Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Near-Death Experiences and Christianity

Near-death experiences are an important subject rarely addressed in Christian apologetics. I want to summarize the issue and recommend some resources.

One of the best books I've seen on this subject is Michael Sabom's Light and Death (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1998). He also wrote two articles for the Christian Research Journal in 2003 (see here and here). Sabom argues that the departure of the soul from the body is a process, as physical death is a process. He cites Genesis 35:18 as a possible Biblical reference. He thinks that near-death experiences occur during that process of the soul leaving the body. The person isn't yet in the permanent Heaven or Hell we read about in the Bible, but he may experience something like Heaven or Hell. Sabom also raises the possibility of demonic deception in some of these experiences, as other Christian researchers have.

I also recommend Beyond Death (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1998) by Gary Habermas and J.P. Moreland. In a more recent book on Jesus' resurrection, written with Michael Licona, Habermas comments:

"The phenomenon that has come to be called a 'near-death experience' (NDE) also provides a substantial challenge to naturalism. It might even be said that, by themselves, NDEs offer evidence that naturalism is mistaken at a key point - that of life after death. We are not interested here in the thousands of reports by those who have claimed simply to have experienced tunnels, lights, and meetings with deceased loved ones, angels, and even God. During the past few decades, however, dozens of more credible reports have been documented of individuals who returned to consciousness after being comatose or at the point of clinical death. Some of these individuals have described in amazing detail, facts about their physical surroundings that they should not have been able to know. Some have described details of medical procedures performed on them. Some have related memories of conversations that others had during their medical emergencies or even described the jewelry and clothing worn by those around them. Some accounts have given verified details about what happened outside the immediate room, down the hallway, or even miles away. The amount of verification is sometimes staggering. People blind from birth have correctly recalled visual details of things around them and outside their presence. Many of these near-death details were of events occurring when the individual had no heartbeat or brain wave activity, as indicated by 'flat' EKG and EEG readings, sometimes over lengthy periods of time....Many of these reports are so well-documented that some naturalists have been forced to take them seriously, even admitting the possibility they pose of life beyond the grave. John Beloff, writing in The Humanist, argued that the evidence for an afterlife was so strong that humanists should just admit it and attempt to interpret it in naturalistic terms. Amazingly, the well-known atheist philosopher A.J. Ayer experienced an NDE that he could not explain in natural terms: 'On the face of it, these experiences, on the assumption that the last one was veritical, are rather strong evidence that death does not put an end to consciousness.' Ayer concluded, 'My recent experiences have slightly weakened my conviction that my genuine death, which is due fairly soon, will be the end of me, though I continue to hope that it will be.' Atheist philosopher Antony Flew attests that NDEs 'certainly constitute impressive evidence of the possibility of the occurrence of human consciousness independent of any occurrences in the human brain....This evidence equally certainly weakens if it does not completely refute my argument against doctrines of a future life.'" (The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 2004], pp. 146-147)