Near-Death Experiences and the Church: Divine Revelation, Fantasy, or a Third Way?

J. Todd Billings

What is your biggest challenge in ministry, especially as it relates to your theology?

I’ve asked this question many times to the graduates of the seminary that I teach, and the most frequent response relates to death and dying. How do I walk with a family, and the congregation, through a shocking and unexpected death? How do I advise a family asking whether to take grandpa off of life support? I had no idea how much of my ministry would relate to dying and death!

In light of this, and my own questions about faith and mortality as a cancer patient, I gathered groups of pastors to explore how these questions came up concretely in ministry. One of the most common ways surprised me. Congregation members, including the leadership, frequently made references to “heaven” in relation to death that reflected assumptions from bestselling books or films from Christians who claimed to have died and returned to earth to report on the meaning of death. Thus, when I wrote a book about the place of mortality in a Christian path of discipleship, The End of the Christian Life, I knew this pastorally pressing topic needed to be addressed.

What Are Near-Death Experiences?

The phrase “near-death experiences” (NDE) was coined by Raymond A. Moody Jr. in his 1975 book Life after Life. As a doctor, Moody was fascinated by the vivid experiences of patients that they recalled after short periods of time when they were clinically dead. They seemed to fit a general pattern. After hearing doctors declare them to be dead, the person is flooded with feelings of peace and is pulled into a tunnel of light. There, they often encounter relatives who they recognize who have died. They also frequently encounter spiritual beings—Christians often see Jesus, Muslims report meeting a mufti (an expert in Islamic law), Hindus may report encounters with various Hindu gods. These spiritual beings are luminous, and in this encounter, the patients’ have their life flash before them. Then, the patient comes back to the physical world of their bodies (often reluctantly), moving away from this place of light.

Moody’s book became a blockbuster, selling over thirteen million copies. And in the early twenty-first century, numerous NDE stories offered by Christians have been portrayed in various forms of media, and bestselling books, including Heaven Is for Real, 90 Minutes in Heaven, and To Heaven and Back.

Why are they so intriguing to so many? These experiences are powerful and vivid, and empirical studies indicate that the NDE itself becomes a formative experience for those who have undergone it. In addition, in the media and popular imagination, these stories seem to counter a cold materialism implied by a context that refers to science as the final authority. For many both within the church and outside of it, these stories point to a softening of the alleged “war between science and religion” with an empirical, experiential entryway to transcendent.

Evaluating NDEs

In evaluating whether these powerful experiences point to a larger truth or reality, most contemporary resources approach the question in an all-or-nothing way. Are NDEs complete fantasy, or they are direct, eyewitness accounts of what all of us will experience after death? In the all-or-nothing paradigm, skeptics point out that the content of a religious person’s NDE reflects his or her own upbringing, rather than a coherent vision of the afterlife that would apply to everyone. And yet, is there no truth-significance at all to this for the many who have undergone an NDE?

Although our culture tends to put great weight on “testimony” and personal recollection of experience, I think Christians are right to be very cautious about many of the claims made about NDEs. New Testament scholar Scot McKnight sums up some of the key reasons for caution in a 2016 interview:

I confess I’m skeptical about a lot of things people say about heaven [based on near-death experiences]. I’m skeptical because near-death experiences are (1) a common human experience that (2) have been occurring since the beginning of recorded civilization, and (3) those experiences, while there are some common themes, are shaped deeply and sometimes entirely by that person’s religion, culture, philosophy, or religion embedded in the “experiencer’s” brain, and (4) the near-death experience stories vary wildly from one generation and culture to another.

Near-death experiences are unreliable guides to what life is like beyond the grave. This is not least because they are “pre” or “near” death experiences not “post” death experiences.

I share McKnight’s sense that NDEs give us knowledge of the ones experiencing them more than they give us any kind of direct knowledge of life beyond the grave. They are not a “window” into the afterlife, or “divine revelation.”

Yet, it doesn’t follow that we should simply dismiss NDEs as no more than self-serving illusions. One pastor shared with me how an elder at his church experienced an NDE and quietly came to him, unsure what to make of it. The experience was so vivid and powerful. The elder was confused. Was this experience nothing but falsehood? I don’t think that an “all-or-nothing” paradigm for assessing NDEs is adequate in discussing it with this elder.

Myths and the Question of Truth

Some of why NDEs are powerful is because we are story-telling creatures, creatures who live by stories. An unexpected death of a loved one often calls our stories into question, but then we tell stories as we grieve the departed. These stories are what I will call “myths”— not in the sense of a childish fable or something untrue— but in the sense of stories that orient our living each day. Hospital chaplains hear often from the dying a longing to meet with departed loved ones after the grave. Likewise, NDEs offer “myths” of stories to live by, claiming to offer a glimpse into the transcendent, a taste of connection with departed loved ones and religious leaders beyond the grave.

But which myths that we live by in relation to death disclose reality as opposed to illusion? And how can we really know?

As Christians, our reliable source for hope about the stories and “myths” we live by is found in the Old and New Testaments. This choice is not arbitrary. It’s rooted in a particular historical claim. Two thousand years ago, the God of Israel became incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ. According to the New Testament, this same Christ tasted death, rose again, and lives as the exalted Lord. In Revelation, the living Christ proclaims, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (22:13). If this testimony is true, then Christ himself, who speaks through Scripture, cannot be overtaken by twenty-first-century claims of testimony to life after death. He himself is “the beginning and the end.” The “final things” of Christian faith are not primarily a set of journalistic predictions about the fate of the world and humanity. Rather, it is hope for the appearance and return of a person: Jesus Christ. Christian hope is not rooted in an encounter with a being of light after death, or a family reunion with lost loved ones, but in the testimony that the crucified and risen Jesus Christ, to whom we are united now by the Holy Spirit, has ascended to his throne; and that when he returns to us bodily, and the bodies of the dead are raised to meet him in judgment and glory, heaven and earth will join together in harmony, as God has intended all along.

In light of this guiding story given by the biblical witness, should the vivid encounters of NDEs be dismissed as complete illusions—or even worse, as idolatrous falsehood? Here, I think we should tread cautiously. On the one hand, Scripture indicates that humans are subject to illusion and idolatry in many forms. On the other hand, humans are created in the image of the living God, designed for a relationship with God. The apostle Paul goes so far as to say that “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” (Rom 1:20). Some theologians speak of this as a “seed of religion” that is universally “deposited” in the human heart. To use a favorite analogy from John Calvin, the creation is a theater of God’s grand glory. It may be that humans reflect this glory, however imperfectly, even when they don’t intend to.

An illuminating perspective on this can come from considering some insights from a school of social psychology known as Terror Management Theory. Numerous studies in this school of thought show how human beings, whether religious or secular, are strongly inclined to speak about their lives in terms of “teleological meaning.” A “teleological” approach to thinking perceives and describes events as fitting into a larger purpose. Strictly speaking, it violates a strictly scientific approach to the universe, in which neither God, nor nature, nor the “world” has a will or design that is at work in our lives. Yet, these studies show that “even in the absence of religious faith or belief in a deity, people are attracted to teleological meaning. They treat the universe as if it has intentions or a plan. They treat nature as if it has a will or desires” (Clay Routledge, Supernatural: Death, Meaning, and the Power of the Invisible World [Oxford University Press, 2018], 37). Indeed, these studies show that even atheists with PhDs in the hard sciences have a difficult time avoiding teleological ways of thinking.

Does this data prove the validity of belief in God and the stories that scores of religious people tell about the afterlife? Absolutely not. Skeptics can say that, rather than these myths reflecting any genuine reality about the world, religion itself evolved as a human adaptation to the vulnerabilities of creaturely life.

And there is no definitive way to show the skeptic to be mistaken here. Perhaps we deceive ourselves when we assume that our lives belong to a larger narrative fabric—so we grieve when that fabric is torn by death. Yet we should recognize here that skeptics are simply telling another story at this point: they have not tasted death, and so they can tell a story of death as annihilation. It cannot be verified or disproven.

Perhaps the (empirical) fact that humans are deeply wired toward “supernatural” thinking, toward telling stories of our lives with purpose, of afterlives that include connection with others and with God, testifies to traces of God’s glory built into the creation itself. Atheists can seek to live by the myth, the great story, of our lives as fitting no larger purpose, of death as annihilation— even though most cannot actually do so as they narrate their lives. But perhaps rather than supernatural thinking being a kind of disease of human consciousness, it is a God-given seed of something true.

In fact, it seems much more likely that if there is a transcendent truth, there would be scores of myths that approximate it. Here, C. S. Lewis is helpful. In God in the Dock, he responds to a comparative religion scholar who documented the areas of commonality between different religious visions and stories around the globe. Lewis, a former religious skeptic himself, grants that Christianity is a myth—a story that provides meaning in life and in dying. Yet, “the heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact” (58). The stories and hopes and legends of peoples from around the world about a creator God who comes close to us, even to taste death, and then brings new life, become concrete historical fact in the person of Jesus Christ, born of the virgin Mary, crucified by Pontius Pilate, and raised bodily on the third day. But “by becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.” For as myth, it is a grand story that nourishes and cultivates the lives of peoples and cultures, “claiming not only our love and our obedience” as truth “but also our wonder and delight” as a beautiful drama in which we find ourselves (60).

If we adapt from Lewis on this point, we could open a “third way” to view NDEs that is neither pure illusion nor reliable anticipation of the life to come. Since Christianity is the “true myth” such that human creatures reflect the image of God with a “seed of religion” implanted within them, NDEs may provide indirect testimony to our transcendent purpose of knowing and glorifying God, even in the face of death. They are imperfect myths, stories that we tell ourselves. But we tell ourselves these stories because we are so deeply designed by God for connection with God and one another. When a pastor hears a church elder talking about their NDE after returning home from the hospital, the pastor need not respond as if the person is expressing only a self-deceiving illusion. The NDE is not a “revelatory source” for information about the life to come. But the NDE could be a vivid and powerful way of expressing their God-given longing for the presence of God, and their aching love for relatives they have lost.

In the end, NDEs should not be a source for Christian hope, but should point us beyond the experience itself to rediscover the beauty of God’s promises. The unexpected phenomena of NDEs can remind us that we were created for much, much more than a materialist, mechanistic framework can comprehend. Yet, the most vivid NDE is a speck of dust compared to the Grand Canyon of Christian hope, rooted in God’s own promise—that as ones who belong to Jesus, we can look to the coming day of the Lord when he will return to judge, shake, and renew the cosmos, bringing in the fullness of God’s kingdom. The Triune God will dwell with his people, restoring his full communion with creation. As ministers, we need to recover the profound drama of this larger, cosmic story so that our congregations need not simply look to NDEs in the face of death, but toward this even more wondrous hope disclosed to us through Scripture.

[Adapted with permission from The End of the Christian Life: How Embracing Our Mortality Frees Us to Truly Live (Brazos Press, 2020).]

Posted Nov 03, 2021