What happens when we die?
So far in this series I have explored some interesting evidence from Near Death Experiences (NDEs) that seem to suggest we go on – we do not cease to exist. I have argued a naturalistic dying brain theory fails to account for the OBE element of NDEs. Yet those who experience NDEs (NDErs) are most struck by their visit with beings in an unearthly world. Following her NDE, Mary Neale wrote a creed reminding her of what she learned; the truth of God’s promises in scripture, heaven exists, God is loving, daily divine support, and God’s purposes for her life. I think the response of NDErs like Mary suggest NDEs complement the teaching of the Bible in three ways.
1) NDEs Do Not Supersede Scripture and the Christian Gospel, they Apply It
First, NDErs almost always experience a being of brilliant light in an otherworldly place who communicates overwhelming love and acceptance to them. This reminds me of Daniel’s vision of God. “His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze. A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him.” Yet as the Psalmist reminds us, he also cares deeply for us because He, “created [our] inmost being … knit [us] together in [our] mother’s womb.” God loves us. The scripture says, seek him and you will find him.
The Christian NDE critic (NDEc) may object to NDErs claims of overflowing love and acceptance. Perhaps it sounds to the NDEc like universalism, the heretical idea that the Atonement is unlimited, applies to all people, and that all men will eventually be reconciled to God. I think this worry is unwarranted. First, because Jesus exhibited deep love in his life; he said, “as I have loved you, so you must love one another,” and Paul taught faith, hope, and love are vital for the Christian, but “the greatest of these is love.” Perhaps the NDE experience is a divine gift to let some people experience the Bible’s idea of this love. Second, the love experienced by NDErs does not supersede the Christian gospel, it seems to illustrate it. Some NDErs like Ian McCormack find themselves in distressing darkness during the NDE and explicitly call to Jesus to save them. Ian describes being drawn out of darkness by the brilliant, loving light. This aligns with the New Testament claim Jesus is the light of the world whose followers will not stay in darkness. It is also illustrative that Jesus came to seek and save the lost. Third, this love is reminiscent of the biblical God because, as J. P. Moreland observes, it challenges human cultural assumptions of highest goods being success, ancestor worship, honour or purity. Rather, the Bible teaches love for God and people is the highest good.
But who or what does the mystical loving light represent? If it really is the God of the Bible, wouldn’t God reveal himself rather than leaving his identity vague and open to interpretation? On the contrary, scripture often reports times when God intervenes in human affairs while leaving his identity ambiguous. God’s angels visit Lot in Sodom but hide their identity, Joshua encounters the mysterious commander of God’s army, and Jesus comes to Israel as the divine Messiah yet many fail to recognise him. An unidentified being of light is not at odds with God’s behaviour in scripture. Rather, it is consistent with it.
2) NDEs Seem Consistent With the God of Scripture Who Knows What I Need
The second alignment of NDEs with scripture comes in the apparently tailored nature of NDE experiences, designed to draw the NDErs toward God. Scripture shows this is the way Jesus engaged with friends and critics. For example, when the rich man asks Jesus how to inherit eternal life, the text says Jesus loved him and sensed a love for his wealth, so he challenged him to give it away and live a life loving and honouring God instead. Likewise, in his debates with the Pharisees, Jesus saw through their piety observing they honoured God with their lips, yet their hearts were far from him. NDEs seem consistent with God knowing our hearts, engaging with us in the way that will draw us towards himself.
The NDEc might object to the extra-biblical nature of these NDE experiences. Why should only some people have a special divine encounter prior to their ultimate death? Scripture seems to say it is better not to have this, because “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Yet there is nothing in these words precluding a pre-mortem encounter with God. The apostle Paul may have had one of these experiences himself. Surely if God opts to allow such a thing, he is free to do so. The NDEc may also object that Hebrews says we all die once, and then face the judgement. Yet NDErs have not actually died yet, though they were close to their ultimate death. Consequently, because the NDErs remained alive, their NDE experience does not contradict the teaching of Hebrews.
3) NDErs Return With a Biblical Sense of God’s Purpose for People
The third alignment of scripture with NDErs experience is found in the sense of God’s plan for them involving hope, purpose, and beauty. Scripture says our days are ordained by God before our birth, and our lives matter because God has placed eternity in our hearts. Further, God has a plan for us to, “do good works, which [He] prepared in advance for us to do.” The NDErs returning sense of divine purpose seems aligned with God’s promises. Yet scripture also teaches the gospel message, God’s plan to save humanity. Do NDErs return with a new appreciation of this? Ian McCormack reportedly did, being instructed by God to “see things in a new light.” A specially arranged, direct encounter with the loving God, and a sense of God’s purpose in one’s life, has transformed NDErs like McCormack to love people and seek to serve them. The gospel is about God welcoming us home. NDErs who experience this “being of light describe a love … [running] towards them [to] embrace them, value them … simply want[ing] them home.” Perhaps NDErs experience the gospel more vividly than most. Further, the minority of hellish NDE experiences reported in Long’s study suggests while God wants no one to be lost, the possibility remains that those rejecting God’s love will spend their afterlife separated from God. NDEs therefore remain consistent with scripture’s teaching.
In this series, we have found that:
- we found here and here that dying brain hypotheses do not account for the NDErs evidence
- NDEs seem to be somewhat objective because sometimes they are shared by the living
- Neuroscience gives reason to think that the human mind is only correlated to the brain, and can function when the brain is virtually absent, so its no great leap to suppose mind can exist apart from brain
Further – NDEs are consistent with the Bible’s teaching. We haven’t had time to discuss the fact that those of other religious traditions return from an NDE with their interpretation of a solidly Christian picture of the afterlife, rather than any other religious outlook.
NDEs are common, and as we assess an NDErs account, we must remain open to the possibility that they have engaged in a supernatural circumstance which complements the Bible’s teaching. Taking this willing perspective on NDEs may encourage Christian believers in their hope of heaven, and it may challenge unbelievers to finally choose to believe in Jesus and so orient themselves toward an eternity with Him.
 Mary Neale, “Seven Lessons from Heaven,” quoted in Moreland, 214.
 Daniel 7:9-10, NIV.
 Psalm 139:13, NIV.
 I Chronicles 28:9, NIV.
 J. R. Root, “Universalism,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell, 2nd ed., (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 1232.
 John 13:34, NIV.
 1 Corinthians 13:13, NIV.
 John Burke, Imagine Heaven Near-Death Experiences, God’s Promises, and the Exhilarating Future that Awaits You, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2015), 138.
 John 8:12.
 Luke 19:10.
 J. P. Moreland, A Simple Guide to Experience Miracles Instruction and Inspiration for Living Supernaturally in Christ, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Reflective, 2021), 217.
 Genesis 19.
 Joshua 5:13-15.
 Moreland, 221.
 Matthew 10:17 – 22.
 Mark 7:7.
 John 20:29.
 2 Corinthians 12:2.
 Hebrews 9:27.
 Moreland, 213.
 Psalm 139:16.
 Ecclesiastes 3:11.
 Ephesians 2:10.
 Burke, 263.
 Burke, 79.
 John Burke, Imagine Heaven: Near-Death Experiences, God’s Promises, and the Exhilarating Future that Awaits You, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2015), 141.