Two perspectives on near death experiences
One of the questions we’re often asked is how we explain near-death experiences.
Josef L., U.S., asks,
I’m not really sure how to ask this question, but lately I’ve been thinking of the atheist’s position that when we die, it’s all over.
I’ll confess if there is one thing that sort of makes me doubt my faith, it’s comas or near-death experiences (I do not mean the light at the end of the tunnel type of stuff), such as when people are in a coma or are clinically dead but come back, they often say nothing happened. Also, I think about people who suffer brain trauma and their personalities change. It makes it seem like our consciousness is a function of our physical bodies.
In light of stuff like this, how should Christians view the spirit? Like is our spirit our personalities? If so, it seems to be dependent on the wellness of our physical-self. Another example would be as we age, our personalities can change or degenerate.
Lita Sanders answers:
Thanks for writing in.
If God didn’t reveal to us what happens after death, we wouldn’t know. Apart from a few very specific examples in Scripture, no one has come back from the dead, truly, to tell us what it’s like, and of those who were resuscitated, no one’s testimony of what it was like has survived.
Of course, the great exception is Jesus—He died, and He was truly dead for three days, and then He was resurrected. Since He has actually died, He is an authority on what death and the afterlife is like. And He promises that death isn’t the end of everything. Jesus said that He is preparing a place for us, and that if we trust in Him during this life, we will be with Him after death.
People who have ‘near death’ experiences, by definition, haven’t died. People who are successfully resuscitated by doctors also haven’t died, even if they fit the clinical definition of death for a few minutes. The brain, often starved of oxygen and in the stages of shutting down, may produce hallucinations. Others don’t experience (or at least remember) this.
Regarding how the brain and the ‘person’ are related, if humans are meaningfully both physical and spiritual (e.g. not just spirits in body suits), we would expect damage to the body to affect personality. For instance, some people with various mental health issues can be tremendously helped by medication which corrects a chemical imbalance—does this introduce an artificial element to the person’s personality, or does it correct a defect, allowing that person’s ‘true’ personality to come through?
Or, for another example, too many of us have had the heartbreaking experience of seeing an elderly relative go through Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. A formerly lovely person can become agitated, fearful, angry, and unlike themselves. Is this a genuine change in personality, or does the degenerating brain render one less capable of being themselves, just as the degenerating joints and muscles make one less mobile? Or to put it another way, you could have a great computer program, but if the hard drive is defective, it won’t work.
The atheists’ view that ‘we are our brain chemistry’ and it all ends when we die is terribly depressing. Rather, the Christian view of a fallen world, including fallen human bodies, allows for the view that all sorts of psychological defects or brain injuries are not permanent, or even really a part of one’s ‘real’ self, but rather products of the Curse that will be removed in the Resurrection.
By the way, Phineas Gage, the most prominent example of catastrophic brain injury, did not turn into the monster he is frequently portrayed as.1
By the way, many of the issues you raise about the way in which physical factors affect our personality and so on were utilized by one Keith Augustine in a 1997 paper arguing for the extinction of the personality at death (since expanded into a paper called ‘The Case Against Immortality’) and a staple of humanists/atheists. In 2004, we provided a detailed commentary on Augustine’s original paper, which is likely quite pertinent to your queries; see Brain chemistry and the fate of the personality after death.
Creation Ministries International (US)
In a written response to a question received during ministry, Gary Bates answered:
You asked about near death experiences. There have been lots of information and explanations for these over the years. We have some brief information at the article Near death experiences: what should Christians think? You said that they claim to see Heaven but not hell. I think these fall into a different category than the straight near death experiences. These are where people are really having an out of body experience (OBEs), like a vision that lasts for hours. This is different to near death experiences (NDEs).
For example, a lot of NDEs seem to occur when people are in surgery or on an operating table. Anesthesia produces a vulnerable state where there seems to be a cessation and contraction of time, as opposed to sleeping, for instance. During such events (and hypnosis can induce the same state), the mind has been shown to be highly suggestible leading to something known as false memory syndrome. I believe that alleged alien abductees suffer from the same practice although deliberately implanted by fallen angels. However, our minds, that is, our imaginations can also create these false memories. The reason that people remember them so vividly is because of the state they were in when the alleged memory was implanted or created. They are unable to distinguish it from reality. I.e. people have been experimentally hypnotized, given a false memory then woken up. They had already incorporated the false memory into their memory banks even having a sense of a real physical experience. When told that it had just been deliberately implanted, they would not accept it.2
People who’ve had NDE’s also claim to see their own bodies on the operating table, and also see a white tunnel of light with their deceased relatives on the other side. Some report they also see aliens standing next to the relatives. Obviously this cannot be really happening, and it demonstrates a surfacing of whatever the person already believes or is being subjected to at the time.
I hope this helps.
If you get the book Alien Intrusion: UFOs and the Evolution Connection there is a brand new section that covers all of the above (i.e. hypnosis, suggestability and false memories etc.). You can click on the link supplied.
Creation Ministries International (US)
- For more information, see http://mindfulhack.blogspot.com/2009/03/phineas-gage-evolution-of-lecture-room.html. Return to text.
- This also applies in cases where people claim to have gone to Heaven or Hell. While such stories may be compelling, we have a responsibility as Christians to examine what Scripture teaches. In view of Hebrews 9:27, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment,” there is no biblical ground for saying that someone could die and come back prior to the Resurrection of the dead. Return to text.