I am a skeptic. Sure, I am a Christian. But I am naturally skeptical about extraordinary claims. While my worldview makes room for near-death experiences, I have never found the evidence that compelling. There is just too much abuse[i], overstatement of the evidence, and exaggerated stories.
Recently, however, I decided to probe more deeply into the evidence for near-death experiences (NDEs) for the class I teach on the resurrection. To put it simply, I was stunned at both the quantity and quality of cases that pose a challenge for naturalism. My experience is not unique. In Near-Death Experiences, J. Steve Miller observes:
“It’s important to note that most of these [NDE] researchers don’t come across as heralding their pet theological or philosophical positions. Most that I read began their research doubting that NDE’s involved anything spiritual but became convinced by the weight of the evidence.”[ii]
I am not talking about the many popular cases found in books or movies. These cases are certainly interesting, but the mere fact that someone reports having an NDE isn’t proof alone for the supernatural. The evidentially significant cases are when people reportinformation they could not have received naturally in their clinically dead state. And these cases are not rare. Here are a few interesting ones, all of which are all carefully documented:
- A chemist, who had been blind for almost an entire year from an accident, correctly reported visual details surrounding the scene at his NDE.[iii]
- A woman named Maria was rushed to the hospital with a severe heart attack. After successful resuscitation, she described an NDE in which she claimed to travel outside the hospital building and saw a man’s blue left-footed shoe with a wear mark above the little toe and a shoelace tucked under the heel. Researcher Kimberly Clark Sharp discovered the shoe exactly as Maria described it.[iv]
- Thirty-five year old Pam Reynolds underwent a complex surgery to repair a massive aneurism in her brain. As report by the acting cardiologists, her body was lowered to 50 degrees, blood was drained from her brain, her eyes were taped shut, brain stem activity was monitored by 100-decible clicks emitted by small molded speakers inserted into her ears, and her entire body was covered except for the small area of the head that was opened. When she awoke from the surgery, Reynolds reported a vivid NDE in which she observed part of the surgery, described specific tools that were used (which were covered beforehand), and offered details of various conversations.[v]
These three are only a smidgeon of the documented cases. In other NDEs the blind see, the deaf hear, people report having conversations with dead loved ones whom they didn’t know were dead at the time of the NDE, and some people report shared NDEs (often times at a distance).
While I personally believe many of the cases of people who claim to go to Heaven during an NDE, unless the stories can be independently confirmed, they offer minimal evidential value. Here’s the bottom line: NDE’s don’t prove the existence of God, or even uniquely the Christian worldview, but they do pose significant problems for naturalism and strongly confirm that consciousness continues after death.
Perhaps what surprised me the most is the amount of people who have claimed to experience an NDE. According to one study in the U.S. and Germany, 4.2 percent of people stated that they have experienced an NDE.[vi] Former Seattle Seahawks wide receiver recently shared about an NDE that ultimately changed his life.[vii] Influential atheist A.J. Ayer described a vivid NDE, even though it didn’t change his worldview.[viii] And Plato wrote about the experience of a soldier on the battlefield who had an NDE.[ix]
But don’t take my word for it. Investigate the stories yourself. If you are a Christian, you might be surprised, like me, at the case for NDEs. If you are not a believer, and you are open to being persuaded, I strongly suggest beginning with the book by J. Steve Miller:Near-Death Experiences as Evidence for the Existence of God and Heaven: A Brief Introduction in Plain Language. Miller is careful, reserved, and writes with integrity. Here is how he concludes the book:
“For Dr. van Lommel, Dr. Rawlings, Dr. Moody, Dr. Sabom, and a host of others, a close examination of NDEs compelled them to believe that death isn’t the end of life. With the state of research today, even if NDEs were my only evidence, I’d choose theism over atheism, survival over extinction.”[x]
Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author of over 18 books, an internationally recognized speaker, and a part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org.
[i] For example, see this fabricated account as reported in the UK Guardian:https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jan/21/boy-who-came-back-from-heaven-alex-malarkey.
[ii] J. Steve Miller, Near-Death Experiences As Evidence for the Existence of God and Heaven (Acworth, GA: Wisdom Creek Press, 2012), 23.
[iii] Gary Habermas & J.P. Moreland, Beyond Death: Exploring the Evidence for Immortality(Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1998), 158.
[iv] Jeffrey Long and Paul Perry, Evidence of the Afterlife: The Science of Near-Death Experiences (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), Kindle edition, 72-73.
[v] Miller, Near-Death Experiences, 54.
[vi] Von Lommel, Consciousness Beyond Life (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 9.
[vii] Nicole Fisher, “Ricardo Lockette Opens Up About His Near-Death Experience,” The Federalist (July 15, 2016): http://thefederalist.com/2016/07/15/ricardo-lockette-opens-up-about-his-near-death-experience-with-god/.
[viii] A.J. Ayer, “What I Saw When I Was Dead,” http://www.philosopher.eu/others-writings/a-j-ayer-what-i-saw-when-i-was-dead/.
[ix] The Republic, Book X: 614-615.
[x] Miller, Near-Death Experiences, 93.
Resources for Greater Impact:
- HEAVEN: A NEW PERSPECTIVE ON LIVING
Free CrossExamined.org Resource
Get the first chapter of "Stealing From God: Why Atheists Need God to Make Their Case" in PDF.