makes this as a point in general defense of NDEs as genuine, and with that point, we may also agree. His third response is that we might also expect a few people to exaggerate or lie when they recount their NDEs. That, too, we may agree with.
A little later, though not in answer to the prior objection, Miller adds a point which we do find problematic: "If these experiences are directed by God, it makes sense that He might personalize the experience to make it meaningful and comforting for each subject." This may be true to some extent, but it cannot always hold water. There is no reason why, for example, it would be more "meaningful" or "comforting" for Jesus to be seen as a white Anglo-Saxon male, or for nail holes to be in his palm. Miller does not use such examples, though: He uses the example of a child with an NDE being comforted by a vision of a deceased pet. That in itself would not be problematic. Nor would it be problematic that certain cultural adjustments were made by God for the NDE experience, such as persons from India not experiencing a tunnel-like journey.  However, it would be problematic as a defense of historical or factual errors in NDEs.
Finally, we should note Miller's excellent critical observation that it is difficult to determine whether NDErs are merely assuming to name things they saw, rather than knowing what they actually were. The most pertinent example is that an NDEr may see a being that they think is an angel, or God, or Jesus, but when questioned, they reveal that this identification was solely their own, and not prompted by any feedback from the being. In some cases, I noted in the prior series, the NDEr asked if the being was God or Jesus, and the being denied the identification.
In close, Miller's book is an excellent one for anyone interested in this subject, especially in terms of apologetics-related arguments.